There’s a lot of material in the Bible on covenant, the vast majority of which focuses on God’s covenants with his people. But there are human relationships in the Bible also described as covenants, such as Abraham and Abimelech (Gen. 21:27, 32), and Jacob and Laban (Gen. 31:44). Importantly, marriages are named as covenants. God explicitly calls human marriage a covenant (Malachi 2:14). God also describes his own covenant with his people as a marriage (Ezek. 16), and this is surely one of the aspects of God’s marriage that is mirrored in our own (Eph. 5:32).
There are some dimensions of God’s covenant with his people that are not mirrored in all human marriages, except in rare cases such as Hosea. But there are still many insights into covenant from biblical theology that we can apply to our own marriage covenants. Here, in no particular order, are twelve reflections on marriage as a covenant:
Architecture. Covenants are relational-structural bonds. As a bond, a covenant establishes a sort of structure or architecture for the relationship. Like the architecture of a house, the covenant is not the purpose of marriage, but reflecting on the covenant can help us to understand the purpose and pattern of marriage. The covenant is sort of the hub or lattice on which all of the pieces of marriage can be arranged.
Complementarity. All covenants are asymmetric or complementary relationships in some way. Complementarity, the differing roles and responsibilities of husband and wife in the dance of marriage, is built into the fabric of covenant. For example, God calls the husband and wife together by the name of the husband (Gen. 5:2), and the first husband named the first wife. God, who establishes the marriage covenant (Matt. 19:6) has different exhortations and requirements for husbands and wives (Eph. 5:22, 25).
Particularity. Covenants are particular and exclusive: God is God and savior to these people; this man cleaves to this woman and no other.
Death. Covenants are not mere contracts that exchange goods and services for mutual benefit. Contracts have their place, but a covenant is a promise and a giving of oneself. Theologians speak of the “self-maledictory oath” in a covenant: covenant promises are a sort of “cross my heart and hope to die.”
Blessing and curse. There are always both blessings and curses attached to a covenant. God calls us to a standard of fidelity and sacrifice, but in this he equally intends to give us great gifts and happiness and joy. In fact, death and sacrifice are the very soil in which happiness and joy flourish.
Adoption. A good picture of a covenant is what happens in adoption: you leave an old world-situation-family and enter into a new one; you become responsible for and to one another. In fact, in marriage, husband and wife do adopt one another as brother and sister in a way (consider the sister-bride in the Song of Solomon).
New creation. Every covenant establishes a new creation, a new order of things. This involves a rejection and separation and death to what came before: what came before was good in its time, but it is no longer adequate for the current situation. Out of this death, every covenant brings a kind of new life or resurrection into a new world-creation.
Union. This new creation involves a new union: union with Jesus in one case, or union with one another in marriage. This is the husband and wife becoming one flesh, leaving and cleaving; it is an incorporation of the other into oneself. Sex is a part of this but it does not exhaust the meaning of it.
Signs. Covenants have covenant signs that mark their establishment and renewal. The old covenants were marked or renewed with rainbow, circumcision, offering, and sacrifice-feast. The new covenant is marked in baptism and renewed in the Lord’s Supper. Our marriage covenants are marked (often) by the exchange of rings, and renewed in sex.
Fellowship. These unions and covenant signs often include meals. The meals are an expression of fellowship, a high point of the entire covenant. Consider that God’s covenants are broken by false eating (Genesis 3, 1 Cor. 10) and in the end are summed up in a feast (Revelation 19). Even the most reluctant of covenants (Jacob and Laban) is an expression of equality through a meal (Gen. 31:54). Likewise there is an experience of equal footing and deep fellowship that we are to enjoy in our marriages.
Administration. Covenants make provision for their administration: they are not private agreements, but public ones. Our marriages are administered by God (Matt. 19:6, Mk. 10:9) through the help of his body that also serves as a witness.
Succession. All covenants make provision for their future and succession. God’s covenants include promises and instruction for future generations. God intends for our own marriage covenants normally to produce worshipers (Mal. 2). We also see that God intends to preserve Christian marriages (Mt. 19:6, Mk. 10:9), and this is not a mere platitude: he will give grace to us to accomplish this.