Three Mountains and A Renewed Covenant
Enjoyed the quick run through Deuteronomy 27 – 34 during coffee break today with Paul Barker (“Deuteronomy: The God Who Keeps Promises”).
Here, the Israelites are standing on the edge of the Promised Land. They are finally about to enter after being judged to wander for 40 years in the desert for their earlier disobedience to God (see The Book of Numbers).
When they entered the land that God had promised them, the Israelite were to stand on two mountains there: 6 tribes were assigned Mount Gerizim to bless the people and 6 others on Mount Ebal for the curse. God had promised blessings for the people if they obeyed him and curses if they didn’t.
But it is quite clear from the last few chapters of Deuteronomy what the people would do. Mount Ebal, for example, is to be well-equipped with a God-ordained life-saving device – the altar. The altar stands beside a plastered pillar inscribed with the law. The purpose of the pillar can’t be FYI for the Israelites, otherwise, it would be in the townsquare; God had also previously instructed that the law not be forgotten – to be inscribed on doorposts and worn on foreheads etc. The significance of the pillar seems to be that through the law, Israel stands under God’s curse. The law, which has described the ideal and perfect standards of God exposes sinfulness and failure – it shows up sin.
The planned pronouncements of the Levites prophesises that the law will indeed be broken. God knows even the secret sins and will judge them though no human may.
The institution of the altar next to the pillar of condemnation really displays a marvellous picture of the heart of God’s character: his perfect holiness and justice is reflected in his perfect standards and demands; yet he is also merciful, abounding in forgiveness – symbolised here by the altar which God has graciously provided as a means for sinful people to make peace with him (Deuteronomy 27:7) and having made such peace, then be able to feast and rejoice (Deuteronomy 27:7).
Jesus fulfilled what the burnt offerings of the Old Testament foreshadowed – “Christ redeemed us from the curse of law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13).
Blessings for obedience are reminiscent of descriptions of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1-2) but curses for disobedience are more than the direct negative of such blessings – the details of the curses are graphic in their detail of horror, hopelessness and despair.
Sadly, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings shows us that the curses did indeed come to pass in the history of Israel, when she decided to turn her back on God.
This was a sign and a wonder against Israel and her offspring forever of the consequences of their failure to serve the LORD their God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things (Deuteronomy 28:46-47). Since they rejected the giver of all blessings, they were rejected by the giver from partaking of his blessings.
The renewal of the covenant is not just for Israelites but also for foreigners in their midst (Deuteronomy 29:14-15).
Unfortunately, it looks like a dud from the start (Deuteronomy 29:4). Their inevitable impending destruction from failure to keep the covenant will be a warning to all the other nations – this is what happens when you worship other gods.
When will this be? It doesn’t matter. The timing is a secret that only the LORD knows but the really important thing is that these things have been revealed to the Israelites so they would obey the law (Deuteronomy 29:29).
Is there no hope? Of course there is. When all the consequences of Israel’s sin has happened, and they remember the warnings they did not heed, they will realise and remember who God is and what he did in the history of Israel. The curses are not just plain vanilla judgement but also pleas to repent. And if they return to God, he will return to them. (The word “return” is apparently used 7 times in Deuteronomy 30:1-10.)
But to fully obey God is beyond the ability of Israel. God promises that he will circumcise their heart and the heart of their descendants so that they will love the Lord their God with all their heart and with all their soul, in order that they may live (Deuteronomy 30:6).
So the Abrahamic circumcision was a symbol that pointed forward to a more internal and radical circumcision of the heart. And the circumcised heart loves and obeys God.
When will this take place? After the blessings and after the curses and after the return. As we read on in the New Testament, similar promises were made by Jeremiah and Ezekiel anticipating the fulfilment in post-exilic Israel. The return from exile and the rebuilding of the temple was a damp squib (Haggai, Zechariah, Ezra, Nehemiah). The promise was still in the future.
It was finally fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the giving of the Holy Spirit. As Christians are identified in Jesus’ death, then their hearts are circumcised. Paul writes in Romans 10:
For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?'” (that is, to bring Christ down) or “‘Who will descend into the abyss?'” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”