Thy Life Hanging Before Thee

In Deuteronomy 28:66-67, Moses talks about fearing the day and night. What all is going on there? Verse 66 is quoted in the hymns for the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, as Christ our Life hanging before our eyes, but what does the rest of the verse mean? Fr. John Whiteford talks about this verse so pertinent to the Sunday of the Cross.

    

Here is a literal translation of that text:   

And thy life will be hanging before thee, and thou shalt fear day and night, and thou wilt not believe in thy life. In the morning thou shalt say, Would it were evening! and in the evening thou shalt say, Would it were morning! for the fear of thine heart with which thou shalt fear, and for the sights of thine eyes which thou shalt see.

To properly understand this text you have to keep in mind that there are different levels of meaning to the Scriptures, and also keep in mind the context of the passage. So before we discuss how this speaks of Christ, let's talk about the literal meaning of this passage in its context.

This passage falls within the context of a book in which the terms of the Old Covenant are recapitulated, and in this section (Chapters 27 to 28), the Prophet Moses states the blessings for those who obey the terms of the Covenant, and then the curses. At the beginning of chapter 28, we have the blessings for those who obey:

And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command thee this day, that the Lord thy God will set thee on high above all nations of the earth: And all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God. Blessed shalt thou be in the city, and blessed shalt thou be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy ground, and the fruit of thy cattle, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep. Blessed shall be thy basket and thy store. Blessed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and blessed shalt thou be when thou goest out. The Lord shall cause thine enemies that rise up against thee to be smitten before thy face: they shall come out against thee one way, and flee before thee seven ways. The Lord shall command the blessing upon thee in thy storehouses, and in all that thou settest thine hand unto; and he shall bless thee in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. The Lord shall establish thee an holy people unto himself, as he hath sworn unto thee, if thou shalt keep the commandments of the Lord thy God, and walk in his ways. And all people of the earth shall see that thou art called by the name of the Lord; and they shall be afraid of thee. And the Lord shall make thee plenteous in goods, in the fruit of thy body, and in the fruit of thy cattle, and in the fruit of thy ground, in the land which the Lord sware unto thy fathers to give thee. The Lord shall open unto thee his good treasure, the heaven to give the rain unto thy land in his season, and to bless all the work of thine hand: and thou shalt lend unto many nations, and thou shalt not borrow. And the Lord shall make thee the head, and not the tail; and thou shalt be above only, and thou shalt not be beneath; if that thou hearken unto the commandments of the Lord thy God, which I command thee this day, to observe and to do them: And thou shalt not go aside from any of the words which I command thee this day, to the right hand, or to the left, to go after other gods to serve them (Deuteronomy 28:1-14).

Then beginning at verse 15, the curses for those who disobey the covenant begin, and that section continues on through verse 68... and so the curses are almost four times the length of the blessings. Here are just some examples of them:

But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee: Cursed shalt thou be in the city, and cursed shalt thou be in the field. Cursed shall be thy basket and thy store. Cursed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy land, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep. Cursed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and cursed shalt thou be when thou goest out. The Lord shall send upon thee cursing, vexation, and rebuke, in all that thou settest thine hand unto for to do, until thou be destroyed, and until thou perish quickly; because of the wickedness of thy doings, whereby thou hast forsaken me.... And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron. The Lord shall make the rain of thy land powder and dust: from heaven shall it come down upon thee, until thou be destroyed. The Lord shall cause thee to be smitten before thine enemies: thou shalt go out one way against them, and flee seven ways before them: and shalt be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth.... Thou shalt betroth a wife, and another man shall lie with her: thou shalt build an house, and thou shalt not dwell therein: thou shalt plant a vineyard, and shalt not gather the grapes thereof. Thine ox shall be slain before thine eyes, and thou shalt not eat thereof: thine ass shall be violently taken away from before thy face, and shall not be restored to thee: thy sheep shall be given unto thine enemies, and thou shalt have none to rescue them. Thy sons and thy daughters shall be given unto another people, and thine eyes shall look, and fail with longing for them all the day long; and there shall be no might in thine hand.... And thou shalt become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword, among all nations whither the Lord shall lead thee... (Deuteronomy 28:15-68).

And so in context, the literal sense of verses 66-67 is that those who do not abide by the terms of the covenant with be in a constant state of anxiety. When it says their lives will be hanging before them, it means that their lives will be in constant jeopardy. They will have no respite, either by night or day, and they will never have confidence that will survive.

It is unlikely that prior to Christ's crucifixion anyone would have read this passage as applying to the Messiah. However, this was seen by the early Church as hidden prophecy of the crucifixion, and of the unbelief of those Jews who rejected Christ. The connection between this sense of the text and the literal sense is that it applies to those who have not fulfilled the Covenant in both instances, but only in retrospect could this passage been seen in the light of the Cross.

In the early Church there is some evidence that their were documents in circulation that consisted of citations from the Old Testament that demonstrated that Jesus was the Messiah, and if that is true, this passage was likely a standard part of such apologetic documents. Here are some examples of how this text was used:

St. Irenaeus (who reposed in 202 a.d.):

"And again, he indicates that He who from the beginning founded and created them, the Word, who also redeems and vivifies us in the last times, is shown as hanging on the tree, and they will not believe on Him. For he says, “And thy life shall be hanging before thine eyes, and thou wilt not believe thy life” (Against Heresies 4:10:2).

"For the Creator of the world is truly the Word of God: and this is our Lord, who in the last times was made man, existing in this world, and who in an invisible manner contains all things created, and is inherent in the entire creation, since the Word of God governs and arranges all things; and therefore He came to His own in a visible manner, and was made flesh, and hung upon the tree, that He might sum up all things in Himself. And His own peculiar people did not receive Him, as Moses declared this very thing among the people: "And thy life shall be hanging before thine eyes, and thou wilt not believe thy life." Those therefore who did not receive Him did not receive life. "But to as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God"" [John 1:12] (Against Heresies 5:18:3).

Tertullian (who reposed in 240 a.d.):

"Now the mystery of this “sign” was in various ways predicted; (a “sign”) in which the foundation of life was forelaid for mankind; (a “sign”) in which the Jews were not to believe: just as Moses beforetime kept on announcing in Exodus, saying, “Ye shall be ejected from the land into which ye shall enter; and in those nations ye shall not be able to rest: and there shall be instability of the print of thy foot: and God shall give thee a wearying heart, and a pining soul, and failing eyes, that they see not: and thy life shall hang on the tree before thine eyes; and thou shalt not trust thy life” (An Answer to the Jews, 11).

St. Cyprian of Carthage (who was martyred in 258 a.d.) cites this passage as one of the many passages that prophesied that the Jews would crucify Christ (Three Books of Testimonies Against the Jews 2:20).

St. Athanasius the Great (who reposed in 373 a.d.):

"But, perhaps, having heard the prophecy of His death, you ask to learn also what is set forth concerning the Cross. For not even this is passed over: it is displayed by the holy men with great plainness. For first Moses predicts it, and that with a loud voice, when he says: Ye shall see your Life hanging before your eyes, and shall not believe (On the Incarnation 35:1-2).

And in the services to the Exaltation, as mentioned in the question, when the Cross is brought out for veneration on the Exaltation, one of the stichera that we sing is:

"O God, the words of Moses Thy prophet have been fulfilled, who said: "Ye shall see your life hanging before your eyes!" Today the Cross is exalted, and the world is freed from deception. Today the resurrection of Christ is renewed, and the ends of the earth rejoice, offering to Thee a hymn on cymbals, like David, and saying: "Thou hast wrought salvation in the midst of the earth, O God: the Cross and resurrection! For their sake Thou hast saved us, O Good One Who lovest mankind! O Almighty Lord, glory be to Thee!""

As for the specific question of how the phrase, "and thou shalt fear day and night" would apply to the crucifixion, I have not seen anything in the Fathers that attempts to apply it directly to that, and so I would personally see this as being in reference to the literal sense of the text. I think that what is going on here is sort of a prophetic wink from God. The Holy Spirit inspired Moses to speak these words in such a way that they would have a double meaning, and this evidently was a compelling argument when trying to convince Jews to accept that Jesus was the Messiah, judging by how frequently we find the argument made.

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