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SANCTIONS OF THE LAW IN DEUTERONOMY. THE BLESSING AND THE CURSE.
Almost every specific portion of the Law in Scripture has a passage of this kind at the end. The code in Exodus 21-23 ends with a declaration of rewards and punishments (Exodus 23:20-33). The laws of holiness, ceremonial and moral, in Leviticus, are closed by chapter 26. This book of Deuteronomy, more profound and more spiritual in its teaching, and more earnest in its exhortation than all the rest of the Law, closes with this denunciation—the most tremendous in all Scripture—of the consequences of disobedience in detail. The Sermon on the Mount, the law of the New Testament, closes with a passage that astonished the hearers by its authority (Matthew 7:21-27). The exhortations of our Lord’s ministry, both public and private, have a similar close: for Israel in Matthew 23:0, for the disciples in Matthew 25:0. And the Epistle to the Hebrews, the last appeal to the Jewish nation in God’s word, has a similar passage in Hebrews 12:0, before the final exhortations and salutations. Finally, the Apocalypse itself puts the same kind of close to all Scripture in Revelation 22:10-19.
We may divide this chapter into four parts.
First, the blessings of obedience to the nation as God’s people, Deuteronomy 28:1-14.
Secondly, the curses of disobedience, Deuteronomy 28:15-48.
Thirdly, the prophecy of the conquest of Israel by a strange nation, and the miseries of the siege of the capital, Deuteronomy 28:49-57.
Fourthly, the continued and protracted misery of the rejected nation, Deuteronomy 28:58-68.
The remarkably prophetic character of this chapter is beyond question. Even were Deuteronomy the work (as some recent critics allege) of some later prophet, it is past all dispute that this chapter is older than the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, and the last dispersion. Eighteen centuries of misery and oppression, with but short intervals, have branded the truth of this Scripture on the mind of Israel. From this argument there is no escape. No thoughtful Jew denies that the present condition of the nation is the fulfilment of this curse. It must be observed, however, as a most significant fact, that this chapter does not form the close of the Pentateuch. Another covenant is made with Israel after this. And Moses departed with words of blessing on his lips. (See on Deuteronomy 29:1.)
Every one who takes note of the proportions of this chapter according to the fourfold division indicated above, will at once see that, verbally, the curse is larger than the blessing. Why is this? Possibly, because the rebellions and disasters of Israel while under the Sinaitic covenant were to cover a larger number of years than their prosperity. But reason. The curses of God’s broken law in this world, however extended and varied in their operation, are describable and finite. But His love is indescribable and infinite, and were all the blessings of His love to be described in detail, the whole Bible would not have sufficed for the first fourteen verses of this chapter of Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy 28:1-14. BLESSINGS OF OBEDIENCE.
(1) Will set thee on high.—Literally, will make thee Most High, using a name of God, as in Deuteronomy 26:19. Compare what is said of Jerusalem. “She (Jerusalem) shall be called Jehovah-Tzidkenu” (Jeremiah 33:16), and “the name of the city from that day shall be Jehovah-Shammah” (Ezekiel 48:35), and “I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God” (Revelation 3:12), and “His Name shall be in their foreheads” (Revelation 22:4).
(2) And overtake thee.—A beautiful expression, i.e., shall come home to thee, and impress the heart with the thought of God’s love and of His promises, even when it is least expected. Comp. Zechariah 1:6. “My words and my statutes, did they not take hold of (i.e., overtake) your fathers? and they returned and said, Like as the Lord of hosts thought to do unto us . . . so hath he dealt with us.” The opposite is true also of the curses (Deuteronomy 28:15).
(5) Thy basket—(Only here and in Deuteronomy 28:17, and Deuteronomy 26:2; Deuteronomy 26:4)—i.e., the portion which is brought out for the present occasion. Thy store, that which is left, and put away for future use. But this view rests upon the LXX. translation of the word for “store.” All the Targums, and all the Jewish commentators I have been able to consult, and the lexicons also, take a different view. The word is identical in form with that used for “kneading troughs” in Exodus 8:3; Exodus 12:34. And so the contrast is taken to be, either (1) between firstfruits in their natural condition (Deuteronomy 26:2) and the dough offered when already prepared for food, as in the wave-loaves (Leviticus 23:17); or (2) between the basket in which the corn is carried and the receptacle for the meal or dough, or (as Rashi takes it) between the vessel for things moist and the vessel for things dry. But the view taken by the LXX. is as old as any, and the contrast indicated by “basket” and “store” is simpler and more comprehensive than that which is drawn from a reference to the details of the law. The Authorised Version is, therefore, distinctly to be preferred, in my opinion. There are other technical reasons, which cannot be given here.
(6) When thou comest in . . . and when thou goest out.—These words may apply to the details of life, or they may have a further meaning, as the eisodus of Christ was His entrance into this world’s labour, and His exodus His departure (Acts 13:24; Luke 9:31). Rashi says, “So that thy departure from the world shall be like thine entrance into it, sinless.” (The Jews, as a whole, do not believe in original sin.)
(7) And flee before thee seven ways.—“So is the custom of them that are terrified, to flee, scattering in every direction” (Rashi). See the story of the flight of the Midianites (Judges 7:21-22), and of the Syrians (2 Kings 7:7).
(8) Thy storehouses.—The word is only found here and in Proverbs 3:9-10, “Honour the Lord with thy substance, and with the firstfruits of all thine increase: so shall thy barns be filled with plenty, and thy presses shall burst out with new wine.” There is the same kind of contrast here which has been already pointed out in Deuteronomy 28:5. The “gathering in” to the barn, and the “putting forth” of the hand—the income and the expenditure—are alike blessed. This contrast is clear in the Hebrew words employed.
And he shall bless thee in the land.—Fixity of tenure in the Divine inheritance is promised here.
(9) The Lord shall establish thee an holy people—i.e., shall “maintain” thee in that position or shall “raise thee up” into it, and exalt thee to it, in its fullest sense. The word here employed has branched out into two lines of thought. In Jewish literature it has taken the sense of permanence and perpetuity. Through the LXX. translation it has given birth to the New Testament word for “resurrection.” (See Note on Deuteronomy 18:18, and comp. Acts 3:26; 2 Samuel 7:12; 1 Chronicles 17:11.)
(10) That thou art called.—Literally, that the name of Jehovah has been called upon thee.
And they shall be afraid of thee.—Comp. Jeremiah 33:9 : “And they shall fear and tremble for all the goodness and for all the prosperity, that I procure unto it” (Jerusalem).
(11) In goods.—Rather, in good or goodness, i.e., in prosperity. “Goodness” in Jeremiah 33:9.
(12) The Lord shall open unto thee his good treasure, the heaven to give the rain.—The Jews have a saying that, “There are three keys in the hand of the Holy One, blessed be He! which He hath not intrusted to the hand of a messenger, and they are these, the key of the rains, the key of birth, and the key of the resurrection of the dead.” The key of the rain, as it is written (Deuteronomy 28:12), “Jehovah shall open to thee His good treasure,” &c. (from the Talmudic treatise, Ta’anith, p. 20, b).
(14) And thou shalt not go aside.—It is possible, of course, to connect this sentence with the “if” in Deuteronomy 28:13, “If that thou hearken and do not go aside.” But the LXX., and apparently the Targums also, begin a fresh sentence with this verse. The idea that obedience begets obedience is by no means foreign to the Jewish mind. There are many passages in their literature which contain the thought expressed so forcibly in Revelation 22:11, “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still . . . and he that is holy, let him be holy still.”
Deuteronomy 28:15-48. THE CURSE OF DISOBEDIENCE.
(15) But it shall come to pass.—The following verses to the end of 48 are the contrast to the first fourteen, which declare the blessings of obedience.
(16-19) Cursed. . . .—Here we have the counterpart of Deuteronomy 28:3-6, inclusive. The only difference is in the position of “the basket and the store” which come one place earlier in the curses than in the blessings.
(20) Cursing, vexation, and rebuke.—Deficiency, and anxiety, and failure in every enterprise, would convey the idea, according to another interpretation. There are two views of the derivation of the first of the three words employed. Probably the Authorised Version is right. The three words have each of them the definite article in the original, just as if they were so many diseases. “The curse, and the terror, and the rebuke” of the Almighty are terrible obstacles to any human undertaking.
In all that thou settest thine hand unto for to do.—Literally, in every putting forth of thine hand which thou makest, i.e., in every undertaking. This is the opposite of Deuteronomy 28:8.
Thou hast forsaken me.—Moses and Jehovah are here identified. This is characteristic. The prophets say, “Thus saith the Lord.” Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, sometimes exhorts Israel in His name without any such introduction. (Comp. the phrase “to forsake Moses” (literally, apostasy from Moses) in Acts 21:21.)
(21) The pestilence.—One of God’s four sore judgments to be sent upon Jerusalem (Ezekiel 14:19-21).
Until he have consumed thee from off the land.—From Deuteronomy 28:21-35, inclusive, we seem to be reading of the gradual consumption of Israel “in the land of promise” before any actual captivity.
(22) Consumption.—Only here and in Leviticus 26:16. “With which the flesh is consumed and puffed out” (Rashi).
Fever.—Only here and in Leviticus 26:16, where it is rendered “burning ague.” ( Comp. Deuteronomy 32:22 : “A fire is kindled in mine anger.”)
Inflammation.—Here only. The word is derived from a verb signifying to burn, or pursue hotly, like a fire that hastens on its way. “A heat greater than the fever” (Rashi).
Extreme burning.—Here only. “A disease which heats the body inwardly” (Rashi).
Blasting and mildew.—“I have smitten you with blasting and with mildew” (Amos 4:9, same words). (See also 1 Kings 8:37, where “pestilence, blasting, and mildew” are contemplated as possibilities, very probably in view of this curse. Also Haggai 2:17.)
(23) Thy heaven . . . shall be brass, and the earth . . . iron.—Not only in respect of the drought, but of God’s refusal to remove it. See Jeremiah 14:15 for a most pathetic intercession for Israel under this misery, answered by the order, “Pray not for this people for their good” (Jeremiah 14:11). Only grief is permitted (Deuteronomy 28:17). Relief is not given (Deuteronomy 15:1).
(24) Powder and dust.—The great desert, which lies on the eastern frontier of Palestine, makes this only too possible.
(25) The contrary to Deuteronomy 28:7.
Removed.—Literally, a removing. The LXX. in this place has διασπορά, or dispersion, the word used for the dispersed Israelites in the New Testament. (See Revised Version, John 7:35; 1 Peter 1:1.) The threat is repeated in Jeremiah 15:4 for the sins of king Manaseeh.
(26) And thy carcase shall be meat.—Repeated in Jeremiah 7:33, and to be fulfilled in Tophet, when they had buried until there was no more room. (Comp. also Jeremiah 15:3.)
No man shall fray (i.e., frighten) them away.—Not even a woman like Rizpah, who at the foot of the gallows watched her children’s bodies for half the year, and “suffered neither the birds of the air to rest on them by day, nor the beasts of the field by night” (2 Samuel 21:10). There shall be no one to do it.
(27) The botch of Egypt.—The “boil,” with which the Egyptians were plagued (Exodus 9:9, &c.) is the same word. (See also 2 Kings 20:7; Job 2:7.) Rashi says of this boil, “It was very bad, being moist on the inside, and dry outside.” A learned Dalmatian Jew, with whom I have read this passage, tells me that he has seen many cases of this kind among the Hungarian and Polish Jews, and that it prevails among them, being traceable partly to their uncleanliness.
Emerods—i.e., hœmorrhoids (as in 1 Samuel 5:6).
The scab.—In Leviticus 21:20; Leviticus 22:22 “scurvy.” It would make both a priest and a victim unclean, and unfit for the service of Jehovah.
The itch.—Here only. “A dry ulcer like a sherd” (Rashi).
Whereof thou canst not be healed.—Not that these things are in themselves incurable, but that they should have them incurably.
(28) Madness, and blindness, and astonishment.—The three words are all found in Zechariah 12:4
But in that place the threat seems directed against the enemies of Jerusalem (see Deuteronomy 30:7).
(29) Thou shalt not prosper in thy ways.—The exact opposite is promised to Joshua (Deuteronomy 1:8) if he follows the Book of the Law. (Comp. Isaiah 29:10-14.) When men find it no longer possible to follow the word of God, it is written that “the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid.”
Oppressed.—The children of Israel and of Judah were “oppressed “together (Jeremiah 50:33). But it is added, “Their Redeemer is strong” (Deuteronomy 28:34).
Spoiled.—The word occurs again in Deuteronomy 28:31 : “Violently taken away.”
(31) Thou shalt have none to rescue.—Here and in Deuteronomy 28:29 the Hebrew literally is, “Thou shalt have no Saviour.” The times of oppression before the several judges were raised up, who are called saviours, must often have temporarily fulfilled these anticipations.
(32) Thy sons and thy daughters.—The language of this verse is perhaps the most pathetic piece of description in the whole chapter. Many of the nations bordering on Israel were accustomed when they made inroads to take away, not only the cattle, but the children for slaves. Another equally pathetic passage in Jeremiah touches on the very same thing. “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children, refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.” And it would not always be said, as it was then, “they shall come again from the land of the enemy” (Jeremiah 31:15-17).
Thine eyes shall . . . fail—i.e., shall consume. “All longing after that which comes not is called consumption of the eyes” (Rashi).
And there shall be no might in thine hand.—The Hebrew phrase here is very remarkable. It occurs also in Genesis 31:29. “It is in the power of mine hand to do you hurt.” But it means, literally, thou shalt have no hand toward God, i.e., “thou shalt not be able to lift a hand to Him.” We may compare Jacob wrestling with the angel, and Moses in the fight with Amalek: “When he held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed.” Some would perhaps explain the phrase in another way; but this explanation is thoroughly in accordance with the genius of the Hebrew language, and I have good authority for it. Hezekiah said, “Mine eyes fail with looking upward.” Here the eyes fail with looking, but cannot look up.
(33) A nation which thou knowest not.—Comp. Jeremiah 5:15-17, “A nation whose language thou knowest not . . . shall eat up thy harvest and thy bread” &c.
(35) A sore botch.—A boil, as in Deuteronomy 28:27.
In the knees.—Comp. Ezekiel 7:17; Ezekiel 21:7, “All knees shall be weak as water.”
(36) Thee, and thy king that thou shalt set over thee.—Comp. Deuteronomy 17:14. The former passage is not the only one in which Moses shows his fore knowledge that Israel would have a king. But could any later writer have concealed his knowledge that there were two kingdoms, or have avoided all allusion to the throne of David in passages like these?
Several kings went into captivity. Jehoahaz was taken to Egypt; Jeconiah and Zedekiah to Babylon. Hoshea’s fate is not recorded in Scripture; but he was taken (apparently) with Samaria by the Assyrians.
Shalt thou serve other gods, wood and stone.—See Note on Deuteronomy 4:28.
(37) And thou shalt become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword.—This verse is the contrary to Deuteronomy 28:10. It was verified in the first captivity, and did not wait for the last dispersion. (See 1 Kings 9:7-9, where the threat is repeated; Jeremiah 42:18; Ezekiel 36:20-22.)
(38-42) These are the contrary to Deuteronomy 28:11; and Deuteronomy 28:44 is the contrary to Deuteronomy 28:12-13. From the order of the passage it might seem that these particular troubles were to come on Israel after their captivity. And perhaps it is not accidental that something very like a fulfilment of Deuteronomy 28:38-40 is found in Haggai 1:6-11. (Comp. also Isaiah 5:10, “Ten acres of vineyard shall yield one bath, and the seed of an homer shall yield an ephah.”)
(45) Till thou be destroyed.—Not exterminated. The root meaning of the word is connected with “smiting,” and the idea seems to be to crush. (Comp. 2 Kings 13:7 : “The king of Syria had destroyed them, and had made them like the dust by threshing.”) This kind of destruction is consistent with what follows in Deuteronomy 28:46, and also at the end of Deuteronomy 28:48.
Deuteronomy 28:49-57. CONQUEST OF ISRAEL BY A STRANGE NATION. MISERIES OF THE SIEGE.
(49) The Lord shall bring a nation against thee.—Comp. “Lo, I will bring a nation upon you from far, O house of Israel, saith the Lord: it is a mighty nation, an ancient nation, a nation whose language thou knowest not, neither understandest what they say” (Jeremiah 5:15). In this instance the Chaldseans were intended, “that bitter and hasty nation” (Habakkuk 1:6).
As swift as the eagle flieth.—The eagles of Rome may be alluded to here. And of the Chaldæans it is said, “They shall fly as the eagle that hasteth to eat” (Habakkuk 1:8).
Whose tongue thou shalt not understand.—I am told by a learned Jewish friend that (excellent linguists as the Jews often are) hundreds of the people never attain the least acquaintance with the tongue of the countries where they are dispersed, and seem to lose the power of doing so. I have myself been surprised by more than one example, even in London, of their being wholly unable to take up the commonest matter of business when presented to them in an English way. It is not from lack of ability, but from a kind of paralysis of the understanding, except within a certain range of thought.
(50) Which shall not regard the person of the old, nor show favour to the young.—Comp. 2 Chronicles 36:17, “The king of the Chaldecs had no compassion upon young man or maiden, old man or him that stooped for age; and Lamentations 5:12, “Princes are hanged up by their hand: the faces of elders were not honoured.”
(52) And he shall besiege thee in all thy gates.—The siege of the last two “fenced cities” by Nebuchadnezzar’s army is mentioned in Jeremiah 34:7. The siege and capture of Jotapata by the Romans, in spite of all the efforts of the Jews to defend it, is specially recorded by Josephus.
(53) Thou shalt eat the fruit of thine own body.—Specially confirmed in the siege of Samaria by the Syrians (2 Kings 6:26-29; but see on Deuteronomy 28:56), and also in Jerusalem when besieged by Nebuchadnezzar. (See Lamentations 2:20; Lamentations 4:10.)
(55) So that he will not give to any of them.-A complication of horrors is here described. They shall eat some of their children and refuse to share even this food with those that are left.
(56) The tender and delicate woman.—This was fulfilled to the very letter in the case of Mary of Beth-ezob in the siege of Jerusalem by Titus. The story is told with horrible minuteness by Josephus, and again by Eusebius in his Church History. The secrecy of the deed was one of its horrors.
(58, 59) See Note on Deuteronomy 25:2-3.
This glorious and fearful name, the Lord thy God.—The first Note of the Decalogue is here referred to, as the great curse of the Law draws to its close. It is no light matter when the Almighty says to any people or to any person, “I am Jehovah thy God.” They who are His must obey Him, love Him, and acknowledge Him. He will not be mocked. Never did He in all history “assay to go and take Him a nation” from the midst of other nations as he took Israel. Hence these tremendous consequences.
Of long continuance.—Eighteen hundred years have they lasted, and seem to be breaking out afresh now (1882) as though they were in full force. “To chastise thee permanently is their mission” (Rashi).
(60) The diseases of Egypt, which thou wast afraid of.—Contrast Exodus 15:26. “If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of Jehovah . . . I will put none of these diseases of Egypt which thou knowest, upon thee; for I am Jehovah, that healeth thee” But, on the other hand, it is said (Ezekiel 7:9), “Ye shall know that I am Jehovah that smiteth.” eJehovah-Rophêka and Jehovah-Makkeh are one Jehovah.
(61) Every sickness and every plague (or “smiting;” Heb., Makkah) which is not written.—Well might the Apostle write, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
(63) As the Lord rejoiced over you.—See on Deuteronomy 30:9.
(64) And the Lord shall scatter thee among all people.—Fulfilled, literally, in this last dispersion.
Thou shalt serve other gods.—We do not know of Israel’s falling into actual idolatry in dispersion, except in Egypt (Jeremiah 44:17), and possibly in Babylon (Ezekiel 14:22-23. Comp. Deuteronomy 33:25). But they were slaves to the worshippers of other gods.
(65) And among these nations shalt thou find no ease.—The repeated persecutions of the Jews by other nations in the time of their dispersion are among the most fearful and wonderful phenomena of history.
And failing of eyes.—“Looking for salvation, and it cometh not” (Rashi). How many years have they gone on praying that they may keep the feast “next year” in Jerusalem? and still the hope is deferred.
(66) Thy life shall hang in doubt before thee.—“Perhaps 1 shall die to-day by the sword that cometh upon me” (Rashi).
(67) Thou shalt say.—The Talmud expounds this of the constant increase of trouble. Yesterday evening this morning was longed for. To-day the trouble is more terrible, and every hour adds to the curse. But the description in the text needs nothing to augment its horrors.
(68) The Lord shall bring thee into Egypt again with ships.—Josephus says this was done with many of the Jews by Titus.
Thou shalt see it no more again.—Deuteronomy 17:16.
Ye shall be sold . . . and no man shall buy you.—Rashi explains thus: “Ye shall desire to be sold—ye shall offer yourselves as slaves to your enemies, and shall be refused, because you are appointed to slaughter and destruction. Or the sellers shall sell you to other sellers, and no one will care to keep you.” But the same word is used in the following passage by Nehemiah, “We after our ability have redeemed our brethren the Jews, which were sold to the heathen” (Nehemiah 5:8). Probably the meaning in Deuteronomy is similar: “Ye shall be sold as slaves to your enemies, and there will be no one to redeem you.”
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 28". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19