We are used to people breaking promises. We assume politicians — Presidents, Senators, Representatives, State legislators, city councilmen and more — will break their promises. We know that some marriage vows being given in earnest this year will be broken in years to come. Promises to children for vacations and days away (“Six Flags!” and “baseball games!” and “camping trip!”) are not just broken during COVID lockdowns, but too regularly during normal days. Promises for promotions, pay-raises, job completion dates, and “no worries” for layoffs are regularly exchanged and then broken between employers and employees. Doctor’s promises that “it will get better,” are unfulfilled.
We live in a world where promises are broken. Frequently. Repeatedly.
However, for all the broken promises we experience, we really aren’t used to people breaking promises. Broken promises almost always complicate life, and broken promises are also often personal. They are not just broken, but they are broken at our expense. Broken promises cost us — sometimes financially or with time, and frequently at a heart level. Broken promises hurt. They incline us to distrust others.
So as we think about the nature of God, the question about whether God has broken, will break, or even can break His promises is not small. If we are inclined to distrust people when they break their promises to us, then it is a certainty that we will not trust God if He will break His promises.
So does God break promises? Or more specifically, has He already broken one or more promises? Has He broken His promises to Israel? Has He rejected Israel from being His chosen people and has He moved on to another people and Plan B?
The apostle Paul answers that with an emphatic and unwavering, “NO” in Romans 11. The entire chapter reiterates God’s faithful commitment to fulfill His word to Israel:
- There is a remnant (v. 5)
- They did not stumble in a way that made them fall out of God’s blessing (v. 11a)
- There will still be fulfillment of God’s promises for them (v. 12)
- The hardening of the Israelites was for the purpose of grafting in Gentiles (v. 25; cf. v. 11b)
- The Deliverer will come and take away their sins and show them mercy (vv. 26-27, 30)
In something of a summary exclamation point, Paul reminds the Romans (and us) that Israel will be saved by God (v. 26). And as affirmation to that statement, he quotes from Isaiah 59:
“This is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins” (Rom. 11:27; Is. 59:21)
What is notable about that verse is that Paul and Isaiah both reiterate the giving of the covenant to Israel as an affirmation of God’s inability to break His promise to Israel. Paul is looking back to the covenant given to Abraham (and then also perhaps to the amplification of part of that covenant given to Jeremiah, what we know as the “New Covenant,” Jer. 31:33-34).
The citation from Isaiah is very clear that this covenant is God’s covenant — in 59:21, God is speaking and says, “This is My covenant…” In other words, the covenant between God and Israel is dependent on God. He is the author and He is the One who keeps it. It is authored by no one else and dependent on no one else to be kept and fulfilled.
What else should we know about this covenant? How else does it “belong to God?”
- He unconditionally made it with Abraham and Israel (Gen. 12:1ff). To say that it is unconditional means that Israel does not need to meet any conditions in order for the promises to be initiated. God is not waiting on Israel’s compliance to some standard before He will give it. There were “no strings attached” to the promise. God gave it to Israel with no consideration of a time when it might be revoked.
- He unilaterally made it (Gen. 15:12, 17-18). When God ratified the covenant with Abraham, he sacrificed animals cutting them in two and laying the haves opposite each other so there was a pathway between those sacrificed animals. Then God put Abraham to sleep and God alone passed between the animals as a sign that He alone was responsible to keep and preserve the covenant. God alone is the guarantor of the covenant. It is particularly for this reason that God can say in Isaiah 59 that it is “My covenant.”
- He irrevocably made it (Gen. 17:7-8). That is, it the terms of the covenant cannot be changed and the covenant itself is permanent. And in saying “permanent,” what we mean is “eternal” and “forever” — there is never a time when this covenant will cease to be. In fact, when time and this world ends, and the eternal state begins, this covenant will still be enforced.
What does all this mean? It means that salvation for Israel as a nation is an unalterable promise given by God and attested to by His name and character. He has made the promise to Israel and He will keep the promise to Israel.
That also means that for all the promises we hear and all the broken promises that erode our trust in others, when we read of the covenantal promises of God, we can know with complete certainty that they will come to fruition. The promises can be trusted because the One who gave them is eternally trustworthy.
By implication that also means that while we Gentiles may not have had that promise made to us by God, we still have received promises from God for a great many other things — and we know that every word of promise spoken by God is trustworthy. He is faithful to do what He said. He can do nothing else.