Dangerous words, let me tell you. I am of the impression that no two words can reveal our character with more precision. No two words can so easily attract the interest of those who want to catch us out, trip us up, put us down. We see it played out in politics every day; that shrill moment when the shout goes up about promises made, promises broken.
But you promised!
Devastating words: words of disappointment, words of pain, words of betrayal. We know instinctively that when a promise is made, it’s not just a particular action or event that is in view. When promises are made a relationship is on the line. And when those promises are broken, it’s the relationship that suffers. If you promise to take your little princess to see the latest Disney offering and you don’t follow through, she isn’t just disappointed about missing the film, she’s disappointed for what she has learned about you too. Certainly there are reasons and pressures that force your hand; all of that makes sense to you. But not to her. She found out something that she didn’t want to know; she found out that you make “pie-crust promises” – easily made and easily broken (thank you, Mary Poppins!).
My wife, Rosie, and I were getting a snack while we waited for a flight recently, and it came out in conversation with our young waitress that we had just celebrated thirty-three years of marriage. There was a quizzical look in her eye as she asked us how we could possibly have made it work for so long. I told her that we had made promises, and we had lived long enough to keep them, simple as that. That answer took her breath away. I don’t think she had ever thought of relationships in terms of promise-making and promise-keeping before. But the truth is, strong relationships are all about promises.
There’s a Hebrew word that crops up quite often in the Old Testament scriptures. That word is emunah. It’s a word that signifies something about God’s character. Some translations render it as “steadfastness” others as “honesty” and others as “faithfulness.” The word has to do with how God keeps promises. He does what he says he will do. On the other side of the coin, He doesn’t do what He says He won’t do. He’s reliable. You can take Him at His word. Yes is yes, no is no. We like that about people, and of course we like that about God. Up to a point.
Because there are pleasant promises and there are some promises that are just grim. Any parent knows the joy of keeping a pleasant promise – but what about the promises that mean discipline? The “push me too far and there will be consequences” promises. Sometimes we want to dither on those. God doesn’t. It’s not in His nature. He’s steadfast, honest, and faithful. We wouldn’t expect a broken promise from God. Even if the promise is a hard one.
That’s certainly the way to take Lamentations 3:22-24. It’s an old favourite of course; we weave it into our songs, we quote it to one another when things go right:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
But when Jeremiah composed that verse, his world lay in ruins. Jerusalem had been shattered by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. The prophet himself even described God as though he were a wild animal, chasing him down and chewing him up:
He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding;
he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces;
he has made me desolate
And yet Jeremiah found peace in knowing that all this chaos was based on a promise. God’s promise to judge wickedness. The nation had strayed far from God’s path – so far that they had brought about their own ruin. God was keeping a promise he had made through Moses eight centuries earlier. Stay faithful and I will bless you, but persist in resistance and rebellion and eventually I will need to punish you. In a nutshell that sums up God’s promise in Deuteronomy twenty-eight. And Jeremiah knew it, as he stumbled through the wreckage of the beautiful city. Even though righteous and good people were caught up in the chaos (Ezekiel, Daniel, Shadrack, Meshack and Abednego to name just a few) Jeremiah knew that God’s character demanded that His promise be kept.
God made other promises too. Jeremiah mentioned God’s love and mercy. In love and mercy God sent Jesus. In love and mercy Jesus willingly came to us. Why? To make good on an old, old promise. The promise of redemption; the promise of forgiveness; the promise of a cure for mankind’s sin. And for those who take the cure – no more condemnation. The promise of being in good-standing with God. The promise of eternal life. But for those who refuse? For those who persist in resistance and rebellion? Well, there’s still a promise waiting. You could ask Jeremiah whether it’s a pie-crust or not.