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A Welcome Warning (Leviticus 26)

Introduction

We are constantly being warned. We have yellow flashing lights to warn us that we are in a school zone, and buzzing radar detectors, to tell us that a radar trap is nearby. A yellow light warns us that a red light is soon to follow. As a rule, yellow lights warn us about what is soon to happen, while red lights tell us it has happened. The flashing red lights on the dash of our cars inform us of an engine malfunction, or that an emergency vehicle is nearby, or that we are about to be cited by a policeman for violating the law.

And then there are the verbal and non-verbal warnings. Various forms of body language serve as a warning. A stern look on the face of the school teacher warns us that we had better not press our luck any further. Many warnings are spoken. Some are amusing; others pathetic and even disgusting. A frustrated mother “warns” her child that any more fussing and whining will result in a spanking. The child knows it is only a threat, so long as it doesn’t precipitate an explosion by making mom mad, or by embarrassing her too much at a time.

We are so accustomed to warnings, and so used to them proving to be groundless, that we have learned to take them in our stride—indeed, to ignore them. Leviticus 26 is one of the clearest words of warning in the Pentateuch. It is reiterated more emphatically later on in the 28th chapter of Deuteronomy. The Israelites did not heed this warning and they paid a severe penalty for doing so.

We may think that the warning found here is one that we can easily ignore. After all, we are not Israel; we do not live in the land of Canaan; and we don’t live under the Mosaic Covenant, but under the New Covenant. So then, why not simply pass by this passage, tipping our mental hats, if need be, but not getting too serious about it?

There are several reasons why this passage is vital to New Testament Christians. Quite frankly, I have agonized about a different way of saying something that you have gotten too used to hearing over the past few weeks: “This text is absolutely crucial to us …” Nevertheless, it is true. The warnings of the 26th chapter of Leviticus are vital to the New Testament Christian, just as they were to the Israelite of Moses’ day. Consider the following reasons for the importance and relevance of our text.

First, this text is the key to understanding the history of Israel. The warnings of Leviticus are an outline of Israel’s history. The consequences for sin of which our text warns are precisely those which the nation Israel experienced for her disregard of the covenant which she made with God on Mt. Sinai.

Second, Leviticus 26 is also the key to understanding the message of the prophets of Israel. The outline of the prophets of Israel seems to be taken from our text. Also, the promises of Israel’s future deliverance and restoration are rooted in the blessings and cursings of the Pentateuch.

Third, the principle underlying the promises of blessing and cursing is just as valid in our dispensation as it was in the days of Moses.

Fourth, the passage we are studying contains a great deal of instruction for parents, and for all who are required to discipline others. The principles underlying this passage, which have to do with divine discipline and human obedience, are both relevant and practical.

Fifth, this chapter does not just contain words of warning, but also some of the greatest words of hope found in the Bible. Thus, this is a text which positively encourages and motivates obedience. The more I read this chapter, the more I fall in love with it, and the deeper my sense of the hope and love which permeate it.165

There are a number of passages which are parallel to our text, in form and substance. Exodus 23:22-33 is the first instance of the promise of blessings and cursings, based upon Israel’s obedience to the Mosaic Covenant. Later, in Deuteronomy chapter 28, the blessings and cursings are repeated, in even greater detail, for that second generation of Israelites, who were about to possess the land of Canaan. Joshua 24:20 is a very brief summation of the warnings of our chapter, and the writings of the prophets reveal some direct dependence on our text (cf. Isa. 49:1ff.; Ezek. 34:25-30; 37:21-28).

These Warnings and the Culture of That Day

In form, and to some degree in content, this list of “blessings and cursings” is similar to those found at the end of other covenants of Moses’ day, made between the king (the suzerain) and his subjects (vassals).166 There are, however, some significant differences.167 I believe that it is in the unique aspects of these “blessings and cursings” that we will find the most insight and relevance for our lives.

The Structure of Our Text168

Overall, one can quickly see that Leviticus 26 has three major divisions: (1) a description of the blessings which God will pour out on His people for keeping His covenant (vv. 1-13); and (2) a description of the dire consequences—cursings—which will accompany Israel’s disobedience of the Mosaic covenant (vv. 14-39). Finally there is the concluding section (vv. 40-45), in which God reassures His people of His unfailing love. Here, there is the assurance of Israel’s ultimate restoration and blessing, based upon God’s faithfulness to His covenant with Abraham and upon Israel’s repentance.

The expression, “I am the Lord (your God),” is the structural key, which marks out each section at its conclusion (cf. vv. 13, 44, 45). The blessings are introduced by the expression, “If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments …” The cursings are initially introduced by the statement, “But if you do not obey Me … ,” and are then followed up by a statement concerning Israel’s failure or refusal to repent when God’s discipline is imposed (vv. 18, 21, 23, 27), with the added warning of being punished “seven times”169 for her disobedience (vv. 18, 24, 28).

The chapter may thus be outlined as follows:

  • Preface—Summary of the Mosaic Covenant (vv. 1-2)
  • Promised blessings for keeping the Mosaic Covenant (vv. 3-13)
  • Promised penalties for disobeying the Mosaic Covenant (vv. 14-39)
  • Promised fulfillment of Abrahamic Covenant (vv. 40-45)
  • Conclusion—Summary (v. 46)

Our Approach in This Lesson

Once again, we will not be able to analyze each verse in detail. We will begin with an overview of the three major sections of the chapter, identifying the major features of each. We will then seek to identify the principles which underlie the passage, along with their abiding application to saints through the ages. Finally, we will focus on the principle thrust of the text for saints in this age, along with some of the perversions of its teachings.

Divine Blessing: Its Causes and Characteristics
(26:1-13)

The divine blessings outlined in verses 4-13 are the result of keeping the conditions set down in verses 1-3. In its broadest definition, God’s blessings on Israel are conditioned by Israel’s keeping of the Mosaic Covenant: “If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments so as to carry them out, then I shall give you …” (Lev. 26:3-4a).

Verses 1 and 2 speak of this obedience as manifesting itself in both positive and negative ways. Negatively, the Israelites must keep themselves from the idols and the idolatry of their heathen predecessors: “‘You shall not make for yourselves idols, nor shall you set up for yourselves an image or a sacred pillar, nor shall you place a figured stone in your land to bow down to it; for I am the LORD your God’” (Lev. 26:1).

Such idols would lead to false worship, worship directed to false deities, rather than toward the God who had saved them from bondage in Egypt.

Positively stated, the Israelites should give heed to God’s sabbaths and His sanctuary: ‘“You shall keep My sabbaths and reverence My sanctuary; I am the LORD’” (Lev. 26:2). God’s people must not only abstain from making and worshipping idols, they must actively observe God’s sabbaths and revere His sanctuary. We know, of course, that other actions are required of God’s people, but this is the heart of the covenant, and is thus emphasized.170

The blessings which God promised Israel are directly related to her possession of the land of Canaan. They are largely, but not altogether, physical and material. They can be summed up in three categories: (1) PEACE; (2) PROSPERITY; (3) THE PRESENCE OF GOD.

Peace can be seen in several areas. First, there is peace from Israel’s enemies. It does not mean that there won’t be any war,171 but rather that God will grant Israel victory over her foes, and that they will not live in constant fear of attack or of defeat. There will also be peace with respect to the wild animals which could endanger the Israelites. There is a deep sense of security promised for those who keep God’s covenant.

Prosperity is principally material. Agriculturally, the Israelites will prosper because God will give them the needed rains, at the proper time, which will make their harvests bountiful.172 Also, God will give great fertility to the Israelites and to their cattle, which will cause them to prosper greatly. It should be recalled, at this point, that the religions of Canaan and the ancient Near East had fertility as a central focus. Many of the pagan gods were fertility gods. God promised prosperity and fertility, but it would come when Israel worshipped Him and avoided idolatry and heathen worship. Implied by its removal in the cursing section (v. 16) is the prosperity of good health, which enables one to enjoy the “good life.”

Finally, Israel was blessed by the presence of God in their midst. Israel was His people, and He had promised to dwell in their midst: “‘Moreover, I will make My dwelling among you, and My soul will not reject you. I will also walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people’” (Lev. 26:11-12).

One of the great issues at stake as an aftermath of Israel’s “fall” in the worship of the golden calf (Exod. 32) was whether or not God would be present with His people (cf. Exod. 33:3, 14-16; 34:9). God’s covenant with Israel promised His presence, but only of His people kept His statutes and ordinances (cf. Exod. 34:10ff.). The tabernacle and the sacrificial system was one of the prerequisites for God’s presence, and thus it is easy to see why the Israelites must “reverence His sanctuary” (Lev. 26:2).

It is my opinion that this last category of blessing, the presence of God, is the ultimate blessing, and that it is also the basis for the other blessings. God’s presence assures Israel of prosperity and peace, as His absence will bring poverty and peril. The ultimate joy of heaven is the presence of God (1 Thes. 5:17; John 14:3), just as hell is banishment from God’s presence (2 Thes. 1:9). Thus, one can truly feel blessed, even in the midst of tribulation and persecution, knowing that God is with them in their distress (cf. Ps. 73:21-28; Matt. 28:20; Heb. 13:5, 6). In God’s “absence” or removal, man brings many of the evils which Leviticus 26 describes on himself, as is the case in the progressive judgment of Romans chapter 1.

These three categories of blessing are promised to God’s people, if they but obey His commandments and keep His covenant: peace, prosperity, and God’s presence. We shall also see that these are the areas in which God’s discipline will come as a result of Israel’s disobedience and disregard for His covenant. Let us look, then, to the “cursings” of our text, which outline the consequences of disobedience.

The Consequences of Israel’s Disobedience

The “cursings” of this chapter are virtually a reversal of the promised blessings. While the cursings are presented differently, we can summarize them in terms of these same three categories:

(1) FROM PROSPERITY TO POVERTY
(2) FROM PEACE TO PERIL;
(3) FROM GOD’S PRESENCE TO HIS ABSENCE173

Instead of prosperity, disobedience will bring poverty. Initially, Israel’s crops will be consumed by raiding enemies (26:16). If Israel’s disobedience persists, as it surely will, the rains will cease, Israel’s crops will fail, and thus a famine will result (26:26). It is not stated but is likely implied that fertility will also cease.174 Not only will new life be limited by infertility, but men will be killed by hostile animals (26:22). Pestilence will kill many (26:21, 25), and eventually this people will turn against one another, resorting to cannibalism (26:29).

Instead of peace and security, disobedience will bring about insecurity, peril, and fear. Initially, Israel will suffer from the raiding attacks of some of their neighbors, who will steal their crops (26:16). Then, Israel will be defeated by her enemies and delivered into their hands, so that they are ruled by them (26:17, 25). Finally, the Israelites will be driven from the land and will live, dispersed and scattered, in the land of their conquerors (26:31-32, 36, 38). The remnant who remain in the land will suffer as much as those who are taken away (26:39). The peace and security which they could have known is traded for insecurity, fear, and constant apprehension (26:36-37).

In place of the presence of God in the midst of His people, Israel will experience a growing separation from Him. He will first set His face against His people (v. 17). Then, because His people have been hostile against Him (26:21, 23), He will become their enemy (26:24, 28). He will drive them from His sanctuary (which they have not reverenced) to the land of their enemies, far from His (perceived) presence. In their absence, the land will enjoy the sabbaths which the Israelites never observed (26:34-35).

Characteristics of the Chapter

This text provides us with a pattern and principles for discipline. Note the following characteristics of the promises of blessing and cursing which can be identified from a study of Leviticus chapter 26.

(1) The rules which God has laid down for Israel, as well as the results of obedience or disobedience, are clearly defined. The law has not only been clearly stated, it has been reiterated, illustrated, and expanded. No one could ever consider excusing their disobedience by the claim that they didn’t know what was expected of them, or that they were ignorant of the consequences of their actions.

(2) God’s standards for Israel’s conduct and the consequences for obedience or disobedience are given well in advance of punishment or blessing. As parents, it is easy to react to wrong doing, rather than to seek to prevent it. The 26th chapter of Leviticus is primarily preventative. In a different way, the Book of Proverbs attempts to accomplish the same end—the avoidance of evil by giving ample warning in advance, as well as to spell out the incentives for obeying the commandments of God. Thus, the “father” warns his “son” of the evils which lie just down the path of life, and gives his words of wisdom as to how the wise son should respond to the tests and temptations of life.

(3) The motivation of Leviticus 26 is both negative and positive. While the warnings are more emphatic and extensive than the promises of God’s blessing,175 both rewards and punishments are spelled out in this text. Israel has good reason to obey (the blessings of verses 1-13), further motivated by the painful consequences of disobedience (the cursings of verses 14-39). The purpose of this chapter is to motivate Israel to keep God’s covenant, and the best motivation, as is illustrated here, is both positive (blessings/rewards) and negative (cursings/discipline).

(4) The purpose is always positive, as is the motivation of the God who prescribes these blessings and cursings. Throughout this chapter, as gruesome as some of the warnings are, the benevolence of God is underscored. First, God’s response to Israel’s sins is to discipline176 His people, to bring them to repentance. At every stage of increasing penalty, it is due to the fact that the Israelites have not repented and turned from their disobedience (cf. vv. 18, 21, 23, 27). And, in the final outcome, God assures Israel that He will restore them, not based on their obedience to the Mosaic Covenant, but on the basis of His faithfulness to His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (vv. 40-45). Israel is always assured of God’s love and of His good intentions and purposes for His people.

(5) The consequences of Israel’s disobedience are sequentially and more progressively painful. This progression of painfulness can be seen in two ways in this chapter. First, it can be seen in the sequence of penalties outlined:

  • First stage (vv. 14-17)
  • Second stage (vv. 18-20)
  • Third stage (vv. 21-22)
  • Fourth stage (vv. 23-26)
  • Fifth stage (vv. 27-33)
  • Results of this last stage (vv. 34-39)
  • Land gets sabbaths (vv. 34-35)
  • People fear, flee, perish (vv. 36-39)

Also, when one considers the three areas of blessing and cursing, peace, prosperity, and the presence of God, the punishment for Israel’s disobedience and rebellion gets progressively worse. The repeated expression, “seven times” (vv. 18, 21, 24, 28) further emphasizes this progression. Note the intensification of divine discipline in the three areas of blessing or cursing:

  • Prosperity:
  • Crops stolen
  • No rain, crops fail, famine
  • Cattle die by wild beasts
  • Health progressively fails, finally death for many (cannibalism)
  • Peace:
  • Israel first attacked, raided by enemies
  • Then ruled by enemies
  • Then scattered to live in enemy’s land
  • Presence of God:
  • God with them
  • God sets face against them
  • God “abandons” them—expels from His land, His dwelling place

(6) Finally, God dealt with Israel’s sin and with her repentance at its roots, at the level of motivation. Israel’s disobedience is seen to be the result of her abhorrence of God’s laws (v. 15). God reaffirms His love for Israel, which is intended to encourage and stimulate Israel’s love for Him. God assures Israel of her ultimate hope, which encourages repentance and obedience. It is not mere mechanical compliance which God desires of His people, but obedience, rooted in love.

Principles of Discipline

Before pressing on, let me pause to suggest how the characteristics of this chapter apply to the problems of parenting (as well as to teachers and others who are responsible for the discipline of others). Consider the following guidelines for discipline, based upon the blessings and cursings of Leviticus 26.

(1) Make sure that rules and their consequences are clearly communicated. Before one can require a certain kind of conduct, the rules must be clearly communicated. In order to motivate men to observe this standard, the rewards for obedience and the penalties for disobedience must also be clearly stated. This must be done well in advance of the time when obedience or disobedience is dealt with. Many of us who are parents do not declare the rules until unsatisfactory conduct has occurred. Individuals can only be held accountable for what they know, and thus the Israelites were completely accountable. God’s rules were clearly spelled out, repeated, restated, clarified, and illustrated. Truly the Israelites were “without excuse.” We would be well advised to be as clear in our expectations.

(2) Don’t make threats, but promises. Don’t promise consequences which you cannot (or won’t) produce. Once we have prescribed the standards for conduct which we require and our response to obedience or disobedience to these requirements, we are obligated to follow through, to keep our word regarding our requirements. Just as the Mosaic Covenant stipulated a certain conduct on the part of the Israelites, it promised a certain conduct on God’s part. There was never any doubt about how God would respond to Israel’s actions, only a question of timing. The rules are no better than the consistency with which they are enforced. If we can’t be counted on to punish misconduct, how can we be counted on to reward right conduct?

(3) Have a sequence of dire consequences, which get progressively worse, and which come at specified points of disobedience. The problem with most of us (parents) is that we threaten our children with the worst possible punishment (spanking?) for any number of offenses, from spilling their milk (normally a childish mistake) to rebellion. We must save our biggest “stick” for the worst offense, and must think of a sequence of unpleasant consequences for the progression of offenses which fall short of the worst. As a school teacher, I learned that I needed a large bag of “tricks” (punishments), which would be appropriate for a wide range of offenses, and also for a wide range of personalities. The cursings and blessings reflect such a broad range of penalties.

(4) Make sure that your rules include both positive and negative consequences, to that the child is doubly motivated to obey. Most of our children feel that we as parents only say “no” and that there are few rewards to obedience (other than the absence of punishment). Good discipline gives positive incentives (rewards) along with negative ones (punishment). I believe that the Bible does this, in the New Testament as well as in the Old. The Christian looks for rewards for obedience, even as he does penalties for disobedience.

(5) Whenever you are involved in the process of discipline (from the giving of the rules to the enforcement of them), always assure of your love, encourage repentance, and give hope for restoration. Some children lose heart, feeling that there is no chance of pleasing their parents. They feel that the rules are an expression of hostility toward them, rather than of love. When such an attitude is caught (whether intended or not), the child has little or no motivation for obedience or repentance. No matter what the child does, let them know there is hope, and that you will continue to be faithful to love them and to stand by the rules (both the promise of blessing and of discipline).

Blessings and Cursings in the History of Israel

The blessings and cursings of Leviticus 26 (as well as Deuteronomy 28) play a significant role in the history of Israel, as recorded in the Old Testament. First and foremost, the historical books of Joshua and Judges dramatically testify to the fact that God does keep His promises. While the Book of Joshua does record some failures on Israel’s part (e.g. Achan, Joshua 7), the book as a whole describes God’s faithfulness in blessing His people as they obey His commandments (both those of the Law and those given by Joshua). The Book of Judges, on the other hand, forcefully conveys the fact that God disciplines His people when they disregard and disobey His commandments. The many “cycles” of obedience, blessing, victory, apathy, disobedience, defeat, reiterate the absolute accuracy of God’s promises and warnings in Leviticus 26.

In Asaph’s recounting of the history of Israel in Psalm 78 (especially verses 54-64), the disobedience of Israel led to the consequences, the cursings of Leviticus 26. So, too, in the psalms, the psalmists’ prayers for deliverance from their enemies revealed an intimate knowledge of the blessings and cursings attached to the Law, and thus shaped their prayers (cf. Psalms 71 and 72 for example).

The prophets explained the defeat and disasters of Israel’s history as the fulfillment of God’s warnings concerning disobedience to His commandments. They also promised a future deliverance, which was virtually a reversal of the cursings of our text. Note the parallels of this prophecy of Ezekiel to the blessings and cursings of our text:

“And I will make a covenant of peace with them and eliminate harmful beasts from the land, so that they may live securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods. And I will make them and the places around My hill a blessing. And I will cause showers to come down in their season; they will be showers of blessing. Also the tree of the field will yield its fruit, and the earth will yield its increase, and they will be secure on their land. Then they will know that I am the LORD, when I have broken the bars of their yoke and have delivered them from the hand of those who enslaved them. And they will no longer be a prey to the nations, and the beasts of the earth will not devour them; but they will live securely, and no one will make them afraid. And I will establish for them a renowned planting place, and they will not again be victims of famine in the land, and they will not endure the insults of the nations any more. Then they will know that I, the LORD their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are My people,” declares the Lord GOD (Ezek. 34:25-30; cf. also 37:22-38).

It was recognized in the Old Testament that no Israelite could keep God’s commandments perfectly, and that the future deliverance of Israel would be the work of God Himself through the coming of His Messiah. Thus, Isaiah spoke of the Deliverer, whom God had appointed to save His people:

Listen to Me, O islands, And pay attention, you people from afar. The LORD called Me from the womb; From the body of My mother He named Me. And He has made My mouth like a sharp sword; In the shadow of His hand He has concealed Me, And He has also made Me a select arrow; He has hidden Me in His quiver. And He said to Me, “You are My Servant, Israel, In Whom I will show My glory.” … He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” … Thus says the LORD, “In a favorable time I have answered You, And in a day of salvation I have helped You; And I will keep You and give You for a covenant of the people, To restore the land, to make them inherit the desolate heritages; Saying to those who are bound, ‘Go forth,’ To those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’ Along the roads they will feed, And their pasture will be on all bare heights. They will not hunger or thirst, Neither will the scorching heat or sun strike them down; For He who has compassion on them will lead them, And will guide them to springs of water. And I will make all My mountains a road, And My highways will be raised up” (Isa. 49:1-3, 6, 8-11).

It is wholly consistent with the Old Testament, then, that John the Baptist should introduce the Messiah, the Lord Jesus, in Old Testament terms that were employed in reference to Israel’s Deliverer. It is also to be expected that our Lord would introduce Himself as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies about Israel’s Deliverer:

And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book, and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovery of sight to the blind, To set free those who are donwtrodden, To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” And He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed upon Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:16-21).

As the verses immediately following in the text of Isaiah (61, vv. 4ff.) indicate, this prophecy is one pertaining to Israel’s restoration, from the deliverance from her cursing to the experience of her blessing. This, our Lord announced, was to be fulfilled in His person and work. Jesus was not accepted as God’s Messiah by Israel’s religious leaders, and thus He was crucified as a criminal, thus bearing the sins of men, and thus also fulfilling other prophecies concerning His (first) coming, prophecies such as those found in Isaiah 52:13–53:12.

Knowing of His rejection and crucifixion, Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24 and 25 were once again warnings of future judgment, along the same lines as that given in Leviticus 26. It will not be until the ultimate and final judgment of Israel, as is graphically described in the Book of Revelation, that Israel would be saved.

But of this salvation, there was no doubt. Just as God assured Israel of her ultimate repentance and deliverance, so the apostle Paul assured his readers of the restoration of blessings to His people, Israel:

For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own estimation, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in; and thus all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.” “This is My covenant with them, When I take away their sins.” From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you once were disobedient to God but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, in order that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all (Rom. 11:25-32).

The promises of cursing, but also of ultimate restoration and blessing which we have been studying in Leviticus 26, are the basis for Israel’s future hope, and for Paul’s teaching in Romans 9-11. Israel has a great future. The Great Tribulation, which is described most fully in the Book of Revelation, will be required to turn Israel from her sins, but she will turn and repent, and she will be restored.

Thus, Leviticus 26 was intended to be a word of warning and of hope to the Israelites of old, and it will continue to be this until Israel is restored. But there are also very important applications of this text to contemporary Christians. It is the apostle Paul who points his readers to the undergirding principles of this passage and applies it to Christians. And he does this in the Book of Galatians, a book written to correct the errors of legalism, based upon an inaccurate interpretation and application of the Law of Moses. Paul writes,

Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man’s covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed … What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise. Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed should come to whom the promise had been made (Gal. 3:15-19).

Paul corrects those Judaizers who taught that justification and sanctification were produced by works, by men’s efforts to keep the Law. He shows that the Abrahamic Covenant is the primary covenant, that covenant which is not dependent upon men’s obedience, but only on God’s faithfulness to His word. The Mosaic Covenant, Paul taught, was secondary, a temporary, provisional arrangement, which in no way set aside the Abrahamic Covenant. Thus, the Judaizers, who placed their emphasis on man’s obedience to the Mosaic Covenant, were wrong. Salvation and sanctification is the work of God, based upon His covenant with Abraham.

While Paul does not directly refer to Leviticus chapter 26, I believe that this text clearly teaches this same principle (of the priority of the Abrahamic Covenant over the Mosaic Covenant), and that Paul based his teaching upon it. Leviticus 26 promised blessing for keeping the Mosaic Covenant, and cursing for disobedience. The very fact that the cursing section is much more detailed than the blessing section suggests that Israel will not keep the covenant. The progressive disciplinary sequence in the chapter indicates that Israel will persist in her disobedience and rebellion. The concluding paragraph, that which assures Israel of her future restoration, is based upon God’s faithfulness to His covenant with Abraham, not Israel’s faithfulness to her covenant with God, the Mosaic Covenant. Paul simply underscores a truth which was taught in the Law itself, a truth taught in Leviticus 26.

Second, Paul taught that there was a principle underlying Leviticus 26 which is just as applicable to Christians as it was to the Israelites of old:

Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith (Gal. 6:7-10).

Leviticus 26 promised blessing for the keeping of God’s Law, and cursing for disobedience. The underlying principle is that our actions have consequences. Our obedience to God’s commands bring blessing, and our disobedience brings discipline. Paul spoke of this as “sowing” and “reaping” and he stressed that sowing evil results in discipline, while sowing righteousness brings blessing. Our actions are either the sowing of evil or the sowing of righteousness, and thus they will produce either blessing or cursing. It does matter what we do or do not do.

Let me focus on the application of this principle in the most important act we will ever make, that of responding to God’s offer of forgiveness and salvation in the person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ. History has made it painfully clear that men will never be able to attain God’s blessings by means of law-keeping. The apostle Paul put it this way:

Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith (Rom. 3:19-25a).

The Law could only prove all men to be sinners, worthy of divine punishment. The Law proved that all men are sinners and need to be saved, but cannot do so themselves. The Law prepares men for Christ, who came to save sinners. He perfectly fulfilled the Law, keeping its every command. He also died to the Law, bearing the sins of the world, and meeting the demand of the Law that the one who sins must die.

God has thus made provision for man’s salvation and blessing through the coming, life, death, burial, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. The benefits, the blessings of Christ’s death, are available to every sinner, and yet God has required that those who will be restored must do so by repentance, by acknowledging their sin and by accepting God’s provision for forgiveness. Salvation is for all who will repent and believe. Salvation is for all who will “call on the name of the Lord.” There is nothing more important than your response to God’s offer of salvation in the person of His Son. To receive Him is to receive forgiveness, eternal life and the blessings of God. To reject Him is to remain in your sins and to bear the consequence of eternal separation from Him and from His blessings.

If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater; for the witness of God is this, that He has borne witness concerning His Son. The one who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the witness that God has borne concerning His Son. And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life (1 John 5:9-12).

How will you respond to God’s offer of salvation. To repent, to acknowledge your sin, and to look to Jesus Christ for salvation, for forgiveness, and for eternal life, is to receive the eternal blessings of God. To refrain from doing so is to continue to experience divine condemnation. If the Old Testament teaches us anything from its account of the history of Israel it is this: that God keeps His promises, as outlined in Leviticus 26. Those who obey are blessed, and those who rebel are cursed. May you be among the blessed, because you have turned to the Son of God and trusted Him for forgiveness, restoration, and blessing.

For those who are Christians, those who have already trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation, I remind you of Paul’s words that we sow what we reap. Our obedience brings blessing and our rebellion brings discipline. Let us seek, by His grace, to obey.

Perversions of This Passage

As I conclude, let me simply mention some of the ways in which this passage has been perverted, misinterpreted and misapplied, by some in our own day. I will not describe these positions in detail, nor will I refute them, but simply name them, so that the reader can ponder them in relationship to our text and our teaching.

(1) The legalists, who still teach that God blesses or curses the Christian, on the basis of his keeping (perfectly) the Law of Moses. Milton Green is but one who does so in our time and in our city. He says that if we fail to “keep the covenant” God will curse us, usually by some kind of demonic attack or possession. On the other hand, he says, if we perfectly keep the covenant, God will enable us to perform all the miracles and wonders which our Lord did, and more.

The errors here are many, but the worst is the failure to distinguish between the Abrahamic Covenant and the Mosaic, and between salvation and sanctification achieved by our Lord alone, and that which is allegedly achieved by men keeping the Law.

(2) The prosperity themes of our day. The “gospel of the good life” looks upon a text like ours and says, “If we but do the right things, we will prosper.” There is, of course, an element of truth here, but they generally see prosperity in material terms, and they see it happening immediately, rather than having any delays. They also equate human suffering, trials and testings with disobedience. If you’re not prospering, you must be sinning. Thus we have Job’s friends revisited.

There is also the view that the prosperity which the United States has experienced is due to the piety of its people. The flip side is for us to look down upon impoverished nations, such as India, and to feel that their poverty is the direct result of wrong belief and impiety. We give ourselves too much credit if we think this way.

One error is in equating the Christian with the Israelite. We do not live under the Mosaic Covenant, nor do we possess the land of Canaan. Thus, our blessings are going to differ somewhat from those of the Israelite. Our blessings may not be immediate. As a matter of fact, neither were the blessings of the faithful Israelite. Hebrews 11 focuses on the faith of these saints and on the fact that they died without having received the promises of God. These saints also suffered greatly for their faith, experiencing deprivation, denial, and death for their faith in God. Psalm 73 is but one illustration of the fact that the righteous may not immediately prosper, while the wicked may. The gospel of the good life has to be very selective about its Old Testament texts, for this version of Christianity is very selective in what it chooses to believe. Incidentally, God often delays His judgment, as well as His blessings. This is longsuffering, intended to encourage repentance (cf. 2 Pet. 2, 3).

(3) The positive mental attitude school of Christian thought. This school of thought, which has its origins in pagan thinking, would have us believe that thinking only positive thoughts, thoughts of success and prosperity, will assure us of experiencing success and prosperity. Moses must have been mistaken, then, to have introduced such “negative” thinking into the Old Testament. The Bible has much to say which falls into the negative category of warning, and yet this is intended to play a very positive role in the life of the saint, warning him to abstain from evil.

(4) The view that the grace which is manifested in the New Covenant sets aside all judgment, and thus the need to be concerned about avoiding sin. The underlying assumption is that the goodness and grace of God results only in blessing, and never in discipline. The goodness and grace of God are constantly emphasized in our text and in the Old Testament, and yet His goodness requires God to discipline His wayward children. Christian liberty and the grace of God are never to be used as a pretext, an occasion for sin (cf. Rom. 6:1ff.; 1 Pet. 2:16).

Addendum A
Blessings and Cursings in Leviticus 26


BLESSINGS OF VERSES 1-13


CURSES OF VERSES 14-39

God Confirms Covenant (9)

God’s Vengeance For Covenant (25)

God’s Presence

God’s “Absence”

God turns toward His people (9)

God set’s His face against them (17)

God will dwell among them (11)

God sends them into captivity (38-39)

God walks among them (12)

God becomes their adversary (33)

Peace

Peril

Security (5)

Soul pines away/sudden terror (16)

Peace of mind (6)

Terror, fear, panic (36-37)

Beasts won’t harm them (6)

Beasts destroy and decimate (22)

Prevail over their enemies (7-8)

Attacked by enemies—raids (16)
Struck down by enemies (17)
Ruled by enemies (17)
Flee, but none pursue (17)
Delivered into enemy hands (25)
Scattered among nations (33)
Destroy themselves—cannibalism (29)

Prosperity

Poverty

God gives rains in season (4)

God withholds the rains (19)

Crops will grow abundantly (4-5)
Old grain cleared out for new (10)

Crops don’t grow (20)
Enemies raid and steal crops (16)
Famine—lack of bread (26)
Land is desolate (32)

Israelites fruitful and increase (9)

Consumption, fever, waste away (16)
Wild animals decimate (22)
Pestilence in cities kills (25)
Israelites kill and eat their own (29)

Addendum B
Israel’s Judgments


BLESSINGS

Lev. 26:1-13


WARNING OF JUDGMENT
Lev. 26:14-39


JUDGMENT
EXPERIENCED


FUTURE
DELIVERANCE

 

GENERAL WARNINGS
vv. 14-17

Physical, emotional anguish
Crops stolen by enemies
Defeat by enemies


Judg. 6:3-4, 11


Isa. 11:10

 

DROUGHT & POOR HARVESTS
vv. 18-20

Break pride
No rain
Crop failure

Isa. 2:11-17; 5:15-16;
1 Ki. 17:1-2; cf. 18:2

 
 

WILD ANIMALS ATTACK
vv. 21-22

People and cattle
Stricken by beasts

Ezek. 5:17; 14:15, 21; 1 Ki. 13:24; 20:36; Jer. 5:6*;
cf. 2 Ki. 2:24; 2 Ki. 17:25-26* (*Samaritans)

Isa. 11:6-9

 

RAVAGES OF WAR
vv. 23-26

A sword
Pestilence in cities
Delivered into hands of enemies
Famine—no bread

Judg. 2:11-15;
2 Ki. 17:7ff.;
1 Sam 10:5ff.; Isa 3:1; Jer. 24:8-10; Ezek 4:16; 5:16; 14:13

Isa. 11:14; 13:1-22;

14:1-2; 24-27

 

WAR AND EXILE
vv. 27-33

Cannibalism
Destroy high places
Cities & Sanctuaries destroyed
Land made desolate
People scattered/dispersion

2 Ki. 6:26-30; Lam. 2:20;
2 Ki. 23 (esp. v. 20);
Isa. 63:18; Jer. 44:2, 6, 22;
Jer. 12:1; 33:10;
Ezek. 12:15

Isa. 19:5-10

Isa. 11:11-12

 

RESULTS OF EXILE
vv. 34-39

Land has sabbaths
Those left behind victims, rot away

Jer. 50:34;
Ezek. 33:10

Isa. 19:1-4


165 I like Wenham’s title for this chapter: “Exhortation to Obey the Law: Blessing and Cursing.” Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), p. 324.

Noordtzij seems to share my enthusiasm and appreciation for this chapter. He writes: “Leviticus 26 is one of the most moving chapters, not only in the Book of Leviticus and the Pentateuch as a whole, but in the entire Old Testament revelation. In looking toward the future, the Lord laments the fact that He soon might be compelled to chastise His people. If they, in utter ungratefulness, should sinfully reject the love that He had shown to them, He would have no choice but to cause them to feel the destructive weight of His divine indignation, even as this love continued to reach out to them. As a single, poignant lament of divine love, the chapter also contains a warning and a prayer that the Israelites would not have to undergo such punishment.” A. Noordtzij, Leviticus, trans. by Raymond Togtman (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), p. 262.

166 Wenham writes, “Lists of blessings and cursings were a common practice in the ancient Near East in the suzeranty-vassel treaties.” Wenham, p. 327.

167 “There is nevertheless an important and significant difference in outlook. Whereas the biblical texts are straightforward promises about how God will respond to his people’s behavior, in blessings on the obedient and judgment on the careless, the nonbiblical texts are prayers to the gods to act.” Ibid., p. 327.

168 “Internally, the chapter is quite clearly structured. Phrases that were keys to the division of the material in previous chapters reappear in this one, ‘I am the Lord (your God)’ (vv. 1, 2, 13, 44, 45). As in ch. 19 we have a double formula at the beginning and end of the chapter. … The curses are further divided into six subsections by the introductory clauses, ‘If you will not listen to me (vv. 14, 18, 21, 23, 27), I shall punish you (seven times for your sins)’ (vv. 16, 18, 21, 24, 28). Verse 40 states the converse and offers a promise of restoration when the people repent.” Ibid., pp. 327-328.

“Using the last criterion as our guide the blessings fall into three groups each beginning with ‘I shall give’ … The blessings are then divided as follows: 4-5 the gift of rain and good harvests; 6-10 the gift of peace, no wild animals, defeats, or famine; 11-13 the gift of God’s presence. Though the blessings do not exactly match the curses in length or number, the subject matter of both is similar and there are a number of clear echoes of the blessings in the curses.” Ibid., p. 328.

169 Wenham writes, “Seven seems to be a round number for repeated punishments (cf. Ps. 79:12; Prov. 24:16; Isa. 4:1). It is an appropriate and evocative number in view of the importance of the seventh in Israelite religion, and it serves as a reminder that these punishments are for breach of the heart of this religion, the covenant (cf. v. 25). The book of Revelation portrays a series of sevenfold judgments overtaking the world in the last days (Rev. 5-16).” Wenham, p. 331.

“This ‘seven’ is not to be understood in an arithmetic sense, for as the Semitic number of totality (cf. Deut. 28:7, 25; Ps. 79:12), it rather indicates punishment in full measure.” Noordtzij, p. 267.

170 Wenham cites Bonar, who has written, “‘All declension and decay may be said to be begun wherever we see these two ordinances despised—the sabbath and the sanctuary. They are the outward fence around the inward love commanded by v. 1.’” Bonar, p. 473, as cited by Wenham, p. 329.

171 “Although Canaan was constantly coveted by the inhabitants of the desert, since its rich agricultural land provided what they could not obtain in the steppe (e.g., Judges 6), and it sometimes became the battlefield of nations—the armies of Egypt and Mesopotamia met there more than once—the promise is given that there would be no enemies in the land.” Noordtzij, p. 265.

172 “Gentle early rains would fall in October and November and make the land ready for plowing and sowing; strong winter storms would come from mid-December to mid-March in order to saturate the ground, filling the wells and making the springs overflow; and the later rains of April would cause the ears of grain and the fruit to swell and enable the fields to endure the heat of summer. The granting of the necessary rain at the proper time would allow the land to produce to its fullest capacity and yield an abundant harvest (Deut. 11:14; Jer. 5:24; Hos. 6:3), whereas a failure of the rains meant famine and misery. If Israel obeyed the Lord’s commands, the grain would be so plentiful (cf. Amos 9:13) that the threshing and harvest of April and May, the proverbial time of rejoicing (e.g., Ps. 4:7; Isa. 9:3), would continue until the grape harvest in August and September, when the joyful Feast of Tabernacles was celebrated (Deut. 16:13-14; Judg. 21:19-21; 1 Kings 8:2; 12:32); and the grape harvest would likewise continue until the time of planting that began after the early rains. The people would then also live in the land ‘in safety’ (literally, ‘in confidence,’ cf. 25:19), without anxiety about the satisfaction of their daily needs.” Ibid., p. 264.

173 The brief chart in Addendum A helps to see how the blessings of verses 1-13 are reversed to cursings in verses 14-39. The chart in Addendum B plays out the cursings in Israel’s history, from their realization to their removal.

174 The matter of fertility is clearly addressed in the parallel passage in Deuteronomy 28. In verse 4, fertility is promised, while in verse 18 it is taken away.

175 I have a theory about the difference between the length of the blessing section, as compared with the cursings. First, the cursings are more certain than the blessings. That is, Israel’s experience will be more that of cursing than of blessing. Second, we tend to ponder, visualize, and meditate more upon blessings than upon cursings. Thus, the Israelites could be counted on to “fill in the blanks” of what wasn’t said of God’s blessings, but God made certain that He “filled in the blanks” of the cursings, in graphic detail. Finally, the righteous would not look at the chapter in terms of its warnings as much as its blessings. As the Scriptures teach, “to the pure, all things are pure” (Titus 1:15). One can see this in the Psalmist’s attitude toward God’s law. While it warns him (Ps. 19:11), much more is made of its blessings (cf. vv. 7-10).

176 “These judgments are described as discipline. Throughout the Bible divine discipline is referred to: God punishes his people not merely because they deserve it, but because he loves them and wants to correct their foolish ways (Deut. 8:5; Jer. 30:11; 31:18; Ps. 38:2 [Eng. 1]; 94:12; Prov. 3:11-12; Heb. 12:5-11). Amos laments that, despite judgments of famine and drought, disease and defeat, ‘yet you did not return to me’ (Amos 4:6, 8, 9, 10, 11).” Wenham, pp. 330-331.