And Now, the Bad News

14 “But if you will not listen to me and will not do all these commandments, 15 if you spurn my statutes, and if your soul abhors my rules, so that you will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant, 16 then I will do this to you: I will visit you with panic, with wasting disease and fever that consume the eyes and make the heart ache. And you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. 17 I will set my face against you, and you shall be struck down before your enemies. Those who hate you shall rule over you, and you shall flee when none pursues you. 18 And if in spite of this you will not listen to me, then I will discipline you again sevenfold for your sins, 19 and I will break the pride of your power, and I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like bronze. 20 And your strength shall be spent in vain, for your land shall not yield its increase, and the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit.

21 “Then if you walk contrary to me and will not listen to me, I will continue striking you, sevenfold for your sins. 22 And I will let loose the wild beasts against you, which shall bereave you of your children and destroy your livestock and make you few in number, so that your roads shall be deserted.

23 “And if by this discipline you are not turned to me but walk contrary to me, 24 then I also will walk contrary to you, and I myself will strike you sevenfold for your sins. 25 And I will bring a sword upon you, that shall execute vengeance for the covenant. And if you gather within your cities, I will send pestilence among you, and you shall be delivered into the hand of the enemy. 26 When I break your supply of bread, ten women shall bake your bread in a single oven and shall dole out your bread again by weight, and you shall eat and not be satisfied.

27 “But if in spite of this you will not listen to me, but walk contrary to me, 28 then I will walk contrary to you in fury, and I myself will discipline you sevenfold for your sins. 29 You shall eat the flesh of your sons, and you shall eat the flesh of your daughters. 30 And I will destroy your high places and cut down your incense altars and cast your dead bodies upon the dead bodies of your idols, and my soul will abhor you. 31 And I will lay your cities waste and will make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not smell your pleasing aromas. 32 And I myself will devastate the land, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled at it. 33 And I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword after you, and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste.

34 “Then the land shall enjoy its Sabbaths as long as it lies desolate, while you are in your enemies’ land; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its Sabbaths. 35 As long as it lies desolate it shall have rest, the rest that it did not have on your Sabbaths when you were dwelling in it. 36 And as for those of you who are left, I will send faintness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies. The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall when none pursues. 37 They shall stumble over one another, as if to escape a sword, though none pursues. And you shall have no power to stand before your enemies. 38 And you shall perish among the nations, and the land of your enemies shall eat you up. 39 And those of you who are left shall rot away in your enemies’ lands because of their iniquity, and also because of the iniquities of their fathers they shall rot away like them. Leviticus 26:14-39 ESV

After having listed the manifold blessings that accompany obedience, God now addresses the less attractive topic of divine discipline for disobedience. In these verses, God provides a five-stage outline of how things will turn out for His people should they refuse to remain faithful to Him, and the list of potential judgments is grim and intended to deter them from considering disobedience as a course of action. God wanted them to understand the gravity of the situation. He had set them apart as His chosen people and made a binding covenant with them.

Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” – Exodus 19:5-6 ESV

This agreement between God and His people sometimes referred to as the Mosaic Covenant, was conditional in nature. In other words, it was binding and required the full compliance of both parties. Through their obedience to His covenant conditions, the Israelites would be guaranteed their status as God’s chosen people and assured of ongoing presence, power, and provision.

“If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then…I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.” – Leviticus 26:3, 11-12 ESV

But the people needed to know that there was a potential downside to this covenant that they had so eagerly ratified (Exodus 19:8). Failure to keep all the conditions of the covenant came with serious consequences, and the list of judgments God describes in these verses goes from bad to worse. It will begin with divine attacks on their bodies in the form of “wasting diseases” and assaults by their enemies that will leave them defeated and demoralized. Other nations will plunder their crops and treat the Israelites as little more than slaves. The land that God had given the Israelites as their inheritance would no longer provide for their needs. Instead, it would fall into the hands of their enemies, leaving God’s people defeated and destitute.

Continued rebellion will result in drought and famine, “making the skies as unyielding as iron and the earth as hard as bronze” (Leviticus 26:19 NLT). Rain will be withheld and crops will cease to grow. The fruitfulness of the land of promise will become a distant and fading memory. And yet God forewarns His people that this judgment will not produce repentance and obedience. Despite all that they suffer, they will continue to spurn His calls to obey, forcing Yahweh to punish them “seven times over” (Leviticus 26:18 NLT) for their sins. God vows to break their proud spirit and bring them to their knees. Yet, God predicts that His people will prove to be stubborn and unwilling to give up their rebellious ways. That will usher in the next phase of their punishment.

I will send wild animals that will rob you of your children and destroy your livestock. Your numbers will dwindle, and your roads will be deserted. – Leviticus 26:22 NLT

The creation itself will turn against God’s people. Not only will they face the threat of enemy attacks, but wild animals will rise up against them. Their lawlessness will result in chaos. No one will be safe. The first judgments primarily affected the fruit of their fields, but this punishment will target the fruit of the womb: Their children.

To grasp the full effect of this judgment, one must understand that God has always called His people to “be fruitful and multiply.” It was the command given to Adam and Eve and passed down to Noah and his sons. And while the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt, God had miraculously multiplied their number. But now, God was warning them that because of disobedience, they could expect to see their number diminish. As King Solomon would later record, children were to be seen as a gift from God.

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
    the fruit of the womb a reward. – Psalm 127:3 ESV

But the Israelites needed to understand that their fruitfulness as a nation was directly tied to their faithfulness. At this point, it’s important to note what God said when He prepared to create man.

“Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.” – Genesis 1:26 NLT

And God gave the first man and women a mandate:

“Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” – Genesis 1:28 NLT

Now, in the case of His chosen people, God was warning that their fruitfulness and dominion over creation would come to an end should they choose to disobey His commands.

But God was far from done because He knew that His people would find it difficult to repent and return to Him. So, He outlines the next phase of His divine judgment. In response to their ongoing disobedience, God will get personally involved.

I myself will be hostile toward you. I will personally strike you with calamity seven times over for your sins. – Leviticus 26:24 NLT

God vows to deal with their rebellion on an intimate level, sending armies against them to mete out His divine judgment. If the people attempt to escape God’s wrath, they’ll only find themselves facing the devastation of a plague they can’t outrun. God’s judgment will be inescapable and unavoidable. God vows to inflict on the people of Israel what had been reserved for the nation of Egypt. This time, the plagues would be directed at God’s people, not their enemies. And God adds insult to injury by promising to destroy Israel’s food supply. No more protection. No more provision.

As the people of Israel heard Moses impart these dire warnings, they must have been dumbstruck and appalled at the severity of God’s words. But the worst was yet to come. In a foreshadowing of Israel’s less-than-stellar future, God predicts their stubbornness and obstinacy in the face of overwhelming judgment, and matter-of-factly states, “I will give full vent to my hostility” (Leviticus 26:28 NLT). And what He describes next is difficult to read and even harder to comprehend. Focusing His attention on the sin of idolatry, God promises to pour out His judgment with unfathomable and unrelenting fury. He describes Israelite cities filled with the destroyed altars of their false gods and the corpses of those who once worshiped them. Those left alive will have been taken captive by their enemies. But before their cities fell, the people of God would have resorted to cannibalism just to survive.

In the midst of their suffering and pain, the apostate people of Israel will attempt to call on God for rescue, but their efforts will prove too little, too late. He will not listen to their cries or accept their sacrifices for forgiveness and atonement. They will be forcibly removed from the land and returned to their former status as exiles and slaves. And God drops the final bombshell in His escalating prediction of future judgment.

“You will die among the foreign nations and be devoured in the land of your enemies. Those of you who survive will waste away in your enemies’ lands because of their sins and the sins of their ancestors.” – Leviticus 26:38-39 NLT

God was serious. His call to obedience was not a suggestion but a command. His blessings were real and fully realizable, but they would require obedience. And if His people chose to break their covenant commitment, they needed to understand that the consequences were equally real and worse than anything they could ever imagine.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

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