The promises of God are central to our faith, because ‘faith’ is about trusting or believing that someone will do as they promise. But what has God promised? Our worship songs are peppered with phrases such as ‘You walk with me through fire and heal all my diseases’, ‘the Lord has promised good to me’ and ‘God has stretched out to heal us’.However, if these are universal promises that God has made to his people, they have clearly never been kept because we all eventually die from illness or harm. Collecting God’s promises became a popular part of Christianity relatively recently. In the late 19th century, ‘promise boxes’ were a feature in Christian homes (see the picture opposite). These boxes typically contained about 150 small scrolls, a little larger than those in a fortune cookie. The scrolls stood upright, looking like a small honeycomb. At family or private devotions, you would pick out a scroll at random using a pair of tweezers that came with the box, then prayerfully read the text written on it and return it. Many soldiers setting off to fight in World War One bought one as a gift for their wife or sweetheart. I can imagine how these women clung to promises from Psalm 91 such as: ‘Thou shalt not be afraid…A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand...There shall no evil befall thee’. (KJV) But what happened when their young man was killed and this ‘promise’ was apparently not kept by God? Perhaps this contributed to the huge decline in European Christianity in the post-war period.
Today we are more concerned about maintaining youthful health and the other good things of life, so we often look to Psalm 103:2-5 which appears to promise: ‘Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits – who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases…who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.’ The word ‘benefits’ suggests to our modern minds that God offers us an insurance policy with a list of specific promises, so we should ensure that we don’t miss any. This appears to state unequivocally that God ‘heals all our diseases’ and promises us the ‘good things’ we desire. God certainly does heal, but does he promise to always heal?
The problem stems from the original Hebrew language of these texts. English verbs use tenses (past, present and future), whereas Hebrew verbs use either ‘perfective’ (short-term) or ‘imperfective’ (long-term). Hebrew is also non-specific about the intensity, so the imperfective doesn’t necessarily mean something that always happens, but rather something that happens once over a long period, or something that often happens. So how should we translate the imperfective tense used in Psalm 91:10: ‘No evil shall befall you’ (NKJV)? The most accurate translation is: ‘Evil did, does or will, usually or always, not befall you’ – but that isn’t very good English!
English often implies a lot more than is actually said. For example, the phrase ‘evil does not befall you’ implies that it usually doesn’t, whereas ‘no evil befalls you’ implies that it never does, and ‘no evil will befall you’ implies a promise. Hebrew is not nearly so specific, which is why even God has to use an oath when he makes a promise (Hebrews 6:17). So, how can we understand what God’s word is saying to us?
The contexts of these psalms is praise; they aren’t a list of promises
The solution is to read it as it was meant to be read: in context. These psalms praise God for all the wonderful things he does. Psalm 103 thanks God for healing. The psalmist isn’t reminding God that he has promised never to let him get ill. After all, if he never got ill, then God wouldn’t have had to heal him! Psalm 91 thanks God for deliverance, but if the psalmist wasn’t in trouble, he wouldn’t need to be rescued. So the contexts of these psalms is praise; they aren’t a list of promises or benefits in a contract with God.
If we pick phrases out of context and treat them like fortune cookies, or if we claim them like benefits that are due to us, we are treating the Bible as Satan does. The next verse in Psalm 91 is the one that Satan quoted to Jesus in the wilderness: ‘For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone’ (Psalm 91:11-12 cited in Matthew 4:6; Luke 4:11). Here too, the verb is the imperfective which by itself is a general statement: God helps you. It can’t be stretched to imply that God will do this on every occasion. Both Jesus and Satan would have understood this, but that doesn’t stop Satan from taking it out of context. Satan was inviting Jesus to treat God like a genie from whom wishes could be claimed.
God has made us some very precious promises. He promises to forgive anyone who repents and to receive them into eternity. He promises to always remain with those who follow him, to protect them from temptation and spiritual evil, and to accompany and strengthen them during hardship (1 John 1:9; 2:25; John 6:47; Romans 8:29; 1 Corinthians 10:13; Matthew 28:20; James 4:7-8). He has not promised to keep us from all harm, but he did send Jesus to share in all our experiences: God not only understands our suffering, but has even suffered with us. Peter, writing to persecuted believers said: ‘the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace [has] called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while’ (1 Peter 5:9-10). Who could ask for a better promise than that?
David Instone-Brewer is senior research fellow in Rabbinics and New Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge