Vv20-68 then forms an extended description of these six curses that will befall Israel if they do not dedicate themselves in holiness to the Lord. This section can be divided into five cycles of woe that will sweep through the nation of Israel in judgment, with each cycle building upon and revisiting themes in the previous one.
The first cycle runs from vv20-26. Notice that in v20 Moses gets to the heart and essence of Israel’s sin: she has broken the first commandment by forsaking her covenant Lord. Take note too that it is GOD who will send the curses for disobedience: God alone is judge and his hand will not be stayed in executing justice. His curses will be relentless and unceasing until, v21, Israel is consumed off the Land – their prized inheritance. God will pursue sinful Israel in holy indignation until they perish, v22.
God will strike Israel with confusion of mind. God will send epidemic sickness that will eat away at Israel. And disease that will turn the whole body into a feverish furnace of inflammation. God will mercilessly blanket the Land with drought, blight, and mildew.
V23-24, the heavens that were once porous with rain will now turn to bronze, and rain will be replaced with the powder of dust. The earth that once brought forth life-giving harvest will now become thorns and thistles again – like impenetrable iron.
In the midst of all this internal destruction, God will cause Israel, verse 25, to be defeated by her enemies. Nations that once cowered before Israel, will now own Israel in battle. Israel will become a picture of horror to the world.
Her dead corpses will be devoured by the birds of air and beasts of the earth, with no one to frighten them away, v26.
This cursing imagery takes one back to the covenant confirmation ceremony between God and Abraham in Gn 15 where God alone passed through the severed animal halves in self-malediction [oath of hurt to self]. And the birds of prey fed on the dead carcasses, but Abraham drove them away. Here, Israel has become the severed animal halves, a feast for the birds of divine judgment.
Man, who was once created to be king and rule over creation, will now come under the violent dominion of carnivorous birds and beasts. IOW, the creation order will be reversed.
The second cycleof the impending cyclone of God’s judgment, if Israel disobeys, is in vv27-37. Here we see that Israel will be utterly impotent against the hand of God’s fierce wrath.
If Israel keeps on sinning God will strike Israel with the boils of Egypt, and with hemorrhoids, scabs and itch, for which there will be no cure, v27 & 34 – relentless suffering. (The Jews at this time would have associated such sickness with sin in their lives.) The Lord will strike them with madness, blindness, and confusion of mind, as if physical pain were not enough.
Israel will be stricken with hopeless futility, v29ff. The Sabbath pattern of work followed by restful joy and satisfaction will be reversed – for their work is not good enough! Israel will have many good things at their fingertips but will be unable to enjoy them. Israel’s undertakings in marriage, family, and labor, will be rewarded with nothing but rape, loss, frustration, madness, and continual oppression.
This cycle of woe ends in vv35-37 with enemies taking the land, besieging Israel, and taking her away. Here, Israel’s judgment under sin will be sealed by her being given over to base idolatry: worshipping the created gods of wood and stone. Israel’s name that was once great will become worthless. The nation through which God promised to make all the nations blessed, will now become a living proverb for the most cursed of all peoples… sounds like the nightmare of Egypt all over again!
The third cycle of woe, in vv38-48, continues the horrifying spectable of God’s judgment of Israel for her sinful disobedience. Again, we see the reversal of Israel’s fortune, her blessings, in key areas of life.
The fruit of the field and of the vine will be consumed by locusts and eaten by worms. Instead of Israel ruling over them, Israel will become the servant of crop pests like locusts and worms. Again, we see here nothing but Israel’s futility in harvesting food. And the fruit of the womb, Israel’s sons and daughters, will not be enjoyed, but rather taken off into captivity! And the sojourner who at one time had no rights and privileges, will rise up above Israel as she sinks lower and lower into devastating obscurity.
This cycle ends with a summary of the cause of Israel’s condition. Israel did not obey the conditions of the covenant and serve the Lord with joy and gladness for all his blessings. IOW, she did not love God. And thus, the effect of her sinful rebellion is comprehensive annihilation of Israel as a nation by God.
In vv49-57 the cyclone of God’s judgment bores down into harrowing depths of distress and degradation for Israel, in this fourth cycle. Here, Israel’s finds herself facing the climax of the prior three pictures of divine punishment: which is siege by enemy nations. This whole section is dedicated to blood-chilling state of Israel in captivity.
Israel, who was once the head of the nations will be invaded by barbarians, like a vulture swooping down on its prey, showing no mercy to the young and desecrating the Land, vv50-51.
However, the inhumane appetite of the barbarian will pale in comparison to Israel being given over by God to her unnatural lusts in v53ff. In the distress and starvation of siege, Israel will literally turn in on herself by resorting to human cannibalism. Even the most tender and refined man will horde and scoff the flesh of his children. Even the most delicate and dignified woman will slip away selfishly to eat her own offspring and her afterbirth in secret. In the heat of siege, Israel will resemble a brute beast rather than the dignified image of God.
By the fifth cycle of woe in the last portion of our passage, vv58-68, Israel is threatened with the eye of the storm of God’s judgment. In v58, Moses restates the condition of the covenant introduced in v15. If Israel does not obey the law and fear God, the Lord’s wrath will boil over upon Israel and her offspring with sweeping curses: with “extraordinary afflictions, afflictions severe and lasting, and sickness grievous and lasting”, v59.
God will reverse the Exodus redemption from Egypt, v60, by sending upon Israel the diseases of Egypt that they so feared, as well as every sickness not recorded in the book of the law until Israel is destroyed.
Then, v62ff, the unthinkable is threatened: not only will God reverse the Exodus, but he will repeal the promises of earthly blessing made to Abraham. The Abrahamic promise to Israel of increase in number will be no more. Instead, Israel will shrink into insignificance like during the days of Egypt. The Abrahamic promise of the Land will be snatched from under their feet. Instead of being God’s trophy among the nations, Israel will be scattered into obscurity, v64. There, Israel, enslaved to her own unbridled lusts, will commit idolatry unheard of before: by worshipping gods that do not even exist!
So relentless will be God’s anger that Israel will long for death to bring an end to her misery. But it will not come. Such is the endless torment of hell.
Israel’s sins will climax with banishment from God’s presence and in the end he will return her in ships to Egypt, v68. Israel will make that unthinkable journey back to Egypt, but this time it will be even worse than before. Israel will offer herself in slavery to her enemies and there will be no buyer…
Israel’s predicament: our predicament
The OC with its various laws and its curse for disobedience shows what a desperate predicament all of humanity is due to sin. The snapshots of divine judgment awaiting Israel set forth in our passage gave God’s people back then and give us today a sense of what eternal damnation will be like. For God is holy and he will not overlook sin. He will execute his justice toward the unrepentant sinner.
But you may ask, was not God only a wrathful judge toward unrighteous sinners in the OT?
Not according to John the Baptist and Jesus, and the Apostle Paul… or John.
Consider the bowls, the cycles, of God’s impending wrath in Revelation. In Rv 19:17-18, we read of the birds that will gather for the great judgment supper of God, “to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great.” And the curse of judgment on that final day will be unrelenting, such is a prophetic vision in Rv 9.5-6, “… their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone. And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them.”
Friends, it may not seem like judgment is coming but it is. It is postponed, for now, because God is merciful and patient willing that none should perish but all come to repentance. Sinner, has the law exposed your sin and driven you in desperation to Jesus for cleansing? Covenant child, confessing Christian, have you considered that the sign of your baptism will turn into bloody agonizing curse on that final day if you reject your covenant Lord? …
Brothers and sisters, children, may we like the Israelites under the law, grasp the bad news about ourselves so that we can appreciate the good news of God’s promise fulfilled in the gospel. The bad news is that we are sinners deserving of God’s holy wrath. But we have nevertheless been redeemed. For Jesus came to save sinners and not the righteous (Matt. 9:12-13).
As we contemplate the weight of God’s justice, may we rejoice in God’s love that has saved us from every cursing flame of hell.
As we consider the demands of the OT law and God’s judgment upon national Israel, may we rejoice in the fulfillment and satisfaction that Christ and his kingdom has brought us. There is no more fear of curse, just unconditional blessing. There is no more work to be done, just resting in our Saviour.
Beloved, Jesus earned the Father’s favour through his life of impeccable obedience to the law. Jesus shed his blood to turn away God’s judgment. By Christ’s obedience and blood we have forgiveness for our sins. May these gospel truths drive our worship; may they feed our faith and may they sustain us with hope until the fullness of heaven comes down to each on that Final Day.