The Davidic Covenant
Our effort to understand the dichotomous nature of the Abrahamic covenant may be helped by observing a similar dichotomy in the Davidic covenant. Was the Davidic covenant a covenant of works or of grace? That is to say, was the promise to David conditional or unconditional? The answer depends upon who is asked. If we asked King David, he would respond by saying that the promise of an eternal kingship was unconditional. Yet if we asked any of David’s children, they would have to answer by saying that they had been given a legal condition to obey.
These unconditional and conditional dimensions of the Davidic covenant are clearly seen in Psalm 132:11-12: ” The LORD swore [unconditionally] to David a sure oath from which he will not turn back: ‘One of the sons of your body I will set on your throne. If your sons [conditionally] keep my covenant and my testimonies that I shall teach them, their sons also forever shall sit on your throne’” (words in brackets are Jeffery Johnson’s).
For this reason, David sternly warned his son, Solomon, to obey God:
When David’s time to die drew near, he commanded Solomon his son, saying, “I am about to go the way of all the earth. Be strong, and show yourself a man, and keep the charge of the LORD your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his rules, and his testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn, that the LORD may establish his word that he spoke concerning me, saying, ‘If your sons pay close attention to their way, to walk before me in faithfulness with all their heart and with all their soul, you shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel’ (1 Kings 2:1-4).
Years later Jeremiah reminded the sons of David that they were under the covenant of works:
Thus says the LORD: “Go down to the house of the king of Judah and speak there this word, and say, ‘Hear the word of the LORD, O king of Judah, who sits on the throne of David, you, and your servants, and your people who enter these gates. Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. For if you will indeed obey this word, then there shall enter the gates of this house kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their servants and their people. But if you will not obey these words, I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that this house shall become a desolation (Je 22:1–5).
Admittedly, it would have been pointless for God to give a promise to David that was dependent upon David’s children keeping the law if it were not for the fact that the promise was speaking of Christ Jesus and His future obedience. Solomon succeeded David, but it was not Solomon whom God ultimately had in mind when He established the Davidic covenant. Rather, it was Jesus Christ. For Christ was not only a descendant of David, He was the only descendant of David that perfectly kept the law, as evidenced by His resurrection from the dead.
Peter picked up on this theme in his famous sermon on the day of Pentecost. After pointing out that David was convinced that one of his descendants would sit upon his throne forever, Peter went on to proclaim that this promise was fulfilled at the resurrection of Christ from the dead:
Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified (Acts 2:29-36).
Christ, the son of David, is qualified to sit upon an everlasting throne because He was declared righteous in His resurrection. Without this legal righteousness, Christ would have remained in the grave, and the establishment of the kingdom, promised to Abraham and David, would not have been accomplished.
Many other parallels could be pointed out between the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, such as types and antitypes and eternal elements, and the natural and supernatural dimensions of each. Nevertheless, this understanding of the unconditional and conditional sides of the Davidic covenant is sufficient to help us better understand the dichotomous nature of the Abrahamic covenant.*
* Jeffery Johnson, The Kingdom of God (Conway, AR: Free Grace Press, 2014), p. 43-46