CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Misappropriating Old Testament Blessings and Curses

Jan 3, 2015

One set of passages often appealed to by those pushing the prosperity gospel are the Old Testament texts which speak of the promises of material blessing in such places as Lev. 26 and Deut. 28-29. It is said that these passages are for believers today, and need to be appropriated. This is a common theme of the prosperity teachers.

But it is vital to view these covenantal blessings (and curses) in context. These blessings and cursings have a specific referent: the nation of Israel. Consider the negative side of things: the promised curses for disobedience all point to one primary event – the exile. As Douglas Stuart comments:

“A careful reading of Lev 26, Deut 4, and Deut 28-32 reveals that the ultimate national fate for a disobedient Israel will be defeat in war, capture, and exile. Most of the covenant curses revolve around or lead up to that fate, and most of the covenant restoration blessings involve restoration from it. . . .The curses of Lev 26 and Deut 28-32 are a package, referring to a single era of judgement.”

prosperity 1In addition, these blessings and curses have a corporate, rather than merely an individual, dimension. They applied to the nation as a whole. This ties in with the Hebrew understanding of corporate solidarity. When one individual sins, the whole nation suffers. The sin of Achan is a good example (Joshua 7). Although Achan alone sinned, we read that “the Lord’s anger burned against Israel” (Josh 7:1).

As Paul House has noted, “the entire nation stands or falls together because the covenant was made with the whole nation. They are a community of faith as much as a collection of individuals who believe in and follow the Lord. Selfishness, disregard for Yahweh’s commands and covering up sin therefore harms the entire group.”

This corporate nature of the covenant obligations tends to be lost on the prosperity gospel advocates. They teach that individuals can be wealthy and prosper, based on the covenant stipulations, but ignore its background and context. And one can ask why God blessed his people in such a fashion. Was such material blessing meant to be an end in itself, or a means to an end?

An interesting discussion of this can be found in Psalm 67. The seven verses speak of God’s blessing, but interestingly five of the verses speak of the nations, the peoples, and/or all the earth. The blessing of God is not meant to flow into Israel and stop there, much as water flows in the Dead Sea and stays there. We are blessed to bless others, not enrich ourselves.

It should also be noted that the prosperity gospellers tend to focus on the blessings, while ignoring the curses. They seem quite eager to claim the blessings for obedience, but are strangely silent about the curses for disobedience. Yet both go together. Moreover, as even a superficial reading of either Lev. 26 or Deut. 28,29 will show, there are far more curses than blessings.

Advocates of the prosperity gospel also need to be reminded that the curses and blessings of the covenant were specifically for the physical nation of Israel, and tied up closely with material issues such as the land, productivity, and rest from enemies. Obedience to Yahweh would bring security in the land, peace from foreign aggression, agricultural productivity and abundance, and long life and health.

Disobedience would bring the reverse. Then disease, poverty, famine, war, exile and death would ensue. Thus when prosperity gospellers point to the wealth of the patriarchs as examples for contemporary believers, they are walking on shaky ground.

The great riches and success that the prosperity teachers promise their followers seems to be an automatic right of those with enough faith. Very little mention is made either of a believer’s obedience and spirituality, or of what he will do with that wealth. But scripture makes a connection between wealth and obedience on the one hand, and wealth and giving on the other. As Chris Wright puts it,

“there is the reciprocal nature of giving and blessing. The people’s giving and feasting was to be an obedient response to God’s giving and blessing. But at the same time, God’s blessing would be God’s continued response to their obedience. It is impossible to separate the two. It is inadequate to speak of obedience being the condition of blessing, or to speak of unconditional blessing unrelated to responsive obedience. There is a dynamic reciprocity between the two.”

However, even this idea needs to be tempered. Blessings are not so much rewards for obedience as simply the basis of being a covenant people. It is more a question of the absence of blessing when disobedience takes place. As Wright notes,

“some popular versions of the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ give the impression that all the material blessings of [Deut. 28:] 2-14 will come pouring out of the heavenly slot machine if you press the right behavior buttons. However, although it is clear that if the curses happen, they will come as a deserved punishment, there is no corresponding sense in which the blessings can be earned as some kind of reward. The whole thrust of Deuteronomy would protest at such an idea.”

Moreover, in contrast to the prosperity version of things, the enjoyment of blessing is very much based on the continuous and conscious choice of Israel to walk in obedience to Yahweh. The blessings are not some automatic favour to be enjoyed at the snap of a finger.

And in the New Testament, blessings are seen more in spiritual terms than in such physical terms. Ephesians 1:3 puts it this way, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ”.

As William Brown observes, “The parallels between the Old and New Testament usages of blessing are striking. To be blessed is to be guaranteed special favor by God with resulting joy and prosperity. In the New Testament, however, the emphasis is more on spiritual rather than on material blessings”.

Indeed, there are many examples of how the NT de-emphasises this-worldly aspects of wealth and material blessing, while emphasising the other-worldly nature of true wealth. A good example is Matt. 6:19-21: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”.

And while we find blessings and curses uttered by Jesus in the gospels, they take on a very different slant. Consider the Sermon on the Mount as an example. The blessings pronounced there differ from those found in Lev. 26. As Allen Ross points out, the beatitudes

“pronounce a blessing on those who are persecuted, rather than pronounce the blessing of victory over enemies. According to Christ’s teachings, the immediate way of blessing during this present age (before the fulfillment of the covenant promises) includes poverty, humility, need, and affliction. To follow Christ now might mean the way of the cross and not the way of military victory.”

New Testament believers therefore need to be careful in how they appropriate Old Testament covenant theology. While some, like dispensationalists, may go too far in making a clear distinction between Israel and the church, we need to nonetheless remember the unique role and calling of Israel.

The very material and earthly set of rewards and punishments for Israel seem to find little resonance in the New Testament. Indeed, given that the majority of consequences for covenantal obedience and disobedience seem to revolve around the land, we can hardly expect to see them in the New Testament, which makes almost no mention of the land.

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18 Responses to Misappropriating Old Testament Blessings and Curses

  • Tithes are to support the Levitical Priesthood; Due to them not receiving a portion of Land like the other tribes of Israel. So please make sure you pay your Tithes to someone of Jewish decent who can trace their linage. Also remember that your tithe is from your profit not gross.
    Worried about “robbing from GOD” Thankfully the book of Acts records the ‘Jerusalem Council’ the Apostles, disciples debated exactly what is required of a grafted in believer with accord to the OT law.
    God will honour the joyful giver. Beware the man who attempts to put the believer back under the Law. If we could save ourselves through works we would be in no need of a Saviour.

  • Do I detect a slight, begrudging admission that there may be blessings to be had for those that are obedient or at very least, repentant?

    I agree with almost everything you have said other than the “misappropriation” bit. The O.T. law is actually not done away with and God does not change, the principles remain the same. Much of the O.T. is our teaching tool to show universal rules that are simply part of God’s unchanging nature. Israel is just the chosen example. If God is spending time with you, you will be blessed, if God withdraws from you, you will be cursed. Fact (I promise you): Please God and you will be blessed. How we invest that blessing depends on how wise we are.

  • If you want to become materially rich, ask God to put you in front of someone who can teach you to budget. You want great food, as God to put you in front of someone who can teach you to cook.

    First look to the kingdom of Heaven, then all the other things shall be given to you. Get right with God then you will be far richer than you could ever have imagined, not with gold or silver, but the most valuable thing on earth, a personal relationship with God.

  • …fully agree. We don’t tithe but we give love offerings (used for all sorts of things, paying rent of the meeting place, paying for sound system, outreach material, support local and oversea ministries and so on) And doesn’t God say He loves cheerful givers?

    What about these thoughts: looking at different nations where they have started hundreds of years ago, building their government on the Judeo-Christian belief system, they were successful, wealthy, rich in so many ways…today they have abandoned the Christian God and the country’s wealth & prosperity is going down the hill… Why are many Muslim countries some of the poorest in this world, always in war, never able to build up some treasures for themselves? Why are regions where God is recognized as God and worshipped prosperous & flourishing? Why does Paul in Romans say that the Lord is giving people over to their fleshly lusts & evil doing?

    Doesn’t this all mean God is Still blessing & cursing nations, depending on how they live their lives? It might not be the ‘tithing’ but it might be the ‘the ones who love me do the will of the Father’. God hasn’t changed, Old or New Testament. He still requires our selfless sacrifice, our obedience and our whole heart. We just recognize that it all comes through His grace & mercy, not because we’re so awesome.

    Please, correct me if I’m wrong. Just trying to get the ‘bigger picture’.

    Blessings

  • Hi Bill
    My reading for today from the Barnabas Prayer booklet relates both to your blog today as well as yesterday’s post.
    “”They have turned it into a mosque”! Archbishop Nicodemus Daoud of Mosul, Iraq, broke down and wept as he uttered these words about his cathedral, now under the control of Islamic State (IS). When IS militants were just 300 metres from his residence,he had finally left the city, and joined 160,000 or more Iraqi Christians who had already fled from IS’s advance to the relative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan. He also said he had learned how true it is that treasure in heaven is far more important than possessions on earth, and this is what he preaches to the displaced and dispossessed Christians.”
    These sorts of testimonies show up the utter paucity of the “Prosperity People”, and yet at the same time should strengthen our resolve to continue to speak out against the disinformation which the MM is feeding us.
    Blessings, Vic

  • Thank you Bill for explaining this. I have often been puzzled about it. And thanks to Rusty also for your helpful comments about tithing.

  • Thanks Michael. But sorry, no ‘begrudging admission’ here at all. Simply a restatement of the biblical data which I have always sought to do. Anyone who has read the 50 articles which I have written on this topic will know my position rather clearly. I have always said God can and does bless in any way he chooses. My point all along has been that these have been overwhelmingly material, physical blessings for Israel in the OT, and spiritual blessings in the heavenlies for the Christian in the NT. And this article of course was simply about how the prosperity hucksters are twisting and distorting OT covenant passages given to Israel for their own greedy gospel.

  • Thanks Jennifer. You raise a number of important issues which I have dealt with elsewhere. Yes one can find a connection of sorts with nations prospering as they apply godly principles, and so on. And I think God does reward nations that seek to put him first, etc. So generally speaking, yes one can make such a case. But this is not an entirely ironclad rule of course. One simply has to look at all the many passages about the righteous complaining about the wicked prospering (eg., Ps 37, 73, etc).

    In part this is because of God’s common grace which he bestows upon all of us that anyone can be prosperous, well off, healthy, and so on. So material well-being in itself is no clear indication at all of God’s favour, or otherwise. But I discuss this in much more detail here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/04/18/spirituality-and-material-riches/

  • Hi Bill:
    I have just stumbled on your “Culture Watch” page since Christmas time, and I am enjoying your commentaries.

    You quote other writers, such as Chris Wright and William Brown, do you ever put information as to where these quotes come from. Some of them I would like to read more on.

    God bless and thanks for your insights.
    Ken

  • But we do have material wealth in the NT. Our society is testimony to that. If it was not for the Biblical foundation of property rights, justice systems, education for all, principles of trading fairly and equitably and dealing correctly with corrupt officials do you think western society and the rest of the world that follows would be where it is today? When the West followed Biblical principles we were preeminent in the world. Modern business practice just could not exist without this basic foundation and the pre-Christian principle of only passing on knowledge through apprenticeships would completely hamstring modern advances. Where you see governments undermining principles of fair trading and morality you invariably see debt and decay. The world financial crisis and the huge debts amassed by corrupt governments show this clearly.

    Sorry Bill but you are wrong to say that the blessings from following God’s word are just “spiritual”.

  • I think what you are referring to is summarized in :-

    Mic_3:11 The heads thereof judge for reward, and the priests thereof teach for hire, and the prophets thereof divine for money: yet will they lean upon the LORD, and say, Is not the LORD among us? none evil can come upon us.

    So you see this sort of problem existed in the OT too.

    OT tithes were meant for a lot of things including paying for judges, historians and (you probably won’t like this one) musicians and of course the upkeep of the temple and the priests. Where this sort of thing goes wrong is where people do not follow Biblical principles. We have been given dominion over the Earth and it is up to us to get it right, God does not want to do it for us and wants us to learn and put things into practice but none of this in any way precludes the principle of material blessings being poured out.

  • Thanks Michael. But there is little need to keep belabouring all this. If you actually read my articles and comments carefully you will see I never said there are no material blessings in NT times. Quite the contrary, as I clearly just said in my comment above, “God can and does bless in any way he chooses”. And my qualifying adverb “overwhelmingly” applied to what I said both about the OT and the NT. So creating a straw man to shoot down really does not help us in this discussion.

  • Sorry to offend. I’m thankful that you post any of my comments. I’d hate to be banned from your site like I have from the Guardian.

    You are right in that almost every con. trick under the Sun involves “you give me money now and you’ll get a lot more back later.”

    God bless… and I mean that spiritually, materially and personally. (sorry. I couldn’t help myself)

  • Michael Weeks 4.1.15 / 3pm

    Sorry to offend. I’m thankful that you post any of my comments. I’d hate to be banned from your site like I have from the Guardian.

    Hey there, Michael. Surely being banned by The Guardian is a badge of honour? 🙂

  • Thanks Ken. I don’t do footnotes in these essays, but quite often (as in an article like this) one can guess rather easily where the quotes come from. That is, if I quote Chris Wright on a particular passage in Deuteronomy, it is likely it is in his commentary. So that will be the case quite often. Sometimes I will mention the book I am quoting from. But if you are desperate to find where a particular quote comes from, you can ask me.

  • Thanks to you Bill for presenting a good understanding of this principle. I have often felt that as a church (body of Christ), many of us are headed in the wrong direction as far as seeking material blessings. While God does indeed bless us as His children, we have to ask ourselves, do we have what we “need” or must we continually seek more material wealth in order to feel fulfilled? I don’t think there is anything wrong with enjoying hard earned money for ones’ labours but we must take great care not to allow our “blessings” to become an idol. This time we have on earth is short and there are so many spiritual lessons to be learned in order for us to become prepared for eternal life in His presence. I pray that we as Christians will all learn to serve God and follow His tenets as per Scripture and to be wholly satisfied with what He has given to us. If you have less, be humble and still give thanks to Him and serve Him; if you have more, be thankful to Him also and seek to bless others with the abundance you possess. Like the old adage says, “you can’t take it with you”. May God bless all.

  • 7 Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. 8 Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” 9 So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith…… 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.”[h] 14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. Galatians 3.
    I think this scripture says it all.

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