The Promises of God
These exhortations were given by me between 1999 and 2005. That was a long time ago, and I have grown a lot since then. They may not reflect my current beliefs.
Generally speaking, the promises of God come in two different types: those which are conditional and those which are unconditional. In both types the justice, forgiveness, and majesty of God come shining through.
The conditional promises, like God’s promise to overthrow Nineveh in forty days, or the promise to set Israel on high above all the nations on Earth, are conditional on the behaviour of the people. The recipients of the promise have the choice of which way to behave, and so they have the choice what the outcome of events will be. “If you behave in a righteous way,” says God, “the outcome will be good. If you behave in an unrighteous way, it will be bad.” That is the ultimate example of justice, and forgiveness, because God allows us to turn from unrighteousness at any point.
The unconditional promises, like the promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David, do not depend on the behaviour of people. When God promised Abraham that he would make him a great nation, there was no ‘if’, no ‘but’. God simply stated that that was the way things were going to be. Again there is perfect justice. The right thing is to be done, regardless of the behaviour of any individual. Public opinion, a notoriously fickle thing, does not influence God.
God’s unconditional promises all have the good of mankind at their heart. God does not promise to utterly destroy humanity for its sinful nature. Ultimately, all of God’s promises point towards the destruction of sinful nature, not humanity. Again, this is perfect forgiveness.
The majesty of God comes shining through the conditional and unconditional promises in a very simple way. Only a supreme being like God could make the promises he makes. Except for trivial cases, human beings cannot make unconditional promises. They certainly cannot make promises that involve the destiny of people, and nations, and the whole earth. Computers are machines that are built to slavishly follow our instructions, yet an embarrassingly high proportion of the time my computer does not behave in the way I tell it to. I cannot promise that, no matter what happens, when I press a particular button a certain thing will happen. Contrast that with God’s promises. If he promises something unconditionally then it will certainly happen, If he promises that A will happen if we do X and B will happen if we don’t, then either A or B happens depending on whether or not we do X. No being other than God can do that.
Lets look at a few examples of conditional and unconditional promises, starting with Jeremiah’s visit to the potters house, in Jeremiah 18 verses 1 to 10:
The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause thee to hear my words. Then I went down to the potter’s house, and, behold, he wrought a work on the wheels. And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it. Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying, O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel. At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them.
All three points – God’s justice, his forgiveness and his majesty – are clearly shown in this Old Testament parable. First of all his forgiveness: “If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them”. God does not bear grudges. He doesn’t take one look at us and decide our fate based on that. He gives all of us every opportunity to repent and turn away. If God says he will destroy a nation, it is not an act of malice. It is to encourage that nation to turn away from their evil. God’s justice shows through here as well. He will destroy a nation because of its evil. He won’t destroy it because he feels like it or to make some minor point. He will destroy a nation because of its evil, and only because of its evil.
And finally God’s majesty. The relationship between God and mankind is such that he can manipulate us just as a potter manipulates the clay. The gap between the potter and the clay is so vast that the clay cannot give orders to the potter. The same is true of the gap between mankind and God. Nobody can turn to God and tell him how to organise the world.
The combination of his majesty and justice and forgiveness can be summed up with one word. Love.
Let’s take a look at some of the conditional promises made to Israel. Deuteronomy chapter 28:
Verses 1 to 9
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.
Verses 15 to 25:
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. The LORD shall make the pestilence cleave unto thee, until he have consumed thee from off the land, whither thou goest to possess it. The LORD shall smite thee with a consumption, and with a fever, and with an inflammation, and with an extreme burning, and with the sword, and with blasting, and with mildew; and they shall pursue thee until thou perish. 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.
Isn’t there an amazing contrast between these two passages? On the one had Israel was told she would prosper if she adhered to the commandments of 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.” Everything would be good for Israel if only she followed God’s commands.
On the other hand, if Israel rejected the commandments of God she would most certainly not prosper: “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 choice of whether they would receive blessing or cursing was entirely up to them. God did not promise them prosperity unconditionally. Think of what it would have been like if he did. An ungodly nation, such as Israel was at her darkest times, would have been receiving blessings from the hand of God. Would that not have been the ultimate mockery of God’s justice and his majesty?
When you look at Jeremiah 18 and Deuteronomy 28 together the forgiveness of God becomes even more apparent. Generation after generation of Israel had done evil in God’s sight. Yet even in the terrible times in which Jeremiah lived, God was still prepared to bless Israel once again if she turned back to him.
Sadly, Israel did not turn from their wickedness. There is one example of a people that did repent as a result of a message from God. The people of Nineveh repented as a result f Jonah’s preaching.
Jonah chapter 3 verses 4 to 10:
And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown. So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not? And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.
The people of Nineveh repented from their evil, and God repented of the evil he said he would do to them. Jonah’s preaching was outstandingly effective. The people of Nineveh realized they were sinners, they asked for forgiveness, and they were forgiven. The people of Nineveh were saved by God’s majesty, for he was the only one with the authority to pass judgement on them, God’s justice, because he was prepared to give them a chance to choose their fate, and God’s forgiveness, because when they repented, he repented. The people of Nineveh were saved by the love of God.
It wasn’t just the people of Nineveh who were forgiven. It was Jonah too. Initially, Jonah fled from his responsibilities. God gave him an instruction to go one way, and he went the other. I’m quite sure that God could easily have found another messenger, and just abandoned Jonah when he ran off. Perhaps a more uncaring God would have done. But God cared about Jonah as much as he cared about Nineveh. When Jonah was in the belly of the fish and he prayed to God, God heard him and saved him. God then sent Jonah to Nineveh a second time, and this time Jonah went.
I don’t think Jonah quite appreciated what had happened. The sparing of Nineveh “displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry.” Perhaps Jonah felt like a fool. After telling the people of Nineveh that they had 40 days left, that judgement was lifted from them. Jonah retired to the desert.
Jonah chapter 4 verses 5 to 11:
So Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city. And the LORD God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd. But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered. And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live. And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death. Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?
Jonah regretted the destruction of the gourd. God said to him, “You have pity on this tree. You had noting to do with caring for it, nurturing it. Why are you angry that I have had pity on Nineveh and spared it? Look at the effort and love I put into it.”
Jonah couldn’t see that the same loving God that forgave him, was a loving God who forgave Nineveh also. It is easy for us to fall into the same trap. Apart from Christ himself, nobody is perfect. Nobody is sinless. We all repented at the time of our baptisms. I imagine we have all repented many many times since. We cannot point the finger at anyone and claim that they are not worthy of the same forgiveness that we are. We cannot hunt for the secret sins of others, because in doing so we are ignoring our on public sin, just as Jonah resented the forgiving of Nineveh while having been forgiven of much more himself.
Lets have a look at three examples of unconditional promises, instances when God has said that something will happen, regardless of the actions of the people. The three I am going to look at are the seven years of famine in Egypt during the time of Joseph, the madness of Nebuchadnezzar, and the promises made to Abraham.
In Genesis 41 verses 14 to 40 we have the account of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams and a demonstration of the effect of these promises.
Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon: and he shaved himself, and changed his raiment, and came in unto Pharaoh. And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, I have dreamed a dream, and there is none that can interpret it: and I have heard say of thee, that thou canst understand a dream to interpret it. And Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, It is not in me: God shall give Pharaoh an answer of peace.
Before Joseph even knows the details of what he is to interpret, he is giving glory to God. This is a key feature of the unconditional promises. They are given so that God will be made known to the world.
And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, In my dream, behold, I stood upon the bank of the river: And, behold, there came up out of the river seven kine, fatfleshed and well favoured; and they fed in a meadow: And, behold, seven other kine came up after them, poor and very ill favoured and leanfleshed, such as I never saw in all the land of Egypt for badness: And the lean and the ill favoured kine did eat up the first seven fat kine: And when they had eaten them up, it could not be known that they had eaten them; but they were still ill favoured, as at the beginning. So I awoke. And I saw in my dream, and, behold, seven ears came up in one stalk, full and good: And, behold, seven ears, withered, thin, and blasted with the east wind, sprung up after them: And the thin ears devoured the seven good ears: and I told this unto the magicians; but there was none that could declare it to me. And Joseph said unto Pharaoh, The dream of Pharaoh is one: God hath shewed Pharaoh what he is about to do. The seven good kine are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years: the dream is one. And the seven thin and ill favoured kine that came up after them are seven years; and the seven empty ears blasted with the east wind shall be seven years of famine. This is the thing which I have spoken unto Pharaoh: What God is about to do he sheweth unto Pharaoh. Behold, there come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt: And there shall arise after them seven years of famine; and all the plenty shall be forgotten in the land of Egypt; and the famine shall consume the land; And the plenty shall not be known in the land by reason of that famine following; for it shall be very grievous. And for that the dream was doubled unto Pharaoh twice; it is because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass.
It is a thing established by God and God will shortly bring it to pass. There is no way of avoiding the years of bounty and famine. This is not to make the Egyptians repent. Unlike the prophecy carried by Jonah, this one will happen no matter what.
Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint officers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven plenteous years. And let them gather all the food of those good years that come, and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh, and let them keep food in the cities. And that food shall be for store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine. And the thing was good in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of all his servants. And Pharaoh said unto his servants, Can we find such a one as this is, a man in whom the Spirit of God is? And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, Forasmuch as God hath shewed thee all this, there is none so discreet and wise as thou art: Thou shalt be over my house, and according unto thy word shall all my people be ruled: only in the throne will I be greater than thou.
Through this prophecy Pharaoh came to believe in God. Through this prophecy Joseph was made second in command of Egypt. Through this prophecy Joseph was reunited with his father and the rest of his family. Through this prophecy the nation of Israel grew in Egypt, and through this prophecy they ultimately received the Law of Moses. The effect of this unconditional promise was even greater than the effect of the conditional judgement on Nineveh.
Centuries later, another prophet of God told a king of an unconditional promise. This promise, too, lead to the king learning of the glory of God. Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a tree and Daniel interprets the dream for him.
Daniel chapter 4 verses 24 and 25:
This is the interpretation, O king, and this is the decree of the most High, which is come upon my lord the king: That they shall drive thee from men, and thy dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field, and they shall make thee to eat grass as oxen, and they shall wet thee with the dew of heaven, and seven times shall pass over thee, till thou know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will.
One year later, Nebuchadnezzar was walking in the palace. He said “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honour of my majesty?” He was immediately struck with madness. When he recovered, Nebuchadnezzar had this to say:
And at the end of the days I Nebuchadnezzar lifted up mine eyes unto heaven, and mine understanding returned unto me, and I blessed the most High, and I praised and honoured him that liveth for ever, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom is from generation to generation: And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou? At the same time my reason returned unto me; and for the glory of my kingdom, mine honour and brightness returned unto me; and my counsellors and my lords sought unto me; and I was established in my kingdom, and excellent majesty was added unto me. Now I Nebuchadnezzar praise and extol and honour the King of heaven, all whose works are truth, and his ways judgment: and those that walk in pride he is able to abase.
Look at the majesty of God in this promise. Nebuchadnezzar thought his majesty was the greatest, but God was able to say to him: “No! Mine is!”
Look at the forgiveness. Nebuchadnezzar was forgiven and restored to sanity. God did not condemn him to madness for the rest of his life. He was made mad in order that he might learn. The punishment was an education – perfect justice.
Finally, lets look at the greatest unconditional promise of them all, the promise to Abraham. Genesis chapter 12 verses 1 to 3:
Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.
Upon that promise, brothers and sisters, lies the hope of Israel, and it is the hope of Israel that we share. It is the promise that Christ will sit upon the throne of David, ruling the world. “And when thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers, I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build an house for my name, and I will stablish the throne of his kingdom for ever,” God promised David in 2nd Samuel 7, verses 12 and 13.
Brothers and sisters, it is through our baptism that we have come to share in these promises. Galatians 4, verses 27 to 29:
For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
Look at the forgiveness in these promises. Nobody is sinless, yet these promises contain the guarantee of forgiveness for all who ask. That is perfect forgiveness.
Look at the justice. God has promised that all that is evil, all that is unjust, will be removed from the world. That is perfect justice
Look at the majesty. The glory of the lord will cover the earth as the waters now cover the sea. That is perfect majesty.
This morning I have talked about the promises of God, some conditional, some unconditional. They all have beautiful evidence of the justice, forgiveness, and majesty of God. The conditional promises show in particular that God is not willing that any should perish, but all should come to repentance. The unconditional promises show that God will restore the earth to a perfect state, full of his glory.
It is upon God’s promises that our faith is founded. We are here this morning to look back to the faithful men of the Bible, and to look forward to the Kingdom. We are here to remember the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the man whose perfect life made it possible for us to be heirs to the promise. We are here to remember his promise that he will one day return.
Before we share the bread and wine together, let us read from Matthew 26 verses 26 to 29:
And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.