Images of the Savior (45 -- The Blessings and Curses Upon Mounts Gerizim and Ebal)
Before the children of Israel had entered the promised land, when Moses was still giving his final instructions to them, he commanded them, when they had once crossed over the Jordan River, to set up an altar of unhewn stones on Mount Ebal; and then, when they were all gathered together, to stand six tribes on Mount Gerazim and six tribes on Mount Ebal, the former to call out the covenant blessings and the latter to call out the covenant curses. In this arrangement, we may see several things which are intended for our instruction: first, that the covenant did not just threaten curses or promise blessings, but that it held forth both to the people; second, that even within the twelve tribes, there were those who, by divine choice, should be made to experience the curses, and those who should inherit the blessings; and we may note here, that all those whom God commanded to stand on Mount Gerazim for blessing were children of the free women of Jacob, that is, of Leah and Rachel, and not of their servants Bilhah and Zilpah; and so we may be instructed by this, that only we who are children of the free woman by faith, and not those who are children of slaves by the works of the flesh, shall know the covenant blessings (cf. Galatians 4:22-31); and third, that those who were chosen for blessing would escape the curses not by their own efforts, but only through the divinely-supplied sacrifice of grace; for the altar of burnt offering was made of unhewn stones, as if to say, God himself will provide a sacrifice not made with hands; and it was placed upon Mount Ebal and not Mount Gerazim, as if to say, â€œMount Gerazim with its blessings is for you because Mount Ebal with its curses is for my Sacrificeâ€; who is, of course, the Christ.
So now, keeping this in mind, let us consider a little more fully a few things about this portion of Deuteronomy that will teach us of the promised Christ.
First, we must take stock of the sundry laws and regulations which precede this account, and by which the lives of the Israelites were very closely regulated; for they teach us of the Christ in several ways, and lay the foundation for this ceremony on the two mountains, in that, the Law here enjoined is that by which the outcome of blessing or cursing should be determined. So before we look more closely at the blessings and curses themselves, let us note three things about the laws that were able to bring either a blessing or a curse down upon the people, according to whether they were fulfilled or broken; and these are, first, that they demanded a rigorous obedience and manifold righteousness, such as would be a burden very difficult to bear; second, that even so they were imperfect and lacking in the scrupulous and unyielding demands that characterize God's eternal moral law; and third, that they foreshadowed and cried out for Christ to come and fulfill them, both negatively, positively, and ultimately.
The laws in chapters nineteen through twenty-six of Deuteronomy were, in the first case, a very exacting and difficult burden to bear, having to do with very many minutiae, including the matters of conscriptions for war and details related to the actual carrying out of it, even concerning which trees may be used for battlements (20:1-20); inheritance protocol (21:15-17); the sowing and harvesting of fields (22:9-10); and many other such things, which were evidently only a sampling of the many ways in which the righteous life was displayed, and combined to show the Israelites that true holiness extended to every aspect of life, and affected every decision and manner of doing things. And yet, for all this, the intricacy of the law system constituted only a minor part of what made it difficult, or rather impossible to fulfill; and that which served most fundamentally to show the unobtainable extent of its demands, was that aspect which spoke, not to the actions, however minute, but to the very heart of a person; such as the command, not just to obey God, but to rejoice in him (26:11), and so fervently as to be able to say, â€œI have not at all eaten [of the tithe of your blessing] in mourningâ€ (26:14); for by means of such commands, the Law was made to be a matter of the heart; and although a person may begrudgingly change his actions, he can never change the desires of his own heart, so that the Law is hereby shown to be a matter beyond the natural capabilities of the Israelites.
However, even as difficult as this Law was to bear, there are hints throughout that it was yet imperfect, and accommodated to the weakness and sinfulness of men; for in that it permits divorce (24:1-4), which God hates (Malachi 2:16); and the taking on of a second wife from a heathen tribe (21:10-14), which is not at all in accordance with God's original purposes (Genesis 2:23-24; Matthew 19:4-6); it thereby cries out that, because of the weakness of the people there is much in it that is imperfect and incomplete, and so a better law, and a better heart to delight in it, is most solemnly needed by the people.
But in all the various parts of the Law here enjoined upon the people, the Messiah is foreshadowed and expected; for first of all, in a negative sense, he is anticipated as the curse that the Law demands, and that all God's people by their wicked hearts and actions have at one time or another called down upon their heads. For the Law says, â€œAccursed of God is he who is hanged on a treeâ€ (Deuteronomy 21:23); and so it looks ahead to the Christ who should be hanged on the cross in our stead as the curse the Law demanded (Galatians 3:13). Second, in a positive sense, the Law looks ahead to and expects a brother and champion who should fulfill it and save his brothers in many ways, such as, for instance, in the description of the loving brother who goes out to seek and to help his brothers who had been estranged and at enmity with him; for when Moses says that a man who sees his brother in need, even when he is not near him, he is still to help him and restore all that he had lost (22:1-4 cf. Exodus 23:4-5). Now, this is most perfectly fulfilled in Christ, our true elder brother, who saw us afar off, when we had been at enmity with him, and took note of our desperate need, and noticed all we had lost in our rebellion, and came down and sought us out, and brought everything necessary to our eternal good back to us freely and sacrificially. So the Law then, inasmuch as it enjoins self-sacrificial love for the good of one's distant neighbor, looks ahead to the Messiah. Third and finally, the Law expects Christ to fulfill it in an ultimate way, both in the bringing to light of those truths which were obscured in shadow, such as the laws of non-mixture (22:9-11) and the regulations concerning an ox treading out the corn (25:4, cf. also 1 Corinthians 8:9-11); and also, in enjoining a stricter and more perfect law, as in the matter of divorce, in those places where God had accommodated the weakness of men in some respect. For as it is manifest that God can never finally be satisfied with anything other than the most uncompromising holiness, everywhere he accommodated his original design to fallen men, he did so with the pledge of a coming Champion who should please him perfectly, and so uphold his honor and his perfect standards; which Christ in fact did and taught, both in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere (e.g. Matthew 5-7; Mark 7:14-23).
But let us now touch upon the curses and blessings themselves. First, the blessings were called out by those who stood upon Mount Gerazim, as if to suggest, there is a mountain where God's people might stand and inherit his blessings, and not at all fear his curses; and of the blessings themselves, it must be mentioned that they extend to prosperity in every aspect of life on the land that God had promised to give his people, victory over all their enemies, and in sum, that they should be his holy people, and live in his presence, and be called by his name. But we must also note that it was strictly observed that these blessings were in every way contingent upon obedience to the Law (27:13-14). Now, all these blessings came typically and partially in the reigns of such good kings as David and Hezekiah, whom God blessed with all the shadow-gifts of earthly prosperity in Jerusalem, and indeed with tastes of the true heavenly and anti-typical gifts of his very presence; and that because, however imperfectly, yet with their whole heart they obeyed him. But ultimately, the true and perfect blessings of the New Jerusalem, where God dwells with his people forevermore (Revelation 21:1-4), was won only by Christ, for those in whom he had purposed to produce the same perfect works of righteousness.
The curses, on the other hand, held forth every terror conceivable, and brought barrenness and misery into the land where God had chosen his name to dwell, and delivered up his people to their enemies; but ultimately, the essence of the curse was summed up in this one word, â€œexileâ€ (28:63-68). God in his redemptive mercy had promised to bring his people, who for their sins he had cast out of Paradise where they had dwelt in his presence, back into a land where they might be his people and fellowship with him. But if his Law should remain unfulfilled, he would cast them out again, and send them into exile, scattering them among the nations; which he did of course do, sending first the ten tribes into captivity in 722 B.C., and then Judah as well, in 586 B.C. However, even this final and fierce casting off of God's people, so that they were no longer his (Hosea 1:6-9), was just a foretaste of the terror of God's curse. Ultimately, this curse was wreaked in all its divine fury when God looked down upon his own holy Son, and for the sins he had placed upon him, even our own transgressions, he was pleased to crush him (Isaiah 53:10), and drove him out of his presence, so that he cried out in anguish of soul, â€œMy God, my God, why have you forsaken me?â€ (Matthew 27:46). And it was manifest that this horrendous and most immeasurable outpouring of divine wrath and justice should indeed overwhelm God's true Israel, because the first Israel had not fully confirmed all the words of the law, to do them (27:26); and so the curse had to fall, by virtue of God's own holy character.
Sons and daughters of Abraham by faith, know that there are two mountains before you, and that you must indeed stand upon one of them! The first is Mount Ebal, where God's curse comes upon all who have not fully obeyed his implacable Law; but on Mount Ebal there already stands the altar of unhewn stones, with all God's Law, which cried out against us, written upon it in full measure. The Law has been answered by the Sacrifice, and Mount Ebal can cry out no more terrible things against those for whom the Sacrifice was offered up. Let us then march to Mount Gerizim, where the blessings of God have been won for us by our great Champion, Jesus Christ. For he did not stay on Mount Ebal, which is Golgotha, but after three days the curse had been exhausted, and he rose up triumphant from the altar of divine justice, and is now leading a host of redeemed sinners to Mount Gerizim, with all its blessings, which he has won for us eternally. This Mount is the New Jerusalem, of which we are even now citizens (Galatians 4:26; Philippians 3:20), and where we worship in the spirit (Hebrews 12:22-24) as a foretaste of our eternal reward, which is nothing less than a dwellingplace in the presence of the Lamb, who is the Temple of the New Heavens and New Earth.