The Old Testament is filled with stories of faith, but the word is scarcely found. Instead, faithfulness is stressed. Can we learn anything from this nuance?
Some have wondered why the word faith occurs so rarely in the Old Testament.
In a few versions of the Bible, including the King James Version and New King James Version, the word appears in two passages, Deuteronomy 32:20 and Habakkuk 2:4. However, the two Hebrew words translated faith in these passages are from the same root word, and they are often translated as “faithful” or “faithfulness” in other passages.
It might seem strange that the word faith is so scarce in the Old Testament. Surprisingly, we never see the word in the account of Abraham, the father of the faithful—and his story covers 15 chapters in Genesis.
The New Testament writers, on the other hand, used a Greek word for faith hundreds of times. They all viewed the Old Testament as Holy Scripture. So, what are we to make of this disparity? And can we, then, come to a better understanding of the New Testament concept of faith by considering the Old Testament focus on faithfulness?
Faith, faithfulness and covenants in the Old Testament
Although the word faith rarely appears in many translations of the Old Testament, the concept is everywhere. Noah acted in faith when he built the ark. When called on to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham obeyed, acting in faith. Moses acted in faith while leading the Israelites out of Egypt. And Hannah acted in faith when she gave up her son Samuel to fulfill her vow to the Lord.
Furthermore, Abraham, Moses and David were all described as faithful men. And Hebrews 11 documents a long list of people in the Old Testament who had faith.
Clearly, the concept of faith fills the pages of the Old Testament, even though the exact word does not.
To see the emphasis on faithfulness in action, consider the nature of God’s relationship with His people in the Old Testament, particularly with the nation of Israel. The Bible describes these relationships in terms of God’s covenants.
Simply put, a covenant is an agreement. It is comparable to what we might call a contract today. God entered into a formal covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:4-6). For most of us, when we think of a covenant in the Old Testament, it is this one that first comes to mind.
But this is not the only covenant God made. He also entered into covenants with Noah (Genesis 6:17-19) and Abraham (Genesis 15:1, 18; 17:1-22). He was already in a covenant relationship with Israel, the descendants of the patriarchs, before the Mount Sinai covenant (Exodus 6:3-5).
God’s covenants can help us see the connection between faith and faithfulness in action. As explained in Zondervan’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, “The focus of God’s faithful dealing with His people and their response to Him is in the covenant relationship which He established with them.”
The faithfulness of God
The word covenant appears in the Old Testament more than 280 times. Some of those instances are agreements between human beings, such as the one Abraham entered with Abimelech, the king of the Philistines (Genesis 21:22-34), or the one Jacob made with his father-in-law, Laban (Genesis 31:43-55).
Many of the covenants, however, are between God and humans. In all of those cases, God makes promises. In His first covenant with Noah, God promised to keep Noah and his family, as well as two of every animal kind, alive during the coming global flood (Genesis 6:17-19). When God promised to multiply Abraham’s descendants and make him the “father of many nations” (Genesis 17:4), He did so in a covenant.
Scripture demonstrates that God is true to His word. We read that “God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (Exodus 2:24) just before He appeared to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3).
It is the word faithful that describes God keeping His covenant promises: “Therefore know that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments” (Deuteronomy 7:9).
Faithfulness and faithlessness in Israel
God’s faithfulness is only one side of His covenants. Most of them also required something of God’s people. At Mount Sinai, for example, God’s promise to make Israel “a special treasure to Me above all people” depended upon Israel obeying Him (Exodus 19:5).
The Father loves us, and for that reason, we should not worry, nor should we be afraid.Unfortunately, when we read through the history of Israel, we see a cycle that begins with Israel’s faithlessness, followed by withdrawal of God’s blessing and protection, and ending in cries for deliverance. Once delivered, Israel quickly forgot God, setting itself up to repeat the cycle. This pattern is especially evident in the book of Judges.
The Bible pictures this faithlessness toward God as harlotry (Judges 2:16-18) or adultery (Jeremiah 3:8-10). The metaphor is an apt one because adultery is an illicit relationship by which an individual is unfaithful to a spouse, just as Israel was unfaithful in its covenant relationship with God.
This metaphor is the central message in one entire book of prophecy. God commanded Hosea to “take yourself a wife of harlotry” (Hosea 1:2). Gomer, Hosea’s wife, pictured faithless Israel, while Hosea pictured God. Marriage is a covenant relationship, so the imagery perfectly fits the faithlessness of God’s people.
A New Covenant
The faithlessness of ancient Israel proved God’s point that they did not have “such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments” (Deuteronomy 5:29). So He revealed the next stage in His plan. God used Jeremiah to declare His intent to enter into a New Covenant with His people:
“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jeremiah 31:33; see our online article “The New Covenant: What Is New About It?”).
The book of Hebrews cites this passage (Hebrews 8:8-10), first explaining that God replaced the Old Covenant with Israel and Judah after “finding fault with them” (verse 8). The fault was not with the agreement or God’s laws, but with them.
The New Covenant is “a better covenant” because it “was established on better promises” (verse 6), including the forgiveness of sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit to make a new heart possible.
What is New Testament faith?
Now that we have considered faithfulness in the context of covenants with God, we can see a connection to faith as it is pictured in the New Testament.
Contrary to what some individuals think, faith is more than belief in Jesus. The Greek word includes the concept of trust, and that aspect is obvious in Christ’s teachings when He used the expression, “O you of little faith.”
What James was saying is that faith is built on faithfulness.In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used these words as He taught the crowds not to worry, but to trust in the Creator God (Matthew 6:28-30). Jesus used the same expression after He had calmed the storm-tossed sea that so frightened His disciples (Matthew 8:23-27), and again when Peter began to sink into the sea after walking on water (Matthew 14:22-33).
In each of these cases, faith in God is more akin to trust. The Father loves us, and for that reason, we should not worry, nor should we be afraid.
Faith and the New Covenant
We have a loving Father, and He offers us a New Covenant. Are we without responsibilities in this covenant, as so many professing Christians believe today? Of course not! In fact, our faith in God is an outgrowth of how we approach our covenant relationship with Him.
Let’s take a look at a familiar example in a nonreligious setting—taking out a loan to purchase a home. If you make your payments consistently, then the idea is that you can have faith that the lender will not foreclose. (Of course, trust in human institutions is eroding, but that’s the way it’s supposed to work.) On the other hand, if you fail to make the payments in a timely fashion, you cannot have that same faith.
The same is true in our covenant relationship with God. Our obedience matters. Christ told His followers in the Sermon on the Mount, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
In discussing how faith and works intertwine, the apostle James wrote about this very idea: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18).
What James was saying is that faith is built on faithfulness. First, we come to recognize and appreciate the faithfulness of God. He has proven Himself throughout the pages of Scripture and (for the mature Christian) in life’s experiences.
And second, we strive to live according to God’s will, faithfully keeping our part of the covenant with Him. These “works,” as James called them, give us confidence. We would not be performing those works if we had no faith, so those works demonstrate our faith. More than that, they also demonstrate our faithfulness.
What we see is that faith—true faith—cannot exist apart from faithfulness. And faithfulness—the faithfulness of God as well as our faithfulness to Him—is the ground of our faith.
You can study this further in our online article “Is the Fruit of the Spirit Faith or Faithfulness?”