Wednesday, 12 July 2017

God's great and precious promises

“Therefore the Lord, the God of Israel, declares: ‘I promised that members of your family would minister before me forever.’ But now the Lord declares: ‘Far be it from me! Those who honour me I will honour, but those who despise me will be treated with contempt…” 1 Samuel 2:30-31

Does God always keep his promises?

You may find that question slightly shocking. Of course he does! How can you suggest otherwise? Isn’t the Bible full of declarations of God’s faithfulness to his word? Doesn’t Peter delight in his “great and precious promises” (2 Peter 1:4)

Yes indeed. In Numbers 23:19, for example, the prophet Balaam declares: “God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfil?” Great words.

But as so often when we read individual Bible verses, the truth is not quite as simple as at first appears. In the passage I have quoted, the words “I promised” are quickly followed by the words “But now.” Those little words turn everything round; if words mean anything, God is going back on his promise.

Before trying to make sense of that, let’s fill in the background…

The speaker is an unnamed “man of God” (verse 27) and the person he is speaking to is Eli, the priest of God. We’re way back in the days – the bad, dark days – of the judges, after Moses and Joshua but before Saul, David and the other kings.

The story of Eli is about as sad as any you will find anywhere in your Bible (you can read it through in just a few minutes in chapters 1-4 of 1 Samuel). Eli is at heart a good man who truly loves God. He has a long track-record (according to 4:19 he has led Israel for forty years), which suggests that he has much good about him, and that God is very patient with him.

But… he is weak. He has two corrupt and wicked sons who are behaving in scandalous ways, and he is unable to rein them in. At last God decides that the situation can’t be allowed to go on any longer. Eli’s track-record counts for nothing, and the axe must fall: “the time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your priestly house” (verse 31).

It seems as if weakness can be as blameworthy as wickedness.

There are times, I have to admit, when I have looked at my own life and wondered if I have been a bit of an Eli. A fellow-minister I talked to once felt the same way: how easy it is to go with the flow, to turn a blind eye, to adopt the line of least resistance – put it how you like. And it’s not only ministers and other leaders; this can apply to all of us at different points in our Christian lives.

Let the sad story of Eli be a warning to us.

But what about the mystery of God seeming to go back on his promise?

Well, of course it isn’t really such a mystery as I have made out. Putting it simply, God’s promises are conditional on our obedience – and we need to remember this even when it isn’t explicitly stated. God doesn’t write blank cheques, if I can put it that way.

This is true on the practical, day-to-day level. We rejoice in the fact that God promises to guide us and provide for our needs. And so indeed he does. But we still need to work to earn our living. If we want to pass an exam then we need to get our heads down and work hard. If we want to have a good marriage then it’s up to us to work on our relationships when the going gets a bit tough.

It’s true too on the bigger level. A church, or even a nation, may believe that it has received promises of blessing from God. And so indeed it may. But those promises are forfeited if they fall into disobedience.

This is a lesson that Israel – God’s chosen people, no less – had to learn in painful ways.

Their leader Joshua spelled it out very clearly in their earliest days. As he approached death he reminded them that God had made wonderful promises to them; but then he added the words “But if you turn away…” (Joshua 23). That little “but” again. And, sure enough, the coming centuries told the grim story again and again.

As individual Christians we can get very casual about our relationship with God. As somebody once put it: “God will forgive me. That’s his job!” But be very careful…

The writer to the Hebrews tells us (Hebrews 12:29) that our holy God is “a consuming fire”. God is to be trusted, oh yes – but he is not to be presumed upon. God is to be relied on, yes – but he is not to be taken for granted.

Let none of us say we haven’t been warned.

Heavenly father, help me by your grace to match your solid and wonderful promises with my obedience and faithfulness. Amen.

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