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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Flitting Sparrow

Just more hot air ...
Most curses are just bunches of empty words. After all, a curse can’t do any real damage without the cooperation of the divine Third Party whose power they attempt to invoke.

In any case, we’re not big on curses in our modern world. Oh, I don’t mean profanity: as a culture we’re pretty much over the top with that, as anyone with Netflix will easily confirm. But the real deal — the Old Testament “God is gonna getcha” kind of curse — is rare. And that’s a good thing, I think.

All the same, some curses are very powerful indeed. One or two are even of historic import.

You and I are more likely to see a movie about a voodoo hex or an ancient Egyptian mumbo jumbo than we are to encounter a real-life set of words that bind or release genuine spiritual forces. But there was a time when a curse meant something. It was not pronounced casually or without virulent intent.

The Effective Attack Prayer

An Old Testament-style curse was basically an “attack prayer”; an impotent human being calling upon his God to act on his behalf in vengeance on his enemy or enemies. Which comes back to my original point: in the event the heavenly Third-Party failed to respond and take up his cause, a man’s curse was nothing more than hot air.

Solomon lays this out in Proverbs, saying:
“Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying, a curse that is causeless does not alight.”
Most modern imprecations are like this. I hear them around the office all the time, and their damage is effectively nil, however colorful may be the language in which they are uttered (the Québécois have some beauties). But the power of a human curse is in its meaningfulness to God. An illegitimate, random invocation of harm “does not alight”. It fails to hit the mark.

Balaam confirms the same thing to King Balak, who wanted him to curse Israel:
How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced?”
Translation: Hello, Balak, without God, IT DOESN’T WORK!

David says in the Psalms, “Let them curse, but you will bless!” He had no fear of the rantings of his enemies, knowing that they would not be ratified in heaven. It is God who is the author of vengeance, and he is not influenced by human whims, baseless grudges or grumpy old men.

Making Your Enemies Subside

The Hebrew word translated “curse” has a broad semantic range and actually means to diminish or abate. It is used of the subsiding flood. It may also be translated “despise”, as in Sarah “despised” Hagar. It is first translated as “curse” in Genesis 8, where God says:
“I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”
In fact, cursing is a device God always intended mankind to use sparingly, if at all. The only time in the Old Testament we find a God-given command to utter a curse occurs in Deuteronomy 27 where Moses instructs the Levites to read out curses on the disobedient from Mount Ebal. It was done so that the people of Israel could confirm their willingness to be subject to the laws of God by responding “Amen” to each curse one after the other, finishing with “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.

Hang on to that last thought. We’ll see the relevance shortly.

A Singularly Bad Idea

Other than that single instance, cursing is generally condemned in scripture, though it seems to have been fairly common practice both among the heathen and among Jews:
The Hanged Man

The book of Deuteronomy tells us “a hanged man is cursed by God”, and that his body defiled the land and cried out for burial. We see this illustrated in 2 Samuel, where David gives seven sons of King Saul to be hanged by the Gibeonites as restitution for Saul’s crimes against them. It is not until David takes the bones of the hanged men and gives them a proper burial that God responds to his plea for his cursed land.

It is left to the apostle Paul to pick up this rather obscure Old Testament theme when he tells the Galatian believers, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’ ”. Men and women who had relied on their works under the law to justify themselves to God found themselves instead destined to experience his wrath. Paul says it was the last line of Deuteronomy 27 that did it: “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.” That one sweeping sentence caught and condemned absolutely everyone. Only in Christ is it lifted so that the believer is as justified in the eyes of God as his or her Saviour, who became a curse for us.

That last line from the curses of Mount Ebal was nothing like Solomon’s “flitting sparrow”. It had all the weight of God’s righteous wrath against sin behind it. Those who think nothing of putting the believer in Jesus Christ back under law today need to pay more careful attention to all the baggage that comes with it.

This curse has been completely and permanently done away with for those who are in Christ. We ought to be immensely grateful.

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