This morning I want to draw your attention to the remarkable promise of blessing which the Lord makes to his people if they walk faithfully and obediently before him. If they are faithful to his covenant, he says, he will make their lives rich and happy in every way. They will enjoy good health themselves; no one will be childless. Their farms will prosper and they will become very successful, while all their enemies will suffer ruin. It is a dramatic passage, is it not, in its extravagance and in the absence of all qualification or limitation.
In recent years a great deal more attention has been paid to such passages as these by a variety of different Christians. We know, of course, of the preachers of what has come to be called ‘the prosperity gospel.’ The more crass of these we have heard the most about: those who are willing to say that the Lord wants all Christians to drive a Mercedes Benz or some similarly expensive car and to be healthy and well-to-do. But there are other exponents of the general idea who would be much more moderate. Even in the Reformed church, for example, among some of those aligned with the Christian Reconstruction movement, there has been a great interest in preaching such passages as these and drawing from the lesson that when things are done God’s way in a society or an economy prosperity will follow.
What are we to do with such a passage as this? What is the Lord promising us and what does such a promise mean for the church today?
First of all, we cannot dodge the question, as some Christians have sought to do, by supposing that this way of speaking is somehow peculiar to the OT and that in the present epoch the Lord doesn’t make such promises of earthly and physical prosperity. Usually that view is accompanied by the assumption that this kind of promise in the OT is a mark of its inferiority. Back then believers were more interested in physical blessings; but today we Christians are to have our hearts set upon the spiritual world, the higher things that the ancient church but dimly saw.
Let us begin by getting that prejudice out of our minds. That view of the matter can be disproved in several ways, but perhaps most simply by pointing out that very similar statements to this one in Deuteronomy 7 are made in the NT, even by the Lord Christ himself. Whatever questions we may have about a promise like this one we have read in Deuteronomy, they apply with equal force to, say, this statement of the Lord Jesus from Mark l 0: ‘I tell you the truth, no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive one hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields…) and in the age to come, eternal life.’
Sell a piece of land and use the proceeds to support the Lord’s work in the world, and you’ll get one hundred pieces of land from him in return. That is the New Testament, not the Old. These are obviously important promises so often repeated and so emphatically made in Scripture. How exactly are we to understand them and how are we to embrace them and how are we to trust the Lord to keep them? Well, I think we are to believe them completely and build our lives on them, but we must do so understanding them in their context in the whole of Holy Scripture and in the whole of God’s covenant with his people. Let me show you in three points how such sweeping promises of blessing are understood and explained in the Bible.
First, in the most literal sense these words — this promise of blessing for covenant faithfulness — are true as a generality. The fact of the matter is that, as a general rule, those who live godly lives by a living faith in the Lord and by careful and scrupulous obedience to his commands do prosper and prosper in the very kinds of ways that are mentioned here in Deuteronomy 7.
This is the constant theme of the Book of Proverbs. A man who lives faithfully and responsibly before the Lord, will say and do those things which make for a fruitful life, whether one is thinking about relationships or business or good health. It is a simple fact often and everywhere to be observed. Christian people over time are usually prosperous people who do well in life. The English Puritans, for example, became a very prosperous people as a direct consequence of their faithfulness to the way of life and ethics taught in Holy Scripture, which they embraced because they loved and trusted the Lord.
A faithful member of God’s covenant community, who has by the grace of God, come to trust the Lord and commit himself to the Word of God, will be an honest man, and a hard-working man, and a kindly and generous man, and a man who sees life as rich with opportunity and possibility because it is under the rule of his Father in heaven. Such a man as a rule does well in this world and finds great reward in it.
What is more, even whole economies and societies which are built in some measure on principles and ethics which approximate those taught in God’s Word do much better than those which are not.
So, in the first place, we can certainly say, that as a generality, the Lord’s promise here, extravagant as it sounds, is literally true. As a generality, I say. For there is still much more be said before we have placed such a promise as this in its Biblical and covenantal context.
Second, this promise of great blessing for covenantal faithfulness is also true in the sense that the physical blessings mentioned here, as often in Scripture, represent spiritual blessings, or better, the general blessedness of God’s people who live under his favor and smile. The great problem posed by such promises as this one in Deuteronomy 7:12-16 or its NT equivalent such as the Lord’s statement in Mark 10:29-30 is, of course, that the Bible itself bears abundant witness to the fact that godly and righteous people, people the Bible itself identifies and faithful to the Lord, do not enjoy such a wealth of worldly riches and reward, and, often, experience the reverse.
Sometimes it is for a time that a godly man undergoes great tribulation and must walk very heavily in this world, such as Job. But often the faithful of the Lord have lived their whole lives in comparative poverty, suffering trials of various kinds. What is more, contrary to the expectation of vv. 14-15, the Scripture itself more than once raises the problem that the wicked seem to enjoy a greater prosperity than the righteous. How are we to reconcile this fact with the promise we have here before us in Deuteronomy 7?
The Scripture itself points the way to a proper understanding. Very often the blessings of salvation, the far greater blessings of peace with God, the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and the joy of salvation and communion with the Lord are represented under the figure of physical prosperity. When we read in v. 13, for example, of wine and oil being the blessing of the Lord, we are reminded how many times in the Scripture wine and oil are symbols of happiness and joy and fulfilment in life. When Job recollects the happy period of his life in Job 29:4-6 he puts it this way: ‘Oh for the days when God’s intimate friendship blessed my house, when the Almighty was still with me and my children were all around me, when my path was drenched with cream and the rock poured out for me streams of olive oil.’
He is not speaking of actual oil, which does not come from a rock, but using oil as a figure of happiness and fullness of life. Or when in Isaiah speaks of the ‘oil of joy’ in speaking of the time of the Lord’s favor, we again understand that oil is there a symbol or figure of happiness.
A better example of the way in which physical blessings are figures of spiritual ones is furnished in Psalm 73. You remember that Psalm; it is all about this very problem which we are considering. The Psalm-writer begins by confessing that his faith had been seriously shaken by the fact that he began to consider in an envious way the fact that the wicked and the unbelieving seemed to be doing better in the world than he was and other righteous people were. It began more and more to trouble him that in a world supposedly under the supreme control of the true God, his God, the Lord’s own people did not seem to be faring as well as those who spurned the Lord and made a mockery of his commandments. How could that be? And the more he thought about it and the more he stared at the wealth and prosperity of the wicked, the more he envied them and the more and more he gave himself over to doubts about the truth of God’s Word and the truth about God himself. He was in this state of doubt and declining spiritual commitment for some time, long enough that, by his own confession, he came close to throwing over his faith and joining the world.
And then, by the intervention of the Lord, he went to the Lord’s house one Sabbath day to worship, as had always been his custom. And that day, in that worship service, the Lord met him, and whether it was the hymns that were sung or the sermon that was preached or in answer to his own prayers, the Lord drew near and wrote the truth once again upon that poor man’s heart. And particularly this truth: that you cannot judge a man’s condition by his present circumstances in this world. You have to consider the future and the judgment of God. ‘Then I understood their end,’ is the way this man put it. He came away from the house of the Lord rebuking himself for having forgotten such an elementary fact — that no man is more miserable than the one who does not even realize that what he now has is soon to be taken from him and he is about to fall under the wrath of God; and no man so happy as he who knows that — whatever his circumstances in the world may be at the moment, he is loved by God. And he walked away from church that day with his head waters and his heart aflame with renewed love for the Lord and joy in his great salvation.
And you remember how that Psalm then ends. This man knows once again that the Lord himself and the Lord’s love is infinitely greater blessing than anything this world can ever supply, and so he says: ‘Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.’
What does that mean: ‘my portion forever.’ The word is usually used with respect to earthly things; often it is used with respect to the land of Canaan and the portion of it which any Israelite received as his inheritance. The man who wrote Psalm 73 was a Levite, and in the law certain parts of the offerings of meat and other food which Israelites would bring to the tabernacle or later the temple were specified as the Levite’s portion. Mostly the term refers to a person’s share of the things of this world. But this man is saying, I would much rather have the Lord than land, much rather his love coursing in my heart than earthly wealth or prosperity. If the Lord is my inheritance and my wealth, he is saying, I have no reason to envy anyone, no matter how rich and how successful he may be as the world measures such things.
And what is true here, is true in the NT as well. We read the Lord’s promise that if a man gave up things for the Lord he would get in this world one hundred times as much — whether houses or fields or children. But the apostles gave up everything for the Lord and, so far as anyone knows, not a one of them was a wealthy landowner by the end of his life. But, they were incalculably rich in other things: if not houses of wood and stone and brick, houses made of living stones, the people of God whom, by their preaching, they had gathered into churches all across the world. If not physical children, spiritual children in great numbers. If not earthly fame, a name that would forever be great in the kingdom of God.
It is not at all difficult to see how from the beginning, when the Lord promised physical blessings, he meant much more than that, and that any deeply spiritual man or woman would want and seek more than that.
Third, and finally, this promise of great blessing for covenantal faithfulness is also true in the sense that it will eventually be perfectly fulfilled, in even the most literal way, in the life of God’s faithful people in the world to come. At the moment Deuteronomy 7 was written, Israel was poised on the brink of entering the promised land. But Canaan itself was not only a fertile and beautiful land which God had given his people and in which they would prosper as farmers and keepers of flocks. It also represented their spiritual inheritance, the blessings of the eternal promised land. A great point of this is made in the NT in the Letter to the Hebrews, and especially in chapter 11. There we read that Canaan was never as significant as a piece of real estate as it was as a figure, an enacted prophecy of the heavenly country which God’s people, by faith, were heading towards.
The church has always understood this and thought and spoken accordingly. When black slaves in the American South sung: ‘I looked over Jordan and what did I see, comin’ for to carry me home?’ Nobody mistook the meaning of that song about death and about going to heaven. And when William Williams’ great hymn, ‘Guide me O Thou Great Jehovah’ is sung, with its lines:
When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of death, and hell’s destruction, land me safe on Canaan’s side…
No one mistook the reference to heaven and to the heavenly country of which Canaan was a type or prefigurement. There not only will God’s people receive all the greater pleasures of sinlessness and the most near and intimate knowledge of God, but also the very physical prosperity, luxury, and unending health and well-being that is promised in Deuteronomy 7.
So, I say, taken in its whole context in Scripture, this extravagant promise that is made to us in Deuteronomy 7 is to be understood as a general promise of prosperity for those who trust and obey the Lord; a promise of still far greater blessings of the soul and heart which are figured and represented by these physical blessings spoken of, and a promise of literal and complete fulfilment and prosperity of life in the world to come, in the true and eternal promised land.
Now, then, how do you respond to these words? Do you believe them? Do you believe that the Lord so delights to bless and favor his children who seek to honor and obey him? Do believe that he will always greatly reward those who diligently seek him, as the Scripture so often says? Do you really? Are the choices you make day by day predicated, based on your conviction that what God will give you for faithfulness to him will always vastly surpass what you could get for yourself if you sought your own pleasure, success, or prosperity? Is it obvious to those who watch you, that what is supremely important to you is to love and serve the Lord and that you care little for what the world might give you if only you might have the Lord’s smile upon your life and the blessing he promises to give to those who prove faithful to him? Do you invest your money, your time, your effort, according to this promise in Deuteronomy 7 and many others like it in Holy Scripture, or do you seek first the other things and give only partial and divided attention to the Kingdom of God?
I have told you before of William Burns, the Scottish minister whose preaching as a young man ushered in the great revival in Scotland in 1839 and who was such a close and honored friend of Robert Murray McCheyne and the Bonar brothers. Burns was a great preacher and had been powerfully used of God for those several years of revival and could have taken one of Scotland’s great pulpits and held it for the rest of his life. But, answering God’s call, he left everything for China and missionary work there. He suffered through many difficult years there but also bore much fruit, both in leading many folk to Christ and in having such a grand influence on other missionaries, Hudson Taylor among them. As a colleague in China wrote after his death: ‘ …he left the impress of his character and piety wherever he went. Missionaries felt it, and blessed God for even a casual acquaintance with William Burns; converts felt it, and have been heard to say, that they got their idea of what the Savior was on earth from the holy calm, and warm love, and earnest zeal of Mr Burns’ walk with God.’
Here was a man who kept the laws and commandments of God with faithfulness and zeal if any man ever did. Did he receive then the promise which God had made in Deuteronomy 7:12-18. Was his a prosperous life?
Well, in one sense not! After his death in China his worldly goods were sent home to Scotland and when the single box was opened by his relatives there the sum total of his earthly possessions was found to be: two shirts, one pair of trousers, his Bible, one other book, and a Chinese flag. Not much to show for a lifetime, …or is it?
His homes? Such was he loved that he would have been the most honored guest in homes the world over. His fields? All of Christian Scotland loved him and mourned his passing. And there were many in China who, humanly speaking, owed their very souls to William Burns. Indeed, the last four of his converts were virtually the fruit of his deathbed. And we can see them, his spiritual children, laying their father in that far away Manchurian grave.
The simple questions are these? To whom would God have shown the greatest favor: William Burns or someone who sought and found success as this world measures it, in accumulated property and wealth? And which life and which blessing do you desire for yourself?
William Burns sought to serve God and God blessed and honored him greatly for it. He would tell you himself, with earnest conviction in his voice and a twinkle in his eye that no one deserved less or received more than himself. And he would scoff at the thought that he might have spent his life accumulating money! ‘Whom have I in heaven but the Lord,’ he would have said, ‘and having the Lord I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.’
Do you doubt God’s promise? Are you unsure that he really will bless you so richly, so extravagantly both now and forever if you seek to love and serve him only?
Is this your question:
Finding, following, keeping, struggling, Is he sure to bless?
Well, brothers and sisters:
Saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs, Answer, “Yes!”