Note: There are many passages in the Bible that talk about curses. Some Christians find them are so troubling that they tend to ignore them or reject them as not applicable for today. If we believe that all scripture is inspired by God, we cannot ignore unpleasant passages found in the Bible. The following is an excerpt from the study on Deuteronomy 27 and 28 in my forthcoming preaching commentary on Deuteronomy.
On Biblical Curses
And all the People Said, “Amen.” Some Christians today have a practice of affirming some truth when gathered together by saying, “Amen.” Usually the leader or someone else affirms a truth, and the leader says, “And all the people said….” And the people respond saying, “Amen.” Usually the truth affirmed is something positive, something encouraging, such as a testimony or a promise from the Word. In Deuteronomy 27, however, this “Amen” formula appears in connection with curses for disobedience.
This practice of responding to an affirmation with “Amen” appears often in the Bible. I found expressions like the formula we have just described, with people responding to a statement saying “Amen,” in eight places in the OT. One of those times is a somewhat cynical remark from Jeremiah to a prediction of blessing made by a false prophet while Jeremiah was predicting punishment and not blessing (Jer. 28:6). If we disregard that reference, the figure goes down to seven. Of these seven occurrences, three are in responses to statements of praise to God (1 Chron. 16:36; Neh 8:6; Psa. 106:48). Only once does it come after referring to how God will bless his people (Jer. 11:5). This is how we normally use it. The remaining three times are in response to proclamation of curses for disobedience (Num. 5:22; Deut. 27:26; Neh. 5:13). In Deuteronomy 27, the statement appears 12 times, and if we take each of these as a separate instance, then the formula occurs 18 times in the OT with 14 of them in connection with curses! Today we almost never use it in this way. This is an indication of how far our thinking has moved from the spirit of the Word of God.
The Meaning and Purpose of Biblical Curses. I will never forget the shock with which a devout Christian woman responded when I said, in a class I was teaching, that cursing is a biblical practice. She could not comprehend how Christians would accept as legitimate what she viewed as such a wicked and primitive idea. Many today interpret the term curse from the background of what it has come to mean in the behavior of people today. They interpret concepts like God’s wrath and punishment in this way also. Generally, such words remind us of angry outbursts by bitter people bent on revenge for a wrong done against them or furious with annoyance over an inconvenience faced.
The problem is compounded in cultures where shame and honor are key values. To declare a curse in such a culture would be to declare that the cursed person is an enemy. Then those who support that person would gang up against the person pronouncing the curse in order to battle and defeat him. In Israel in the time of Moses, shame and honor were important values, so those of us who live in such cultures do not have a warrant to dismiss this passage saying the harm done by such teaching outweighs the good done by them. This is what many do with these passages, and the result is that Christians almost never hear teaching on biblical curses.
Because of the ideas about cursing, wrath and punishment derived from human misbehavior described above, many have concluded that the God of the Old Testament (OT) is not the same as the God of the New Testament (NT). Some say the OT writers misunderstood the nature of God and attributed to God wrong attitudes and actions of which he was not guilty. Others say that the OT and the NT are speaking of different Gods. The early Christian heretic Marcion taught this in the second century. He said the god of the OT is different to the Father of Jesus. Some say that the teaching on curses in the OT comes from a misunderstanding of the nature of God and that curses should not be attributed to God. Others say that, even though God acted in this way in the OT age of law, he does not act in this way in the present age of grace. The result is that Christian teaches and preachers skip passages like the one we are studying here.
The fact that these two chapters devote sixty-six verses to describe the curses for disobedience (27:15-26; 28:15-68) shows us that this is an important part of “the whole counsel of God.” In fact, much more space is devoted to curses than to blessings which cover 14 verses (Deut. 27:1-14). I think this is partly because we generally remember what we like to remember—in this case, the blessings—and ignore the things we do not like. So sometimes the Bible gives special emphasis to the things we do not like—not because they are more important but because we need to take them seriously, and usually don’t! It is imperative that we get a good understanding of the biblical teaching about curses.
The curses were not essentially vindictive acts of revenge; instead, they were a way to maintain the glory of God and the integrity of the covenant. If God did not punish violations of the covenant, it would make a mockery of justice. Justice is a key feature of a good world. Paul said, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Gal. 6:7). That is necessary if there is to be justice in the world. Goodness and evil must receive their just rewards. So even when God forgives, justice should be satisfied by the offering up of his son as a punishment for our sin. 1 John 1:9 says that when God forgives and cleanses us in response to our confessing our sins, he is not only faithful, he is also just. Paul said, “God put forward [Jesus] as a propitiation [that is, one who took upon himself God’s wrath over sin] by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness…so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25-26). When God forgave us, his wrath was spent and his justice was satisfied. Paul said, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13).
For the same reason we could say that curses uphold the glory of God. If God did not punish things that damaged the goodness of this world, he would not be good or glorious. The “imprecatory” psalms, where the psalmist utters curses upon the unrighteous, were prayers of people who were desperate to uphold the glory of God in a world where scant attention was paid to it and people seemed to think that sin was much more profitable and worthwhile than righteousness.
Curses reflect the value of the human being. When a human does wrong it is significant because humans are significant. If people simply ignore the wrongs committed by a child without taking them too seriously, that child could end up as a delinquent—doing spectacular acts of wrong to win the attention of people. This point was made in one of the early books of child psychiatrist James Dobson.
Curses also have a deterrent value in that they warn people that sin will be punished. The prophets and the psalmists grappled with the problem that good people were suffering while evil people got away with evil and were prospering. Psalm 73 faces this issue squarely. After describing the paradox of the righteous suffering while the evil people prosper, the Psalmist says, “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence” (Psa. 73:13). The psalm ends with the psalmist looking at things from God’s perspective after going “into the sanctuary of God” where he “discerned their end” (73:17). He goes on to talk about the judgment that the wicked will face one day (73:18-20). Though they are now not suffering in the way the covenant curses predict, one day they will have to face God’s judgment. In other words, the covenant will be upheld when covenant breakers are finally punished.
The approach of Psalm 73 to blessings and curses is a good way for us also to look at this issue. This teaching is even more marked in the NT, which teaches: “just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment…” (Heb. 9:27). The curses teach us that in today’s world, where evil seems to flourish and honesty does not seem to pay, it is still worth being righteous. Paul said, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10). In the verse that follows, Paul says, that fear over this prospect of standing before the judgment seat motivates him to obedient action: “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (5:11).
One clarification is in order here. It is God who curses people for wrong, not us. Those who legitimately pronounce curses in the Bible do so under the inspiration of God, and as God’s representative. If we were to bring this to today’s world, I would say that we can tell people that if they persist in disobedience to God they will be under God’s curse. We can do so with confidence knowing that what we are saying is in keeping with the Word of God. This would, I believe, keep us in line with Jesus’ command to us not to judge (Matt. 7:1), and with the many places in scripture where we are told to bless people. Romans 12:14 gives scriptural backing for this attitude: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” We do not curse people, but we can warn people living in sin that they will be under God’s curse if they do not repent. In our preaching, we could proclaim the biblical doctrine that those who live in disobedience to God are heading for a curse.
See James Dobson, Hide or Seek (Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1974), pp. 81-88.