The Israelites were told that as soon as they had entered the land of Canaan, they were to set up a monument and write the words of the Lord’s law upon it. The Lord’s law was the condition upon which the people were given the land, and they were to acknowledge that they came into it on those terms and no others. Canaan was given by the Lord’s promise, and it was to be retained by obedience to His laws.
This monument was to serve as an altar. By the words of the law which were written upon it, the Lord conveyed His will to them; and by the sacrifices which they offered upon the altar, they communicated with the Lord. In this way, communion was kept up between them. In the same way, the Word and prayer must go together.
The monument that the people were to set up was to be very plain; it was not to be carved out of polished marble or alabaster, but only made of rough and unhewn stones that were covered over with plaster. This reminds us that the Word of God does not need to be embellished or decorated with the enticing words of man’s wisdom (1 Cor. 2:4). The Israelites were not to chisel the stones out of a quarry, nor make the stones square with their tools. Similarly, Christ, our Altar, is a stone “cut out of the mountain without hands” (Dan. 2:34-35). Therefore, He was refused by men, as having no beauty nor attractiveness; but He was accepted by the Father, and made the Head Cornerstone (Matt. 21:42).
After the Lord’s law was written where it could be seen and read by all the people, the sanctions of it were to be published; and in order to complete the solemnity of the people’s covenanting with God, they were required to openly declare their consent. In the region of Canaan that was later divided up to the tribe of Ephraim, there were two mountains close together, with a valley in between. One of these mountains was called Gerizim, and the other Ebal. On the sides of these two mountains, which faced one another, all the tribes were to be represented – six on one side and six on the other. The Levites pronounced, with a loud voice, one of the curses that was recorded here; and all the people who stood at the bottom of Mount Ebal cried, “Amen!” Then the contrary blessing was pronounced: “Blessed is he that does not do such-and-such!” And then those who stood at the foot of Mount Gerizim exclaimed, “Amen!” The curses are recorded here in this chapter, but not the blessings; for those who were under the law were under the curse. It was an honor reserved for Christ alone to bless us, and to do for us what the weakness of the law could not do. In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – which was the true Mount Gerizim – we have blessings only! (Matt. 5:3-12)
These curses denounced many particular sins against the Lord’s commandments, and the solemnity concluded with a general curse (verse 26) upon anyone who did not perform all the words of this law. Those who were guilty of other sins which were not mentioned in this series of curses might have been inclined to think themselves safe from the Lord’s judgment, but that last curse covered all – not only those who do the evil which the law forbids, but also those who omit the good which the law requires. By our obedience to the law, we set our seal to it and confirm it; and by our disobedience, we do what lies in our power to disannul it. The Apostle made a reference to this verse when he said, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal. 3:10). Indeed, to the words of the last verse of this chapter, we must all say, “Amen!” – thereby acknowledging that we are under the curse. Truly, we have justly deserved it; and we would certainly have perished forever under it, if Christ had not redeemed us from the curse of the law, by being made a curse for us! Without the atoning blood of Jesus, sinners can neither have communion with a holy God, nor do anything that is acceptable to Him; for His righteous law condemns everyone who – at any time, or in any way – transgresses it. Under its awful curse, we remain as transgressors until the redemption of our Savior is applied to our hearts! And wherever the grace of God brings salvation, it teaches the believer to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts; and to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world – consenting to and delighting in the words of the Lord’s law. In this holy walk, true peace and solid joy are to be found!
Lord, how sweet and refreshing to our souls are the views of Jesus – as the High Priest, the altar, and the offering of our hearts – whenever we read the solemn charges of Your law, and the dreadful penalty of disobedience. Indeed, our souls cannot help subscribing with full consent to Your justice, as we read all these sentences of curses upon the breach of Your holy law. Yet at the same time, our hearts fly to the gracious offer of mercy in Jesus! And in the very moment that we are constrained to say, “Amen,” to every jot and tittle of Your righteous law – oh! How precious it is, dearest Jesus, to view You as “the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth!” You are the Altar that our souls wish to flee to; for You are our great deliverance, when both law and justice challenge us before God. Be thou our God, our guide, our peace, our joy, and our consolation forever! Amen.
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