Last week we saw how Moses said to the Israelites that — when they come into the Promised Land — they should set up stones with the law written on them; and they should set up an altar to present burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the Lord. The stones represented the law which condemns us as lawbreakers; and the altar represented the gospel which speaks to us of God’s willingness to pardon our sins for the sake of Christ who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins.
And then Moses said that — when they come into the Promised Land — the Levites should pronounce curses on the people regarding their secret sins. They needed to understand that they could not hide anything from the Lord, because the Lord knows all things, including their secret sins. So, they mustn’t think they can get away with their secret sins, but they should confess them before the Lord and seek his forgiveness. And we too must confess our secret sins and seek the Lord’s forgiveness, trusting that he will do as he has promised and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness for the sake of Christ our Saviour, who laid down his life to free us from condemnation and who shed his blood to cleanse us from all our sins, even our secret sins.
In chapter 27, Moses also said to the people that — when they come into the Promised Land — six of the tribes should stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the people; and six of the tribes should stand on Mount Ebal to pronounce curses. And the blessings and curses are listed in today’s chapter, chapter 28. And so, you can see that from verse 1 to verse 14 we have the blessings. And from verses 15 to verses 68 we have the curses. If they obeyed the Lord in the Promised Land, he would bless them with good things. But if they disobeyed the Lord in the Promised Land, the Lord would send trouble and disaster upon them. And so, it’s blessings for obedience; and it’s curses for disobedience. And then, verse 1 of chapter 29 is the conclusion to this passage.
We need to remember that these blessings and curses were part of God’s gracious covenant with his people at that time. The Lord had already graciously and freely chosen the Israelites to be his people. And he had already graciously and freely rescued them from Egypt. And he had already graciously and freely brought them through the wilderness. And he was about to give them life in the Promised Land as a gracious and free gift, which they did not deserve and could not earn. So, when we read about these blessings and curses, we need to remember that this was part of the special arrangement between the Lord and his chosen people. Whereas the Lord looked on the other nations with wrath, he looked upon the people of Israel with love and grace and mercy. And just as parents will offer rewards to their children to encourage their obedience, and just as parents will warn their children of possible punishments if they disobey, so the Lord was offering rewards to his people to encourage them to remain obedient to him; and he was warning them of possible punishments to discourage them from going astray.
And, of course, the Lord was not obligated to reward their obedience, and they could never earn or merit these rewards. Nevertheless, he was prepared to reward them, because he’s gracious and kind.
And this passage is important for us, because though the Lord may not bless his people in exactly the same way today when we obey him, and though the Lord may not curse his people in exactly the same way today when we disobey him, we can still expect blessings from the Lord in this life if we obey him and we can still expect afflictions from the Lord in this life if we disobey him.
Let’s turn now to the text and to verses 1 to 14 where Moses lists the blessings for obedience. Verse 1 is an introduction to the blessings where Moses tells the people that if they obey the Lord fully and carefully follow all his commands, then the Lord will set them high above all the other nations on earth. And so, he will exalt them over all the other nations, so that they will become the greatest nation of their time.
Verses 2 to 6 are a kind of summary of the blessings they can expect to receive from the Lord if they’re obedient to him. So, he will bless them in the city and in the country. In other words, he will bless them everywhere: from the city to the country and everywhere in between. He’ll bless the fruit of their womb so that they’ll have lots of children; and he’ll bless the fruit of their land so they they’ll have abundant harvests; and he’ll bless the fruit of their cattle so that they’ll have lots of livestock. Their baskets and kneading trough will also be blessed, which probably means they’ll have all the food they need. And they will be blessed when they come in and when they go out. So, not only will the Lord bless them everywhere, but he’ll bless them in all their activities, from the time they go out to work in the morning to the time they come home again at the end of the day.
The Lord will ensure that any enemies who come against them will be defeated and will flee from them in seven directions. He will bless their barns and in all the work they do as farmers. The other nations will fear them, because it will be clear that the Lord is with them. And the Lord will make them prosper in every way. He’ll open the heavens, to send rain on the land to enable their crops to grow. Because he prospers them, they’ll be able to lend money to other nations, and they’ll never have to borrow anything themselves. They’ll be creditors, not debtors. The Lord will make them the head and not the tail; they’ll be at the top and never at the bottom, which means they’ll be first and not last among the nations. So, they must not turn aside from the commands of the Lord; and they must not follow other gods or serve them. Of course, the Canaanites believed that it was Baal who sent the rain and who therefore enabled their crops to grow. They therefore regarded Baal as a fertility god. Well, the Lord’s people must not be tempted to worship Baal and they must not serve him, because the one who sends the rain and the one who will make their crops grow is the Lord. They must serve and obey him; and if they do, he will bless them and fill their lives with good things.
In some ways, these blessings are the reverse of the curse which the Lord pronounced on the ground after Adam’s fall into sin. Do you remember? After Adam disobeyed the Lord, the Lord said:
Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food….
The Lord said to Adam that growing food to eat would be hard and frustrating, because he’d have to contend with thorns and thistles. However, here in Deuteronomy 28, the Lord was promising his people that if they obeyed him, he would make things easy for them, by sending the rain and by blessing them in all their work.
Those were the blessings. In verses 15 to 68 we have the curses. And just as verse 1 introduced the blessings, so verse 15 introduces the curses. And verse 15 is almost the exact opposite of verse 1. So, if you do not obey the Lord and are not careful to follow all his commands and decrees, then all these curses will come upon you and overtake you. Moses personifies the curses as if they’re a man who is running to catch up with God’s disobedient people. So, if they disobey him, these curses will eventually catch up with them and overwhelm them.
Just as verses 2 to 6 summarised the blessings, so verses 16 to 19 summarise the curses; and these verses are again almost the exact opposite of what we read earlier. So, they’ll be cursed in the city and in the country and everywhere in between. Their basket and kneading trough will be cursed. The fruit of their womb and of their land and of their livestock will also be cursed. They’re be cursed when they come in and when they go out, so that nothing they do will succeed. If they obey the Lord, the Lord will bless them abundantly. But if they disobey the Lord, the Lord will fill their lives with trouble and sorrow and hardships.
Verses 20 to 24 refer to sickness and drought. So, they’ll be plagued with diseases; and they’ll suffer scorching heat and drought and blight and mildew. The phrase ‘the sky will be bronze’ means there will no rain. As a result, the earth will become hard like iron. And instead of rain, there will be dust: great dust storms will come and cover all things. And so, they will be destroyed and will perish. And notice, of course, that the Lord is the one who will afflict them like this. These things do not happen by chance, but by the hand of the Lord. So, the Lord will send on you curses. The Lord will plague you with diseases. The Lord will strike you with wasting diseases. The Lord will turn the rain of your country into dust. The Lord will do it and no one else, because they have provoked him by their disobedience.
Verses 25 to 26 refer to defeat in battle. So, the Lord will cause them to be defeated before their enemies and they’ll flee from them in seven directions. The nations will not admire them or fear them, but will be horrified by them. And their dead bodies, slain in battle, will become food for the wild birds and animals.
Verses 27 to 35 refer to diseases again and to the trouble that will come upon them because of their enemies. So, the Lord will afflict them with boils. And they will suffer tumours and festering sores and itches. They’ll suffer madness and blindness and confusion of mind. In everything they do, they’ll be unsuccessful; and they’ll be oppressed and robbed by their enemies. Their enemies will take away their wives and houses and vineyards and their livestock and their children; and foreigners will enjoy the fruits of the land. And they’ll suffer madness and boils all over their bodies, from head to toe.
Verses 36 to 48 refer to exile and poor harvests. So, the Lord will drive the people and their king to a nation unknown to them and their fathers. And there, in exile, they will worship idols of wood and stone. And they will be despised by the nation where the Lord drives them. Furthermore, as well as being overrun by foreigners, their land will be overrun by locusts who will eat their harvests; and by worms who will eat their grapes; and their olives will drop off without being harvested; and their children will be taken away into exile. In fact, the alien among them — who was normally weak and vulnerable — will become stronger and richer than them, so that the Israelites will be forced to borrow from the alien. The alien will become the head; and they will become the tail. And because of their disobedience, they will serve other nations in hunger and thirst and in nakedness and dire poverty.
Verses 49 to 57 refer to sieges and the horrors that will come on the people because of them. So, a nation will swoop down on them like an eagle to devour their livestock and their crops. And this nation will lay siege to their cities until their highly fortified walls collapse. And because of their hunger during the time of the siege, they will be forced into cannibalism, eating the fruit of their womb, the flesh of their sons and daughters. Look at verse 54: even the most gentle man among them will have no compassion on his relatives and he will not share with them the flesh of the children he’s eating. Look at verse 56: even the most gentle women among them will eat her afterbirth and her children and she will not share it with anyone, even her husband.
And then in verses 58 to 68, Moses summarised the afflictions that the Lord will send on them for their disobedience. If you do not carefully follow all the words of the law, and if you do not revere the Lord’s glorious and awesome name, he will send fearful plagues on you and on your descendants. They will suffer harsh and prolonged disasters and severe and lingering illnesses. The Lord will cause them to suffer all the diseases of Egypt. He’ll bring other kinds of illness on them and other disasters not mentioned in the Book of the Law. Though the Lord makes them as numerous as the stars in the sky, they will become few in number. Just as it once pleased the Lord to multiply them, so it will please the Lord to ruin and destroy them. And after the Lord has planted them in the land, he will uproot them if they will not obey him. And having uprooted them, he will scatter them among the nations, from one end of the earth to another. And there, in exile, they will worship idols of wood and stone. They will find no repose, not resting place, no rest, but they will be full of anxiety and they will be weary and they will despair. They will live in constant suspense, filled with a sense of dread and foreboding that soon they will die. All through the day and all through the night, they will be filled with fear. And though the Lord has rescued them from Egypt, he will send them back there. But though they offer themselves to Egypt as slaves, Egypt will not want them.
If the promised blessings were the reverse of the curse which the Lord pronounced on the land after Adam’s sin, the list of curses is an intensification of the curse which the Lord announced in the Garden of Eden. The Lord was foretelling disaster in the countryside because their crops would fail and their livestock would be taken from them; and the Lord was foretelling disaster in their cities, because a foreign nation would come and lay siege to them. And they would suffer illness and disease and fear and dread and death. And those who are left would be sent away into exile, far away from the Promised Land, that land like the Garden of Eden which the Lord gave to them. They would suffer all of these things if they disobeyed the Lord.
Old Testament History
And in the rest of the Old Testament, we read how the Lord blessed and prospered his people in the days of King David and Solomon. David was able to defeat their enemies and bring peace to the nation; and in the time of Solomon, Israel became the envy of the world, and people from all over the world came to see the splendour of Solomon’s kingdom.
And while some of the other kings were good and wise, and did what was right in the sight of the Lord, many of the kings were wicked and the people forsook the Lord and did evil, bowing down to Baal and other gods, and breaking the Lord’s commandments. And though the Lord sent prophets to warn them, they did not listen. And so, first the Assyrians came and took away the people in the northern part of the kingdom; and then the Babylonians came and took away the people in the southern part of the kingdom. What the Lord warned would happen, happened, because they did not obey the Lord and walk in his ways.
These blessings and curses were for the people of Israel at that time, when God’s people lived in the Promised Land of Canaan. God’s people no longer live in the Promised Land of Canaan. So, the warnings about being sent away from the land of Canaan into exile no longer apply to us today.
However, the Lord still promises to bless his people or to punish us depending on whether we obey him or not. As I’ve mentioned before our church’s Confession of Faith is helpful here, because it explains in its chapter on the Law of God that the threats contained in the law show us what our sins deserve and what afflictions we may expect in this life when we disobey God’s law. The words ‘in this life’ are important, because the good news of the gospel is that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. Those who trust in Christ as the only Saviour of the world will never be eternally condemned; and believers need not fear eternal punishment, because the Lord Jesus laid down his life to free his people from condemnation; and he shed his blood to cleanse us from the guilt of our sins. In other words, the Lord Jesus saves his people from God’s eternal wrath. If you’re trusting in Christ, God will never ever condemn you to eternal punishment; instead he promises you eternal life in his presence. However, the Lord may still send afflictions on his people in this life when they disobey him, without confessing it or turning from it.
However, when he does so, he doesn’t punish us as an angry judge, who wants to condemn us; but he does so as a loving father, who wants to discipline us for our good. When he punishes his people in this life, it’s not because he hates us; but it’s because he wants to turn us from evil and to keep us on the narrow way that leads to life.
In another chapter, the Confession explains that God’s people can fall into serious sins; and we may continue in them for a time. This happens, the Confession explains, because the Devil and an unbelieving world tempt us and because we remains sinners all of our life. And, the Confession explains, when we fall into serious sin, without confessing it or turning from it, but continuing in it, we incur the Lord’s displeasure and we grieve the Holy Spirit who lives in us. And so, we bring temporal punishments upon ourselves. Again, note the word ‘temporal’. These punishments are in this life only, because the Lord wants to awaken us to our sin, so that we will repent of it and turn from it.
On the other hand, our church’s Confession also explains that the blessings contained in the law show us what blessings we can expect to receive from the Lord. We cannot earn or merit these blessings, but we receive them from him as his gracious reward. In fact, the only reason we’re able to obey the Lord and to do any good in the world is because of the Holy Spirit who lives inside us and who helps us to do what’s good. And so, how gracious is the Lord! Not only does he graciously reward us for the good we do, but the only reason we do any good is because he helps us.
And, of course, the Lord does promise to reward us, doesn’t he? At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, we have the Beatitudes, when the Lord Jesus pronounced blessings on his obedient people. And the wise man is the one who not only hears, but who does what the Lord commands; and the foolish man is the one who hears only and does not put the Lord’s words into practice. In Ephesians 6, Paul reminded believing children of God’s promise to give long life to those who honoured their parents. And Peter, in his first letter, applied the words of Psalm 34 to New Testament believers to say that in order to see good days we must keep our tongue from evil and our lips from deceitful speech and we must turn from evil and do what is good.
On the other hand, the writer to the Hebrews teaches us that the Lord disciplines his people the way a parent will discipline the son he loves. So, when we go astray and are disobedient, he’ll punish us to correct our faults and to put us on the right path. And the Apostle Paul explained to the Corinthians that the reason some of their members had become ill and have even died was because of the way they had abused the Lord’s Table. And so, in chapter 11 of 1 Corinthians, Paul says that when we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined, so that we won’t be condemned with the world. He will not let us go on in our wicked ways, but will lead us to repentance by disciplining us in this life.
At the same time it’s also important to remember the words of the Lord in John 9 about the man born blind. The disciples assumed that the man or his parents must have sinned; and God was punishing their sin with blindness. And we’re often tempted to think like that: when Christians suffer in this life, we’re tempted to think that they must have done something wrong and God is punishing them. But in John 9, the Lord said that neither the blind man nor his parents had sinned, but God had made him blind for another reason. So, if you suffer in this life, God may well be punishing you for unrepentant sin. In that case, you need to confess your sin and turn from it. But it’s also true that the Lord may be causing you to suffer for another reason entirely. In that case, you must submit to his will for you; and pray that he will use your suffering for your good and his glory.
When the Lord brought the Israelites into the Promised Land of Canaan, he promised to bless them and to fill their lives with good things if they obeyed him. And he warned them that he would afflict them and bring disaster on them if they disobeyed him. And the Lord still promises to reward his people if we obey him; and he warns that he will discipline us if we disobey him.
Remember: those who trust in Christ will never be eternally condemned. And so, if you don’t yet trust in Christ, then I say to you that you must confess your sins to God; and ask him to pardon you for the sake of Christ and to give you the free gift of eternal life, because unless you trust in Christ and ask for forgiveness, then the afflictions the Israelites suffered will be nothing to what you will suffer when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead and to punish all those who refused to believe in him. When God sent the Israelites into exile, it lasted for only 70 years. And after 70 years, he brought them back to the Promised Land. But the suffering of those who are condemned by Christ will be forever and forever. And so, confess your sins to God and ask him to pardon you for the sake of Christ who took the blame for sinners and who laid down his life to set us free from condemnation.
And for those who already believe: you too must confess your sins daily and ask the Lord to pardon you so that you will not bring temporal punishments on yourself. Every day we sin against the Lord, because every day the Devil and an unbelieving world tempt us and because we remain sinners all of our life here on earth. So, every day we sin against the Lord. And so, in order to avoid the Lord’s discipline, and in order to receive his gracious rewards, you must confess your sins before the Lord every day; and you must turn from them every day; and you must resolve every day to walk in the ways of the Lord and to do his will. Blessed is the man, says James in his New Testament letter, who not only hears God’s law, but who does it. And so, do you want to know the blessing of God? Then be careful to obey the Lord and to follow his commands, trusting that even when you do sin, the Lord is faithful and just and he will forgive you.