The Sinai Covenant

15 The Historical Old Covenant

by Hubert F. Sturges, , December 2013

And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient. Exodus 24:7

Every believer needs to understand the difference between the old covenant and the new covenant. This can be complicated because the old covenant was presented in many forms and people use different terms to describe it. I have chosen to use the term “historical old covenant” to describe the covenant Israel made and ratified with God at Sinai. Within a another forty-six days Israel had already broken this covenant. The term “old covenant” does not occur in the Bible, except for “old testament” (2 Cor. 3:14) and “first testament” (Heb. 9:15). Yet, any attempt to gain pardon for sins, approval of God, or eternal life by human effort is the old covenant method!

The new covenant described in Jeremiah 31:31-34 is different from the covenant the children of Israel broke (Jer. 31:32). In the new covenant, God, by His initiative, puts the law in the human heart.

Hebrews 8 to 10 describes a covenant that was first, faulty, decayed, old, and ready to vanish away. It is first because it was the first covenant officially ratified between Israel and God. Jesus Christ ratified the second (or new) covenant on the cross (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 370). The first was faulty because it was based on weak and presumptuous human promises, bypassing grace.1 It is decayed because the law was corrupted by rabbinical additions and by the Jewish focus upon the performance of sacrifices and sanctuary services as the fulfillment of the “covenant” and the means of salvation. It was growing old and was ready to vanish away because its legitimate ceremonial aspects were no longer needed once Jesus died upon the cross and the Temple ceased to be (Heb. 8:13). Jesus is the Redeemer to whom the symbols in the ceremonial law pointed. In Jesus’ time the ceremonial law had become a corrupted attempt by humans to gain salvation through their own efforts.

The Covenant at Sinai

The covenant of God, or “My covenant,” was made in the eternity before the creation of the world in the council of the three persons of the Godhead. God made this covenant for humans, yet humans cannot break or modify it. God offered this covenant to Abraham, and Abraham “believed in the Lord; and [the Lord] counted it to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). The Abrahamic covenant had two parts, the “My covenant” of God plus the faith response of Abraham.

God gave the covenant to Abraham in a series of seven presentations, with the greatest detail in Genesis 17. In His statement to Abraham, “I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy  seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant” (Gen. 17:7), God intended this covenant to be effective throughout the history of Israel and the church. God gave the covenant also to Isaac, to Jacob, to Moses at the burning bush, and to the elders of Israel in Egypt.

Shortly after Israel arrived at Sinai, Moses went up into the mountain and communed with God. God presented to the people “My covenant,” a covenant previously established: the covenant of Abraham (Exod. 19:4-6). God presented promises to Israel as a nation that were more glorious than the promises given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The covenant given at Sinai included the preamble of grace to give them strength to obey the ten-commandment law.2

The People’s Promises

God asked for a response to “obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant” (Exod. 19:5). “And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the Lord commanded him” (Exod. 19:7).

The people answered with enthusiasm, “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people unto the Lord” (Exod. 19:8). If God wanted them to “obey my voice and keep my covenant,” that is what they would do. What else could they do for the God who delivered them from the Egyptians, took them through the Red Sea, and supplied them with water and food? They would do whatever He desired of them.

And the Lord heard the voice of your words, when ye spake unto me; and the Lord said unto me, I have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they have spoken unto thee: they have well said all that they have spoken. O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children for ever. (Deut. 5:28, 29)

Their words were commendable. It pleased God to have His people make a commitment to Him, but faith was lacking in their response. The people failed to understand the majesty and holiness of God and their own weakness. God accepted their words, but how could weak humanity add anything to the covenant of God (Deut. 5:28, 29)? While Abraham fell on his face in reverence before God, the elders of Israel confidently planned to do their part, as though they could be equal partners in a covenant with God!3

God purposed to teach them lessons they needed to make a success. They must see His majesty, His holiness, and the power of His grace to be able to fulfill their promises. They must know that He is not just another god like the gods of Egypt. They must know that He is the one God, the Creator of heaven and earth. They needed to recognize that only God could make up for their weakness.

God Appears to the People

God gave Moses instructions for the people to wash their clothes and sanctify themselves for two days. On the third day, they were to come to the mount but not to go beyond the bounds set by Moses. If the people had put away all sin and worldly thoughts from their minds, leaving a deep hunger to know God, they would rejoice to see God when He came. They would be like Moses at the burning bush and remove their shoes, for the place where they stood was holy ground.

God came onto the mount with fire and smoke, a trumpet blast, thunder and lightning, and an earthquake. It was a demonstration of power and majesty never seen from the gods of the heathen (Exod. 19:16, 18, 19). God came to instill awe and holy fear at His presence. The people were to experience the power of God as Creator and Lord. God Himself stood behind His covenant and would fulfill its terms.

The demonstration came to a halt, and there was silence as, from the mountain, God spoke the ten-commandment law, also referred to as “the covenant.” He spoke the law before the ratification ceremony so people would know what their promises entailed. The law was the pattern on which God would make of them “an holy nation.”4 They failed to understand the preamble of grace by which God would fulfill the promises of the Ten Commandments in their lives: “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt” (Exod. 20:2). Instead, they endeavored to keep the law in their own power.

When people come into the presence of the living God in reverence and awe, it is a life-changing experience.5 If they believed in a God who is “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth” (Exod. 34:6), like Abraham, they would have fallen on their faces as God spoke to them (Gen. 17:3). Instead, the presence of God terrified them, and “they removed, and stood afar off” (Exod. 20:18). They asked Moses not to let God speak to them again, but rather that God speak through Moses to them.

In spite of what God had done for them, the people still had the heathen concept that God is vengeful and judgmental, seeking only to punish. God has always desired that His people come close to Him, but fear of God will not be totally resolved until shortly before Jesus comes again! At that time, He will have a people who have consented to the work of grace in their lives and who look for His coming with joy. Jesus’ coming will terrify the wicked (Rev. 6:15, 16), as His presence terrified the Israelites. However, of the righteous, “It shall be said in that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the Lord; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isa. 25:9).

The Response of Faith

Faith is the response of the human heart to the love of God. It is trust, belief, and an emotional commitment to God as to a friend. In faith, one takes hold of grace, which is the supernatural power of God to change the sinner’s heart. The Holy Spirit, speaking through God’s Word, initiates faith in the human heart (Rom. 10:17). God always respects the gift of free will that He gave to the human family. He awaits the response of faith to the covenant, which is to consent for God to work His will in the believer’s life by His grace (Heb. 11:6). How does one come to Christ unless he takes these steps? One must do as Abraham did when he fell on his face in awe and believed all that God said He would do (Gen. 15:6). Belief is a form of decision because people live out everything they truly believe!

This is the new covenant relationship that God desires. “Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore “ (Exod. 19:4).

The prayer that God always hears is the cry for help. In the Temple of Israel one day, a publican standing afar off “smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). In this brief view, we find a man who recognized his need, recognized his inability to help himself, and fell upon the mercy and strength of God for the help he needed.

In answering that prayer, God possesses all that He requires, and He will give all the help that one needs. In gratitude, we can take no pride in what we have done, and we will thank God for what He has done. God looked in vain for the elders of Israel to recognize their need and show faith in Him as they responded to the covenant (Exod. 19:8).

In making these promises, the people forgot the power of God shown in their deliverance from Egypt; they indicated that they would obey God and keep His Commandments and covenant, but they did not have faith in His grace. They did not believe God, as did Abraham, but rather relied upon their own ability to obey. Their separate ratification ceremony lacked the faith response and further separated the covenant of human promises from the covenant presented by God (see Exod. 19:4-6). Only Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross can ratify the everlasting covenant.

The Historical Old Covenant Ratified

Moses went into the mount where God gave him instructions regarding the civil law (Exod. 21- 23). He also received a modified Abrahamic covenant consistent with their human promises.

Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared. Beware of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions: for my name is in him. But if thou shalt indeed obey his voice, and do all that I speak; then I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries. For mine Angel shall go before thee, and bring thee in unto the Amorites, and the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites: and I will cut them off. (Exod. 23:20-23)

The “Angel” or “Messenger” (Heb. mal’ak) was Jesus Christ, “for my name is in him” (Exod. 23:20, 21; cf. Mal. 3:1). God respected their promise to obey. Yet, in making their human promise, they failed to accept the grace that God promised. Other translations of this verse indicate that the sins that He will not pardon were rebellion, bitterness, and repeated conscious sins, which lead to the loss of the covenant (Heb. 6:4-6).

The people did not recognize the majesty and holiness of God and the comprehensive requirements of the holy ten-commandment law. They failed to recognize their own weakness and proceeded The Historical Old Covenant 85 with ratification (Exod. 19:8), repeating their promises twice again, “All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient” (Exod. 24:3, 7; Joshua 1:16). They forgot the grace that liberated them from slavery (Exod. 19:4).

Moses wrote these instructions in the “book of the covenant” (Exod. 24:7), which he read before the people. This book was an expansion of the Ten Commandments. It contained laws to govern civil affairs and details regarding the sanctuary, the priesthood, and the sacrifices.6

How did they ratify the covenant with God? They conducted a formal covenant ceremony in the presence of certain young men. As Moses repeated to them the words of the Lord, they responded with, “All the words which the Lord hath said will we do” (Exod. 24:3). They made animal sacrifices and Moses sprinkled blood on the altar, on the people, and on the book (Exod. 24:6-8; Heb. 9:19-21). The historical old covenant was in effect! Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel ate a covenant meal in the presence of God.

The covenant was faulty, but it was not because God offered a faulty covenant. God offered the same covenant He gave Abraham and the same covenant Peter referenced in 1 Peter 2:9 for the Christian church. The old covenant was faulty because the promises of the people did not include the faith response. They broke their covenant by worshiping the golden calf (Exod. 32).

The Experiential Old Covenant

The old covenant reappeared in Jewish history, with dependence on law keeping and on the rituals themselves as the means of salvation. The people made these rituals the sum and substance of their religion, obeying God’s command by rote with no heart-felt obedience or change in their life. They even forgot the Redeemer to whom the sacrifices pointed and failed to recognize the Redeemer when He came.

This corrupted perception of the covenant constituted the experiential old covenant. Periodically men have made covenants with God. A covenant of dedication, which is a commitment to God, is admirable. The six righteous kings of Judah made covenants of this sort. As long as they kept their focus on the everlasting covenant of God and accepted His grace, their intent was admirable. When the covenant was without faith and dependent on human promises, it could not succeed. The corrupted perception of the covenant was the predominant belief when Jesus came, causing Jesus’ rejection and condemnation by the nation’s religious leadership.

By the time of Christ, the sanctuary services and ritual had become a religion of externals. The people did the rituals and kept the letter of the law to earn salvation. There was no love, faith, or grace. The people did not accept the power of grace to change their lives. Jesus’ sermon on the mount showed that God desired a religion from the heart. The sacrifices were of no use unless there was an accompanying change in the life. The sacrifices served only as an object lesson to show how the blood of Christ purchased their salvation.


1. The Scriptures say: “For finding fault with them” and “unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it” (Heb. 8:8; 4:2, emphasis supplied).

2. Grace is often defined as the unmerited favor of God, but it is also the supernatural power of God to change the life, as we find in Hebrews 4:16. Grace was to change the motives of human beings from pride and selfishness to love--love for God and love for our fellow humans--and to enable sinners to keep the law of God, which is why God’s laws in the heart are the first stipulation of the new covenant (Heb. 8:10). That He also writes his laws in the mind would indicate a conscious awareness of what God expects.

3. The people’s promise was a covenant of dedication. Men praise God when they choose to serve him. The six righteous kings of Judah each renewed this covenant with God, usually after a revival from idolatry. The problem with the people at Sinai was their lack of understanding of the holiness of God and of their own weakness. They thought they could do it in their own strength and did not understand the implications of God’s sustaining grace (Exod. 19:4; 33:12-17). They lacked the faith response and had yet to understand faith and grace.

4. “The covenant that God made with his people at Sinai is to be our refuge and defense.”| And all the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord hath spoken we will do.... This covenant is of just as much force today as it was when the Lord made it with ancient Israel” (Ellen G. White, The Southern Watchman, March 1, 1904). See also The Seventh-day Adventist Commentary, vol. 1, pp. 592-598). The covenant was the Ten Commandments written by God on two tablets of stone, which was also called “the testimony.” One must also recognize and understand the preamble of grace before both the covenant promises and the law (Exodus 19 4; 20:2). Exodus 32:15 calls the tablets “the two tables of the testimony.” Deuteronomy 9:9, 11, 15 identifies them as “the tables of the covenant.” Exodus 34:28 describes Moses’ reception of the covenant. “And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.” Deuteronomy 9:11 says, “... The Lord gave me the two tables of stone, even the tables of the covenant.”

5. God’s presence changed lives (Gen. 32:24-30; Exod. 3:4-10; Joshua 5:13-15; 1 Kings 3:5-15; Isa. 6:1-13; Jer. 1:4-10; and Acts 9:3-6, 15-20).

6. The expansion of the ten “words” of the covenant can be seen in Leviticus: “But I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the heathen, that I might be their God: I am the Lord. These are the statutes and judgments and laws, which the Lord made between him and the children of Israel in mount Sinai by the hand of Moses” (Lev. 26:45, 46, emphasis supplied). It can also be seen in Nehemiah: “Thou camest down also upon mount Sinai, and spakest with them from heaven, and gavest them right judgments, and true laws, good statutes and commandments” (Neh. 9:13, emphasis supplied). The judgments were casuistic (or case) law, describing the penalty for violations of the statutes.