If, however, you do not obey the LORD your God by carefully following all His commandments and statutes I am giving you today, all these curses will come upon you and overtake you:
1. By conscience. The criminal cannot divest himself of the belief that avenging powers are following on his track.
2. By experience. "Rarely," says Horace, "has Punishment, though lame, failed to overtake the criminal fleeing before her." Greek tragedy rests on an induction from the facts of life.
3. By mythology. It was a conviction, true alike to conscience and the facts of life, which the Greeks sought to personify in the Erinyes, in Nemesis, and in Ate, who clung to a man or to a family in punishment for some half-forgotten crime.
4. By literature, which is full of the recognition of avenging powers. The Bible confirms the substance of this varied teaching, but lifts the subject out of the region of mythology. Jehovah alone has power to bless and curse. The blessings and curses of men have no efficacy save as he gives it to them. His blessings and curses are part of the moral government of the world, and turn exclusively on moral conditions. This is the contrast between the Bible and the heathen idea of a curse. The curse was a prominent part of heathen sorcery, but was wrought with charms and incantations. Protection against it was sought, not in a life of virtue, but in counter-charms and amulets - in conjurations more powerful than those of the enemy. The Bible countenances no such superstitions. Incantations are valueless. A curse is futile against those whom God has blessed (Numbers 23:20-23). The Bible doctrine is:
That of heathenism (with its modern survivals, the evil eye, charms, witches, etc.) is conspicuously the reverse.
I. THE CURSE IN ITS NATURE.
1. A natural fruit of sin. Natural process is not the whole. But a larger place may be allowed it than it had in the blessing. The blessing is "gift;" sin's fruit is of "debt" - "wages" (Romans 6:23). Conceivably, yet without miracle, God might have withheld from virtue its appropriate outward reward. But no power, even that of God, could prevent the sinner from reaping wretchedness and woe as a result of sin. "The righteous shall be recompensed in the earth; much more the wicked and the sinner" (Proverbs 11:31). The wiser course is not to oppose God to the laws of our moral nature, but to recognize him in them, and to draw from them a knowledge of his character and will. These, like all punitive laws, are the executors of his judgments. The sinner, having placed himself in conflict with the laws of life, of society, and of the outward universe, necessarily suffers in mind, body, and estate. Sin introduces discord, disorder, lawlessness, into the soul. It blinds and infatuates (vers. 28, 29). It makes wretched. This wretchedness is aggravated:
(1) By remorse and self-reproach.
(2) By sense of Divine anger.
(3) By opprobrium of society.
(4) By imaginative terrors.
Sin poisons the fountains of health, and induces diseases (vers. 22, 27, 85). The internal anarchy spreads outwards. The bonds of society are loosened; wealth accumulates in the hands of the few; the unhappy toilers, oppressed and spoiled, sink deeper and deeper in debt and wretchedness. At this stage the nation becomes an easy prey to the first strong power that cares to pounce upon it (vers. 29-38).
2. An effect of hostile action on the part of God. We fail of a complete view if we look only at the hostile relation of the sinner to God, and leave out of account the hostile relation which God assumes to the sinner. It is not merely that the sinner gets into conflict with himself and with the world around him, but nature and providence, under the direction of a hostile will, take up an antagonistic relation to him. Their movements are no longer for his good, but hostile and retributive (vers. 20-24). So the mental maladies of ver. 28 are more than the merely natural effects of sin (cf. 1 Kings 22:22). "The inquiring mind," says Dr. M'Cosh, "will discover designed combinations, many and wonderful, between the various events of Divine providence. What singular unions of two streams at the proper place to help on the exertions of the great and good! What curious intersections of cords to catch the wicked, as in a net, when they are prowling as wild beasts! By strange but most apposite correspondences, human strength, when set against the will of God, is made to waste away under his indignation, burning against it, as, in heathen story, Meleager wasted away as the stick burned which his mother held in the fire." Laws of nature are the warp, Divine providence the woof, of this awful garment of the curse with which the sinner clothes himself.
II. THE CURSE IN ITS OPERATION. Pictured in these verses in ample and vivid detail. The counterpart of the blessing (vers. 15-26). Takes effect in misfortune (ver. 20), sore diseases (vers. 21, 22), scouring by natural agencies (vers. 23, 24), invasions by enemies (vers. 25, 26). Action and reaction lead to the reproduction of these evils in aggravated forms. To worse bodily plagues (ver. 27) are superadded mental maladies (vers. 28, 29), issuing in renewed panic and defeat in war (ver. 29), with innumerable resultant calamities (vers. 30-33). Confusion and anarchy unite with oppression to produce madness of heart (ver. 34), disease pursues its ravages in forms of increasing malignity (ver. 35), and the nation ultimately sinks in total ruin (vers. 36, 37). Meanwhile, co-operating with these causes to reduce it to subjection, the curse has been working in all labor and enterprise, thwarting, blasting, destroying (vers. 43, 44; cf. Amos 4:6-12; Haggai 1:5-12; Malachi 2:2). The full terribleness of the Divine curse, however, is only brought out in the New Testament. As the re-laden of God to the soul goes deeper than life in the world, so it extends beyond it. The worse part of the curse is the sinking of the soul in its own corruptions, with the drying up of its possibilities of life, peace, and joy, under the weight of the Divine displeasure - an experience of "indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile" (Romans 2:8, 9). Happily, no man in this life knows what the full extent of that curse is (Isaiah 57:16). A remedial system is in operation, in virtue of which no soul is utterly deserted of grace, and even the natural workings of sin are manifoldly checked, limited, and counteracted. Space is thus given for repentance, and salvation is possible. The end, however, if the riches of this goodness and forbearance are despised, will only be the more terrible (Romans 2:3-10).
III. THE CURSE IS ITS CAUSES. Sin, disobedience (vers. 45, 46). The curses written in this book were literally fulfilled. Israel would not serve the Lord with joyfulness and gladness of heart, therefore - sad retribution! - she had to serve her enemies "in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things" (ver. 48; cf. the prodigal son, Luke 15:14-17). All sin ends in bondage. Nations that imitate Israel in her sins may expect to be made like her in her punishment. - J.O.
Discourses on Prophecy, uses the following beautiful illustration when speaking of modern Jews. Present in all countries, with a home in none; intermixed, and yet separated; and neither amalgamated nor lost, but, like those mountain streams which are said to pass through lakes of another kind of water, and keep a native quality to repel commixture; they hold communication without union, and may be traced as rivers without banks, in the midst of the alien element which surrounds them.
1. Look, first, at the intensity of the sufferings which it denounces upon the Jewish race. The prophet seems to labour under the weight of the theme, and strives to give it adequate expression, as though it were beyond his power. There is scarcely anything that could go to heighten human anguish bodily and mental that is not thrown into the frightful conglomeration, to make up such an assemblage of miseries as was hardly ever elsewhere known or imagined. Dante's pictures are terrific, but they are dispersed and distributed into portions, and every man has his own torment, from which other sufferers are exempt. But Moses concentrates his, and pours them all in one terrible mixture on the same devoted head. War, pestilence, and famine in their extremest terrors combine to swell the bitter grief, until they rise to those intolerable anguishes in which the bonds of society are dissolved, human sympathies are quenched, natural affection obliterated, and society transformed into a herd of ravening wolves, preying on one another without conscience and without pity. And this horrid state of things is to be without respite, affording no moment of relief; so that men are driven to madness, and rave with the frantic incoherence of despair. And now, if we turn to the page of history, we find the correspondence exact to a wonderful degree. No more revolting picture of human misery, and of the demoralisation and unhumanising effect of extreme distress is anywhere to be found in the annals of the world than that which is exhibited in the last days of Jerusalem as the accounts of it have come down to us. What in the prophecy might have seemed antecedently impossible, the faithful record of history has shown to be possible, because actual.
If thou wilt not hearken.
I. WE KNOW THAT THE WORDS OF THE TEXT CAME TRUE. We know that the Jews did perish out of their native land, as the author of this book foretold, in consequence of doing that against which Moses warned them. We know also that they did not perish by any miraculous intervention of providence, but simply as any other nation would have perished — by profligacy, internal weakness, civil war, and, at last, by foreign conquest. We know that their destruction was the natural consequence of their own folly. Why are we to suppose that the prophet meant anything but that? He foretells the result. Why are we to suppose that he did not foresee the means by which that result would happen? For even in this life the door of mercy may be shut, and we may cry in vain for mercy when it is the time for justice. This is not merely a doctrine: it is a fact; a common, patent fact. Men do wrong, and escape, again and again, the just punishment of their deeds; but how often there are cases in which a man does not escape; when he is filled with the fruit of his own devices, and left to the misery which he has earned; when the covetous and dishonest man ruins himself past all recovery; when the profligate is left in a shameful old age, with worn-out body and defiled mind, to rot into an unhonoured grave; when the hypocrite who has tampered with his conscience is left without any conscience at all. They have chosen the curse, and the curse is come upon them to the uttermost. So it is. Is the Commination Service uncharitable, is the preacher uncharitable, when they tell men so?
II. TRULY TERRIBLE AND HEART-SEARCHING FOR THE WRONG-DOER IS THE MESSAGE — GOD DOES NOT CURSE THEE: THOU HAST CURSED THYSELF. God will not go out of His way to punish thee; thou hast gone out of His way, and thereby thou art punishing thyself. Just as, by abusing the body, thou bringest a curse upon it; so by abusing thy soul. God does not break His laws to punish drunkenness or gluttony. The laws of nature, the beneficent laws of life, nutrition, growth, and health, they punish thee; and kill by the very same means by which they make alive. And so with thy soul, thy character, thy humanity.
III. LET US BELIEVE THAT GOD'S GOOD LAWS AND GOD'S GOOD ORDER ARE IN THEMSELVES AND OF THEMSELVES THE CURSE AND PUNISHMENT OF EVERY SIN OF OURS; and that Ash Wednesday, returning year after year, whether we be glad or sorry, good or evil, bears witness to that most awful and yet most blessed fact.
(C. Kingsley, M. A.)
2. Look next at their dispersion, almost as wonderful as their miseries. This, too, Moses explicitly foretells (vers. 64, 65). Alone of peoples that inhabit the earth, foreigners everywhere, having no country that they call their own, and dwelling in all countries as a distinct element in their society, nay, always a society that adheres to general society only by a kind of parasitical life, sucking strength from its substance without assimilating to its character, it is a sort of mistletoe that drapes the branches of trees, and lives upon their sap, but sends no roots into the earth to draw from the soil a life of its own.
3. And now, finally, look at his preservation. I mean his preservation as a Jew. His physiognomy everywhere tells the tale of his lineage. And yet never was a people so unfavourably situated for the preservation of its identity. They did not go out in colonies to any considerable extent. Units they have been, floating like waifs and strays upon the great ocean of human society. Yet wherever he strays, there is the Jew, unabsorbed, unamalgamated, unmistakably a Jew. National bounds hedge in nations, and with some admixtures preserve substantially national marks and qualities. But this is a nation that has no such protection, without a country, without a home. Yet it remains a nation; and there is not another nation in all the limits of civilisation today that can boast so pure a blood, so unmixed and genuine a pedigree.
1. A lesson of danger. If the Israelites were punished beyond other men, it was because they had been favoured beyond other men. Privilege and responsibility are correspondent and parallel. The sins of Christians are far worse than the like sins of heathens, more criminal, more dangerous (Romans 11:20, 21).
2. A lesson of duty. None can look upon the ancient people of God in their fallen condition, it might seem, without sensibility and compassion. God has made their fall an occasion of benefit to the Gentile world. "We have obtained mercy through their unbelief." The fall broke through the wall that threatened to confine Christianity within the narrow precincts of Jewish pride and prejudice, and gave it to "have free course and be glorified." Surely, however, it becomes us not to look coldly or scornfully on the disfranchised heir.
(R. A. Hallam, D. D.)
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