In Chapter 28 Moses puts all the cards on the table in regard to the blessings and curses associated with the covenant. He has talked many times about God’s blessing being contingent on the people’s obedience and that God will remove His protection and care if they disobey (it is really the basis of the book – the Deuteronomic Principle – obey and prosper, disobey and perish). He has even rehearsed for them some details of the incredible blessings promised to them – most recently in Chapter 11. What he has not done to this point, however, is give details on both sides of the covenant all in one place. He has never gone into great specifics as to what will happen if they do not abide by God’s words and contrasted it with the blessings available. He remedies that here.
What is interesting about this chapter is the space devoted to the blessings versus the curses. The first 14 verses list the blessings of obedience. The remaining 54 are devoted to the curses. God stresses the negatives much more than the positives. What this tells us about God and His perspective on the people and what it tells us about us are fascinating aspects of this study.
This is the thesis for the blessing section. If the people diligently obey the Lord and are careful to do all His commandments, He will set them high above all the nations of the earth. They are God’s chosen people and they will enjoy blessings other nations do not enjoy if they live the way God’s people should live. If they abide by God’s Law they will live as a favored nation and God will provide and protect in ways He does not for any other people.
Note how Moses introduces the blessings he is about to list. The blessings shall come upon you and overtake you. They will effectively hunt the people down. They will pursue Israel and smother it. The nation will be blessed relentlessly. This is similar to David’s words in Psalm 23 – “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”
The blessings are contingent. Verse 1 begins with the contingency and verse 2 ends with it. IF the people obey, the blessings in the following verses will overtake them.
Moses lists the blessings. The people will enjoy immense prosperity. They will be fruitful. The ground they farm will be fruitful. Their livestock will be fruitful. Their enemies will be defeated before them. The sky will give plenty of rain. The land will produce incredible harvests. Whatever they put their hand to will succeed. God will bless all their work. God will give them prominence over all other nations – they will be the head and not the tail (13). Other peoples will fear them.
Notice verse 9. Moses says God will establish them as a holy people to Himself, as He swore to you, if you will keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and walk in His ways. This is at the root of why He redeemed them. It goes back to the promise He gave to Moses in Exodus 6:7 – I will take you for My people, and I will be your God. It also echoes what He said to Moses after the people left Egypt – “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:4-6a). He brought them out of Egypt to set them apart for Himself – to be HIS holy people. Their holiness – their obedience – is what shows they are His. If they do not obey, they nullify their redemption.
God saved the Israelites unto holiness. God set them free from slavery to the Egyptians so they might be free to walk in His ways. They were to be a nation of people so set apart, so sanctified, so holy that they might as well have been priests – every last one of them. – Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in our Holiness
[The same is true of us – we are set apart to be His holy people. 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, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him (Eph 1:3-4).]
Moses repeats the contingency two more times in these verses. He ends verse 9 with it and ends this section with an extended form of it in verses 13 and 14. The blessings come about IF and ONLY IF they obey. The blessings are not, however, merely rewards for obedience – they are the natural outgrowth of fellowship and communion with God. The path to fellowship with Yahweh is obedience – thus obedience brings about blessing.
Moses begins the section on curses in verse 15. Notice that the end of verse 15 reads as the mirror image of verse two. The curses will hunt the people down and smother them just like the blessings. The people will be relentlessly cursed for their disobedience (see also verse 45).
The first several verses of this section along with verse 25 are actually opposite statements to the blessings of the first section. Verse 16 is the opposite of verse three – verse 17 the opposite of verse five. The same goes for 18 and four, 19 and six, and 25 and seven. Moses makes it plain that the ramifications of disobedience are exactly opposite to the positive results of obedience.
The remainder of the chapter is a horrifying list of ever-intensifying curses. The list illustrates the relentless nature of God’s reaction to the people’s disobedience. Reading through these verses is almost overwhelming as the curses continue to pile up one on top of another. It seems repetitive and over the top – what could possibly be the purpose of going into such detail and of stressing over and over all the horrible things that will happen? Would it not be enough to simply say that the nation will suffer and eventually perish if it disobeys (as Moses has said in other passages)?
Notice some highlights(?) of this section. In verse 30 Moses lists the same items that allow a man to miss military service (20:5-7) – engaged but not married, built a house but not moved in, planted a vineyard but not enjoyed the fruit – but instead of discussing them as privileges so fundamental that they exempt a man from battle, he says they are privileges that will be anticipated but never enjoyed. The engaged man will watch another violate his wife. The new house will never be lived in and the fruit of the new vineyard will never be tasted.
Verse 47 condemns the disobedient for choosing the hard way. Moses says the curses come about because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and a glad heart, for the abundance of all things. This goes back to the Shema (6:4-5) – they do not love God with all their heart and soul and might. Thus they do not get to enjoy the abundance of all things. They CHOOSE to forsake the blessings of obedience. Instead of abundance they suffer degradation and loss – all because they love other things and other gods more than Yahweh.
Verses 49-57 are almost unreadable with their graphic descriptions of what will happen when the enemies of Israel besiege its cities. The final consequence of disobedience will be foreign invasion and destruction. God will eventually take the people out of the land by the hand of a pagan nation. When this happens the method of conquest will be to lay siege to their major cities which will bring on starvation and cannibalism. The people will be reduced to eating their young in the midst of a land that once flowed with milk and honey and overwhelmed them with plenty. The conditions will be so dire that one parent will hide the body of his child from the other so as not to have to share it as food.
Verse 68 concludes the curses by showing how the people will come full circle if they persist in their disobedience. Things will get so bad that they will eventually be brought back to Egypt – the place God has told them never to return to. They will be brought back against their will but once there will actually desire to become slaves again. Slavery will be preferable to their existence as exiles. The final indignity, however, will be that no one will want them even as slaves. “You shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.”
The horrific detail and repetition of verses 15-68 serve a purpose. God wants there to be no misunderstanding of how bad things will be once the people get outside of His provision and protection. Human nature being what it is, it would be easy for the people to discount the curses of the covenant if they did not have specifics as to their horror. The vivid descriptions are meant to strike fear into the people and motivate them to obedience. And the progressive nature of the curses shows that God will in fact be relentless in His punishment and will not turn back in the face of their stubbornness. The ultimate end of disobedience will be destruction, but even the steps to that point will grow increasingly dreadful.
Why is the section on curses so much longer than the one on blessing? Why fifty-four verses of curses (kind of catchy, eh?) compared to fourteen of blessing? Is this a sign of a vindictive God who cannot wait to pour out His wrath on straying sinners? Or are there other reasons that could actually show God explains it this way out of mercy and love?
The first – and perhaps simplest – explanation is that fallen humans tend to respond better to negative reinforcement. The blessings of the covenant should be enough to spur the people to obedience, but God knows their heart and knows that fear typically motivates more than anticipated blessing. Thus He spends more time on the negatives in order to warn the nation and prevent the behavior that would bring them to pass.
A second reason for the much longer section of curses could be that God KNOWS they will not obey and enjoy the blessings. Why spend time on what will rarely or never occur? His expectation is that they will be unfaithful so He goes into much more detail about what will happen when they do. Fourteen verses compared to 54 is probably the right ratio of the expectation of obedience to disobedience. Or thought of another way, the time they will spend obeying God relative to the time forsaking Him is about one to four.
But notice – even though God knows this, He remains faithful to them and stays with them. Nowhere does God tell the people that since He knows they will stray He is going to leave them now. He even tells them in other passages how He will accept them back and bless them when they repent. Thus these curses are a sign of His mercy from two perspectives – they are a warning up front about the ramifications of disobedience AND they make plain how God’s faithfulness remains with His people even when He knows they will forsake Him.
There also is hope in the progressive nature of the curses. God’s ultimate aim in the punishment of His people is to bring them back to Him. He saved them for Himself and He punishes them to bring them BACK to Himself. The curses are not arbitrary or spiteful. They ramp up in order to wake up His people. As the evil increases the curses increase so as to turn the people around. God speaks of this in Amos 4:6-13 – He tells Israel He has increasingly punished them so they will finally understand their sin and repent. They sin, He punishes. They sin some more, He punishes some more – always with the view toward repentance. The section of curses is a testament to God’s mercy as a parent who will not allow His child to continually stray.
Another reason for the long and detailed section on curses is it shows vividly what God thinks of sin. God HATES sin. He HATES it. He cannot abide it. And he REALLY cannot abide it in ones who claim to be His people. These curses are ugly because sin is ugly, and God wants to paint a picture so ugly that we begin to realize how awful sin is.
That means we should read this section and truly fear the awfulness of hell. It is one thing to know about hell from an abstract perspective that says it is the ultimate end of the sinner. But to read these descriptions of what life is like apart from God – and that ultimately is what these describe – and then know that hell is much worse because it is the complete absence of God’s grace with no hope for His return, is to get a picture of hell that shows it is beyond anything we can comprehend. The awful details of verses 15-68 should sober us and make us fear hell for all who are not redeemed and cause us to examine ourselves to ensure that we are.
The Israelites are God’s chosen people set apart by Him FOR Him. He redeemed them for Himself. If they reject His Law and forsake their fellowship with Him – if they remove themselves from His provision and protection – the results will be catastrophic. If, however, they remain with Him and fulfill their redemptive purpose they will prosper under His loving care and enjoy generational peace and success. They were redeemed to be set apart – if they refuse to be set apart they invalidate their redemption. The follower of God who does not live a holy life does not exist.