It’s often said that “promises are made to be broken.” It’s an excuse people use to defend the idea that promises don’t have to be kept. I typed that expression of six words into the Google search engine and got 66,900,000 results.
The phrase seems to come from one of Aesop’s Fables. The full text of that quote is “Enemies promises were made to be broken.” It comes from the fable, “The Nurse and the Wolf” (quoted below):
“Be quiet now,” said an old Nurse to a child sitting on her lap. “If you make that noise again I will throw you to the Wolf.” Now it chanced that a Wolf was passing close under the window as this was said. So he crouched down by the side of the house and waited. “I am in good luck to-day,” thought he. “It is sure to cry soon, and a daintier morsel I haven’t had for many a long day.” So he waited, and he waited, and he waited, till at last the child began to cry, and the Wolf came forward before the window, and looked up to the Nurse, wagging his tail. But all the Nurse did was to shut down the window and call for help, and the dogs of the house came rushing out. “Ah,” said the Wolf as he galloped away, “Enemies promises were made to be broken.”
We are so used to promises being broken in our culture that the “enemy” part has been lost. Since the core value of fallen humanity is self-benefit, anyone can be the enemy. If a promise becomes inconvenient people find a way to break their word.
The way out is often found in the fine print at the bottom of a contract or sales agreement. Sometimes there are implied conditions that can easily be used as a way out. Often people argue that a promise was unreasonable to begin with and therefore was not binding.
There are even contracts that promise how to break a promise. Prenuptial agreements provide for settlements if marriage vows are broken. Sometimes people sign promises not to bring legal action against someone, although they still do, and often find a legal problem with the contract promising not to bring legal action.
In short, we are used to promises being only expressions of intentions, and not really binding. So kids do that little “pinkie swear” thing. Some cross their hearts and hope to die. Oaths of various kinds are made over the most trivial of promises.
For God and his people promises ought to be something that can be relied upon. Chapter 22 of the Westminster Confession of Faith is a good summary of what the Bible teaches about “Lawful Oaths and Vows”.
In Numbers 30:2 the Bible reminds us about the moral nature of a promise. “If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. ”
Jesus warned about breaking promises in Matthew 5:33-37 and 23:16-22. He made it clear that all our promises should be carefully made and faithfully kept.
Obviously, since so much is said about it, promises must be often broken.
But, God’s promises are not like the promises of fallen humans. His word is based upon his own moral nature. Hebrews 6 explains the impossibility of God not doing all he said he would do.
Hebrews 6:17-18, “So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.”
God makes a promise and confirms it in the form of an oath which we would all understand. When God promises something in his word, the promise is certain and will not be broken. 2 Peter 3:9 is a verse that is often mis-used. It says, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
Sadly many interpret this verse to mean that God wants everybody to be saved. They read it as if God promised to bring everybody to repentance. But, since Jesus said that some will be turned away in to everlasting punishment that would mean that God failed for some reason, that he is not able to accomplish what he promises and desires. If God’s will and promise is that no human will perish, but all would come to repentance, then all would certainly be saved, and all would go to heaven.
But this verse is not about a promise made to everybody in the world. It’s about a promise God made to his children in distinction from those he condemns.
In the chapter right before this Peter reminds his readers how God preserved his own people from perishing while bringing judgments upon the rest. He told how Noah was preserved from the flood while the ungodly were destroyed. He mentioned how God rescued Lot when he poured out his judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah. Then Peter wrote in 2:9, “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment.” God delivered just those to whom he made a promise.
The point Peter is making in this part of his letter is that God will not forget us either. He promised in the covenant he made with those he redeems, that his children will be delivered from the mockers, and from God’s judgments. Rather than pouring out his wrath on us when we sin, he will bring us to repentance when we sin.
That’s the context. Exactly the opposite meaning of what some get out of that verse. God’s promise can not fail. We can count on it.
There are many promises from God in the Bible. Not one of them can ever be broken. He promises more than just to redeem his children chosen for all eternity. He promises them comfort in times of trouble, strength when they serve him, and tenacity to keep coming to him in repentance when they fall into sin.
Never let the failure of others to keep their promises make you doubt God’s faithfulness to his word. You should never wonder if God will help you through the hard times. Never pray as if God’s help is only a possibility. It is promised. It is inevitable.