Blessings and Curses, Deuteronomy 26:16-19, 28:58-68, 30:11-16

‘Blessings and Curses’ Deuteronomy 26:16-19; 28:58-68; 30:11-16 November 1, 1992

When we began this series of sermons on Deuteronomy last January, we took note of the fact that the entire book has a form or structure which corresponds to what is now known to have been the regular written form for certain types of international treaties or covenants in the ANE. God made use of this well-established treaty form for the revelation of his own covenant with Israel. The opening four chapters of historical review are like the historical prologue with which the ancient treaties would begin, summarizing the past relations of the two kings or kingdoms. In the ANE treaty form the historical prologue would be followed by general stipulations and then specific requirements. So, in Deuteronomy, in chapter 5 we have the ten commandments, and in subsequent chapters more detailed obligations of the covenant. We have been studying some of these over these past weeks. Then, after the laws or stipulations, comes a series of curses and blessings. If the king kept the treaty or covenant all these good things would happen to him; if he broke the treaty all these bad things would occur. And, in chapters 27-30, that is precisely what we find in Deuteronomy, in the covenant God is making, or, better, renewing with Israel.

In chapter 27 we find instructions given to Israel for a service of covenant ratification to be held when they have entered the promised land; the chief part of that service is to be the recital of the curses which God will visit upon Israel should she prove disloyal to him and to his covenant with her. In chapter 28 we have a more specific summary of the blessings God would bestow upon his people, if they are faithful to his covenant, and the curses he would visit upon them if they were unfaithful. The blessings and curses are summarized again in chapters 29 and 30 with appeals to God’s people to prove themselves faithful to the Lord.

Deuteronomy alters the order of the ANE treaties in a very interesting way. In the treaties the order is always curses first, then blessings. But here in Deuteronomy and elsewhere the blessings come first, before the curses. How appropriate a reversal for a God of grace and mercy! On the other hand, the curses are more numerous than the blessings and take up far more space. That is also the case in the treaties. [Kitchen, AOAOT, pp. 97-98n.] It is at least an indication of the fact that God is not averse to prodding us to do good by warning us of the consequences of evil. Parents take note!

The blessings and curses themselves — as given in chapter 28 and summarized in the passages we read — have mostly to do with Israel’s life in the promised land. If they remain faithful to the Lord they will prosper. They will have many healthy children, their fields will produce magnificently, they will rule over the surrounding nations and be ruled by none. Contrarily, if they betray God and his covenant, mothers’ wombs will be closed, harvests will be blighted, illness will run riot in the land, Israel’s enemies will gain the upper-hand, and finally, Israel will actually be drummed out of the promised land itself.

Now, it is very important that all of these blessings and curses be understood in their context, in their covenantal context and in the context of the whole of Holy Scripture. It would be easy enough to misunderstand them and they have often enough been misunderstood for just this reason. It is their context which determines the meaning of these blessings and curses and as well their application to our lives today. Let me show you what I mean.

First, the context of the blessings and curses is the covenant which God has made with his people and so they are addressed to the church. They are a message for God’s people. These blessings and curses are not addressed to the world. It is not to the Amorites or Egyptians or Philistines that the Lord was speaking when he published these blessings and curses. He was speaking to his people, to the church of God. The blessings and curses come only after the recital of God’s history with his people, of the grace he has lavished upon them, of his calling them out of the world to be his own people, of his redeeming them from their bondage, of his bringing them into fellowship with himself. The blessings and curses come only after the laws of God are set out — such laws as these: ‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain’ and ‘you must show kindness to the alien because I showed kindness to you when you were slaves in Egypt.’

Most definitely the Lord is not saying to the world, “Here is my deal: ‘if you keep these various commands, I will bless you and do you every kind of good.'” He is speaking rather to his children, his people, his family and is saying to them: ‘I love you and I want you to love me. If you respond to the grace and the love I have shown you with a thankful and faithful life, then I will bless and honor you in many ways. But if, on the contrary, you despise my gifts and dishonor my name and show no reverence for me, your Heavenly Father, then I will cast you away. I saved you that you might be holy. And if you will not be holy, then you cannot remain my people or enjoy the blessings of my favor.’

This is the way the Bible always speaks to the people of God. And it must speak this way, because there are always those who belong to the church in an outward way only. They have not been born again, their hearts have not been circumcised, as Moses puts it in 30:6. Don’t suppose, the Lord is saying to them, that a merely outward membership in the covenant community is enough. ‘Not all who are descended form Israel are Israel,’ is Paul’s way of putting it. God’s blessing and his salvation are given only to those who respond to his love with a love of their own, and who demonstrate that love with a life of faithfulness to God’s Law.

What is more, these blessings and curses are one of the ways in which God keeps his true sons and daughters loyal to him. Like any wise parent, he promises to reward what is good in their lives and punish what is evil and, because they love and revere their father, they take both these promises and warnings to heart and live as God would have them live. He is being what we all understand to be a kind, caring, concerned and loving parent to children who have a penchant to be wayward and need help to live the way that will be best for themselves.

You will never understand, you will never respond to these blessings and curses in the right way unless and until you regard them for what they are in their covenantal context. These are the promises and the admonitions of a heavenly father who has already proved himself to love his people with a perfect love, has already redeemed them from bondage to sin and death, has already delighted to show them mercy after mercy, kindness after kindness, and has already, in defiance of their great and terrible sins made them to be his very own sons and daughters.

There are Christians, alas, who from chapters such as these, and especially all the verses devoted to the curses, come to think of the Christian life as some heavy task to perform, some difficult work that must be done just in order not to get hammered with some heaven-sent punishment. What a weary thing such a Christian life would be! But that entirely misses the point! That is to think and to behave as little children do who pout and sulk because their parents refuse to let them grab the pan on the stove top while the soup is boiling in it. They cannot see the love in the warning!

These blessings and curses are the true measure of his love, and care, and interest in our welfare. They are the farthest thing from a system of salvation by works or even from some bare list of rewards and punishments for certain behaviors. They are the counsel of our heavenly father who seeks our good above all else.

Second, the context of these blessings and curses is the whole Bible’s way of speaking of gain and loss in the spiritual life and so refer to much more than temporal and worldly prosperity. These are the blessings of the spiritual life and the curses of alienation from God under the figure of earthly gain or loss. It can sometimes trouble believers that God here promises such earthly blessings to those who prove faithful to his covenant. Large families, large harvests, good health, political and military security, and the like are the blessings here promised. Should he not instead have promised such things as peace and purity of heart, the nearness of God, and eternal joy in the world to come?

Of course, those things are promised to those who trust and obey the Lord; and in the context of the Bible, we ought to take these promises of earthly prosperity as containing in themselves and pointing to the more spiritual blessings which God pours out on those who love him. God does, of course, reward his faithful children with many earthly benefits and we ought not to despise them. Though even here such promises are only generalities. The Bible teaches clearly enough that a very faithful Christian can suffer ill-health or financial reverses which are in no way the curse or punishment of God.

But all through the Bible, the physical and the earthly is taken to stand for the spiritual and the heavenly — I’m sure in large part because we respond better to what we can see, touch, and taste. The faithful in OT days understood well enough — the author of Hebrews reminds us — that the promised land, Canaan, stood for the blessings of eternal life and the heavenly country. When God spoke to them of their earthly life in the promised land he was saying much more to them about spiritual good and heaven. They knew that. The Lord Jesus spoke the same way and we understand him well enough. He promised to those who sacrifice houses and fields for his sake that they would receive in this life one hundred times as many houses and fields. But he was not speaking literally of houses and fields. The apostles, for example, who had made such sacrifices of property and earthly possessions, did not finish their lives as wealthy landowners. When Paul tells the children of the church in Ephesus that they should honor their parents so that it might go well with them and so that they might enjoy a long life on the earth, he did not mean that all faithful children would live to 75 or 80 years of age. The outward blessing — which God does give as a general rule — is still more important as a sign or pledge of the unseen and everlasting blessings God gives to those he loves.

Even God’s people can forget that, like the writer of Psalm 73, who found himself wishing for more earthly prosperity. He had finally to remember that the knowledge of God and his love was a thousand promised lands and all the wealth this world could ever offer.

Third, the context of these blessings and curses is the promise of continued forgiveness and restoration to all who are truly penitent. If you read these blessings and curses in isolation from the rest of Deuteronomy and the rest of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, you might think that if anyone failed to keep one of the many commandments of the law, some very bad thing would befall him or her. One might think that this is one massive scheme of ‘tit for tat.’ Do good get some good, do bad get it in the neck.

But no one could think that who had read and believed all that had gone before. No one can think that who has read of God’s patience with his people, of his willingness, over and again, to forgive their sins when they confess them, of the elaborate system of sacrificial worship which he established for Israel to demonstrate his willingness to forgive sins on the strength of the sacrifice that someday would be made for them — the sacrifice of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ!

And when you read the narrative of Israel’s history which follows in the remainder of the Bible, it is the same. The curses do not befall the godly who stumble, even when they stumble again and again. True penitence always leads to true forgiveness. And even in the case of those in Israel who had no living faith and no circumcised heart, it was not for one sin or two or one hundred that the curses were finally visited upon them, but for a lifetime of disregard for the word and grace of God, for an intransigent refusal to respond to God’s mercy and love, for a determined preference for tli e falsehoods of the world rather than the truth of God. After all, though Israel as a whole community forsook the Lord in a permanent way quite soon after entering the promised land, it was not for most of a thousand years before she was actually driven from the promised land as God had warned her she would if she betrayed his covenant with her.

The Scripture says many times and in many ways that the Lord delights to show mercy. It never once says that he delights to punish or to condemn, though his justice requires that he do so eventually. These blessings and curses are not co-equal, they are not on a par. The blessings come at once and lavishly. The curses come only at the last, only when every effort made to reclaim the rebel has come to nothing. It is true that God will not be mocked. Whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap. But it is also true that there is forgiveness with God, that he may be feared; that he separates our sins as far from us as the east is from the west, that, in Christ our sins are remembered no more, are buried in the deepest sea, and trampled under God’s feet. In any Christian’s life there is much more than enough to justify the execution of every curse written here. But no curse befalls us, because where sin abounds, grace much more abounds.

This is his point in 30:11-14. ‘The Word is near you, in your heart.’ God is not asking the impossible of you. He is not requiring more than you can give him. His grace will make up what is lacking. All that he asks is that you love him and treasure his Word. No great and impossible feats, just love him and treasure his Word.

So think of these blessings and curses in their whole covenantal and biblical context: as the loving counsel of your heavenly father, as the promise of things far greater than earthly gain or loss, and as a statement of God’s intention to respond not to individual acts and moments of one’s life, but to the entire character and commitment of one’s life.

The Scripture says that the Lord will withhold no good thing from those who love him. But one must really love him — not perfectly, of course, but really. That is the message of the blessings and curses. Those of you who consider yourself as a part of the Christian church, but do not in any serious way demonstrate that you love the Lord and his grace and salvation as the most cherished possessions of your life, you should take great warning from these chapters. God is patient, he does not rush to judgment; but his judgment is sure and when it falls upon those who have betrayed his covenant it is swift and severe.

But for those of us who love the Lord in truth, and who mourn all our failures to love him more perfectly, what do these passage say except that, as it is put in the letter to the Hebrews, ‘God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him…’

What this long passage at the end of Deuteronomy is saying to us is this: this is the Word and the covenant of the living God. Take it seriously! Believe it and practice it! Let nothing dissuade you from it or deflect you from keeping it. It is the Word of God! Love him and treasure his Word.

Thomas Goodwin, the great Puritan theologian and pastor, tells of once, as a young man, going to hear the fiery Puritan preacher John Rogers of Dedham. His subject that day was the Scriptures and whether the people were taking them seriously. [Packer, A Quest for Godliness, pp. 97-98.]

…Mr. Rogers was…on the subject of…the Scriptures. And in that sermon he falls into an expostulation with the people about their neglect of the Bible;…he personates God to the people, telling them, ‘Well, I have trusted you so long with my Bible; you have slighted it, it lies in such and such houses all covered with dust and cobwebs; you care not to listen to it. Do you use my Bible so? Well, you shall have my Bible no longer.’ And he takes up the Bible from his cushion, and seemed as if he were going away with it and carrying it from them; but immediately turns again and personates the people to God, falls down on his knees, cries and pleads most earnestly, ‘Lord, whatever thou dost to us, take not thy Bible from us; kill our children, bum our houses, destroy our goods; only spare us thy Bible, only take not away thy Bible.’ And then he personates God again to the people: ‘Say you so? Well, I will try you a while longer; and here is my Bible for you. I will see how you will use it, whether you will love it more…observe it more…practice it more, and live more according to it.’ By these actions (as the doctor told me) he put all the congregation into so strange a posture that…the place was a mere Bochim, the people generally…deluged with their own tears; and he told me that he himself, when he got out…was fain to hang a quarter of an hour upon the neck of his horse weeping before he had power to mount…

Oh, that magnificent promises and solemn warnings of God’s Word would work such a result in us!