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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Scriptural Speculations 2: Water from heaven

As I’ve been studying the Book of Revelation recently, the importance of gaining a right understanding of the covenant in Scripture has become more apparent to me. This was also brought to my attention this morning as I read the Old Testament text assigned for the Morning Prayer service in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. The text was Deuteronomy 11:10-17, but let’s begin at verse 8:

8 “You shall therefore keep the whole commandment that I command you today, that you may be strong, and go in and take possession of the land that you are going over to possess, 9 and that you may live long in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give to them and to their offspring, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 For the land that you are entering to take possession of it is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sowed your seed and irrigated it, like a garden of vegetables. 11 But the land that you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water by the rain from heaven, 12 a land that the Lord your God cares for. The eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.

13 “And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, 14 he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. 15 And he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you shall eat and be full. 16 Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; 17 then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you.

In the first section of verses, Yahweh speaking through Moses draws a contrast between Egypt, which the Israelites had left, and the Promised Land, which Yahweh was giving them. The point of contrast is interesting, being the different ways each of the two lands were watered. In Egypt, the Israelites had to work hard to irrigate the fields so that the crops might be watered. But in the Promised Land, they are told, this work would not need to be done. Water would come from heaven, directly from the hand of Yahweh Himself. God Himself is the Supreme Gardener.

This should have immediately brought two historical matters to mind for the Israelites. First, the Israelites were still at this point receiving the manna from heaven every morning as the means by which God was feeding them. Even as Israel was receiving bread directly from God’s hand, they would soon in the Promised Land receive water directly from God by which they might be sustained.

Secondly, this promise should have brought the Garden of Eden to the mind of the Israelites. Prior to the fall, we are told that “a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden” (Gen. 2:10). Even though God put Adam in the garden to tend it, one work that Adam didn’t have to do was irrigation. God Himself provided for that. He was essentially telling Israel that He was giving to them a new Garden of Eden. Certainly, the effects of the Fall remained. Man would still work “by the sweat of his brow”. But God was redeeming the world through Israel, and his first step in redeeming the world was to put them in a new Eden.

In the last section of verses, Yahweh sets out the possibility of either covenantal blessing or of covenantal cursing. If Israel walks in faithfulness, God will send rain, and Israel’s blessings will overflow. But if they turn away from God, He will shut up the heavens and Israel will perish. This is repeated later in Deuteronomy (28:23-24), and had already been spoken to Israel once when they began their journey in the wilderness (Leviticus 26:19-20). Both passages speak of the earth and the heavens, as well as iron and bronze. (It is interesting that in Leviticus 26:19, the heavens are spoken of as becoming like iron and the earth like bronze, whereas in Deuteronomy 28:23 the two are reversed, the heavens being spoken of as becoming like bronze, and the earth becoming like iron. I have no idea what the reason for the switch might be.) The contrast between these two passages and Deut. 11 is that these two passages only contain the negative sanctions and Deut. 11 contains the positive as well.

Knowing that Yahweh made this declaration is important in making sense out of later portions of Scripture as He entered into judgment upon His people. Solomon invoked this promise of Yahweh when he prayed at the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 8):

35 “When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you, if they pray toward this place and acknowledge your name and turn from their sin, when you afflict them, 36 then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel, when you teach them the good way in which they should walk, and grant rain upon your land, which you have given to your people as an inheritance.

Here Solomon not only remembers God’s promise of judgment for unfaithfulness, but prays for God’s forgiveness for those who repent, reminding Him of His promise to do this (Deut. 30:1-10). In 2 Chronicles 7 we are told that when God appeared to Solomon in the night after the dedication, God promised that He would indeed do as Solomon asked (vss. 13-14).

In time, however, Israel did follow after other gods, and Yahweh brought this promised curse upon Israel. Yahweh sent His prophets as covenant lawyers to pronounce to Israel that He was entering into judgment with them. The prophecy of Amos recounts a time when Yahweh did withhold rain (Amos 4:7-8). But the most well known case of this is probably the account of drought pronounced by Elijah during the days of Ahab and Jezebel (1 Kings 17-18).

This is a point where I have found understanding the covenant to be so helpful. I have spent most of my life thinking about the various stories in Scripture in a disconnected way. Whereas I knew that God was, in the days of Elijah, for instance, disciplining Israel for its disobedience through the drought, I had never connected that with His establishing of a covenant with Israel. God, when He chose to discipline Israel this way, didn’t pick drought out at random. The choice of withholding rain was based on His special blessings given to them of a land watered by His own direct working, and was tied into the covenant in a special way. We also see in this that God is not a fickle, unpredictable God. He had warned Israel long before what He would do if they were unfaithful to Him. When He entered into covenant with them, He stated the stipulations of the covenant, and so in shutting up the heavens, He was simply keeping His word.

Jesus recounted Elijah and the drought when He appeared in the synagogue in Nazereth at the beginning of His ministry:

23 And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself.’ What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.” 24 And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. 25 But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, 26 and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath.

At first we are told that “all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth” (vs. 22). Yet Jesus, as he was wont to do, opted to pick a fight with those that weren’t looking for one, and so he stated the words above. Why would Jesus’ words have caused the men in the synagogue to be “filled with wrath”? Well, for one thing, he proclaimed himself to be a prophet. Since prophets were lawyers bringing a lawsuit against the nation, a prophet wouldn’t have been good news for people who thought that everything was going just fine. If these people had a problem, it would have been with Rome ruling over them, not with themselves – or so they thought.

But secondly, Jesus was invoking the memory of two occasions in Israel’s history in which Israel suffered for their disobedience and God chose to bless Gentiles instead of Israel. To those who clung to their parentage as if it alone would save them, these would not have been welcome words. Both of these occasions foretell of the day when Gentiles would be welcomed into the Kingdom without becoming Jews. And Jesus came to bring that day in its fullness.

The promise of God to withhold rain as a covenantal judgement continued in the Revelation, as we are told of the destruction of Jerusalem in relation to the two witnesses (Rev. 11:6). The language of drought and plagues has caused commentators to relate the two witnesses as being Moses and Elijah. Adding to this is the statement that the prophets would prophecy 1260 days, and that the holy city would be trampled for forty-two months (Rev. 11:2-3), also drawing the parallel to Elijah’s drought. That Jerusalem is in view here is no question, as the allusion to it in 11:8 is drawn clearly. God had promised certain curses for disobedience, and on the basis of that covenant He acted in the destruction of Jerusalem.

All of this brings us back to Zechariah 14. The covenantal blessings and cursings apply to us today. I do not pretend to know how this plays out practically. Certainly the covenant has been reshaped and transformed by Christ’s work. But as Zechariah testifies regarding the nations, for those who do not worship the LORD, the plague of drought remains a curse (Zech. 14:16-19). For those, however, that would serve the God of the covenant, rivers of living water are promised to them (Zech. 14:8, Rev. 22).

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