17 And this I say, that the law, which was four hundred and thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect.
18 For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no longer of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise.
And this I say (v.17) = And this I mean. Paul is about to explain what he just said in verses 15-16.
This statement of time “four hundred and thirty years,” is another ground on which Paul has been severely criticized. It is affirmed that he is here guilty of carelessness or of inaccuracy. As the sojourn of Israel in Egypt covered some four hundred years, it is evident that the time between Abraham and Moses must have been much longer.
One possible explanation is worthy of consideration. Reference is here made to “the promise,” by which it may fairly be inferred that Paul has in mind the repetition to the patriarchs of the promise first made to Abraham. This covenant promise is said to have been “confirmed … by God,” as indeed it was again and again. At the time that Jacob and his children were leaving Canaan for the long sojourn in Egypt, God confirmed His promise to the patriarch. The identical words are used which were first spoken to Abraham (Genesis 12:2; 46:2-3). It may not be unreasonable to suppose that it was from such a time, at which the promise was confirmed, that Paul is measuring the interval which extends to the giving of the law at Sinai. — The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians, by Charles R. Erdman, page 69.
covenant (v.17) — The Greek word translated “covenant” does not mean a joint obligation. It means an obligation assumed by one — a promise (as it is translated in verses 16 and 18). God’s promise to Abraham had no conditions attached. Circumcision was a token to show he accepted and remembered the promise (and there was punishment for not being circumcised) but it didn’t alter the promise.
confirmed before by God — The promise was given in Genesis 12 and confirmed by the vision of the furnace and torch (Genesis 15), Isaac (Genesis 21) and God’s oath (Genesis 22).
that it should (v.17) = with a view to. God did not give the law for the purpose of making the promise void.
inheritance (v.18) — what was promised
no longer of promise (v.18) — If the inheritance is given because of adherence to the law (in abstract, as a principle), then nobody can receive it as a gift.
gave (v.18) = has given (still in force) by an act of grace, unconditionally
The emphasis in verse 18 is on God. If law annulled the promise, God’s character (His word and oath) had failed.
When the law was given and God said, “If you obey this law and keep it perfectly, then you shall be my people,” what should the people of Israel have answered? They should have said, “Lord, on this basis none of us can be saved, because we cannot keep that law perfectly. Have mercy upon us. Surely you will not break your promise.”
But in their pride and folly the people all exclaimed together, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8). “Yes, we will keep His covenant. We will keep the law.”
Before Moses arrived down from the mountain with the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, the people of Israel were dancing like pagans around a golden calf, and Egyptian god. Moses reminded them that they were the only nation that ever heard the voice of God speaking to them. The mount of Sinai was engulfed in smoke, it quivered and shook, and the people backed away: “And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord they God … Thous shalt have no other gods before Me!” (Exodus 20:1-3).
God enunciated those Ten Commandments, and the poeple said, “Everything He says we will do.” But before Moses could return they had broken the first commandment. so soon did god have opportunity to show them the impossibility of justification by the law.
If God did not mean to enforce the law, why did He make this covenant with Israel? Galatians 3:19, begins to answer — “It was added because of transgressions.”
“By the law is the knowledge of sin” and it was given “that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful” (Romans 3:20; 7:13). In Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, God is driving them back to the promise, to faith. This is what God had in mind all the while, as we saw in Galatians 3:13 concerning the futility of salvation by good works. God was not playing games. It was at infinite cost that He made provision for the payment of sin. When God gave the law, which was bound to break fellowship between Him and Israel, He immediately began to make arrangements for a Tabernacle where He could restore fellowship with Israel. Now there is a paradox! He said, “If you will obey my voice in deed, then you will be my special people,” but they did not obey, so He made plans for a Tabernacle where He could meet with them in fellowship!
“And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). Why? We see an inkling in the fact that the first article of furniture for the Tabernacle was the Ark. The word “ark” is simply the word “coffin.” It is translated “coffin” in the last verse of Genesis. So, when God commanded the building of a tabernacle, the first thing He said was “Make Me a coffin.” Why a coffin?
“And thou shalt put into the coffin the testimony [that is, the law] which I shall give thee” (Exodus 25:16).
God immediately put the law in a coffin. On top of the coffin was the blood-sprinkled mercy seat. There God said, “I will meet with My people.” The law in a coffin! God later nailed the law to the cross.
“Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to His cross” (Colossians 2:14). — Studies in Galatians, by Cornelius R. Stam, page 169-171.