In this chapter, we come to the covenant sanctions. The first part contains the blessings which follow obedience, the latter portion, four times as long, contains the curses. The terms have been set out, the covenant renewed. What will happen if Israel keeps covenant? What will happen if they do not? “And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord thy God . . .” (Dt. 28:1-14).
If Israel “hearkens diligently,” then God will set them high over all nations (v. 1). If they are obedient, then certain blessings will chase them down (v. 2). They will experience urban blessing and agrarian blessing (v. 3). They will see blessing in everything that reproduces (v. 4). They will see blessing in the larder and pantry (v. 5). They will be blessed in their coming and going; their commute will be blessed (v. 6). They will be completely victorious in war (v. 7). Their storehouses will be full, and everything they set their hand to will be blessed (v. 8). This all depends on continued faithfulness (v. 9). Those outside will see the name which Israel bears and they will be afraid (v. 10). The Lord will prosper them in the land (v. 11). God alone is the God of rain and fertility, and not Baal (v. 12). This blessing frees them from having to borrow from others. God will make them the head, and not the tail, put them above and not below (v. 13). They must walk in God’s straight line, and never swerve aside to other gods (v. 14).
This is an if . . . then proposition. Israel has been brought into covenant through the sheer kindness of God. This covenant standing, however, has blessings and curses connected to it. They have agreed to the terms of the covenant, and so they must keep covenant. In this passage, the conditionality of the blessings is emphasized multiple times (vv. 1, 2, 9, 13).
God exhibits inexorable kindness. He will chase them down with His blessings (v. 2). He will command, and the blessings will fall on them (v. 8). The Lord will cause their enemies to flee in seven directions (v. 7). These things do not come about because of some impersonal “law of supply and demand.” The Lord will set Israel high above the nations (v. 1). Throughout, the Lord is the one who makes, establishes, sets, and blesses. Blessings are personal.
Blessings are also scary. In a perverse way, sinful men (among them, not a few commentators) shy away from blessings such as this. Curses are terrible, but there is a sense in which even natural men understand the language of judgment being spoken. But blessings are the language of grace, and grace is hard for us to comprehend. When Israel is under these blessings, God will make the other nations afraid of them. This is a principle we see throughout Scripture. Unbelievers are afraid in two ways—they are afraid of those who are blessed, and they are also (perversely) afraid of being blessed. Ruth’s future mother-in-law Rahab saw this clearly (Josh. 2:11). But she was not afraid of being blessed, and became an ancestress of Christ. We see the principle with Saul and David. “And Saul was afraid of David, because the Lord was with him . . .” (1 Sam. 18:12, 15, 29). Saul was afraid both ways. To fear obedience is to fear blessing. The new covenant minimizes nothing of substance. As the blessing of God fell upon the early Christians, those outside were afraid to join them, but respected them still (Acts 5:13).
We already know that Israel (as a whole) will not inherit these blessings until the time of the new covenant. But what was the problem? What was the catch? The answer is found later in this chapter, in the midst of the curses. “Because thou servedst not the Lord thy God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things” (v. 47). They forfeited the blessings because they were sour, dour, cranky, uptight, irritated, annoyed, stressed, ungrateful, and probably Reformed.
When the blessings come into their own, in these times of restoration, this is a lesson which Israel as the Church finally learns. But we still have to keep at it. Even in our day, the lessons of joy are hard to master. But God is in the process of ensuring that we learn them. “And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:46-47).