I want to do two things before we delve into the detail of Deuteronomy 28 that will hopefully be helpful. First of all, I want to outline a bit more about what a Biblical Covenant is and where we fit into the picture.
A covenant is an agreement between two parties. It usually includes long standing vows and symbolic actions that seal the deal. The form of covenant we are most familiar with today is the Marriage Covenant. A man and woman make commitments to each other in the presence of witnesses and it is symbolised by the exchange of rings.
The Deuteronomic Covenant in style reflects the types of treaties or covenants often agreed between kings and their vassal states. The victorious King is Lord over that realm and commits to rule his people wisely and generously. In turn they must be loyal to him or face serious consequences. This helps remind us that a covenant is not necessarily about agreement between equals.
In the Bible, a number of implicit covenants have been suggested but the ones explicitly represented as such are.
- The Noahic Covenant – symbolised by the rainbow. God’s commitment is to his creation and humanity.
- The Abrahamic Covenant – a commitment by God to his chosen people
- The Mosaic Covenant -a further commitment to God’s people marked by the giving and keeping of the Law
- The Davidic Covenant – a commitment specifically to David and his descendent – this is the Messianic or kingly promise
- The New Covenant -in Christ, symbolised by baptism and communion.
It is important at this stage also to observe that these covenants do not necessarily start or finish with clean breaks. Rather, some covenants fit within others and some overlap so that there is both continuity and discontinuity as a new covenant takes up and develops the purpose of an older one.
In that sense, we can say that all of us today, under the New Covenant find ourselves within the Abrahamic Covenant. This is important because that Covenant is all about God blessing his people. Which brings us to Deuteronomy 28. You’ll notice that there isn’t the same liturgical call and response as for the curses and perhaps that’s because we are not to think of blessing in legalistic terms. However, Moses does expand on the nature of blessing here.
So, we find ourselves crossing the border into Canaan and at the border is a pass between two mountains, Ebal and Gerazim.
It’s here that the Covenant ceremony takes place. After Moses, has described the part of the ceremony where the curse for law breaking is affirmed, he goes on to set out the nature of the blessing.
The Blessing Described
V 1 sets out the condition and the consequence. God’s people are called to faithfully obey (ESV), the sense is to be sure to listen/harken (which has the idea of obedience) to God’s voice. The important thing here is the voice of God heard in the giving of the covenant. He is speaking.
They are to be careful to do his commandments. This provides a repetition and reinforcement of the theme. They are being called to loyalty and diligence (cf Deut 5:1 and6:3 link this phrase “be careful to do to the giving of the Ten Commandments and of course to the Greatest command to love God with your whole heart. This reinforces the ESV’s interpretation with the emphasis on loving faithfulness
Then the consequence is that they will be set above and over all the nations of the earth. This is about honour and exaltation. Note on one level, this can literally be taken to mean that they will triumph over the nations in the land itself and I suspect that is in view. However, it is right to recognised that Israel was exalted as God’s treasured possession above all nations. This means though that it never meant political or military supremacy over the rest of the world. There were always more powerful nations and empires around: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome.
In verses 2-6 a description of the blessing that flows from this honour follows. The aim here is first to show the comprehensiveness of blessing it is experienced in the country field and the city street. We can also see that it ties specifically to the creation mandate and to the Abrahamic Covenant. It is about land or earth and people filling and subduing it. They are blessed with descendants, crops and livestock. We may also note a reversal or at least an easing of the consequences of the Fall in Genesis 3 where pain was experienced in child birth and sweat and toil in farming. Blessing is about fruitfulness in response to God’s commands. It is not about enjoying un-earnt luxuries here so much being fruitful in work and then enjoying that fruitfulness.
V 7 talks about defeat of enemies. A united force may come upon them b but are defeated and scattered in seven different directions. The number seven represents complete and total defeat and scattering. A defeat they are not coming back from. The enemy are crushed. This is followed by repeated emphasis on the blessing of the land. Their barns will be full,
V9 – 10 points to the establishment of the people as holy to God. This parallels v1 and gives us a little bit more insight into what it means to be exalted. They are to be visible as distinct from the rest of rebellious humanity. Their faithfulness is to mirror God’s. He is faithful in keeping his promises to them, that’s the basis for their faithfulness to him. Again, there is repetition about the importance of keeping his commandments. The imagery of walking in his ways would align with the memory of following across the desert and will soon be picked up in the Psalmist’s shepherding imagery where the sheep are to follow after the shepherd.
This special status and character will be visible as a witness to the nations around. All peoples of the earth may again the nations in the land of Canaan who will be immediate witness but again also points to a global witness. The theme of Israel as a witness to the nations will be picked up by the prophets.
They are called by the name of the Lord. This suggests an identification with God. Naming indications ownership, character and relationship. They are made in the image of God and are his heir. Just as people fear the Lord, so the nations fear Israel.
V11-12 sees a repetition of blessings before v13 takes us back to the exalted status of Israel. She will not be the tail but instead, the head. This points to a position of leadership as the chief nation, others will bow and swear allegiance. Note this happens under David and Solomon in terms of regional power
V14 reminds us that this is all dependent upon faithfulness. They must not get diverted or led astray by idolatry
Through New Covenant Eyes
Now, remember that we have to read the Old Testament Law through New Covenant eyes, we need to apply it through Christ. Failure to do so can lead into multiple dangers. These include
- Legalism. The assumption that if we mechanically obey specific commands, we will be okay and God will consider us right with him
- Licence. This isn’t so obvious, but we can end up being liberal in our response. This happens when I see the New Covenant detached from the Old Testament. I fail to read the two together and so assume the old has no relevance to me.
- Theonomism happens when we equate Israel with our own nation today and try to apply the laws and constitution directly.
- The Prosperity Gospel looks for the physical blessings enjoyed by Israel and seeks to acquire them through mechanistic, ritualistic or legalistic means.
However remember that the prophets point to Christ as the fulfilment of the Law and the representative of Israel. So the blessings first of all fall on him. He is the obedient son who faithfully keeps his Father’s Law.
This is important because as we saw at the start, blessing is linked to obedience. I believe that there is something to be said about sanctification here. We do enjoy the blessings of living in the presence of the living God as we faithfully trust and obey him. However, we are all too aware of the problem of sin. We cannot obey perfectly for ourselves. The doctrine of Justification therefore emphasises that we need a righteousness that we don’t possess ourselves. So, Paul insists that this is Christ’s righteousness, not our own and it is credited to us through faith. This is sometimes referred to as “imputed righteousness. The idea is that Christ is obedient on our behalf as our representative. We are united to him in faith so that his righteousness becomes our righteousness. Just as Christ becomes sin for us, we can become the righteousness of God.
Christ then is also the one who is honoured and commands the worship of nations. Christ is the one who is fruitful so that he brings many sons to glory. His own resurrection is the first fruit of a great harvest.
At the same time, remember that the New Covenant includes us as in Christ. The blessings of this covenant are applied to us in Christ. It means that the church is a people, called out and assembled from the World, distinct, exalted, made visible. Remember that this does not mean political, economic or military power, it is about being recognised as God’s people.
Reading the Old Covenant through New Covenant eyes should help us to apply it to our own context. We can expect fruitfulness in Christian labour. We should not confuse this with worldly views of success but we should expect a harvest, we should expect to see people coming to faith and we should expect discipleship to lead to spiritual growth in our own lives and in the lives of others.
We know that the enemy has been defeated too. Scattered in seven directions, there is no come back for Satan. Christ is victorious. We can look to God for victory in daily spiritual warfare as well.
If the Old Covenant ceremony pointed to fruitfulness in obedience to the creation mandate, we can expect new covenant faithfulness to point to fruitfulness in obedience to the Great Commission. This isn’t to say that there won’t be challenging times, it isn’t to guarantee that our own local church will; grow but it is to say that God’s kingdom will bear the intended fruit.