Undertaking or assurance given to indulge in or refrain from some specific form of activity. Such commitments are made commonly between individuals, and can embrace a wide range of human activity. Simple promises can be both written and oral. They can be temporary in nature or made binding for the indefinite future.
In secular situations the declaration may be sealed by some gesture, such as a simple handshake or a solemn oath; more complicated undertakings may need ratification by witnesses, whether legal officers or not. Specific forms of promise such as the mutual plighting of troth in marriage ceremonies often form part of a religious ritual.
Promises may also be made between groups of people, and because of their greater complexity they frequently necessitate the presence of witnesses. Where important bodies such as governments are involved, such promises generally assume the form of treaties, the provisions of which are accepted as binding on all those participating. Among honest individuals a promise carries with it the expectation that the promisor is both willing and able to fulfill the commitment to the promisee, with the undertaking being accepted by the latter on the basis of good faith.
Should circumstances arise in human society where it becomes evident that the promisor is no longer able to bring the promise to fruition, or that the promise was not made in good faith at the beginning, the promisee has the option of writing off the entire situation and becoming reconciled to whatever loss has been sustained. If this course is not deemed satisfactory, it may be possible for him or her to renegotiate the matter so that at least some portion of the undertaking may be salvaged. A more drastic way of seeking redress would be to apply to the courts for damages because of breach of promise. In interpersonal undertakings, however, such a procedure might be undesirable on a number of grounds, one of which would be the expense involved were the negotiations to be unduly protracted.
Where groups of people are involved, litigation is often resorted to in order to resolve the damage occasioned by the failure of the promisor to fulfill the stated obligations. Where fiscal default is involved, it may be impossible for the promises to be fulfilled, no matter how protracted the litigation may become. In the case of broken international treaties, appeal may be made to an international judicial body for recompense. Under some circumstances, military action might even be undertaken by the aggrieved party, regardless of future consequences. Such intervention could well be pursued in any event if there was evidence of deliberate fraud or bad faith when the commitment was made.
From the foregoing it will appear that promises are to be treated as serious undertakings made between people of good will and solemn intent, in the expectation that the promise will come to fruition as intended by the participants. When the third millennium b.c. Sumerian kings promised the inhabitants of their Mesopotamian city-states that current fiscal and social abuses would be rectified, they furnished evidence of good intent by enacting legislation to resolve the various problems that had arisen. But if the reforming intent was ultimately sabotaged accidentally or deliberately by inefficient or dishonest priestly or civil bureaucrats, the promises remained unfulfilled, even if they had been made under oath to a god. Consequently the credibility of the promisor was impaired, sometimes irreparably, even when he himself was blameless. A situation of this sort would be equally damaging to those persons whose expectations remained unfulfilled.
Agreements between individuals have been recorded in second millennium b.c. Mesopotamia, a classic example being the one between Laban and Jacob ( Gen 31:43-55 ), when the latter was seeking his independence. What amounted to a covenant was established between them, in which the participants promised not to act aggressively toward one another. Each man swore an oath by his god, and erected a stone marker to solemnize the occasion.
Promises of a prophetic order were also prominent in ancient Mesopotamia, especially where last wills and testaments were concerned. Thus Jacob on his deathbed promised his twelve sons that the future would hold certain prospects for them, and according to contemporary custom this statutory declaration to each one of them gave the pronouncements legal force ( Gen 49:1-33 ). Subsequent events were to demonstrate how accurately these promises were fulfilled.
Archeological discoveries have revealed the existence of international treaties made between Hittite kings and vassal states. In these documents the great king declares his power and beneficence to former subject states, and promises to protect the current participants in a covenant relationship provided that they keep the terms that are agreed upon under oath. In these contracts mechanisms existed for the punishment of disobedient vassals, who by breaking their promises had in effect nullified the oath of the great Hittite king. But if the covenant conditions were observed by the subject state, the king would fulfill his promises and heap blessings upon the people.
A promise that was to bring great blessing to humanity was made by God to Abraham ( Gen 12:2-3 ), in which the latter, although childless, was to become the progenitor of a great nation. Later this promise was repeated ( Gen 15:5 ), and to his credit Abraham believed God's utterances. The promise was given added credibility by means of a sacrificial ritual ( Gen 15:9-17 ), following which God listed the territories that Abraham's offspring would inhabit. On yet another occasion ( Gen 17:1-27 ) God brought his promise even closer to fulfillment by stating that Sarah would have a son ( Gen 18:10 ), because nothing was too hard for God to accomplish. Thereafter Abraham rested his confidence in this divine power, and lived to see the Lord's assurances implemented in what Paul, millennia later, was to call the "covenants of the promise" ( Eph 2:12 ; cf. Gal 3:6-17 ).
God's promises to Abraham's descendants took definite shape in the Sinai covenant (Exod. 19-20, 24), which resembled a Hittite vassal treaty in form. God, the Great King, promised land and rich blessings to the Israelites if they for their part, would worship him alone as their one true God and live in pagan society as a holy nation, thereby witnessing to God's reality and power. This proposition was ratified in a formal ceremony at Sinai ( Exod 24:3-8 ), and thereafter the sons of Jacob became the chosen people of God.
Coexisting with the promise to Abraham was a more general declaration made by God at the time of the fall ( Gen 3:15 ), and continued in a promise to David ( 2 Sam 7:12-13 ) that his seed would continue forever. This messianic utterance still prevailed when, over the centuries, the Israelites became disobedient to God's covenant and ultimately were punished by exile. So desperate was the nation's spiritual condition that Jeremiah promised that God would implement a new, spiritual covenant based upon individual response to him in faith ( Jer 31:31-37 ). In the postexilic period the expectation of a Messiah was quickened by prophecy ( Mal 4:5-6 ), and when Jesus began his ministry he was expected by some to behave like a conquering king, liberating his people from Roman oppression and fulfilling ancient expectations.
Christ's kingship, however, was not of this world, as he pointed out to his accusers ( John 18:36 ). At his coming he fulfilled the divine promises made to Abraham and David ( Luke 1:68 ; Acts 13:23 ). Events occurred just as God had promised, because it was impossible for him to lie ( Titus 1:2 ). Although there was an interval of time between the promise and its fulfillment, the delay did not thereby invalidate the promise, any more than it would for a human promise that was fulfilled eventually.
When the new covenant was initiated in the coming of Jesus Christ, it not merely represented the completion of one phase of promise, but in fact commenced a new dispensation, that of grace, which contained its own promises to be fulfilled by God in future times. The rites and ceremonies inherent in the Mosaic covenant had become obsolete with the appearance of our great High Priest, who is the mediator of a new testament ( Heb 9:11-15 ). Instead, while sharing in all the benefits of Abraham's covenant ( Eph 3:6 ), the Christian looks forward to a time when the kingdom of God, which was ushered in with the age of grace, will be realized when Christ returns to complete the kingdom of believers and establish it for all eternity before God in heaven.
One important difference between Israel of old and the body of Christ is that the Christian is inspired by the working of the Holy Spirit as a normative part of experience. Before his death, Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would be given to believers and would guide them along true ways and instruct them in the deep realities of God. The dramatic bestowal of the Spirit upon the Christians at Pentecost ( Acts 2:1-4 ) fulfilled the Lord's promise, and so possessed the early Christians that they accomplished many deeds of grace by his power.
Paul gave great prominence to the work of the Holy Spirit, teaching that believers were sealed with the promised third person of the Trinity ( Eph 1:13 ), thus culminating an ancient Hebrew promise ( Isa 32:15 ; Ezek 36:27 ). For the Holy Spirit to be present in a believer guarantees that person's inheritance ( 2 Cor 1:22 ), and points to future glorification when the hope of our salvation becomes a reality ( Rom 8:23 ). Peter stressed the final promise to Christians, that Jesus will return one day in glory to establish new heavens and a new earth ( 2 Peter 3:4-13 ). The promises of God find an emphatic "yes" in Christ ( 2 Cor 1:19 ), thus guaranteeing the certainty of the Christian's hope.
R. K. Harrison
Bibliography. D. Baker, Two Testaments: One Bible; W. D. Davis, The Gospel and the Land; W. Kaiser, Towards an Old Testament Theology; W. Vischer, The Witness of the Old Testament to Christ.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Promise'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".