Home > Bible Study, church history, dispensationalism, doctrines, Genesis, historic events, Israel, John MacArthur > The “Dispensations” or Eras in Human History: Old Testament Reading

The “Dispensations” or Eras in Human History: Old Testament Reading


As a 21st century Calvinist Dispensationalist aka Futurist Premillennialist, I tend to emphasize the biblical covenants and de-emphasize the “seven dispensations” of classic dispensationalism.  Certainly within classic dispensationalism much (perhaps too much) has been made about the details of the seven dispensations.  The actual number of dispensations, or eras, really isn’t that important, and the lines and distinctions between some time periods are not always clear.  Yet in continual reading through the Old Testament, especially as I’m again in the book of Genesis in one of my genre reading lists, certain eras, or different time periods and ways God deals with man, do show up.

In the early chapters of Genesis, two significant judgments are given to all the population: Noah’s Flood, and then the Tower of Babel within a few generations afterward.  The details in these chapters include a progression in understanding and divine assistance to address a problem not mentioned in the previous era.  After all, during the antediluvian age Cain’s murder went unpunished – in fact, Cain was protected with a special mark.  The pre-flood era lasted approximately 1700 years and during that time we know that cities were established and even some technology developed, yet references to murder (Cain and his later descendant) are allowed without any restraint.  The biblical covenant with Noah addresses that very point, adding human government and capital punishment for murder (Genesis 9:5-6).

The tower of Babel incident, of course, showed the failure of human government: the people banded together (instead of obeying the command to spread abroad and subdue the earth) in an attempt to become more powerful in a concentrated group.  That was a great point brought out by John MacArthur in his Genesis series, that the scattering done by God in Genesis 11 was for mankind’s benefit and protection, to keep man from becoming so powerful as to become too oppressive, a restraint on the wicked to keep them from completely destroying the weak.

After the tower of Babel, of course, the rest of mankind is left alone, still with the basic post-flood understanding and human government, but scattered and literally forced to obey the “multiply and fill the earth” part of Genesis 9.  The “dispensation of promise” is therefore less obvious, dealing only with Abraham and his descendants for the next few generations.  Yet the later chapters in Genesis do show a moral decline from the time when the promises are given to Abraham, to the time of Jacob and his family, especially noted in the family favoritism and the dysfunctional family in which Joseph’s brothers sell Joseph into slavery – and we see the wonderful later result of full forgiveness and restoration of the family.  Still, one of the laws (among the many) I’ve noticed in reading through the Mosaic law, is the one that specifically addressed the problems in Jacob’s family: the prohibition against marrying two women who are sisters while both are still alive.

The age of law, the Mosaic covenant, similarly only dealt with a subset of the total population, though again on a much larger scale than the “age of promise,” a nation of several million people.  That age too ended like the earliest judgments of the flood and the Tower of Babel  (against a larger group of people), a prominent judgment: first the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., and then – though the age of law was resumed again for a few hundred years, though in a deficient form under Gentile authority – again and finally in A.D. 70.

As it has been said, the “dispensations” show the human side of history, whereas the biblical covenants show the Divine perspective.  Put together, though, it does help to keep in mind the particular events that did occur in human history through the Old Testament: how man responded in each time and situation, appreciating all the more the Divine help and progressive revelation given down through history and to our age.

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  1. February 19, 2013 at 12:49 pm

    Good post! I am with you up until the last paragraph. I am not sure that the statement concerning “human side” and “Divine perspective” regarding the dispensations and covenants respectively is something I would buy into. It does not seem to be a defensible resolution of their distinction or their relationship. Even as they are usually defined this idea seems “out of synch”. I am unsure of the original source for this statement, and do not want to nit pick, since the rest of your post definitely hit home with me.

    • February 19, 2013 at 1:00 pm

      Thanks, Jack. As to my last summary statement: that is just a way of expressing it that I’ve heard, particularly from S. Lewis Johnson. He often taught the biblical covenants associated with each of the dispensations and summed it up that way, the divine side (the biblical covenants) versus the human side of the new assistance added (to the human experience) in each dispensation/time period.

      • February 19, 2013 at 1:29 pm

        Well, now, you pulled out “The Big Gun” on me! I had the privilege of speaking with him a few times prior to his homegoing, but now I will have to wait until I catch up to him to discuss my issue with this understanding! 🙂 He has a way of getting me to agree with him though, so I have to prepare myself!

      • February 19, 2013 at 1:37 pm

        That must be nice, that you actually met S. Lewis Johnson. I never met him, and didn’t even know about him until a few years ago, after he had gone to be with the Lord. I look forward to meeting him when I catch up to him as well.

      • February 19, 2013 at 2:35 pm

        He had a great sense of humor. The first time I got to speak with him I was so honored at the opportunity, and I hung back until he was through speaking with everyone else. When I approached him with my question, he spoke first. He said my name, and then said that he had wanted to meet me for a long time. I was dumbfounded, and didn’t know what to say! How did he even know who I was? He got a twinkle in his eye, and I knew I had been taken in hook, line and sinker. He had seen my name tag! I wonder how many others he had done this to over the years. Probably one per conference, and this was my turn! We always enjoyed him. He was respected, loved and appreciated by all who had been blessed to sit at his feet whether it was In Texas or elsewhere in person, via tape ministry, or through his writings. And, of course, he still is! By the way, this funny incident took place at one of the John Bunyan Conferences in PA where he became an adopted “fixture” or beloved elder statesman. I heard him first at a Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.in 1979.

      • February 19, 2013 at 9:20 pm

        Lol, great story, and his type of humor, which sometimes came through in his sermons — nice to learn something of what he was like outside the pulpit. I’ve listened to the John Bunyan Conferences — at Fred Zaspel’s church (in Pennsylvania) as I recall.

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