There is a strong tradition in Scottish Presbyterian history, going back centuries, of people uniting together through the signing of a covenant. The covenant was a pledge, a solemn promise to undertake to do all that was written in the relevant document.
The most famous of these documents was the National Covenant, which was signed in February 1638 in Greyfriars Churchyard, Edinburgh. This was accompanied by a huge wave of popular suppprt. Copies were distributed throughout the nation, where it was signed in cities, towns and rural parishes.
The National Covenant was signed by such a huge proportion of the population because of the opposition to Archbishop Laud’s policy of unifying the Churches of England and Scotland (as well as Ireland) under one adminstration. Supported by King Charles 1st Bishops were imposed upon the government of the Church of Scotland and a prayer book was enforced upon the public worship. In 1637 this led to riots on the streets after Jenny Geddes flung her prayer-stool at the Dean of the High Kirk of St Giles, Edinburgh as he attempted to lead the people in prayer book worship:
Dost thou say Mass at my lug
The new liturgy did not go down well with the population at large; therefore they were ready to swear before Almghty God that they would preserve the purity of the Kirk.
The National Covenant led to the Bishop’s War when Charles 1st was forced to employ soldiers to force the Scots to accept Laud’s policies. The Scots were victorious and in so doing preserved their independent church for twenty years.
The wording and concept of the National Covenant were also a major influence behind the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 when the Scottish Covenanters pledged their support of the Oliver Cromwell and the English Parliament in their dispute with Charles 1st during the English Civil War. This alliance between Scotland and England would be partly repsonsible for the Westminister Confession of Faith of 1646. All subscribing Presbyterian Churches continue to covenant and require of their ministers and elders that they must sign the Westminster Confession as a confession of their own faith.
When the Scottish Kirk eventually lost their independence during the reign of Charles 2nd and James 2nd, those who opposed the English policy became known as the Covenanters. They went to war with the English crown and many died. There were many good and godly people who were persecuted; people who wielded no swords nor provoked the King’s soldiers in any way, their only crime was to refuse to attend the now compromised Church of Scotland. They reprsented the cream of Scotland in a dark day. In their stand and witness for Christ they contended for that most precious of all commodities – freedom.
The old Scottish tradition of covenanting continues to shed some light down through the centuries into our present; through this practice we understand the history of Presbyterianism, and of God’s dealings in the past.
This rich history, however, finds a basis in the Old Testament and the covenants that God’s people entered into during days of test and challenge. The greatest of these covenants, which led to the greatest Old Testament Reformation, took place in the days of King Josiah.
1: The Summons
Then the king sent and gathered together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. And the king went up into the house of the LORD, and all the men of Judah, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the priests, and the Levites, and all the people, great and small:2nd Chronicles 34:29-30
Having heard the solemn words of Huldah the Prophetess, Josiah was reolved to make full use of the opprtunity that God had granted him. While judgement was certain, there would be a reprieve during his own liftetime, therefore the king was fully resolved to influence the present with aboslute spiritual committment before God.
Therefore he calls a meeting. Representatives of the entire nation were present. Business must be done with God if this generation is to be saved from catastrophe.
We must not minimise the importance of “the meeting” in the life of the church.
The Scottish Covenanters emphasised the importance of the “congregation”, which is God’s people congregating or meeting for worship. The congregation are the priests of God. The congregation has a democratic right to choose their oversight; ministers, elders, committee. The oversight is chosen by the people to govern on behalf of the congregation. This was why bishops acting as kings and lords over the flock of God were anathema to the Covenanters. The congregation was suppressed.
The congregation meets for worship, for prayer, for minstry and for the receiving of the sacrament. When we meet together the congregation gathers in the presence of God. We are summonsed three times each week on a regular basis for worship. Josiah was an earthly king who called his people but it is Christ our heavenly king and bridegroom who beckons us.
We ought to attend prayerfully, solemnly, expectantly, reverently and punctually with prepared hearts because we are meeting in the presence of God. Oh, that we would catch the awesome reality as to what this really means!
As with Josiah’s generation , we must believe that the future course of our nation depends upon the business that we transact with God, and the business that He does in us and with us through our gatherings. We can yet save this generation, through obedient and consecrated hearts that are filled with the Holy Ghost.
2: The Scriptures
…and he read in their ears all the words of the book of the covenant that was found in the house of the LORD.2nd Chronicles 34:30
Central to this great gathering was the Scriptures, here termed ‘the book of the covenant’. It so called the book of the covevant because God had made a covenant with Israel. There were blessings for them if they kept the law but with disobedience there would be cursing and judgement:
See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil; In that I command thee this day to love the LORD thy God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments, that thou mayest live and multiply: and the LORD thy God shall bless thee in the land whither thou goest to possess it. But if thine heart turn away, so that thou wilt not hear, but shalt be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them; I denounce unto you this day, that ye shall surely perish, and that ye shall not prolong your days upon the land, whither thou passest over Jordan to go to possess it. I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live: That thou mayest love the LORD thy God, and that thou mayest obey his voice, and that thou mayest cleave unto him: for he is thy life, and the length of thy days: that thou mayest dwell in the land which the LORD sware unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Contained in the Scriptures, even to the New Testament Church, there is the promise of blessings for those who worship, who pray and who obey the Word of God. On the other hand if we live for the flesh, for this material world, we will be consigned to God’s second best. A missionary to the Jews once spoke to a young convert who had lost his way and had grown cold of heart, with these words that shook him to the core:
Marv, you are going heaven but you are going to be so far back you aren’t going to even hear the music
While the expression was not precisley theologically certain, the sentiment most definitely was, and it was couched in language that the young man could grasp. The Apostle Paul wrote about the judgement seat of Christ, of a dispensing of rewards and of some people losing rewards. Some may even be saved by fire, nothing profitable accomplished with their Christian experience. Perhaps the tears that are wiped away will be tears of regret that we all will have, because no-one will have lived the Christian life perfectly. Let us take the word of God to heart, consider eternity, the cross examination of our Christian life and live for God before it be too late:
Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.Galatians 6:7-9
3: The Sovereign
And the king stood in his place, and made a covenant before the LORD, to walk after the LORD, and to keep his commandments, and his testimonies, and his statutes, with all his heart, and with all his soul, to perform the words of the covenant which are written in this book. And he caused all that were present in Jerusalem and Benjamin to stand to it. And the inhabitants of Jerusalem did according to the covenant of God, the God of their fathers. And Josiah took away all the abominations out of all the countries that pertained to the children of Israel, and made all that were present in Israel to serve, even to serve the LORD their God. And all his days they departed not from following the LORD, the God of their fathers2nd Chronicles 34:31-33
Josiah led the way in covenanting before God to keep the law of the Lord wth all his heart and soul. This was no mere play acting nor formalistic ritual. This was as real as it was spiritual. Perhaps he had another aspect of the Mosaic Covenant in his heart as he offered himself to God:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates. And it shall be, when the LORD thy God shall have brought thee into the land which he sware unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give thee great and goodly cities, which thou buildedst not, And houses full of all good things, which thou filledst not, and wells digged, which thou diggedst not, vineyards and olive trees, which thou plantedst not; when thou shalt have eaten and be full;Deuteronomy 6:4-11
He was determined to give God his body, his wealth, his crown, his nation but above all his heart.
In so doing Josiah was following the example of Joshua, who at the close of his life ruled the nation by personal example into a renewing of the covenant with God:
Now therefore fear the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in truth: and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the flood, and in Egypt; and serve ye the LORD. And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD. And the people answered and said, God forbid that we should forsake the LORD, to serve other gods;Joshua 24:14-16
Such a spirit is infectious. Those who were present had no difficultly in following his leadership. The Holy Ghost through this one godly man was working slilently yet powerfully in the soul of the nation.
The genuiness of this work is manifested in the fruit that it produced. Those who signed this covenant did not retract from their vows. They were consistent in their faith throughout the following years.
Committment and conistency are so vital, where the Christian faith is concerned. The future course of the Church depends upon a people who are reolved to resist evil and to stand for God.
May we be blessed with such firm resolution.