When Promises Fail
How literal should we take Scripture’s promises? Do they only apply to the person or people they were initially given? Or, can we claim them today and expect God to respond on our behalf?
When John says, “If we confess our sins, He [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9, NLT), we view it as a universal promise. After claiming it, we may yet feel unclean and morally broken, but we accept the idea that by faith, God’s promise is greater than our feelings, and we rest in the assurance of His word.
Other Bible promises are easy to embrace as well. When God says He will give us His Spirit, or that He will guide us in the way we should go, we take Him at His word. We may struggle with how to recognize and understand God’s guidance, but we accept the promise at face value.
Some Scripture promises, like James 5:13-18, are more problematic. Here we are told that a prayer of faith will save the sick. We all know of saints who died while claiming this promise. Or we know of sick people who were never made well. What went wrong? Was their faith too weak?
“Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:13-18, NIV).
Obviously, this verse cannot mean that every time a sick person asks for healing, they are physically healed, because if this were true, there would be no such thing as a last illness. Theoretically, people of faith could live to be thousands of years old because each time they get sick, they can pray for healing and be made well.
Why isn’t Paul still alive? Certainly, he was a man of faith. Were his prayers not good enough?
Is God Playing Games?
Some scholars describe the timing of the promise as a key factor to understanding what it means. They say, “God says the sick will be healed, but He doesn’t say when,” meaning it could be now, later, or at the resurrection. But that seems disingenuous. That’s like saying, “If you buy my car today and give me $18,000, it will be yours. But you may not get to take it home for a year, five years, or maybe 25 years.”
Is God playing games with us?
A favorite text we like to read when danger lurks nearby is Psalm 91.
“He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress; My God, in Him I will trust.’ Surely He shall deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the perilous pestilence. He shall cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you shall take refuge; His truth shall be your shield and buckler. You shall not be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrow that flies by day, nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness, nor of the destruction that lays waste at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; but it shall not come near you. Only with your eyes shall you look, and see the reward of the wicked. Because you have made the Lord, who is my refuge, even the Most High, your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, nor shall any plague come near your dwelling; for He shall give His angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways (Psalm 91:1-11, NKJV).
Richard Niell Donovan writes, “The Septuagint (LXX: Greek version of the Old Testament) attributes this psalm to David, but that remains in question. We aren’t sure of the time and circumstances of its writing. The psalmist wrote it to assure Israel that Yahweh would keep them safe through all trials IF they put their trust in him and tried to live faithfully in accord with Yahweh’s will.
“Such a message is timeless. It would have served Israel well during David’s reign, when Israel was beset by many enemies. It would have served them well during the Babylonian Exile, when only the eyes of faith could see the possibility that they would ever again see Jerusalem. It would have served them well when King Cyrus of Persia defeated Babylon and freed [the] Israelites to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city, where they found a ruined city and were faced with many enemies.” *
What about today?
When God says, “A thousand may fall at your side, And ten thousand at your right hand; but it shall not come near you,” should we take it literally, or is it an idiom? An idiom is a “phrase or an expression that has a figurative, or sometimes literal, meaning. It cannot be taken literally and must be understood as a whole.” (AskingLot.com)
Is God telling us He will deliver us from all evil now—or someday?
My dad was a retired pastor and evangelist who loved God dearly. He was wholly dedicated to sharing the gospel of Jesus with as many people as he could—until he caught COVID. Even though he undoubtedly claimed Psalm 91 and asked God to deliver him from the COVID pestilence, he died! The disease overtook him and destroyed his lungs. The pestilence not only came near his dwelling, it came INTO it.
So, what are we to make of this? Should we claim passages like Psalm 91 and expect God to heal us and protect us from all harm literally? Or should we view them as idioms that inform us of God’s ultimate will to make us whole—which He will do when Jesus returns?
Believing God created the earth assures us that He can do what He says! Believing that He shut the lion’s mouths when Daniel was forced into their pit assures us that God can handle emergencies. Because Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (and because of His own resurrection), death isn’t as frightening as it once was. But what do we do with the story of John the Baptist, whom Jesus said was the greatest prophet who ever lived? For some reason, God chose not to deliver from a brutal death. He was beheaded!
Did the promise in Psalm 91 let John down?
The ultimate quandary is what Jesus went through after spending a night in prayer in Gethsemane. He may have claimed Psalm 91 for deliverance; we don’t know. But He did cry out:
“My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me” (Matthew 26:39, NLT). Yet, His desire to be in God’s will was greater than His longing for deliverance. He absorbed the catcalls of the Pharisees and priests who chided, “You saved others, but you cannot save yourself,” and it was true! He couldn’t save Himself and them at the same time.
The deliverance of Psalm 91 did not happen for Jesus. When they nailed Him to the cross, He died! From all outward appearances, evil triumphed, and the promise failed.
Did God’s word fail Jesus? Did Psalm 91 fail my dad? Does it fail us when we suffer the cascading effects of evil in this life? Or, do we fail in our understanding when we demand a literal interpretation of a truth that may have a broader application?
For Jesus, no deliverance could be expected if He was the Messiah. In fact, by dying, Jesus became the guarantor that Psalm 91 would be more than a pipe dream! His sacrifice thwarted the longevity of evil and death!
Behind the Veil
To be properly understood, Psalm 91 must be read within the context of the original curse. After Adam and Eve sinned, God said:
“I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children; Your desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.'”
“Then to Adam He said, ‘Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, You shall not eat of it: Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; For dust you are, And to dust you shall return'” (Genesis 3:16-19, NLT).
Under sin’s curse, everything dies. All sickness ends in death—ultimately. Even those who are delivered from danger and pestilence must eventually return to dust because of sin. As long as we are on this broken planet, death is inevitable.
Sometimes, God overrules the curse to deliver His people for a time. But eventually, they must die. The consequences of our first parent’s choice to separate from God still haunt us. We are subject to death by heredity and choice. We didn’t choose to be born into this mess, but once here, we have each contributed to the problem somehow. But there is Good News!
Through Jesus, a new world order has been established that promises deliverance from the pestilence of sin. Psalm 91 is a promise that God does, and will intervene. Because He is God, sometimes His ways are beyond our comprehension.
“For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9, NLT).
There are days when we wish He would do more than He’s doing. And, we may question if God cares what we’re up against. However, this comes with the territory of not being God! Our understanding and vision are limited. Suffering is real. People get sick. Accidents happen. Homes burn down. Planes crash! People lose their jobs! Sometimes God intervenes to stop the carnage, but His deliverance often differs from what we are looking for.
Ellen Whites reminds us that, “Our heavenly Father has a thousand ways to provide for us, of which we know nothing.” God is not constrained to just two or three options when it comes to solving our problems. One thing is certain! God will intervene in our behalf, and His intervention will provide a permanent solution.
“I heard [the distinct words of] a voice from heaven, saying…’ Blessed (happy, prosperous, to be admired) are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!’ ‘Yes, [blessed indeed],’ says the Spirit, ‘so that they may rest and have relief from their labors, for their deeds do follow them'” (Revelation 14:13, AMP).
“If we live, it’s to honor the Lord. And if we die, it’s to honor the Lord. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. Christ died and rose again for this very purpose—to be Lord both of the living and of the dead” (Romans 14:8-9, NLT).
“In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at [the sound of] the last trumpet call. For a trumpet will sound, and the dead [who believed in Christ] will be raised imperishable, and we will be [completely] changed [wondrously transformed]. For this perishable [part of us] must put on the imperishable [nature], and this mortal [part of us that is capable of dying] must put on immortality [which is freedom from death]. And when this perishable puts on the imperishable, and this mortal puts on immortality, then the Scripture will be fulfilled that says, “DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory (vanquished forever)” (1 Corinthians 15:52-54, AMP).
Rich DuBose writes from Northern California.