[Note to Small Group Leaders: This is a MUCH longer study than usual.]
If you want to understand the two witnesses described in the book of Revelation, learn as much as you can about all the examples of two witnesses throughout the whole of Scripture. We see two witnesses at Sodom and Gomorrah, Aaron and Moses before Pharaoh, Caleb and Joshua and their report about the Promised Land, the two spies and their excursion to Jericho, and so on. It is not unusual to see these witnesses directed by God to perform visible signs and wonders just like the final two witnesses in Revelation, but in this example of the two witnesses we have the greater characteristic which defines their purpose and ministry: to draw attention to God’s Word and ways. It is not whether one acknowledges a sign or wonder, but what they do with the more important message accompanying it.
Q: What is the primary requirement?
A: “Keep all the commandments which I command you today.” (v.1)
Application: A biblical faith is not based on what we give or sacrifice, but on putting God’s Word into practice.
Observation: Note how many times throughout these chapters that Moses returns to this primary requirement, which defines a right relationship with God:
“…’Keep all the commandments…” (27:1)
“…obey the Lord your God, and do His commandments and His statutes…” (27:10)
“’Cursed is he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’” (27:26)
”…do all His commandments…” (28:1)
”…keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in His ways.” (28:9)
“…listen to the commandments of the Lord your God...to observe them carefully”. (28:13)
“…do not turn aside from any of the words which I command you today…” (28:14)
“…if you do not obey…to observe to do all His commandments and statutes…” (28:15)
“…because you would not obey the Lord your God by keeping His commandments and His statutes…” (28:45)
“If you are not careful to observe all the words of this law which are written in this book…” (28:58)
“…because you did not obey…” (28:62)
Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father’s who sent Me.
— John 14:23-24
Q: Was it at this time that Israel performed these things?
A: The fulfillment is found in Joshua 8:30-35 as Moses’ instruction is to do this “on the day when you cross the Jordan” (v.2) and these instructions were given before they entered the land.
Q: Why might it be significant that they were commanded not just to erect the stones of the Law but to also build an altar?
A: It reinforces the fact that the Law bring condemnation (2 Co. 3:7-9), but the altar meets the needs of the condemned sinner.
Q: What is the purpose of having both “burnt offerings” (v.7) and “peace offerings” (v.8)?
A: Burnt offerings deal with sin and are given whole to God; peace offerings celebrate forgiveness and spiritual restoration and are partly eaten by worshippers in a kind of fellowship or communion with God. The burnt offerings are a picture of Christ’s complete sacrifice on our behalf and the peace offerings a reminder that He has reconciled us into a right relationship (communion) with Him. (Rom. 5:1)
Application: It is not about merely hearing or reciting God’s Word, but putting it into practice.
Q: What defines a group as being “a people for the Lord”?
A: Obedience to His Word.
Point: While there may be ethnic connections within physical Israel going back to Abraham, the true members of spiritual Israel are distinguished by faith to the point of putting His Word into practice
Q: What is the difference between a “commandment” and a “statute”?
A: “Commandments” (“mitsvah” in Hebrew) are the requirements of a covenant relationship; “statutes” (“choq” in Hebrew) are a prescribed task or boundary of a permanent nature in the course of having a covenant relationship and often relate to the handling of sacrifices, proper and improper relationships, etc. It reflects both salvation and sanctification.
Q: What is the important sequence provided in these verses?
A: “…Be silent…listen…obey...”
Application: Obedience to God’s Word is not only an individual requirement, but together for the whole of God’s people.
Q: Is there a pattern to which tribes were chosen to stand on which mount?
A: The tribes on the mount of blessings are all direct sons of Rachel and Leah, whereas on the mount of curses are the sons by their handmaids plus Leah’s oldest (Reuben, who lost his rights as firstborn) and youngest (Zebulun). Between them stood the Levites with the Ark of the Covenant, the very symbol of Christ the Word.
Q: Why do you suppose that none of the blessings are recited here?
A: It is probably an allusion to the fact that the Law ultimately brings a curse, not a blessing. [Note: 2 Co. 3 contrasts the ministry of the law to the ministry of grace.]
For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.”
— Galatians 3:10
Q: Carefully look at the actions assigned to each curse. What do they overwhelmingly have in common?
A: Only the first curse (v.16) pertains to Laws stemming from the First Tablet which deal with one’s relationship with God; all the other curses stem from the Second Tablet which deals with one’s relationships with others.
Q: Can we categorize the people listed in the curses?
A: Neighbor (v.17 & 24), blind person (v.18), alien (v.19), orphan (v.19), widow (v.19) and innocent person (v.25) may all be categorized as everyone with whom we come into even casual contact, and father’s wife (v.20), sister (v.22), daughter of his father (v.22), daughter of his mother (v.22) and mother-in-law (v.23) all refer to family members. Notice how these two groups reflect the common themes of righteousness in our treatment of others and faithfulness in our personal relationships—in other words, treating everyone as we would ourselves want to be treated in our relationship with Christ.
Q: Is it possible to be in a right relationship with the Lord without obedience to His Word?
A: Note the final curse: “’Cursed is he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them”. (v.20)
Q: What might appear to be missing, considering that these curses were to be uttered by the Levites, those who made up the priesthood?
A: There are no curses relating to the sacrifices, celebrations, or rituals provided in the Law. It is a testimony about the greater importance God places on relationships than rituals and observances.
Application: The most visible proof of the quality of our faith and obedience is revealed in our relationships with others.
Q: Re-read v.1-2 again to establish the proper context. To whom were these blessings originally promised? Of whom is the proper definition of the pronoun “you” referring to?
A: It is a collective “you” referring to the whole of Israel.
Point: Although there may be some general points of application for every generation of God’s people provided in these promises, it is important to note that what follows is provided specifically to the nation Israel as a whole. False teachers love to pull these things out of context as some sort of purported formula or promise for anyone, but given in the original historical context, these are only a guarantee if the whole nation of Israel corporately remains faithful.
Q: How would you summarize the common theme of these verses?
A: Obedience brings blessing.
Q: How is this principle carried over into the New Testament?
A: The New Testament believer has “all spiritual things” in Christ, enjoying them as he trusts God and obeys him.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ,
— Ephesians 1:3
Application: What literally and physically applied to literal and physical Israel in the Old Testament, literally and spiritually applies to spiritual Israel (the Church) in the New Testament. The people of God in the NT live by faith for the fulfillment of all blessings to come in the next life.
Q: How are these material blessings applied to the literal land of Israel?
A: Note the locations such as “in the city” (v.3), “in the country” (v.3) and “in the land” (v.8) as well as “when you come in…when you go out” (v.6). This refers to God’s people being faithful in the course of everyday life regardless of where they find themselves situated.
Q: How are the blessings applied to what God’s people do with the land?
A: Items listed such as “ground” (v.4), “herd” (v.4), “flock” (v.4), “basket” (v.5), “beast” (v.11) as well as “the work of your hand” (v.11) refer to what happens when God’s people are faithful in the course of their business dealings and work relationships.
Q: How are the blessings applied on an individual basis?
A: Referring to “the offspring of your body” (v.4 & 11) speaks to what happens when God’s people are faithful in the course of personal relationships.
Q: How are the blessings applied on a nationwide basis?
A: “…your enemies…defeated…” (v.6), “He will bless you in the land” (v.8), “abound in prosperity…in the land…” (v.11), “…you shall lend to many nations…” (v.12), and “…make you the head and not the tail…” (v.12) are describing what happens when God’s people’s faithfulness makes them stand apart from the world.
Q: But what is the greater purpose that all this visible prosperity in the land, while working the land, and in their relationships both personal and corporate, is supposed to achieve?
“…establish you as a holy people to Himself…” (v.9)
“So all the peoples of the earth will see…” (v.9)
Q: What is someone actually doing when their disobedience produces unfaithfulness to God’s Word and ways?
A: They “turn aside…to the right or to the left, to go after other gods to serve them”. (v.14)
Application: The greater goal is to become so personally obedient that God’s people become a visible witness to the rest of the world. Disobedience is actually a visible witness of false worship. What is not of God is of the world.
Q: How do v.16-19 parallel the blessings in the previous section?
A: They mirror each other to show that the exact opposite results come from obedience vs. disobedience. For instance, “Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the country” (v.3) for obedience is juxtaposed against “Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the country” (v.16) for disobedience.
Q: How do the curses begin to take on a different character in v.20-24?
A: They begin to describe the additional effects of God’s judgment for unfaithfulness, that “The Lord will send upon you curses, confusion, and rebuke” (v.20) What follows are signs which are biblically associated with God’s judgment for sin. One cannot “rebuke” a non-believer as this is intended to address error or sin in a believer’s life.
Q: How is disobedience chiefly described in v.20?
A: In the actions that are carried out it is described as “the evil of your deeds”, and in the effect on one’s personal relationship with God as “because you have forsaken me”.
Q: If the purpose of blessings is to reflect a visible witness to the rest of the world, how do v.25-26 actually reflect the same thing?
A: While a faithful people are a visible witness “So all the peoples of the earth will see” (v.9), so are the consequences of unfaithfulness a testimony of what will result as “an example of terror to all the kingdoms of the earth”.
Application: Disobedience to God’s Word results in a visible breakdown in both our personal and spiritual relationships. Unfortunately, unfaithfulness is as powerful a witness to the non-believing world as faithfulness.
Q: Why is it important to maintain the historical context of these things originally applying to the literal nation of Israel?
A: The promises made to the ethnic people Israel were materially confirmed by God by giving them the physical land of Israel, what Scripture repeatedly calls their “inheritance”. Periods of spiritual prosperity and disaster have always been reflected in the physical land of Israel.
Q: What is particularly compelling about the consequences described in v.27?
A: Israel was supposed to learn the right lesson from the judgments God brought on Egypt, but will not find themselves exempt from them if they fail to do so. In fact, the stipulation, “from which you cannot be healed” implies it will be even harsher because they should have known better to begin with.
Q: Most of what is stated here is an antithesis to the blessings previously listed. Are there any additional items which stand out?
“…smite you with madness and blindness and with bewilderment of heart” (v.28)
“…you will grope at noon, as the blind man gropes in darkness…” (v.29)
“…you shall be driven mad by the sight of what you see.” (v.34)
Point: These seem to refer to the greater terror of spiritual darkness which could only be experienced by those who had the spiritual light to begin with.
Q: What is particularly unique about v.38?
A: Although it would be many centuries before Israel asked for an earthly king to reign over them, this seems to give us a prophetic glimpse that it would surely happen. The fact that it stipulates, “whom you set over you” appears to address a trend of unfaithfulness which ultimately leads not just to exile away from the land of Israel, but “there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone”.
Application: The consequences for disobedience by those who were formally obedient is worse because it extends beyond just a reversal of their formerly blessed physical circumstances, but their spiritual condition as well.
Q: How do v.45-46 summarize the escalating nature of God’s judgment for unfaithfulness?
A: They do not ease up until they have accomplished their greater intended purpose to “obey the Lord your God by keeping His commandments and His statutes which He commanded you”.
Q: And what will the working of God’s judgment on His people ultimately accomplish?
A: “They shall become a sign and a wonder on you and your descendants forever.” (v.46)
Application: Just as signs and wonders are intended to convey the greater importance of accepting God’s message which accompanies them, so too are the signs and wonders of God’s judgment which come upon His people for unfaithfulness.
Q: How do we know that “obedience” and “faithfulness” are not merely defined as following God’s rules?
A: Because it specifically stipulates in v.47, “Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and a glad heart…”
Q: How does what is described in these verses differ significantly in all the things described in the previous sections?
A: This describes an escalation of judgment which does not relate in kind to the blessings for obedience. It seems to describe the next level of judgment for those who have not responded to the lesser signs and events which came earlier.
Q: Why do you suppose it escalates in this way when it comes to the unfaithfulness of God’s people?
A: If they are not going to be a visible testimony to the world of a right relationship with God, they are going to be a visible testimony to the world of the consequences of a wrong relationship.
Q: Have these things ever literally taken place?
A: We know that they happened both during the last days before the Babylonian Captivity as well as in the course of the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 ad.
Application: Unresponsiveness to God’s judgment inevitably leads to even greater judgment.
Q: Have you noticed a pattern to the opening of each section we have studied in these chapters?
A: They usually begin with a characterization of putting (or not putting) God’s Word into practice from the heart, such as “you are not careful to observe all the words of this law which are written in this book…” (v.58)
Application: As with most things biblical, it not a test of knowledge but a test of faith.
Q: What are the main features listed which indicates an escalating judgment on the disobedient?
“…the Lord will bring extraordinary plagues on you and your descendants…” (v.59)
“…all the diseases of Egypt…” (v.60)
“…every sickness and every plague…not written in the book of this law…” (v.61)
“…scatter you among all peoples, from end of the earth to the other end of the earth…” (v.64)
“…you shall find no rest…but…a trembling heart, failing eyes, and despair of soul…” (v.65)
Q: How is the final condition described? How is it worse than the first?
A: It is summarized as a return to Egypt (v.68) from which God’s people were originally liberated, but it is worse because they originally believed the message accompanying the signs which brought them out of that old life, so God will bring upon them even greater things than he brought on the unbelieving Egyptians.
“Now when the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came’; and when it comes, it finds it unoccupied, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and takes along with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. That is the way it will also be with this evil generation.”
— Matthew 12:43-45
Application: God’s people are not to return to Egypt—a biblical metaphor for the old life from which they were saved, but the consequences of the old life (and worse) await the previously faithful when all else fails.
The parable of the unclean spirits in Mt. 12:43-45 was given at the conclusion of Jesus’ discourse on what awaits those who seek a sign in lieu of repentance from the heart. It began with the scribes and Pharisees asking, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You”, Jesus immediately presenting them with, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign…”, and concluding His teaching with this parable.
The Jews would return from the Babylonian Captivity purged of their repeated return to the sin of idolatry, but although the house had been swept clean, it was still empty. This is what happens when God’s Word and ways becomes just a religion of outward morality undertaken by empty hearts. Satan was able to reenter with others sins and the latter condition of the house of Israel was worse than before. Under the Old Covenant they worshiped idols, but with the advent of the New Covenant they rejected and killed their Messiah!
Even today, one cannot “reform” a church or organization and live respectably without Christ dwelling in their heart. Whereas “religion” is an attempt to clean up the outside, biblical salvation is new life and holiness on the inside.
For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment handed on to them. It has happened to them according to the true proverb, “A dog returns to its own vomit,” and, “A sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire.”
— 2 Peter 2:20-22
True revival, documented through Scripture and the history of God’s people since Adam, has always entailed the dual aspect of repentance from the heart through the blood with a sincere return to putting God’s Word and ways into practice.