August 23, 2014.
“See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside from the way that I am commanding you today, to go after other gods that you have not known.”
This was the admonition that the Lord set before the children of Israel after giving them the Law, which is described as a blessing and a curse. Perhaps it is a little confusing for those who are not very familiar with the Old Testament. How could something given by God be considered a curse? Or perhaps even, how can law be considered a blessing? Today we are going to discuss the blessing and curse of the law and the great divorce that ultimately ended up happening.
Israel was a special nation. They were chosen as God’s people through their father Abraham and more specifically through Jacob, who’s name was later changed to Israel. When God made a convenient with the children of Israel, the implications run deep about who they became in comparison to the rest of the nations of the world. Though this may seem harsh to us in our culture, Israel was supposed to be a light to the other nations, giving glory to God and establishing the God of Israel as the one and only God. In many cases they did this, such as in the glorious epics of King David or Elijah, in the wisdom of King Solomon and even in the reluctant preaching of Jonah to save the nation of Nineveh from destruction. Just as the spiritual kingdom of Israel today, Christians, are supposed to be lights to the world, so were the Israelites. The proximity to God that this nation gained though this covenant was a blessing far above what we can even imagine. It was not to be taken lightly.
On top of the proximity to God, how much of a blessing is it to know that God is on your side? There is a very well known passage in the New Testament that encourages the minds of so many Christians daily.
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”
Just as we go to this verse for comfort and strength, so to could the Israelites gain the same comfort and strength when they were in a good relationship with God Almighty. What a blessing this is. And God was giving it to the children of Israel because he had chosen them as his people though whom he would bless the whole world, all nations, with the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ, who would give himself as a ransom for many. This was the blessing of the covenant, that they could approach the Lord God and serve him, and he would bless them among the nations.
But you might say, “How can law be a blessing?” There is not an easy answer that I can point to for this one. It is an answer that makes sense when you understand it and doesn’t make much sense when you don’t. I can understand the aversion to holding to a law that we would think “limits our freedom,” especially with our minds biased by the spirit and ideology of America. But the law was not there to take away fun for Israel, but rather it was put in place in order to manage sin until the son of Man could be revealed and redeem them. The law was there for the good of the people, and in many cases protected them from disease and death that they didn’t even know about (if you are interested, you can study the types of foods that Jews were forbidden to eat and compare that list to one with poisonous and disease prone food). But even more than that, the law gave the Jews a connection to the Lord that the other nations didn’t have. God had basically told the Jews, “If you want to serve me, I’ll tell you how to do it.” This might not seem important to us, but that was a big deal. The other “gods” of the surrounding nations did not make things that easy for them. The “gods” of today and recent years tend not to exhibit this characteristic, unless based on roots of Christianity and/or Judaism. The God of Israel had made an effort to connect with his people, and as we will see later, this connection was intended to be so close that it was considered a marriage. What a blessing for your nation to be cared for by the Almighty.
But as with every coin, there was a flip-side of the covenant that was not pretty. A blessing and a curse was set before them that day, a blessing if they would obey and a curse if they wouldn’t. This almost seems too simple, but if we take an honest look at it, is this not what drives almost all of our interaction with people today? Are we not typically good to the people who are good to us and not as helpful to the people who do bad things to us? Whole cultures and civilizations rest on this principle. For those of you who are sociologists, I guess you could kind of refer to this as a social contract. God is faithful, and he will always keep up his side of the deal, but the curse was set before the children of Israel if they did not keep to God. If they were to turn aside to other gods, which are not gods at all, and forsake the covenant that had been made with the Almighty. If they were to commit spiritual adultery, and in effect, divorce God.
If you know much about the history of Israel, you know that there was a cycle of high and low points as the Jews struggled along their journey with God. They started off well with serving the Lord God and then when things were good, they started to fall away. Once they started committing this adultery, God would send prophets and signs in order to call his children back to him, and they would when times got rough, just to leave again when times were good. This cycle repeats itself over and over throughout the Old Testament. If you want to get a taste of the pain and love God felt for his people, you can read the book of Hosea. God’s righteous judgment is poured out, yet he cries out to his people “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? (Hos. 11:8)” Yet the cycle continued.
The great divorce.
You can read about the ups and downs of the Jewish nation in the Old Testament, and when you get to the book of Malachi, the final writing prophet before Christ. God gives a discourse to the children of Israel through Malachi about what they are doing and how they are grieving him, and then there are 400 years of silence before John steps out to prepare the way of the Lord. There is a lot of wonderful material in the book of Malachi, but I want to focus on this section that I think describes the great divorce.
“This is another thing you do: you cover the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping and with groaning, because He no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. Yet you say, ‘For what reason?’ Because the Lord has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit. And what did that one do while he was seeking a godly offspring? Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. For I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the Lord of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.” You have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet you say, “How have we wearied Him?” In that you say, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and He delights in them,” or, “Where is the God of justice?”
Notice how God describes what they have done here. They were committing spiritual adultery on him with the gods of the other nations! What vivid imagery. “For I hate divorce.” If there were a list of sins in order from least to greatest (though sin is sin and will separate us from God regardless of its caliber), I think God would put adultery on the top of the list. Spiritual adultery obviously breaks the heart of God. But his people did it over and over. So much so that God calls the prophet Hosea to take a prostitute as a wife in order to symbolize his relationship with Israel.
“And the Lord said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins.”So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley. And I said to her, “You must dwell as mine for many days. You shall not play the whore, or belong to another man; so will I also be to you.” For the children of Israel shall dwell many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod or household gods. Afterward the children of Israel shall return andseek the Lord their God, and David their king, and they shall come in fear to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days.”
God pleaded with the people through the prophets, but it did not seem to make too much of a difference to the people. Some people came back, and indeed a remnant of the people were saved, but God’s ultimate destruction and annulling of the covenant to establish a new one with all who will come. Many look to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 as God’s final judgement on Israel. Jesus prophesied about this destruction while he was on earth:
“And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. Andthey will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
The destruction of Jerusalem was indeed horrific. I’ll leave it to you to study what the Romans did to the city and how they treated the Jews. Full disclosure, it may make your stomach turn. Regardless of wether or not this was God’s ultimate judgment, his son did come to give himself as a ransom for sin on the cross so that all who will come to him will be saved. Thought him he established a new covenant, build on better promises:
“But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. […] In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”
So then, Israel was chosen by God to be his people, but they were separated from him by the curse set forth in the giving of the law, resulting in the great divorce. Now we are under a new covenant, a better covenant washed in the blood of the Lamb and it follows that we too have set before us a blessing and a curse. Which option will you take?
Suggested Daily Reading: Malachi 1-4.
Grace and peace.