The covenant with David does not stand alone, apart from the other covenants in the Bible. It relates to and depends upon the preceding covenants with Moses, Abraham, and even Noah. Each has its place in the covenantal development of the Bible. The covenant with Noah promises the providential continuation of the earth as the stage of God’s redeeming work until its completion. That with Abraham provides for the formation of God’s people. The covenant with Moses provides for the setting apart of God’s people as a distinct, identifiable group. And the covenant with David provides for the rule of God’s people under the anointed king, selected and provided by God Himself.
Elements of the Davidic Covenant
The account of God’s covenant with David is given in two places in the Old Testament—2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 17. The term covenant is used in neither of these narratives. However, in Psalm 89, which is essentially a poetic parallel to 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles, the term covenant appears four times, each time connected with David.
The author of Psalm 89, Ethan the Ezrahite, summarizes the elements of God’s covenant with David into two categories. First, “Your seed I will establish forever,” and second, “[I will] build up your throne to all generations” (v. 4).
The promise of the seed, as it is throughout Scripture from Genesis 3:15 onward, is messianic. It is the promise that the Messiah would be a descendant of David. The gospels pick up on this and make it clear. In Matthew (the gospel of the kingly Messiah), the genealogy of Jesus is traced back through David to Abraham. Luke, less concerned with the kingly aspect of Jesus’ work, traces Jesus’ genealogy back through David to Adam, as the son of God. By doing so, Luke shows that Jesus fulfills the promise God made in the covenant with David that “will be his Father, and he shall be My son” (2 Sam. 7:14). Thus, the Messiah is both David’s Son and David’s Lord. It is significant that in all three of the synoptic gospels, Jesus confronts the scribes and Pharisees with the theological difficulty that the Messiah is both David’s Son and David’s Lord. They were not able to solve this difficulty because they had not understood the content of the covenant with David (Matt. 22, Mark 12, Luke 20).
The promise of the throne sets forth the perpetuity of the kingdom of David (“ ‘Your throne shall be established forever,’ ” 2 Sam. 7:16). It is at this point that many see a difficulty with the Davidic covenant—the kingdom of David fell to Nebuchadnezzar in 586 b.c., and no descendant of David ever again sat on that throne in Jerusalem. How, then, can the perpetuity of David’s throne be upheld? This is precisely the problem that Ethan the Ezrahite faced when he penned Psalm 89, writing, “You have made his glory cease, and cast his throne down to the ground” (v. 44). The promise seems to have failed.
The answer to the conundrum is twofold. First, part of the covenant with David is also a warning: “If he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men” (2 Sam. 7:14). The conquest of the throne of David in Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar was part of that chastening. The iniquity of the sons of David, particularly Manasseh, was the cause of the casting down of David’s throne (see especially 2 Kings 21:10–15; 23:26–27; 24:3). Thus, the loss of David’s throne was actually a fulfillment of the covenant of David. Second, the throne of David is ultimately the throne of the Lord. This identification is made in 1 Chronicles 28:5, where it is written, “He has chosen my son Solomon to sit on the throne of the kingdom of the Lord over Israel,” and in 29:23, where it is said, “Then Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord as king instead of David his father.” The Lord has never abandoned His throne. David, Solomon, and their successors were types of the Messiah who was to come, and insofar as they sat on the throne of the Lord, they were reigning for Him.
The Seed of David currently occupies the throne of David. Jesus’ ascension was not merely the lifting-up of His body from the earth—it was His installation as King on the throne of the Lord. Peter made this plain in his Pentecost sermon, when he said David knew that “[God] would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne.” Sure enough, Peter added, in the course of time, “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:30, 36).
The Covenant in the New Testament
In the New Testament, the direct references to the Davidic covenant occur mostly in the gospels. The clearest statement is made by Gabriel in his announcement to Mary: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32–33). Later in the same chapter, Zacharias speaks to the same effect when he says, “And [God] has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David” (v. 69). The word horn is a reference to power and strength, especially as they are demonstrated through rule.
Further treatment of the Davidic covenant in the gospels comes in the references to Jesus as the Son of David. This is either expressed in the form of a question from the multitudes, “Could this be the Son of David?” (Matt. 12:23); or in the form of affirmations of faith on the part of blind men or non-Israelites (Matt. 9:27; 15:22; 20:30). In these cases, the identification of Jesus as the Son of David has two purposes. First, it affirms the power of the Son of David over the enemies of the kingdom (the demonic world). The case of the Canaanite woman particularly shows the extension of the kingdom of David beyond the bounds of national Israel. Second, it affirms the power of the Son of David to care and provide for the subjects of His kingdom (restoring sight to the blind). Jesus then receives public acclamation as the Son of David at the Triumphal Entry (Matt. 21:1–9).
Outside of the gospels, the primary references to Jesus as the Son of David come in the speeches in Acts, especially Acts 13. The saving work of the Son of David is primarily under consideration here, as in Romans 1:3 and 2 Timothy 2:8. Thus, in addition to defeating the enemies of the kingdom (typified in David’s defeat of the nations around Israel) and providing for His people, it fell to Jesus the Son of David to create a people by His saving work. David, the type, inherited a people already in existence. Jesus, the antitype, brought His people into existence by means of His saving work.
Finally, Hebrews and Revelation contain references to the Davidic covenant as fulfilled in Jesus. Hebrews 1:5 quotes 2 Samuel 7:14, identifying Jesus as the Son of God, and hence more excellent than the angels. In the context, the focus is on Jesus’ saving work, by which He purged our sins and called us out as a people. In Revelation, John identifies Jesus as having the key of David (3:7), or kingly power and authority. John also identifies Jesus as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (5:5), showing that Jesus fulfills both the Davidic covenant as it is stated in 2 Samuel and the preceding prophecy regarding the royal line coming through the tribe of Judah in Genesis 49:10. In Revelation 22, Jesus identifies Himself as “the Root and the Offspring of David” (22:16). In this He answers the question He Himself posed to the scribes and Pharisees: How can the Messiah be both David’s Son and David’s Lord?
The Significance for the Church
The Davidic covenant assured the perpetuity of the kingdom of God under the line of David. In its fulfillment in Christ, it assures us of three things.
First, Jesus in His saving work as the Son of David has provided Himself a people. A king alone does not make a kingdom. There is no kingdom without subjects to the king. Jesus’ saving work creates a kingdom subject to His rule.
Second, Jesus the Son of David has all power and authority. He is thus able to protect His kingdom against the depredations of its enemies. It is for this reason, and not the wonderful strength of Jesus’ subjects, that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against” the kingdom of the Son of David (Matt. 16:18). In these days, many Christians suffer under persecution, and even in the West there is opposition to the work of the church. But we can take comfort and strength from the reminder that our King is committed to protecting us from the onslaught of our enemies, and He has all power and authority to do so.
Third, our King Jesus, the Son of David, has committed all His power not only to protecting His subjects from the onslaught of His enemies, but to providing for their well-being. As the fulfillment of the covenant with David was not dependent upon the planning and labors of men, so the health, growth, and continuation of the church depends not on our planning and labors, but on the power and authority of that great Son of David, who is also His Lord, even Jesus Christ.