Belial and the Covenant


I’m about to tell you about a fellow named Belial. Well, he’s not a fellow as much as he is a repeating series of worthless sons. But we’ll get to that. Then I will tell you what Belial teaches us about the covenant.

Belial and his Sons

The word “belial” is derived from the Hebrew word belîya‘al, which has two parts: be means “without” and ya‘al  means ‘profit.’ So belial means worthlessness.[1] But in the Bible, it is often used as a proper noun. So we read of the “sons of Belial” in Judges 19:22 and 2 Samuel 2:12, the “daughter of Belial” in 1 Samuel 1:16, and the “children of Belial” in Deuteronomy 13:13 and Judges 20:13. However, a search for the word “belial” in a newer translation will probably come up empty since they usually translate the word as “worthless rabble,” “worthless,” etc.

A son of Belial is a wicked person. The 1599 Geneva Bible renders Psalm 18:4, “The sorrows of death compassed me, and the floods of wickedness (belial) made me afraid.” Notice that the floods of belial parallel the sorrows of death. Deuteronomy 13:13 is the first time the word “Belial” is used and it describes how the sons of Belial committed apostasy. The next time Belial is used is in Judges 19-20 when the sons of Belial commit brutal rape against a Levite’s concubine. To attack the Levite was to attack God. And this macabre story occurs in Gibeah, an apostate city that qualified for the ban stipulated in Deuteronomy 13:12-15. The sons of Eli were sons of Belial who knew not the Lord (1 Sam. 2:12). The man of Belial is a bloody man (2 Sam. 16:7) who has no part in the inheritance of David (2 Sam. 20:1). Sons of Belial are like thorns thrust away (2 Sam. 23:6), vain men (2 Chron. 13:7), who are likened to the unrighteous, unbelievers, darkness, infidels, and idols (2 Cor. 6:14-16). In sum, a son of Belial isn’t just a saddle-goose, but a fiendish one, at that. Oh, and there is one more thing. Sons of Belial, the cursed scoundrels that they are, belong to the covenant. They are card-carrying covenant members, circumcised, and everything.

There are Canaanites who reject Yahweh and there are Sons of Belial. Both shake their fist at God, but only one of them grow up within God’s covenant. That’s why they are cursed because for those who obey the covenant, there are blessings (Dt. 28:1-14) and for those sons of worthlessness who despise the wisdom of God, there are cursings (Dt. 28:15-68).

What does Belial teach about the covenant?

It is nearly impossible for American evangelicals to comprehend that the covenant would come to bear on the sons of Belial in this manner, or that sons of Belial would be in the covenant at all. This is because evangelicalism conceives of Christianity as a series of battles of the soul fought within. In most evangelical theology, the best the covenant can do is encourage people to a certain kind of behavior. The trouble is that Paul tells the New Covenant church at Corinth that they are dealing with Belial in their midst, that is, in their covenant midst (2 Cor. 6:15). Sons of Belial are not only an Old Covenant category. Hebrews 6:1-8 and 10:26-31 describe the fearful judgment awaiting those covenant members who sin deliberately.

Numbers 15:30-31 describes sinning with a high hand when it says, “But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. 31 Because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.” Sinning with a high hand has three parts: (A) reviling the Lord (The Hebrew word gā·ḏǎp̄ means blaspheming), (B) despising the Word of the Lord (The Hebrew word bā·zā means showing contempt), and (C) breaking God’s commandment (the context indicates that the person sins presumptuously). In sum, it is an “evil heart of unbelief” that results in “deserting the living God” (Heb. 3:12).

Hebrews 6:4-6 and Hebrews 10:26-31 are teaching that first, human beings can develop a hard heart (like the Scribes) such that they can no longer repent, and second, those who intentionally forsake Christ after sharing in the privileges of the covenant community are the most difficult people to restore to the faith. In John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, the man in the iron cage can’t get out, confessing, “I have so hardened my heart that I cannot repent.”

We are the people of the New Covenant, the new Israel, and there are still sons of Belial among us (Mt. 13:24-30; 36-43).[2] What does this teach us about the New Covenant? Paul tells us there is a certain efficacy to baptism such that they are united to Christ (Rom. 6:3). Jesus talks about a vine that has two types of branches, one that bears fruit and one that does not (John 15:2). If anyone does not bear fruit “he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:6). This parallels the “fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire” that we read about in Hebrews 10:27. To be united to Christ is to become part of the vine and receive the objective meaning of the covenant. The nature of the covenant doesn’t change when the sons of Belial fail to produce fruit. It’s just as efficacious to the sons of Belial as it is to the faithful. The cursing of the covenant goes to the sons of Belial (Heb. 10:29) and the blessing of the covenant goes to those who receive the covenant gift with faith.

The modern era centralized human subjectivity. A person’s relationship with God became inner rather than outer, subjective rather than objective. The mind became a sacred space and Sunday worship no longer was. The quiet time became a consecrated activity but the sacraments no longer were. Certainly, the evangelical emphasis on a personal relationship with God is one of the fruits of the modern era. But devaluing the objectivity of the covenant is the thorns.

This is why Paul says, “And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?” (2 Cor. 6:15 KJV) The answer is that once the attendant blessing and cursing of the covenant are applied, Christ breaks fellowship with Belial. So, Paul reasons, we must live like the temple of God.

For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,

“I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them,
    and I will be their God,
    and they shall be my people.
17 Therefore go out from their midst,
    and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing;
    then I will welcome you,
18 and I will be a father to you,
    and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
says the Lord Almighty.”

2 Cor. 6:16b-18 (ESV)


God doesn’t leave you to wonder whether or not you belong to Him. He comes to His people each week as the word and sacrament are given. He protects you from the ebb and flow of your subjective feelings and gives you the promise that He will walk among you and be your Father. When you sin, confess it to the Lord and repent. When you are corrected, receive it with humility. Walk in righteous paths and trust yourself to your faithful Heavenly Father. 

[1] [1] Payne, D. F. (1996). Belial. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 127). InterVarsity Press.


Published by Jason Cherry

Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call and The Making of Evangelical Spirituality (Wipf and Stock).