What the Bible says about
Blessings and Cursings
(From Forerunner Commentary)
The Bible's first prophecy contains three major curses, one each upon Satan, women, and men. Or does it? The answer depends on one's perspective and time reference.
Certainly, the curse on Satan seems a mixed bag! Men have either been subject to his deceptions or fiercely waging war with him for six thousand years. Yet it is the struggle of the fight that prepares our character to inherit eternal life. We live in hope and faith that God will see the curse through to its end, the total humiliation and imprisonment of the Adversary.
To a woman in labor or to a man sweating out in a field under the sun, God's pronouncements surely feel like curses. Yet, maybe only moments later, the satisfaction and joy in seeing a healthy baby or a job well done can make it all seem worthwhile. We feel grateful that God has given us such blessings.
If nothing else, this should make us think about the "curses" and "blessings" in our lives. Could something terrible turn out for the best? Could seeing "our ship come in" prove our ruin? There is much more to God's gifts and judgments than meets the eye:
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! "For who has known the mind of the LORD? Or who has become His counselor?" "Or who has first given to Him and it shall be repaid to him?" For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The First Prophecy (Part Three)
Once Isaac had given his - really God's - blessing, there was nothing left for Esau. The blessing was an "all or nothing" addition to the inheritance; it could not be portioned between Isaac's two sons. In reality, the subsequent "blessing" Esau receives is tantamount to a curse. In the New King James Version, it reads as if Isaac blesses Esau in Genesis 27:39-40, yet it is not a blessing but a prophecy.
As shown here, the two uses of "of" in verse 39 have been mistranslated; in this context, the Hebrew word implies, not "belonging to," but "from" or "away from." On this verse, the Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament observes, "By a play upon the words Isaac uses the same expression as in v. 28, 'from the fat fields of the earth, and from the dew,' but in the opposite sense, min being partitive [imparting] there, and privative [depriving] here, 'from = away from.'" Thus, Isaac prophesies that Esau's descendants would live in an infertile, arid area.
One consequence of this is prophesied in verse 40: There will be continual strife between the "have," Jacob, and the "have-not," Esau; they would engage in a constant, internecine quarrel over "the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven." More often than not, Jacob would be dominant - until Esau would rebel in frustration and anger. Isaac predicts that they will frequently come to blows, and occasionally, Esau's descendants will enjoy the upper hand for a time.
Esau's utterly human reaction upon hearing Isaac's words is consistent with what we know of his personality: "So Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father blessed him, and Esau said in his heart, "The days of mourning for my father are at hand; then I will kill my brother Jacob" (Genesis 27:41). Too late, he realized the value of the blessing, and now his entire attention was focused in hatred against his brother. Hebrews 12:15-16 describes his attitude toward Jacob as a "root of bitterness," a profound and deep-set animosity that ultimately corrupts and defiles one who maintains it.
This reveals the mindset of Esau and his descendants, the Edomites. Everything that should have been theirs was now Jacob's, and they will fight until the bitter end of days to get it back! Yet God says it is not to be. His prophecy in the "blessing" allows Esau only occasional supremacy. Since Jacob's seed possessed both the birthright and the blessing, they would normally prevail and ultimately have the ascendancy.
The birthright made Jacob the recipient of a double portion of the inheritance, and the blessing was a gift of God by which the patriarch passed on the promised family blessings. These blessings included the patriarchy - "Be master over your brethren" (Genesis 27:29) - which was now Jacob's! This meant that, upon Isaac's death, the leadership position in Abraham's family passed not to the elder, Esau, but to the younger, Jacob. Esau was left to form his own house, but without the power, position, and wealth inherent within the birthright and the blessing.
In these prophecies, the Bible shows that dominant family traits are passed down to succeeding generations. Therefore, even today, Israelites generally think and behave much like their father Jacob, while Edomites still retain the attitudes and drives of Esau. Though not every Israelite or Edomite will imitate his ancestor's personality to the letter, these traits will surface as national characteristics, allowing perceptive observers to identify their origins and fit them into Bible prophecy.
For Jacob's thefts of the birthright and blessing, Esau hated his brother enough to begin to plot his death! This burning hatred has been passed on from generation to generation ever since that time, for approximately 3,700 years. This, then, provides us with a basic understanding of the contentious relationship between these two peoples.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
All About Edom (Part One)
After reading this, some carelessly assume that, if Israel had just obeyed God, they would have taken over the Promised Land without having to confront the people already there. This is most assuredly untrue. The blessings and cursings establish a biblical principle for God's people:
If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments, and perform them, then I will give you rain in its season, the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. . . . But if you do not obey Me, and do not observe all these commandments, and if you despise My statutes, or if your soul abhors My judgments, so that you do not perform all My commandments, but break My covenant, I will also do this to you. . . . (Leviticus 26:3-4, 14-16)
In a similar way, the promises of Exodus 23 are conditional. The bestowal of blessings depends upon obedience to the covenant. In covenantal matters like this with God, a Christian must expect reciprocity.
Notice this principle spoken by the prophet Azariah in II Chronicles 15:2: "The LORD is with you while you are with Him. If you seek Him, He will be found by you; but if you forsake Him, He will forsake you." Will God bless rebellion by His people? Absolutely not! He answers rebellion by removing His protection.
Consider: Does God make growth and overcoming easy for us, even though He promises salvation? Are there no battles to fight while overcoming? If God completely smoothed the way for us, what would we have to overcome? If He smoothed our way, how would He test our loyalty? Would we be prepared for His Kingdom? Of course, He does not make it easy for us. Each of our paths is designed and tempered to test us on the level of our natural abilities and gifts (I Corinthians 10:13). Therefore, each Christian's way will be difficult; each will have to fight many battles at his or her level.
If God completely smoothed the way, it would create a walk-in-the-park scenario, eliminating the possibility of God's law being written in our hearts. When other biblical information is added to God's promise in Exodus 23, we see that what He guarantees is that He will drive out the people of the land, making it far easier for the Israelites than if He were not involved at all. God is comparing situations with and without His intervention.
In the analogy, the people of the land are symbolic of human nature, which cannot be made subject to God and His law, according to Romans 8:7. Like human nature, the people of the land could not be driven out without God's help. We can conclude that Israel would have been totally unable to accomplish even what they did had not God been with them.
How can we know that Exodus 23 is not an outright promise that Israel would not have go to war at some point in the conquest of the land? Seeing several scriptures together will make this clear. First, notice Deuteronomy 8:1-3. Clearly, God tests us to see where we stand, revealing to us at the same time where our weaknesses lie. Our standing must be revealed to both God and us because His work in us is a cooperative effort with us. Tests are not normally easy; tests are often clarifying experiences, exposing our strengths and weaknesses. They are designed to reveal spiritual and moral progress or lack thereof, and in so doing should motivate growth in areas of weakness and produce confidence in areas of strength.
We can now add I Corinthians 10:11-13 to our understanding:
Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.
An admonition is an instructive warning. It is not a "chewing-out" but a sobering, thought-provoking prod. Overall, Paul is encouraging us that God is carefully monitoring the tests we experience so that we do not get in over our heads. The sanctification process requires our cooperation with God, and He does not want to lose us through extreme discouragement.
Though He manages the operations of His creative process, His work definitely does not eliminate our involvement. Knowing that God carefully monitors each of us helps us to understand why the Bible cautions us to be careful in how we evaluate each other. God knows, but we certainly do not know all the factors working in other Christians' tests.
In Exodus 23:22-31, God makes six promises and gives one command to the Israelites regarding their conquest of the Promised Land:
1. I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries.
2. I will cut them off.
3. I will send My fear before you, I will cause confusion among all the people to whom you come, and will make all your enemies turn their backs to you.
4. I will send hornets before you.
5. Little by little I will drive them out from before you.
6. I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand.
His one command, in verse 31, is, "You shall drive them out before you."
Consider what these seven statements reveal. The entire context suggests confrontation between God and the people of the land. However, the command, "You shall drive them out before you," should give us pause. There is more to this than a first glance might indicate. The easy assumption that God would remove every impediment upon Israel's entrance into the Promised Land proves false; that is not how it worked out in history. In addition, the Israelites knew for a certainty that they would have to face the people of the land in multiple confrontations.
In addition, they had already experienced a strong indicator of God's will for them regarding warfare when He permitted the Amalekites to attack the rear of Israel's column (see Exodus 17:8-13). That clash was only the first of an intense spate of battles in which the outcome hung in the balance on occasion. They knew that further warfare was a strong possibility.
Exodus 23:32 adds another factor that strongly hints that God would not simply drive the inhabitants from Canaan: "You shall make no covenant with them, nor with their gods." If He were going to drive the Canaanites completely out of the land before the Israelites, why would He need to make this warning? There would have been no people to make a covenant with!
Exodus 34:11-12, 15 repeats this command even more forcefully. If we take Exodus 23 and 34 at face value, the Israelites would have no opportunity to make a covenant with the people of the land because they would never encounter them to be tempted to make a covenant with them.
If the Israelites came into the land and began tearing down altars, would the people of the land have just stood around and let their revered high places be destroyed without resistance? No way! We can compare this to the confrontations many of us faced when we came to believe God, causing us to stop observing Christmas, Easter, Halloween, and Sunday worship and to begin keeping the Sabbath and God's holy days instead. Did our families, friends, and employers give us no resistance to these changes, which severely disturbed these relationships? Did they not defend their lifelong practices?
Because they would have close contact with the land's inhabitants, the Israelites had a choice to make: They could either compromise with the inhabitants regarding their cultures or follow God's commands. The latter choice entailed doing things like destroying altars, which would produce intense confrontations—warfare. The evidence indicates that the Israelites expected that they would have to go to war.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Christian Fight (Part One)
America, Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa began with economies based primarily on agriculture. Once the agricultural foundation was stable, other industries and commerce could flourish and grow. But even when a nation is considered an industrial, commercial, or technological giant, if it cannot feed its citizens, it will quickly lose its power and status. Thus, a blow to a nation's breadbasket is often crippling and sometimes fatal.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Your Land Shall Not Yield Its Produce
If God repeats the same thing over and over again, it must be important. This is something God never got through Balaam's thick skull because throughout the entire account, he tries his best to curse Israel, to do more than God instructs, or to speak beyond what God put into his mouth. He keeps having to be restrained.
Why? Balaam wants the pot of gold and the honor! These are what are driving him.
God speaks to him time and again. He appears to him, visibly, as the Angel of the Lord. He speaks to him through a donkey! God changes Balaam's words in his mouth, causing him to speak blessings instead of curses. God puts His Spirit on him, and Balaam prophesies under the inspiration of the Spirit of God—and still Balaam tries to do his own will, not God's.
Balaam never really understood the connection between obedience and blessing, or, obedience and the relationship with God. Even the most easily understood command—"I will put a word in your mouth. Say that word, no more, and no less"—he fails to follow, though it is something a child could do. However, Balaam is being driven by gold, by pride, and who knows what else, so he constantly, consistently refuses to do what God tells him to do.
Balaam wanted to do all these things—to have a relationship with God, to be able to bless and curse, to be a real prophet—but he never wanted to obey. He wanted all the benefits and none of the responsibilities.
Balaam is an illustration of a person who has access to the truth—like a person who reads the Bible all the time—but never obeys it! Such a person is willing to cheat on his income tax, when he knows the eighth commandment says, "You shall not steal." There are "Christian" people who are willing to kill their unborn children, yet know that the sixth commandment says, "You shall not murder." There are "Christians" who lie all the time, knowing all the while that the ninth commandment says, "You shall not bear false witness." These people have access to the truth or have knowledge of the truth, but are never willing to put it into practice because they insist on doing what they want to do.
There are millions of people in the world like this. In fact, one branch of Christianity in particular—called Protestantism—was founded on this formula. One will not find more learned people than Protestant theologians; they know the Bible from cover to cover. Yet, they still keep and preach Sunday! They do more than this. They know—they admit—that God's law is "holy and just and good" (Romans 7:12), but they tell their congregations, "It is done away! We don't have the responsibility of keeping the law. Jesus kept it for us!"
Thus, they emphasize grace and make God's law of no effect because they want all the blessings of being a Christian but none of the responsibility. Just as Balaam did!
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Balaam and the End-Time Church (Part 1)
Man toils to grow food with irrigation, but God blesses obedience with rainfall, giving rain in due season. To compensate for the lack of God's blessing of rainfall due to sin, man has reasoned that increased irrigation will solve all his agricultural problems. As a result, he has seriously harmed his environment and with it his ability to grow food.
Martin G. Collins
'. . . And Not a Drop to Drink'
These verses are directly related to verse 15, "But it shall come to pass, if you do not obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes which I command you today, that all these curses will come upon you, and overtake you." Then all the curses are listed. Verse 45 continues the thought that ends with "and overtake you" in verse 15, but they are also directly related to much of the context of Deuteronomy 8.
God's concern in this context is for the attitude of heart and mind in which the Israelites carried out their part in keeping the covenant. It is actually a prophecy of what they were going to do. What can we learn from this? The very fact that this warning—"because you did not serve the LORD your God with joy and gladness of heart"—is in here means that these things are going to come on us. He is telling us that obeying in an obligatory fashion, while it is a great deal better than sinning, does not come close to what God is seeking for in us. That kind of obedience does not produce an internalized character that permits one to live an abundant life full of every good quality. Instead, it will produce joyless, hopeless, robotic automatons.
The word "gladness" is particularly interesting, literally meaning "good," or "goodness." However, when it is taken with the intent of this and other biblical contexts, especially Deuteronomy 8, it indicates "gratitude." In fact, The Amplified Bible inserts the word "gratitude" in brackets next to the word "gladness" as an explanation of what God is driving at.
In other words, God is saying that, if we do not approach life with an understanding recognition of the awesome significance of His calling, we cannot serve Him satisfactorily. There are reasons for this. He wants people who understand what life is about, not to approach life with a resigned, "Oh, well, I have to do this" attitude, but rather to approach it with a rejoicing, wholehearted understanding, gladly and gratefully yielding themselves to its completion in our lives.
John W. Ritenbaugh
New Covenant Priesthood (Part Three)
One of the Bible's greatest principles is "choose life." God sets before us two ways of life—His way and the wrong way—and gives us the freedom to choose which we will follow. He commands us to choose life so that we may live fully, both now and in His Kingdom, but we can opt for the other way of sin just as readily.
With the receipt of the Holy Spirit, we truly have free choice or free-moral agency. Before conversion, as the apostles wrote, we simply lived like everyone else, that is, according to the course of this world (Ephesians 2:1-3; I Peter 1:18; 4:3). Now, able to judge between the two ways of life more accurately, we have the power to decide to go God's way.
It is in our choices that we sin or live righteously. James is very clear that we do not sin when tempted but "when desire has conceived" or when we choose to act on it (James 1:14-15). The sin begins with the choice and continues with the act. Thus, all sin has a spiritual basis.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Sin Is Spiritual!
2 Samuel 6:1-9
David was afraid of the Ark - and of God! Let us notice, however, that God did not rush down and give David the answer. He did not say, "David, do you see what you have done wrong?" He did not explain to David just why He struck Uzzah. He made David work through the problem.
He does the same thing with us. When we find that we are out of sync with God, He does not simply rush to intervene and say, "Now there, there, my son." He does not pat us on the head and say, "You are alright."
Rather, He says, in effect, "Now do you understand that you are in hot water?" He asks, "Are you feeling pain?" And you say, "Yes!" Then He says, "Well, can you figure out why?" So we have to do that.
Upon close examination, we find that those who had advised David were complacent and neglectful. They thought that, because the Ark came to them on a cart from the Philistines, they could simply send it on to where it was supposed to go in the same way. Obviously, that did not work out so well!
The instructions for how to carry the Ark properly are found in I Chronicles 15:2, 14-15. These instructions were learned correctly because David had to work his way through the problem.
Can we make mistakes like this? David was "a man after God's own heart"! Of course we can! David made mistakes left and right, yet God loved him. When God puts us through such things, it does not mean that He does not care for us. David committed adultery with Bathsheba; killed Uriah the Hittite; caused the death of thousands and the death of his son, Absalom. All because he, at times, took God's laws for granted.
We, too, can become complacent and neglectful as to how we live our lives. If we do not respond to God, He will increase the pressure on us.
Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 are the "blessings and curses" chapters of the Bible. Consider these in light of the increasing pressure that God applies to draw us closer to Him and to stop taking Him for granted.
John O. Reid (1930-2016)
Don't Take God for Granted
By paying to God what we owe Him (that is, His tithes), He rewards us with blessings. Christians often find their third tithe years to be abundant with all types of blessings and invaluable lessons learned. These are not always material blessings, however. Storing up spiritual treasures in heaven is far more important than physical prosperity. God does not promise to make us wealthy but that our relationship with Him will prosper. Such eternal blessings are far greater than any temporary physical blessings we could receive.
Martin G. Collins
Tithing: Third Tithe
Notice what is happening. The land is suffering from a drought. Did the people connect drought with obedience to the message of a false minister? Probably not.
The spirit that was speaking to them was not divine, but it was supernatural. The people submitted to it because they did not put the prophet to the test to see whether or not his teaching was in harmony with what had already been revealed through God's messenger, Moses.
God blames the plight of the nation (the drought mentioned in verses 1-6) on the false prophets to whom the people listened (verses 13-16). What did the prophets do? They lulled the people into complacency, which led them to believe that all was well when it was not. They preached to them smooth things because the people had itching ears. They liked the things that were taught to them, but it was not the Word of God. God says they preached lies in His name. If one listens to them, then it is the same thing as the blind leading the blind and both falling in the ditch.
The land was in drought. How many carnal people would connect a drought with obedience to a false minister? Not very many because they would be thinking carnally and say, "It's just part of the cycle of things. It happens every so many years." They are not thinking that there might be a spiritual cause for it: that God is concerned about the well being of His people, and that He had brought the drought to make them think about why it is happening. The cause for concern is spiritual in nature.
Would any modern U.S. President or presidential candidate make an appeal to American citizens that the cause of our problems are spiritual in nature? If a national figure today said before a group of people that the reason we are having troubles in the United States is that we need to repent and get back to our God, they would be laughed into shame and contempt. The reason we are seeing the immorality in the United States is the effect of listening to false ministers!
John W. Ritenbaugh
Satan (Part 2)
With a note of sarcasm, Jeremiah replies that he would be thrilled if Hananiah's vision were correct—it would be a remarkable turn of events. Then he points out that the prophets before them had all prophesied calamity rather than prosperity. Hananiah's words were completely out of sync with God's pattern of warning His people through the prophets.
Prior to Jeremiah, God had sent Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, and Nahum to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. He had also sent Jonah to the empire of Assyria. All of them warned of tragedy and disaster if the people did not turn to God. Such warnings reach all the way back to Moses, who recorded the "Blessings and Curses" of Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, detailing what God will do to a people who reject Him. Further, God also warns His people to be skeptical of those proclaiming a message of peace that lacks repentance (Jeremiah 4:10; 6:14; 8:11; 14:13; Ezekiel 13:10, 16). But, as God instructs in Deuteronomy 18:21-22, if what Hananiah said did not come to pass, it would be evidence that God had not sent him.
David C. Grabbe
In all of God's dealings with Israel and Judah, and especially regarding the Second Exodus, we see His perfect application of justice and mercy. He is just, because He does not allow their sin to go unpunished. We could not trust God if He did not hold to His promises of blessing and cursing (Numbers 23:19; Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28). If He allowed Israel and Judah to sin with impunity, His laws would have no authority, and His words would be of no consequence. However, for the sake of what is best for Jacob, God has to show him that He is serious about what He says. So His justice will be upheld as Israel and Judah are brought to the painful realization that they have forsaken Him and have been living the wrong way.
Yet, we can also see God's mercy in His dealings with His people. Today's Western culture—a product of the nations of Israel—is not so very different from Sodom and Gomorrah. The same sins are committed in the same brazen manner. Our regard for humanity is so low that in America alone during the last three decades, an estimated 40-50 million pre-born children have been killed for the sake of convenience. Further, God has been systematically removed from schools, from government, and from public life. Post-Christian Europe has transgressed even further. Even Jerusalem—the "Holy City"—has an annual "Gay Pride" parade, and is essentially secular.
Despite these atrocious sins, God will not utterly destroy Israel as He did to Sodom and Gomorrah. A number of latter-day prophecies of various peoples—the Edomites, for example—foretell that God will make a complete end of them (Jeremiah 46:28). However, He has chosen not to do this with Israel and Judah, though not because they are righteous in any way.
He will show them mercy because of the promises He made, not because they deserve it. Ezekiel 36 shows this clearly. God repeats several times that He is bringing Israel back for His name's sake, and not for Israel's sake:
"Therefore say to the house of Israel, 'Thus says the Lord GOD: "I do not do this [restoring Israel and blessing the land; verses 6-15] for your sake, O house of Israel, but for My holy name's sake, which you have profaned among the nations wherever you went. And I will sanctify My great name, which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst; and the nations shall know that I am the LORD," says the Lord GOD, "when I am hallowed in you before their eyes. For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. . . . Then you will remember your evil ways and your deeds that were not good; and you will loathe yourselves in your own sight, for your iniquities and your abominations. Not for your sake do I do this," says the Lord GOD, "let it be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your own ways, O house of Israel!" (Ezekiel 36:22-24, 31-32)
God would be unfaithful to His own promises if He annihilated Jacob's descendants—even though, by all accounts, it is exactly what they deserve.
David C. Grabbe
The Second Exodus (Part Two)
The ultimate fulfillment of of the process implicitly mentioned in Jeremiah 31:31-34 will culminate when we are completely composed of spirit, and God's law will be our first nature, not just second nature. But, while we are in an embryonic stage, the process has already begun in us, incrementally, as God gradually displaces our carnality and sin, replacing it with His Holy Spirit, leading to righteous behavior and godliness. Actually, no human being is completely converted, but many people are in various stages of conversion.
Conversion, then, is a life-long process in which we move from a reactive approach to lawkeeping—motivated by rewards and punishments—to a proactive approach—motivated by a deeply placed inner desire to yield and comply to the law's principles, knowing intrinsically from experience that they work for the good and harmony of all. (Proactive is a term author-speaker Steven Covey uses to distinguish internal motivation to do or accomplish something as opposed to external motivation.)
As the process of conversion begins, God must use carrots and sticks to keep us moving in the right direction. The blessings and curses of Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 served as carrots and sticks to encourage righteous and godly behavior in our Israelite forebears. God uses carrots and sticks in the early part of our calling—for instance, the carrot of the Place of Safety and the stick of the Tribulation—and literally drives us into a frantic study of prophecy. Carrots and sticks have motivated our educational system in the forms of gold stars, grades, praise, trophies, extra homework, and detention.
Recently, Dr. Alfie Kohn, in his book, Punished By Rewards, questions the long-term effects of external motivators, such as grades, financial incentives, gold stars, or tokens, to sustain learning behavior. He supplies some surprising evidence that carrots and sticks—reflecting the philosophy, "Do this and you'll get that"— actually become detrimental in the long run, diverting the focus away from the learning outcome onto the reward or punishment. Dr. Kohn, Dr. Jerome Bruner, and a host of other educators suggest that internal motivators, such as satisfying curiosity, imitating role models, and attaining competency, work better to motivate over the long term than do G.P.A.'s, scholarships and grants, and other external incentives.
To illustrate this, one of the supreme tragedies in the music world occurred when the government of Finland supplied composer Jean Sibelius a guaranteed pension and a large mansion in the woods near Jarvenpaa. After this huge reward, an external motivation, not one musical idea—not one note!—emanated from his pen. Likewise, our spiritual growth and maturity will become stunted if our motivation for righteous behavior is externally determined rather than internally determined.
To an individual truly endowed with God's Spirit, the laws cranked out yearly in Washington, DC, our state capitals, and our local city halls should strike us as juvenile and elementary—or as one minister would call it—knee-pants stuff. Consider the carrots and sticks used by lawmakers to control litter: up to $1,000 fine for littering, or a sign reading, "This segment of highway adopted by Yourtown Jaycees."
These examples ignore the heart and core of the problem. Until the law gets from stone-tablet pages of the Scripture, or the statute books of a local, state, or federal assembly, into our hearts and minds—unless the motivation for doing what is right comes from the inside out—we are no more converted than a donkey. On second thought, a donkey at least behaves as it is programmed to act.
David F. Maas
Righteousness from Inside-Out
In this instance, Christ speaks of two individuals, both servants of God. God finds one to be wicked, the other wise. Note the fifty-fifty split in the context of judging. Christ judges the two servants, blessing the faithful one by setting him over His possessions, cursing the wicked one by cutting him in twain—the ultimate two-part division!
The wicked servant finds himself “with the hypocrites” because, all the while, he has led a double life, pretending to serve God while actually laboring at cross-purposes to God by abusing God's other servants. Like Satan, he has disguised himself as a minister of God (II Corinthians 11:12-15). As a result, he has scattered God's people rather than gathered them (Luke 11:23). Unlike the wise servant, “who walk[ed] not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4), the wicked servant walked according to his own desires (II Peter 3:3-4; Jude 16-19), all the while feigning faithfulness to God and His work. The wicked servant, like all hypocrites, has led a mock life, one of pretense.
Christ's teachings segue nicely into Matthew 25, where the central theme is the reality of God's judgment and how that reality should affect our thinking—and action. In the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), the ten virgins represent the entirety of God's people as they go out to meet the bridegroom (verse 1). Their even-split is clear: “Five of them were foolish, and five were wise” (verse 2).
Their destinies were vastly different, though, as the wise were ready for the bridegroom, the foolish were not. Upon the latter “the door was shut” (verse 10). Here, the blessing and the curse is ever so poignantly expressed. We are left with the feeling that the five foolish ones were never true followers of Christ, having failed to renounce all (Luke 14:33). Christ tells them, “I do not know you” (verse 12).
Again, in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), Christ mentions two (not three) groups, distinguished by their members' attitudes toward obedience. One group is comprised of those who fulfill their responsibilities by actively growing their talents, no matter how many (or few) God originally gave them. The other group contains those who refuse to grow their talents.
Considering these various examples in overview, we can identify a few commonalities. In them all, we recognize that God is judging, usually in an end-time context. Evaluating a unified group, He detects some type of essential disunion. The unity is superficial, more apparent than real in terms of the level of commitment and obedience He seeks. As a result of this evaluation, God divides the group into two parts—sometimes overtly a fifty-fifty split.
The destinies of individuals in these two new groups differ vastly. One part is blessed, the other cursed. The Scriptures bear no salient indication of a period of church unity at the end. All this is consistent with Paul's comments in I Corinthians 11:19 that “there must in fact be divisions among you, so that those of you who are approved may be evident.”
These examples also illustrate another commonality: More often than not, God's judgment involves an element of surprise, even bewilderment, catching us off-guard—sometimes tragically so. The line of division He creates may be unfamiliar to us, unexpected. His judgment is not what we might expect, or the lines of division are unfamiliar to us. The wicked servant was not looking for the return of the master. The foolish virgins did not expect to run low of oil.
That is all to say that God's judgment is usually athwart ours. His act of division is, in fact, one of reconfiguration along lines that can be quite different to what we are accustomed.
Unity and Division: The Blessing and a Curse (Part Two)
The disciples' question, “Where, Lord?” appears to be about where all of this would be taking place—including His return, which would initiate the judgment—rather than about where His followers would be taken. In Matthew's account, their original question was about the signs of Christ's coming and the end of the age (see Matthew 24:3, 28), so what appears to have been on their minds were the specifics of His return rather than the location of those “taken.”
As is His pattern, He does not answer their question directly. Instead, His answer applies on multiple levels. Looking at Matthew's and Luke's accounts together, the disciples ask about when and where, since we humans want a specific date and location so we can gauge how these things will affect us personally. God, however, gives principles.
In Scripture, a wake (gathering) of vultures is an indicator of God's judgment for rebellion. In the blessings and curses given to Israel, God warns them, “Your carcasses shall be food for all the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and no one shall frighten them away” (Deuteronomy 28:26). It is a judgment of great shame, one that has been fulfilled in type in the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem (Psalm 79:1-3).
Under this curse, the Israelites would have no dignity in their deaths; they would have no one to bury them. It symbolizes the height of defeat, disgrace, and personal insignificance, when no defenders are left to keep the scavengers from tearing a human body apart just as they would a dead animal. When God cleans His creation in this way, a person becomes nothing more than a meal for one of the most despised creatures.
But Israelites are not the only ones to receive this shameful judgment. The same fate is prophesied for those fighting against Christ at His return:
Then I saw an angel standing in the sun; and he cried with a loud voice, saying to all the birds that fly in the midst of heaven, “Come and gather together for the supper of the great God, that you may eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and of those who sit on them, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, both small and great.” And I saw the beast, the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against Him who sat on the horse and against His army. . . . And the rest were killed with the sword which proceeded from the mouth of Him who sat on the horse. And all the birds were filled with their flesh. (Revelation 19:17-19, 21; see also the prophecy against Gog in Ezekiel 39:17-20)
The followers of the Beast and False Prophet will be killed, and God will specifically call the carrion birds for this gruesome feast. Any alleged return of the Messiah that does not involve this judgment on God's enemies is a lie. These are grisly descriptions but necessary reminders of His view of sin, disobedience, and rebellion against Him. Christ will return at a time when the opposition to Him will have reached a peak and to a place where human governments will have assembled against Him. Moreover, there will be a gathering of scavengers as a sign of God's judgment of shame.
David C. Grabbe
Where the Eagles Are Gathered
Most of us do not spend our time speaking blessings continually or pronouncing curses without end; our words and lives are spent somewhere in the middle. We may be nice most of the time, yet on occasion our words will fly out in anger or defensiveness.
No one likes to think of himself as an uncaged brute, wreaking havoc, hurt, and destruction on his fellow man by the words he utters. Poets have long expressed themselves with terms of love and adoration. Great orators stir men and women to courage and confidence. No individual truly wants to cut his loved ones down with his words as with a sharp scythe. James makes it clear, though, that we each possess the ability to effect such destruction on each other's lives.
Are You Sharp-Tongued? (Part One)
This is a picture of scarcity of grain during a time when olive oil and wine are abundant. The grain must be measured very carefully, and it is sold at about twelve times its normal price. At the same time, growers are commanded not to reduce the production of oil and wine, items which most would consider to be luxuries. It seems that the common folk would spend all their living on grain to fend off starvation and have nothing left over for the finer things, while the rich would continue to live comfortably and make money on the inflated grain prices. The Third Seal describes scarcity in the midst of prosperity; the rich get richer as the poor get poorer.
Such a situation is not hard to imagine in our fast-paced, greedy world. Amos shows the rich "[selling] the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals" (Amos 2:6). Many businessmen have no qualms about taking advantage of a situation, as long as they are guaranteed to make a profit. We should not be surprised when food prices escalate sharply after a mediocre harvest.
God is not capricious; He does nothing without a purpose. He says that He sends these droughts, floods, diseases, insects, and famines to warn us and cause us to return to Him (Amos 4:6-9). Our God wants us to receive blessings, not curses, but sometimes He must get our attention and point us in the right direction when we go astray.
But Israel is stubborn and rebellious (Jeremiah 5:23). The people fail to see that their sins have caused these curses to fall upon them (verses 24-25). In fact, Israel loves to dwell in sin (verses 26-31)! Thus, God must punish them to make them obedient to His laws—laws that will make them prosperous and happy.
Hunger is a method that hits home quickly, and God will try to use this curse effectively:
Are there yet the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked, and the short measure that is an abomination? Shall I count pure those with the wicked balances, and with the bag of deceitful weights? For her rich men are full of violence, her inhabitants have spoken lies, and their tongue is deceitful in their mouth. Therefore I will also make you sick by striking you, by making you desolate because of your sins. You shall eat, but not be satisfied; hunger shall be in your midst. . . . You shall sow, but not reap; you shall tread the olives, but not anoint yourselves with oil; and make sweet wine, but not drink wine. (Micah 6:10-15)
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Your Land Shall Not Yield Its Produce
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