Holman Bible Dictionary
God's announcement of His plan of salvation and blessing to His people, one of the unifying themes integrating the message and the deeds of the Old and New Testaments.
Promise Embraces Both Declaration and Deed God's promise begins with a declaration by God; it covers God's future plan for not just one race, but all the nations of the earth; and it focuses on the gifts and deeds that God will bestow on a few to benefit the many. We may define God's promise this way: the divine declaration or assurance made at first to Eve, Shem, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and then to the whole nation of Israel that: (1) He would be their God, (2) they would be His people, and (3) He would dwell in their midst. The blessing of land and of growth as a nation as well as the call to bless the nations was part of the promise to Abraham. Added to these words of assurance were a series of divine actions in history. These words and deeds of God began to constitute the continuously unfolding divine plan by which all the peoples and nations of the earth would benefit from that day to this.
The Old Testament did not use a specific Hebrew word for promise. It used quite ordinary words to encapsulate the pivotal promise of God: speak, say, swear.
The New Testament, however, does use both the noun promise (51 times) and the verb (11 times).
Promise in these references can denote either the form or the content of those words. They could refer either to the words themselves as promissory notes on which to base one's confidence for the future, or they could refer to the things themselves which were promised. Since God's one promise-plan was made up of many specifications, the plural form of “promises” appears 11 times in the New Testament. Nevertheless, the singular form was greatly predominant.
Varying Formulations of the Promise in the Old Testament In Genesis 1-11 , the promise of God is represented by the successive “blessings” announced both in the creative order and on the human family—even in spite of their sin. The promise of blessing therefore, was both introductory to the promise and part of the promise itself.
The Promise and the Patriarchs For the fathers of Israel (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) we may speak of the promise in the singular even though it announced three significant elements. Each of the three elements are incomplete without the support of each other and without being interlocked into one promise-plan.
This triple promise included: (1) the promise of a seed or offspring (an heir; Genesis 12:7 ; Genesis 15:4 ; Genesis 17:16 ,Genesis 17:16,17:19 ; Genesis 21:12 ; Genesis 22:16-18 ; Genesis 26:3-4 ,Genesis 26:3-4,26:24 ; Genesis 28:13-14 ; Genesis 35:11-12 ), (2) the promise of land (an inheritance; Genesis 12:1 ,Genesis 12:1,12:7 ; Genesis 13:17 ; Genesis 15:18 ; Genesis 17:8 ; Genesis 24:7 ; Genesis 26:3-5 ; Genesis 28:13 ,Genesis 28:13,28:15 ; Genesis 35:12 ; Genesis 48:4 ; Genesis 50:24 ;) (Genesis 3:1 ) the promise of blessing on all the nations (a heritage of the gospel; Genesis 12:3 ; Genesis 18:18 ; Genesis 22:17-18 ; Genesis 26:4 ; Genesis 28:14 ).
To demonstrate the eternality and one-sidedness in the gracious offer of God, only God passed between the pieces in Genesis 15:9-21 thus obligating Himself to fulfill His promises without simultaneously and similarly obligating Abraham and the subsequent beneficiaries of the promise.
The Promise and the Law The promise was eternal, Abraham's descendants had to transmit the promise to subsequent generations until the final Seed, even Jesus the Messiah, came. They had to do more. God expected them to participate personally by faith. Where faith was present, already demands and commands were likewise present. Thus, Abraham obeyed God and left Ur (Genesis 12:1-4 ) and walked before God in a blameless way (Genesis 17:1 ). His obedience to God's “requirements,” “commands,” “decrees,” and “laws” (Genesis 26:5 NIV) was exemplary.
The law extended these demands to the entire life of the people all the while presupposing the earlier promises as the very basis, indeed, as the lever by which such demands could be made (Exodus 2:23-25 ; Exodus 6:2-8 ; Exodus 19:3-8 ; Exodus 20:2 ). The apostle Paul will later ask whether the promises have nullified the law (Romans 3:31 ). He answered, “Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law” (Romans 3:31 NIV).
The Promises and David The monarchy, prematurely founded by the whims of a people who wished to be like the other nations, received a distinctive role through God's promise. A lad taken “from the pasture” (2 Samuel 7:8 NIV) would be given a name equal to “the greatest men of the earth” ( 2 Samuel 7:9 NIV); indeed, his offspring would be seated at God's “right hand” ( Psalm 110:1 ) and inherit the nations (Psalm 2:8 ).
The Promise and the New Covenant The new covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34 both repeats many of the elements and formulas already contained in the previously announced promise-plan of God and adds several new features. The new promise still contains the law of God, only now it will be internalized. It still pledges that God will be their God, and they will be His people. It still declares that He will forgive their sins and remember them no more. However, it also adds that it will no longer be necessary to teach one's neighbor or brother; for everyone, no matter what their station in life, will know the Lord.
In spite of Israel's future loss of its king, its capital, its Temple, and its former glory, God would fulfill His ancient promises by founding new promises on “the former things [foretold] long ago” (Isaiah 48:3 ). He would send His new David, new Temple, new Elijah, new heavens and new earth—but all in continuity with what He had pledged long ago!
The New Testament Enlarges the Ancient Promises The New Testament promises may be gathered into these groups. The first, and most frequent, are the references to God's promises to Abraham about the heir he was to receive, even Jesus Christ (Romans 4:13-16 ,Romans 4:13-16,4:20 ; Romans 9:7-9 ; Romans 15:8 ; Galatians 3:16-22 ; Galatians 4:23 ; Hebrews 6:13-17 ; Hebrews 7:6 ; Hebrews 11:9 , Hebrews 11:11 ,Hebrews 11:11,11:17 ). A second major grouping may be made around David's seed and the sending of Jesus as “a Savior according to promise” (Acts 13:23 ,Acts 13:23,13:32-33 ; Acts 26:6 ). Perhaps we should connect with this group the gift of “the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:1 NIV), the “promised eternal inheritance” ( Hebrews 9:15 NIV), and the promise which “he has promised us, eternal life” ( 1 John 2:25 NRSV). This promise is “what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ” ( Galatians 3:22 NRSV).
The third major group is the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promises appear after our Lord's resurrection (Luke 24:49 ; Acts 2:33 ,Acts 2:33,2:38-39 ).
There are other subjects related to God's promise: rest (Hebrews 4:1 ); the new covenant with its prospect of an eternal inheritance (Hebrews 9:15 ); the new heavens and new earth (2 Peter 3:13 ); the resurrection (Acts 26:6 ); the blessing of numerous descendants (Hebrews 6:14 ); the emergence of an unshakable kingdom (Hebrews 12:28 ), and Gentiles as recipients of the same promise (Ephesians 2:11-13 ).
The Promise Has Some Notable Differences from Prophecy While much of the promise doctrine is also prophetic in that it relates to the future, there are some notable differences between promise and prophecy. 1. Promises relate to what is good, desirable, and that which blesses and enriches. Prophecy, however, also may contain notes of judgment, destruction, and calamity when people and nations fail to repent. 2. Promises ordinarily implicate the entire human race in their provisions whereas prophecies more typically are aimed at specific nations, cultures, or peoples. 3. Promises deliberately have a continuous fulfillment for generation after generation while prophecies invoke promise when they wish to speak to the distant future. 4. The promise of God is unconditional while most prophecies are conditional and have a suppressed “unless” or “if” you repent attached to their predictions of judgment. Finally, 5. The promise of God embraces many declarations of God (“very great and precious promises,” 2 Peter 1:4 ), whereas prophecies are usually directed to more specific events and particular individuals.
The promise-plan of God, then, is indeed His own Word and plan, both in His person and His works, to communicate a blessing to Israel and thereby to bless all the nations of the earth.
Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.
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