PROMISE (דָּבָר, H1821, speech, speaking; ἐπαγγελία, G2039, announcement, promise).
Nature of promise
God’s temporal promises
God made many promises of an earthly nature, usually related to preservation, protection, posterity, possessions, and prosperity. At the close of Joshua’s life he gave this testimony, “That not one thing has failed of all the good things which the Lord your God promised concerning you” (Josh 23:14b).
God established His covenant with Noah and his descendants and with every living creature, that He would not again curse the earth nor destroy it by flood; that seasonal cycles would be permanent; and that the rainbow should be His sign (Gen 8:21-9:17).
The land of promise
In another significant promise to Abraham, God said, “I will give to you, and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession” (Gen 17:8). The promise was renewed to Moses that, after delivering the Israelites from Egyp. bondage, he would bring them “to the land of the Canaanites...a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exod 3:17; cf. Deut 34:4). Until the time of Moses’ death it was still “the land of promise” (Heb 11:9), by which it later became popularly known as the “Promised Land.” To Joshua, poised for conquest on the bank of the Jordan, God reiterated His promise (Josh 1:3), after which Israel under Joshua began to take possession. During David’s reign, all the promised land was conquered and settled (2 Sam 24:2). It was a fulfillment of the old promise, and a divine heritage of which David gratefully sang. He thanked God for being mindful of “the covenant which he made with Abraham, his sworn promise to Isaac, which he confirmed as a statute to Jacob, as an everlasting covenant to Israel, saying, ‘To you I will give the land of Canaan, as your portion for an inheritance’” (1 Chron 16:16-18). Ever since, throughout the long turbulent history of the Jewish people, no matter where the Jew lived, “the promised land” was their homeland; and in recent history, the nostalgic pull has resulted in a new Israelite nation in Pal.
One distinct promise mediated by Moses concerned longevity. In the fifth commandment God said, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Exod 20:12). Paul said, “This is the first commandment with a promise” (Eph 6:2).
Promises of another nature were made to David that God through him would deliver His people “from the hand of all their enemies”; that he too would have rest from conflict; and that his son would build the Temple (2 Sam 3:18; 7:13; 1 Kings 8:20, 56). Because of Solomon’s unselfish prayer, God promised him superior wisdom plus “both riches and honor” (1 Kings 3:12, 13).
God said to Jeremiah during the Exile, “I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place” (Jer 29:10). He did bring them back, and during the reconstruction of Jerusalem, Haggai said, “I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt” (Hag 2:4f.).
God’s spiritual promises
The undertone of spiritual promise is evident in all Biblical promises. The frequent use of “promise” in the sing. form suggests that all promises are aimed at one target. It appears thirteen times in Psalm 119 alone, not to mention numerous other times in the OT. Similarly, NT writers spoke of “the promise,” while giving light on its ultimate meaning. The writer of Hebrews mentioned “the promise of entering his rest” (Heb 4:1). Within a few vv. Paul mentioned “the promise” three times with implications of its spiritual fulfillment (Rom 4:13-16).
Fulfillment in Christ
Beginning with the protevangelium (Gen 3:15), the people of God were sustained by the promise of restoration and preservation until its fulfilment in “the promise of the life which is in christ Jesus” (2 Tim 1:1). Of Christ, Paul said, “All the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Cor 1:20). Its culmination in Christ accounts for the important place that “the promise” holds in the Judeo-Christian religion. Peter wrote,
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet 1:3f.).
All divine promises converge in “the promise of God” to provide salvation. With this in mind, Paul said that he was “on trial for hope in the promise made by God to our fathers” (Acts 26:6).
Christ’s return was unconditionally promised by Himself and by angels (Matt 25:31; Acts 1:11). In the last days scoffers will ask, “Where is the promise of his coming?” (2 Pet 3:4). To this the Christian can answer, “The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness...but according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:9, 13). James wrote that those who endure trials “will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).
Heirs of promise
Writers of the NT identify the heirs of promise and their rich bequests.
Physical heirs in the broader sense are all people, beneficiaries of the promise to Noah. In a restricted sense, Abraham and his descendants were heirs of special promise. “Abraham, having patiently endured, obtained the promise” (Heb 6:15). God employed His oath “to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose” (6:17). God not only promised Abraham that He would “be the father of a multitude of nations” (Gen 17:4), but also promised him a son in his old age (18:10; 21:1; Gal 4:23b) through whose lineage the earth should be blessed (Gen 12:3). And, though his descendants were as numerous “as the sand of the sea” (Rom 9:27), only through the chosen line came the redemptive heirs of promise, among whom were Moses, David, Elijah, and Jesus.
Spiritual heirs of promise were not limited to the chosen race, nor God’s bequest of temporal things. The patriarchs knew this, beginning with Abraham.
By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city which has foundations whose builder and maker is God (Heb 11:9).
Like the patriarchs and their heroic descendants who “received promises” (11:33), Christians should sustain hope and endurance that they may “receive what is promised” (10:23, 36). Those who possessed Canaan under Joshua were not then heirs of God’s total bequest, for there is yet “the promised eternal inheritance” (9:15). Only in it is the Sabbath rest of God, mentioned at the creation (Gen 2:2), which awaits His people after the toils of this life (Heb 4:1-11). Paul explained that though Abraham’s heirs were to be named through Isaac, “It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are reckoned as descendants” (Rom 9:8). Moreover, true heirs are not those who keep the Mosaic laws but Abraham’s faith.
The promise to Abraham and his descendants that they should inherit the world, did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void....it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all...who share the faith of Abraham (Rom 4:13-16; cf. 9:8).
Consistent with this interpretation, Paul included Gentile Christians among the heirs of promise. They were once “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” but now “the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 2:12; 3:6).
Jesus as heir
In a very distinct way, Jesus is the heir of promise. “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many; but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ which is Christ!” Furthermore, he asserted that the law, coming later, does not annul this covenant, “so as to make the promise void” (Gal 3:16-18). Logically then, “the scripture consigned all things to sin, that what was promised to faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal 3:22). James added that God has chosen the earthly poor to be “heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him” (James 2:5).
Finally, Jesus committed the promise to the Holy Spirit as mediator of God’s grace to Christians. Long ago, God had promised an outpouring of His spirit on His people (Isa 44:3). Under the shadow of the cross Jesus promised His disciples that He would send them another Counselor, the Holy Spirit (John 14:16, 26). The risen Lord, just before His Ascension, reassuringly said to His disciples, “Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you” (Luke 24:49); and He charged them “to wait for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4). Soon afterward, on the day of Pentecost, Peter explained the advent of the new spiritual power, saying that Jesus had returned to God, “having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you see and hear” (Acts 2:33). In the Holy Spirit, God fulfills His promise that He will dwell with His people, true heirs of promise (Ezek 37:28).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
Promise holds an important place in the Scriptures and in the development of the religion that culminated in Christ. The Bible is indeed full of "precious and exceeding great promises" (2Pe 1:4), although the word "promise" is not always used in connection with them. Of the more outstanding promises of the Old Testament may be mentioned:
(1) the proto-evangelium (Ge 3:15);
(2) the promise to Noah no more to curse the ground, etc. (Ge 8:21,22; 9:1-17);
(3) most influential, the promise to Abraham to make of him a great nation in whom all families of the earth should be blessed, to give to him and his seed the land of Canaan (Ge 12:2,7, etc.), often referred to in the Old Testament (Ex 12:25; De 1:8,11; 6:3; 9:28, etc.);
(4) the promise to David to continue his house on the throne (2Sa 7:12,13,18; 1Ki 2:24, etc.);
Oxford Annotated Bible (1962), notes by B. W. Anderson (11, 15, 17), R. C. Dentan (263), J. Knox (1363, 1369), B. M. Metzger (1410-1417, 1456-1463); H. M. Buck, People of the Lord (1966), 429-434.