The Reformed tradition has long held that the way to read Scripture is covenantally. Covenants in the ancient world were simply treaties, that is, legal arrangements regulating the relationship between two sovereign entities. Typically in the ancient world a suzerain (an overlord) king would impose a covenant on a vassal (subordinate) king. Such an arrangement would require the vassal’s loyalty, obligating him to render honor to the suzerain, uphold the suzerain’s name to other kings, and provide tribute, service and support to the suzerain’s interests. A covenantal arrangement would also have benefits for the vassal as well: the suzerain was (self-)obligated to protect the vassal, adjudicate disputes between the vassal and other kings, and extend blessings to the vassal as rewards for loyalty and obedience. The highest honor for the vassal was be to be welcomed into the suzerain’s inner circle of trust and confidence. The legal nature of the covenant underscored both the solemnity and the binding nature of the relationship. There would be definite penalties, up to and including death, if the covenant were violated or broken.
In inspiring Scripture, God used this imagery to enable His people to understand their relationship to Him. The Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 7, section 1 describes this succinctly: “The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant.” Biblical covenants are a “voluntary condescension” by God to help us grasp our relationship to Him.
This covenantal paradigm is evident from the outset of Scripture in the opening chapter of Genesis. A king must have a realm over which to rule, the power to rule that realm, and the legitimacy to exercise that rule, typically manifested in the majesty and glory that accompanies his reign. We see all of those things in Genesis 1:1-2:3, even though God is not explicitly called a king. The realm of God’s rule is creation (“the heavens and the earth”) as noted in Gen. 1:1 and 2:1. This is not a preexisting realm, but one that God creates out of nothing.
Like a king issues who issues commands and actions ensue, the exercise of God’s power is shown by the fact that He by His Word speaks and things are brought into being. God’s exercise of power is not arbitrary or self-centered, but establishes order to creation. In the first three days of creation, God forms the rudiments of the realms of existence, and in the second three days He fills those realms with life, culminating with the creation of His vice regent, man. Moreover, the order God creates is not just a material order of the cosmos, of light and darkness, land and seas, plants, animals, and people, but it is a moral order as well. This can be seen in that throughout creation week, God repeatedly identifies what He has created as good, and at the end of the week He pronounces it all to be very good. The material order and the moral order are intertwined.
The fact that God created it out of nothing both shows His absolute power and establishes the basis of His authority over it. He possesses legitimacy in reigning over creation because He made it; He is indebted to nothing and to no one. The legitimacy of God’s rule, moreover, is manifest not only in the beauty and diversity of His creation, but also in the glory and enthronement that accompanies His reign. One can see this in several ways. God’s glory and goodness are established at the outset of creation. In creating light on Day 1 (1:3-5), for example, the source of that light must be God Himself, since other sources had not yet been created and since the light is described as good, that goodness must also emanate from God. Glory and goodness accompanies God’s mere presence. On Day 2 (1:6-8) God creates a realm—Heaven—in which His presence and glory are manifest; this precedes any creation of the earthly realm. God is holding court. That is reinforced on Day 6 of creation (1:26), when God gives a plural self-reference in His declaration “Let us make.” This royal use of “we,” (i.e., using a collective pronoun to describe Himself) may well may refer to the heavenly host looking on God’s acts of creation—which would have been the most likely understanding of Moses’ original readers—as well as to the Trinity within the Godhead, which we can now better see in light of New Testament revelation.
More than just His mere presence and His holding court, however, God’s glory is secured by the culminating act of His enthronement at the end of the week of creation. For ancient kings, it was not just the accoutrements of power that secured their glory, but the accomplishment of great deeds. After a decisive victory in war or the completion of a great building project, the king would have a major celebration where people could see His glory on display. In the Genesis account, God rests from His work (2:1-3). Such a rest is not a rest from weariness since God does not tire, but a rest of coming into a culmination of enjoying what He has accomplished, of coming onto His throne. This pattern of work and then coming into a consummating rest is one that exists throughout Scripture, and will reach its climax at the end of time. God’s people are continually looking to that consummating rest of God.