The 5-point covenant is found throughout Scripture. That’s why it’s called the biblical covenant model. Nehemiah’s prayer is a perfect example.
A quick summary of the five points:
- Sovereignty – God is sovereign over his creation because he is transcendent to it, not a part of it. And yet, he remains present within it, not detached. He predestined all of history. Even Satan serves his will (Job 1:6-12).
- Hierarchy – There are covenantal representatives: they represent God to his people, and they represent the people to God. They speak on behalf of each party. A hierarchy of representatives is the physical manifestation of God’s presence in history. Jesus is our chief representative, our heavenly High Priest who intercedes on our behalf. The Church is a kingdom of priests, and they represent God to the world, and vice versa.
- Ethics – God establishes laws which he requires his people to obey. He establishes boundary lines between right and wrong that should not be crossed. Transgressing an ethical boundary is a sin which incurs a debt: God’s wrath. That debt can only be paid by Christ.
- Sanctions – God brings positive and negative sanctions in history and eternity for keeping or violating his laws. All people are either covenant keepers or covenant breakers. Covenant keepers swear a self-maledictory oath that calls down the curses of the covenant on their head should they violate its terms (the third point). Baptism is the oath we swear to enter the covenant.
- Inheritance – The final point establishes succession and inheritance. The wealth of the wicked is stored up for the righteous, and the meek shall inherit the earth. Covenant keepers inherit eternal life and the wealth of the kingdom built up through history. This culminates in the final appearance of the New Heavens and New Earth at the final judgment in which all sin and covenant-breakers are abolished from God’s presence forever.
Now, to examine the unfolding of these points in Nehemiah’s prayer in the first chapter:
I said, “I beseech You, O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments (vs. 5)
The first order of business Nehemiah concerns himself with in his prayer is acknowledging God’s sovereignty as maker of the covenant. God’s original act of creation, detailed in Genesis 1, was an act of covenant making. God is the only person who can make a covenant. It was his idea. Jeremiah invokes God’s magnificent creative power in connection with covenant-making:
The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, saying, “Thus says the Lord, ‘If you can break My covenant for the day and My covenant for the night, so that day and night will not be at their appointed time, then My covenant may also be broken with David My servant so that he will not have a son to reign on his throne, and with the Levitical priests, My ministers. As the host of heaven cannot be counted and the sand of the sea cannot be measured, so I will multiply the descendants of David My servant and the Levites who minister to Me.’” (Jeremiah 33:19-22)
After addressing sovereignty, Nehemiah moves on to hierarchy:
let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father’s house have sinned. (vs. 6)
Nehemiah is acting as an interceding agent between God and his people. He is speaking on his peoples’ behalf to God: “on behalf of the sons of Israel.” Just as Jesus does for us, Nehemiah is confessing Israel’s corporate sins.
He then moves on to the third point, ethics:
We have acted very corruptly against You and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses. (vs. 7)
They had sinned and were despicable to God. Why? Because they violated his commandments. They violated the terms of his covenant set forth through Moses.
Remember the word which You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful I will scatter you among the peoples; (vs. 8)
The walls of Jerusalem and the temple lay in ruins. Why? Because God destroyed them by way of Babylon. Why? Because God brought historical judgment against Israel for violating his covenant terms without repenting: negative sanctions. The northern kingdom and the ten tribes had been scattered by the invasion of Assyria. Their tribal identities were forever lost. The southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin had been scattered with the invasion of Nebuchadnezzar. The temple and city were destroyed. But a remnant remained. The tribe of Judah, through whom the promised seed would come, was preserved.
but if you return to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though those of you who have been scattered were in the most remote part of the heavens, I will gather them from there and will bring them to the place where I have chosen to cause My name to dwell.’ (vs. 9)
Now Nehemiah invokes the covenantal blessings: the promise of restoration and redemption. Though they had been scattered, God promised that he would again gather them if they repented.
He uses symbolic language: “scattered …in the most remote part of the heavens.” Here, the heavens are the political heavens, filled with “stars” which are the political leaders of the day. Genesis 1:18 tips us off to this: one of the purposes of the sun, the moon, and the stars scattered throughout the sky is “to govern the day and the night.” Stars are governors, literal and figurative.
The Jews had been scattered and dispersed throughout the kingdoms of Assyria and Babylon, their identity all but diluted. Nevertheless God would once again gather them together and reform and remake his kingdom if they returned to him. That is what the remnant that had been returned to Jerusalem was meant to do.
They are Your servants and Your people whom You redeemed by Your great power and by Your strong hand. O Lord, I beseech You, may Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant and the prayer of Your servants who delight to revere Your name, and make Your servant successful today and grant him compassion before this man.” (vs. 10-11)
Nehemiah ends his prayer on the point of succession. God’s blessing was a promise to bring his people to him to dwell in the land where his name dwelled. Nehemiah’s final supplication is for God to make good on his promise. He reminds God that he redeemed his people before, and now he’s asking that he hear his peoples’ prayer so that they can be restored once again.
If they are restored once again, it means the re-establishment of historical continuity: God’s physical kingdom can rise up anew from the remnant of the old. Its succession in history can be guaranteed. The kingdom inheritance will be transferred because there will be a covenant people there to transfer it to.
Most importantly, the ultimate inheritance, God’s name, will live on in history.
This culminates in the life of Jesus, who receives the kingdom inheritance by his covenantal obedience to God the Father. Those who become Christians, who are adopted into God’s family and take his name upon themselves and identify themselves with him, are promised to receive that inheritance which is Christ’s. Christ’s obedience to the Father secured the kingdom inheritance forever, which by his death he passed on to his heirs. It’s historical and eternal.
The five-point Biblical covenant model is found throughout Scripture. Prayer should be covenantal, modeled after Nehemiah’s. The prayer Jesus taught us is covenantal: the Lord’s prayer. See for yourself.