Home Pastor's Corner . What went wrong with God's promise box?

. What went wrong with God's promise box?


When I was a child we had an annual price giving at church for achievements in Sunday School and often one of the prizes was the old Promise Box, sometimes called Daily Bread. It is was a box filled with little cards of Biblical promises. In it would be verses like 2 Chronicles 7:14 (ESV) 14 if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” And then of course we must never forget Jeremiah 29:11 (ESV) “11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Day after day as a child I would pull out these cards and ‘stand on my daily promise’.


My confusion started as I watched our country go through turmoil after turmoil, and would attend the interdenominational prayer meetings, where we prayed for peace. At these prayer meetings I would listen to sermons on the very texts from my promise box like 2 Chronicles 7:14. Yet the turmoil in our country continued, God simply did not hear from heaven and He did not heal our land, so what went wrong? I had to then ask myself some critical questions and I arrived at a critical conclusion.

There were two lessons that I learnt.

Firstly, not everything said to Israel or even to an individual in the Bible is said to me. Even though I learn principles for my own life based on what was said to them, for example faith, obedience etc. the messages and promises are not necessarily mine.  I quickly understood that South Africa is not Israel, and that the prayers of the saints will not restore the land. Surely God can, but He can also hand us over to captivity as He did with His nation in the book of Habakkuk. South Africa is simply not the land that is referenced in 2 Chronicles.

Let me give you another example of what I mean when I say that not everything said to an individual is said to us. God told Abraham to take up his tent and move to a foreign land to live among a people that was not his own – does this now mean that I must pack my bags and move? Do we all drag our first born or only son to the altar? Surely not. You do not have to be a rocket scientist to know that God’s command to Abraham was not a command to us, but to Abraham. Yes there are principles regarding obedience etc. tucked firmly into those texts, and even though it was not said to us, it is there for us. I do not for example engage in war every time I read about the battles Israel engaged in under God’s command. So if all of God’s commands are not for me, why will all the promises be for me?

There is a second lesson I learned.

Understanding the author's message is one of the fundamental skills needed to know how to read the Word accurately.

Let’s go back to maybe the most quoted promise from Scripture. Jeremiah 29:11 (ESV) 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

As a young man I struggled and actually turned my back on God for a while as I read promises like these and it did not work out for me. But since I learnt lessons based on the 2 Chronicles text, I then reread and reread Jeremiah 29:11 and all the surrounding verses so that I could understand the context.

Learning to re-read Jeremiah 29 required me to back up and understand the story of Jeremiah, especially chapter 28. That earlier chapter records a confrontation between the prophet Jeremiah and another prophet named Hananiah. They are standing in the Jerusalem temple—which is empty because the Babylonians had ransacked the city—when Hananiah makes a bold promise: God is going to restore Israel in two years. (Two years!) All the things that were stolen, all the people forced into slavery, everything will be better in two short years. The tens of thousands of people living in exile will be coming home soon.

Jeremiah recognized exactly what kind of promise this was. It sounded good in the short term and would make Hananiah and his supporters very popular. Hananiah may even have believed the promise himself. But it wasn’t true. God had no plans to make everything better in two years. Speaking through Jeremiah, God says to Hananiah, “You have made these people trust in a lie.”

Then comes Jeremiah 29. Against the backdrop of false promises about prosperity—about God’s wonderful plan to set everything right in the near future—Jeremiah sends a letter to Babylon that says, more-or-less: "All of you people are going to be in exile for 70 years. You’re going to die in Babylon. Your children are going to die in Babylon. Settle in."


We often read Jeremiah 29 like it is good news, plain and simple. But to the first people who heard those words, they were a tremendous disappointment. God’s people had suffered terribly. They had lost their land, their throne, their temple. Before Jerusalem fell in battle, the people had given in to cannibalism. They were then force-marched 1280 km and paraded (literally) through a pagan city in which they were now considered as the living symbols of the power of that city’s god.

It was into this kind of despair that Jeremiah offered God’s promise: “I know the plans I have for you … plans for your welfare and not for your harm, to give you a future and a hope.” They were not easy words to hear. Jeremiah promised that God had a plan that was certain and inevitable. But it would not unfold on Israel’s timetable. It would not simply undo Israel’s hardship. Yet the promise stood: God would fully restore His people and bring them out of their desperate situation, but He would not do it in the way any of them would have planned it.

All along I had heard Jeremiah 29 like I was listening to Hananiah—as if God would work out everything for my benefit in the near future and in ways that made sense to me. This is simply misapplying God’s promises out of context to myself. The reason we take Jeremiah 29 out of its context is because these are the kinds of promises we want to hear, based on the old self, where it is all about me. The Word of God does not work like that. All Scripture appears in context, and a text out of context becomes pretext.


Now while I can say much more on the subject, the purpose of Pastor’s Corner is not to give an exhaustive study on an issue, but to really share what is close to my heart.

So, maybe you do not need to throw away your promise boxes, but always read them in context. They are not little mini cheques that you can cash in when you like. According to 2 Peter 1:4 (ESV) God’s promises remain precious and very great, so that through them we may become partakers of the divine nature, but not all of them are for us, but there is much to learn when we understand what they meant to their original readers.

A promise not carefully tethered to the details of the text becomes an empty exercise of relativistic wishful thinking.

Remember that a biblical promise is a binding pledge from God to do—or not do—something specific. If the promise is made to you, you have a right to expect God to keep His word. If you are not the rightful owner, though, you may not lay claim to it. It is pointless to expropriate promises made to another, and can lead to disappointment and discouragement.

But how do you know if you are the fortunate beneficiary? You find out by looking closely at the details of the promise itself and applying two simple principles.

The correct meaning of any biblical passage is the meaning the author had in mind when he wrote it. A promise is only a promise when it is used as its maker intended. We discover that intention by paying attention to the specifics—the words, the conditions, the recipient, the timing, the historical setting—the details that make up the context of the promise.

The process can be organized into steps by asking (and answering) four questions:

  1. Who was the promise made to, am I really part of the group?
  2. What are the particulars of the promise, does it apply to me?
  3. Why will the promise be fulfilled, do I in any conceivable way meet the requirements?
  4. When is this promise supposed to be fulfilled?

Be sure to get your answers by looking carefully at the words of the promise itself in light of the larger context of the passage. Keep in mind you may have to read an entire chapter or more to gather enough information to answer your questions.

So, we can only legitimately claim a biblical promise if it is rightfully ours. If the promise is for us, and we have satisfied the conditions, and the promise is for our time, then we can count on God to keep His word.

If not, then we must leave the promise to its rightful owner and profit from the text by learning what we can from God’s faithful dealings with them.


The following song by Hillsong called Potters Hand, simply helps us to keep our walk with God in perspective, and to rather be moulded by Him than to try and mould God after our selfish desires.