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Sermon preached on Deuteronomy 28 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 10/31/2010 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“But No One Will Buy You”
When I first thought about preaching Deuteronomy, this is one of the passages I was looking forward to getting to. It’s a passage that is so helpful for us in understanding the Old Testament. It helps us to understand how many of the Jews stumbled over the law, trying to earn their way to heaven. It’s also a passage that’s often misunderstood today by those who’d fall into what’s known as the health and wealth gospel, or prosperity theology. We’ll think about these two wrong approaches to this passage today. We’ll instead see how this passage not only teaches us God’s heart for obedience and faithfulness to him, it also points us forward to the work of Christ and the blessings that we have through faith in him.
Let’s begin today by thinking in general about the blessings and curses as presented here. Remember that Deuteronomy is a book about covenant renewal. The covenant was made 40 years before at Mount Sinai with the previous generation. That generation had died off, wandering in the wilderness. Now this next generation was about to enter into the Promised Land; a land that was supposed to be a land of blessing, with Israel living out God’s covenant. Just before this next generation of Israelites enters the land, he renews them in the covenant. At this point in the book of Deuteronomy, we’ve seen the typical elements of a covenant renewal ceremony: a historical prologue between the two parties: God and Israel; the stipulations of the covenant, namely the law; and now we have the sanctions of the covenant: blessing and curses held out. The people would be blessed as they kept the covenant. They’d be cursed, if they didn’t.
Look at the nature of these blessings and curses. They are earthly, physical blessings, and earthly, physical curses. The blessings are given in verses 1-14. The curses are given in verses 15-68. Just surveying some of the blessings, you’ll see this earthly, physical, nature coming out. Verse 3, blessing in both the city and the country. Verse 4 and 5, describe both agricultural blessings and reproductive blessings. There are blessings here that guarantee their military victories against any nation that would rise up against them, such as verse 7 and 10. When you survey these blessings, you recognize that there’s a focus here especially on the land. Remember, they were coming into the Promised Land. These blessings, these prosperities, would come for them inside the Promised Land. Verse 11, for example, talks about the prosperity that comes from the land given to them, just as God had sworn to the forefathers. This is about every form of prosperity that could take place for them, in and through the Promised Land. Of course, these are blessings being promised by their covenant Lord; these are to be God given blessings.
The curses listed here are of a similar nature. All the blessings that were promised are found reversed by the curse. And yet, the curse section is about six times longer than the blessing section, really emphasizing the dire warning here. That’s not actually too surprising however; many other similar sort of ancient covenant documents that archeologists have found, also have a much similar balance; many more curses spoken in contrast to the blessings. Here the curses are also tied up especially with the land. Not only would the people themselves physically be afflicted, but even the land would suffer famine and not produce; verse 23 for example. As we read, the curses were terrifying. Some brought to mind the same sorts of things the Egyptians faced in the Ten Plagues (verses 35 and 42, for example). But the height of these threatened curses is that the people would be destroyed and removed from the Promised Land, by a foreign nation. Verse 36 records that this would be by a nation that they’ve not known. Of course, this would come to pass; Israel would be destroyed and exiled, some of them by the Assyrians, and then the rest of them by the Babylonians. Verse 49 says they’d recognize this when God brings a nation whose language they’d not understand. A foreign power would come to destroy them. At first they’d be put to siege by this nation, verse 52. This would result in the horrors of cannibalism among the besieged Israelites, verses 53-57. Look at verse 64. The result would be that they would be scattered among all the peoples, throughout the whole earth. In verse 65, instead of finding rest in the Promised Land, they’d find no rest, scattered throughout all the world. And so the curses described here escalate in their severity. The initial curses just talk about it going really bad for them in the Promised Land; things like famine, and sickness, and poverty. The most extreme curses, however, result in their destruction as a nation, their being captured, deported, and scattered in exile, among all the nations. Again, these are all earthly, physical, curses, especially connected with the Promised Land.
What I’d like to specifically call to your attention now about these blessing and curses is their conditional nature. They are conditioned on obedience to the law. Repeatedly this chapter makes that point. To the degree they kept the law of God in the Land, they would be blessed in these earthly, physical, ways. To the degree that they didn’t, they’d be cursed. Over and over again this point is made here. That’s how this chapter opens in verses 1-2: all these blessings will come upon them if they diligently and carefully keep all God’s commandments. Look at verse 9 as well; it repeats that same point again; their special status is conditioned upon obedience. Verses 13-14 end the section with the same condition, telling them to avoid going after other gods. So at the start, middle, and end of the section on blessings, it’s all conditioned on their obedience to the law.
On the other hand, this passage repeatedly says that the curses would fall upon them due to disobedience. Verse 15 starts out the curse section that way. If they don’t obey God’s laws, then all these curses will come upon them, and overtake them. Again in verse 45, it says that all these curses would come upon them, to the point of their destruction, because of lack of obedience to God’s commands. Again in verse 47, these curses are a result of them not serving God. One more time in verses 58-59, all these curses are a result of them not carefully observing the law and fearing God’s glorious name.
You’ll notice that these conditions especially take on a national character. In last chapter, we saw curses based on an individual person’s actions. Individuals that sinned, would be cursed. But the tone of this chapter is more corporate. When drought and famine hits, it’s more than just individual. When plagues and disease strip through the land, it’s more than just individual. When a foreign nation comes and destroys the people, it’s a national consequence. This chapter really views Israel’s obedience or disobedience on a corporate level. To the degree as a nation that they obeyed, they’d received national blessings. To the degree as a nation that they disobeyed, they’d receive national curses. Looking forward in Israel’s history, that’s what we see. In the time of the judges and the time of the kings, when the nations and its leaders lived godly, things went well for them; when they disobeyed, things didn’t go well. They found themselves ultimately afflicted by the other nations around them when they did that. Finally, as we know, Israel was destroyed and exiled as God threatened here.
So this is a survey of the point of this passage. God made a covenant with them, and was calling them to seek obedience to the covenant laws. He says, that if they did, they’d find blessing, and if they didn’t, they’d find curses. So let’s turn now to think about how many Jews misunderstood this. We see this misunderstanding in Romans 9:32. It says there that Israel pursued the law of righteousness, but didn’t attain it. Paul explains why. Because they approached it by works, and not by faith. And so Paul says that when Christ came, they stumbled over him. They were offended by him. That’s because they failed to understand the law properly. They didn’t fully grasp the significance of a passage like Deuteronomy 28.
You see, it would be easy for a Jew to read this chapter back then and have a legalistic, moralistic, outlook on life. They could become zealous for outward conformity to the law, and puff themselves up over how well they keep it compared to others. In other words, they could get the mentality that they can earn all these blessings by their own merits and strength. They can strive to keep these and look back with pride and give themselves the credit.
But that attitude of course misses something important. It misses grace. It misses faith. You see, what did every human being deserve after Adam and Eve fell into sin? From that day forward, every human deserves death; they deserve God’s curse. All humans are born into sin and sin themselves. So for God to offer sinners the chance to even keep his laws and receive blessings, is an aspect of grace. It’s grace for God to even give this offer of blessings to Israel. He hadn’t made this offer to all the other nations. This was an offer to them. They should recognize the grace even in the opportunity.
But then they should recognize that they needed God’s grace to keep these laws. They were sinners who struggled with sin, just like ever person. They should be praying for strength from above to keep his laws. If then they did keep them, and receive blessings, they should give God the credit. They should recognize his grace. They should have had faith in God to uphold them and grow them in obedience.
But then they should have also recognized how they didn’t keep all God’s laws perfectly. When that happened, and God showed them great patience, they should recognize grace again. Paul says in Galatians that this should have pointed them to have faith in the coming Christ. In other words, Israel should have humbly recognized that they couldn’t keep these laws perfectly; that they needed the forgiveness that would come from the Messiah, and they needed the righteousness that would come from the Messiah.
In other words, the Jews should have approached this in faith, looking in faith for God’s grace. God’s grace to give them the opportunity for blessings in the first place. God’s grace to grow them in obedience. God’s grace that would send real forgiveness and righteousness in the promised Messiah. They needed to approach the law with faith in God’s grace. The should have saw this chapter as really a call about fidelity to God, looking forward to Christ to come. Paul says that instead many Israelites approached the law with a works mentality. That’s why those who had this works mentality, ended up rejecting Jesus Christ. They didn’t want to hear Christ’s message about grace through faith. They didn’t think they needed such a gospel. They trusted in themselves and their law keeping; law keeping that actually fell far short of God’s standards.
So, I’d like to then turn and consider a more contemporary wrong approach to this passage. As I mentioned at the start, there are some people who could be categorized as holding a health and wealth gospel, or teaching prosperity theology. The basic focus of such people is to make Christianity about bringing you earthly, physical, prosperity today. People who advocate such ideas often quote this chapter from Deuteronomy as part of their proof from Scripture for their ideas. Well, that might sound convincing on an initial glance, but it fails to interpret this chapter in light of the entire Bible.
In response to such thinking, let me first note that this is a specific promise given to the nation of Israel. You’ll notice that there are references here about how all of this is connected up with the promises God swore to the forefathers of Israel. You’ll notice that there are references here about how God would bless Israel above all the others nations. What this should tell you, is that the promise of these blessings given in this chapter is not some general moral principle, applicable to all nations at all times. When it was given, this great privilege was only given to one nation, Israel. It was given within the context of the Mosaic covenant, and that covenant has since been broken and is now null and void. Nowhere in Scripture has God reissued these earthly, physical, blessings for obedience to the law of the Mosaic covenant.
Now it might be argued in response that God promised to father Abraham that he would bring blessing to all the nations, through his offspring. Yes, that’s true. That’s actually crucial to understanding this passage. Because we then have to look in Scripture and see how that is realized. When God promised blessings to all the nations through the offspring of Abraham, was he talking about the blessings described here in chapter 28? Well, no, not really. What we see in Scripture, is essentially this: these blessings in Deuteronomy 28 were not the ultimate blessings promised to Abraham and his offspring. These blessings actually foreshadowed greater blessings to come. Hebrews 11 tells us that Abraham recognized that the blessing of the Promised Land looked beyond an earthly plot of land; it looked to a heavenly inheritance. You see, the blessings and curses of this chapter are an eschatological picture. The blessings here are a foretaste of what heaven will look like; not an exact picture by any means. But these blessings in this chapter are like a little bit of heaven on earth. The opposite picture is the case with the curses. The curses here are a foretaste of what hell will look like; not an exact picture by any means. But these curses in this chapter are like a little bit of hell on earth.
Let me make my point here. In the New Testament, we see that Christians are not guaranteed these sorts of earthly, material, blessings. Instead, the New Testament records how following Christ can often result in the opposite of these earthly, physical blessings. In Luke 9:58, after someone told Jesus that they wanted to follow him wherever he went, Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” Jesus’ point there is clear. Jesus life was one of radical sacrifice and poverty. If you followed Jesus wherever he went, don’t be surprised if you find yourself in the same circumstances as Jesus. Jesus told the rich young ruler in Mark 10:21 to go sell all he had and give to the poor, specifically in the Greek, to sell his landed possessions. Then Jesus said he’d have heavenly treasure. Jesus was basically telling him to sell off his earthly land; Jesus had the real inheritance to give him. Of course, that’s what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6. Jesus specifically told us to not lay up earthly treasures, but to lay up heavenly ones.
Do you see the point I’m making here? The New Testament makes clear that the blessings of Deuteronomy 28 are merely provisional; they were external pictures of far better blessings God had in store. They were a visible lesson for that time in human history. God ultimately had heavenly blessings in store. That’s what was really promised to all the nations through Abraham’s offspring. That’s so true that once Jesus came he could tell people they didn’t need the blessings of Deuteronomy 28 anymore. Sell of your land; don’t build up earthly treasures. Focus on heavenly treasure. Follow Christ and find heavenly, spiritual blessings in him. That’s what Abraham understood all the way back in his day. Many other Israelites did along the way too. That’s how we should approach this today.
So, we should not think that becoming a Christian will guarantee earthly, physical, prosperity. For some Christians, it will happen. Surely living godly normally yields real tangible benefits in life. Certainly, we can describe those as blessings from God. That means there is an element of truth in prosperity theology; godliness does have certain positive outcomes in this life, in real earthly, material ways. I know I have been personally very, very, blessed in earthly, material ways, and I give thanks to God for that. I know others here have as well. But the mistake of prosperity theology is to think that God guarantees this physical blessing in this life, through our faith in Christ and godly living. But that’s not promised. In fact, Jesus tells us not even to have that be our focus in our life. He tells us to pursue heavenly treasure.
And so I hope our analysis of these wrong approaches to this passage have helped you see the right approach to this passage. Ephesians 1:3 describes the New Testament fulfillment of this passage. Ephesians 1:3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.” Every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. That’s what we have in Christ. Those are the kinds of blessings God’s people have in Christ. Those are the guaranteed blessings for faith in Christ. Do you see what that says to us? We have already been given blessings by faith in Christ, and those blessings are spiritual and heavenly, not earthly and physical. Yes, we sometimes do get earthly and physical blessings. But the blessings that come from the gospel, are spiritual and heavenly. Ultimately they come forth in blessed eternal life with Christ. In other words, heaven is the ultimate blessing from God.
But let’s not miss an important point in all of this. The Jews stumbled on all of this, because they approached the law by works and not by faith. Yet when you come to a passage like this in Deuteronomy, you could somewhat understand their mistake. They saw the call for works here, connected with blessings and curses. Yet they should have approached this in faith, looking for Christ to come. The conditional nature of blessings and curses should lead us to our need for Christ. And yet the conditional nature of these blessings and curses also tells us a bit about what Christ has accomplished for us. You see the underlying principle behind this passage is that ultimately, heaven must be earned. Blessings must be earned; particularly the ones of a heavenly nature. But we, on our own merits and on our own strength, have never earned the blessings of heaven. We did earn the curses however. The wages of sin is death, the Bible says, and that’s what we earned. We earned curses.
But Christ in his life both bore the curse for us, and he earned the blessings for us. This the dual work of Christ for us. He bore the curse. He earned the blessings. I think we tend to recognize the first part more. We tend to attribute to Christ how he bore our curse; how we are forgiven of our sins because he went to the cross. That suffering done in our place where he was forsaken by God, was his bearing of our curse. But don’t miss the fact that Christ also earned the blessings of heaven for us, by his perfect righteousness.
I like how Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 19 describes the law of God. It says that God’s law was first delivered in the Garden of Eden as a covenant of works. At that time, mankind had the opportunity to earn heaven, but we failed; we fell in sin. The confession then says how the substance of that same law from the garden was delivered again on Mount Sinai. That’s what we have reflected here in Deuteronomy. Hypothetically that same law held out the same promise: do this and live. Keep the law perfectly and you will earn God’s heavenly blessings. And yet no man has ever done that, except the God-man, Jesus Christ.
Friends, we deserved the full extent of all these curses. We deserved the curse of hell itself. Think of how horrible this curse is. Think about how it’s described in verse 68. It’s pictured in earthly terms there. Israel is threatened to receive a curse where they’ll end up being offered for sale as slaves, but their physical estate will be so absolutely horrendous and repulsive, that no one will even buy them. How horribly sad and shameful. That’s a picture of us, apart from the saving work of Christ. Cursed, pitiful, shameful; who would want to buy us even as a slave in that state? And yet what does Scripture say? That God purchased the church with his own blood, Acts 20:28. That’s the gospel of grace.
Or let me describe this grace in another way. Verse 48 talks of the curse in terms of a yoke of iron on the neck. Israel’s curse would be a heavy yoke placed upon them by their enemies. God threatened to allow this heavy yoke to be upon them. That’s the terror of the law and God’s curse. But when he sends Jesus, what does Jesus say? What does he say to those under God’s curse? Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
This is my call to all of us today. Find blessing in Christ; not by works, but by faith in him whose works are sufficient. Find removal of the curse in Christ; Find the blessing of heaven in him. Confess your sins, that you need his forgiveness, and set him as your Lord and Savior. Christ reverses the curse and gives blessing!
God may give you many earthly blessings. When he does, praise him! But let us seek first Christ and righteousness and heavenly treasure, all in faith and through faith in him. May that never be an excuse for godless living. No, this passage reminds us that God’s heart is for his people to keep his laws. But let’s look to keep the law out of faith, not out of works. Not to earn our salvation, but out of faith looking to his grace for strength. As we do this, we’ll be learning and experiencing more and more what it means to be blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. Amen.
Copyright (c) 2010 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.