Pastor's Blog

The Precious Promise of No

Picture of "NO"

Right now, my wife and I have a three-year-old in the home. I do not think of the word “no” as a precious word all that often, though I hear it quite often. It’s also not a word that I think of as a promise all that much within the context of my daily life, given that it’s infrequently used in that way.

At first glance, you might have thought we’d be speaking about the precious promise of yes. We will begin there, but the purpose of this article is to speak about a glorious, divine no. In reality, it’s not just one “no.” It’s not even a set of two “no’s” like your English translation will suggest. It’s a string of five of them. This set of “no’s” is designed by God to comfort and strengthen your soul in this life amid the waves of temptation that billow your way. 

To fully appreciate this promise, we need to begin first with a divine yes. The divine yes is communicated, albeit in different terms, in the garden of Eden. In Gen 1:26–27, there is an intra-Trinitarian conversation that takes place. The fruit of it concerns the creation and role of man in the garden. God then makes them male and female in His image. 

What was their purpose? It’s seen in verses 28–30, “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that creeps on the earth.’ Then God said, ‘Behold, I have given to you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has the fruit of the tree yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that creeps on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food’; and it was so.” God gives Adam and Eve a divine thumbs up (so to speak). They were to do three things: fill the earth, rule over it, and enjoy the fruit of the land. 

What was this created goal meant to stir up and evoke in Adam and Eve? Worship. As they live following the will of the Lord, out of their love for Him, they will glorify Him (cf. 1 Cor 10:31; Col 3:17; 1 Pet 4:11). God gives Adam and Eve, a yes in the garden, to delight in Him through His creation. 

At this point in history (and only this point), there is no notion of separation from God, desertion, forsakenness, isolation, or anything of the sort. There is simply an unbridled, full, flourishing, vibrant walk with God. The most precious gift in the garden wasn’t the lush fruit unaffected by sin, it wasn’t the perfect communication that Adam and Eve had with one another, it wasn’t the gleaming colorful landscape… no, the greatest gift was in knowing God without sin. On the heels of the garden, what Adam and Eve would have missed most would have been their unencumbered fellowship with God. 

After the fall, the most precious promise for God’s people is that of His relational presence–something that was guaranteed before the fall. The most satisfying promise east of Eden is that God will not abandon those who, in their sin, deserve abandonment. When Adam and Eve sinned, God did cloth them, but then He did not draw them near, He sent them away. In Gen 3:24, we read, “So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life.” From this point, sin had broken perfect fellowship with the Lord and the highest gift from God is seen in Him never leaving or forsaking us. This is the precious promise of no. No, God will not leave us.

God gives the precious promise of no, in various places, at various times, for various reasons in His word. The first iteration of this promise is seen given to Jacob in his dream where God stands above the ladder on which the angels are ascending and descending. In Gen 28:15 we see God promise to Jacob, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go. And I will bring you back to this land; for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have promised you.” God promises Jacob four marvelous things. First, God promises He is with him. Out of the overflow of that fountain come all the other promises. Second, God will sustain Jacob in his travels; third, He will bring Jacob back; fourth, God will not forsake or desert Jacob at any point along this journey toward having descendants (cf. Gen 28:14–15). 

To be clear, for something to be true, all God needs to do is say something once. Whenever God says something in a similar fashion to something He’s said before, say at the beginning and end of verse 15, that’s something that we as readers especially need to focus on. The heart of verse 15 is that God will remain with Jacob. He explains that reality twice. That’s what Adam and Eve, post-fall, longed for, and that’s the precious promise that God’s people throughout history have desired.  

In Deut 31:7–8, God expands upon this promise and gives it to Joshua and Israel. “Then Moses called to Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, ‘Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land which Yahweh has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall give it to them as an inheritance.’ And Yahweh is the one who goes ahead of you; He will be with you. He will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” God would later directly give this same promise to Joshua directly in Josh 1:5–6.

The people were on the cusp of entering God’s land, which in their day, was enemy territory. War was on the horizon. Being fallen individuals, I imagine some were scared even in light of God’s past promises (cf. Lev 26:6–8; Deut 28:1–14). At times we all are prone to fear the unknown. That’s what makes the Proverbs 31 woman so great. Prov 31:25 says, “Strength and majesty are her clothing, And she smiles at the future.” She smiles at the future, that’s how we should all be, in knowing that our good God is sovereign (cf. Ps 100:5; 1 Tim 6:15). That’s how we should always be, Israel included. 

God steps into Israel’s reality and promises that He goes before them and is with them. It’s a cherry-on-top promise built upon the covenant promise. Beyond that, again, as further emphasis, He declares He will not forsake them. He won’t leave or fail them. The context concerns them entering the promised land. There is a scope, and how sweet that promise would be on the horizon of the unknown. 

The final iteration of this promise in this format in the Old Testament is seen in 1 Chron 28:20. We never see David receive this promise, but we see David give it to his son, Solomon. “Then David said to his son Solomon, ‘Be strong and courageous, and act; do not fear nor be dismayed, for Yahweh God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you nor forsake you until all the work for the service of the house of Yahweh is completed.’” Could a new king receive any better encouragement? God will remain with Solomon as the temple is built, and he should be bolstered in that news. God will ensure its completion as He leads Solomon. With that, this phrase never again appears in the Old Testament.

Whether you are aware of it or not, there’s a question that rises to the top of this brief survey. What does each of the promises that I just listed have in common? God promises He will be with certain individuals throughout history as they accomplish particular tasks. With Jacob, God would be with him on his journey to find a wife, so that he would have children. With Joshua and Israel, God would be with them as they journeyed to the promised land. With Solomon, God would be with him as he built the temple. With each promise, there is a moment of completion in mind. Don’t miss that.

It is true, God was with His people in the Old Testament in a general sense (cf. 1 Sam 12:22; Is 41:10). It is also true that God is omnipresent, such that it can be said that He is near to all people (cf. Jer 23:24). Paul goes beyond the language of nearness in Acts 17:28 in saying, “for in Him we live and move and exist…,” it’s by God that we have our being––that’s true of everyone.

However, as we come to the New Covenant, with the dawning of the permanent indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit, God dwells and abides with His people in a more direct fashion (cf. Jer 31:33; Ezek 36:25–27; John 14:17; Rom 8:9). Jesus spoke about abiding with the disciples, who were believers in Him while the Old Covenant was still in effect, in a distinct manner that showcased a New Covenant blessing (cf. John 14:23; 15:5). God would dwell in His people and never leave them, not just one individual or two, not only for a specific appointment or task, but always. This is a different dispensation from when God removed His Spirit from individuals who turned against Him, would turn away from Israel, and take His manifest presence from the temple (cf. 1 Sam 16:14; Judges 6:13; 2 Kings 21:14; Is 62:4; Jer 23:33, 39; Ezek 8–11). 

Bearing that in mind, the follow-up question for you is this, is this promise of “no” ever given without a moment of completion in mind? Is there ever a forever promise of God’s presence with us, in the same configuration that we studied above? The answer is yes. Oh, that is such sweet news. The final place we see this promise given is in the New Testament. The Lord gives it to His church. We see it promised to a church in particular that because of severe persecution was being tempted to go back to the Old Covenant and their old way of life (cf. Heb 10:32–39). We find the promise in Heb 13:5. We read, “Make sure that your way of life is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, ‘I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you.’” The quotation is from Deut 31:7–8, which we studied earlier, yet this time, without a moment of completion in mind. Heb 13:5 is the only place in the Scripture where we see this promise given in the same arrangement without qualification. It’s a New Covenant, everlasting promise. 

What a balm for a weary soul. It is a grace and a gift to see this promise laden throughout the Old Testament for saints moving along on their pilgrimage, and what a tremendous gift it is that this same promise has been granted to the body of Christ!

We first read a warning statement placed in the text that’s there for our highest joy in the Lord. The way and conduct of a person’s life must not be greedy, it cannot be consumed with money. The same word there is used for the qualification of an elder in 1 Tim 3:3, “free from the love of money.” Money cannot and must not have a hold on God’s people. While money isn’t inherently evil, it should be viewed as a potential danger (cf. Mark 10:17–31; 1 Tim 6:9). 

Instead, positively, God’s people should be content with what they have. We can be a satisfied people, in plenty or lack. This is a reality that the world knows nothing of. It is always wanting but never having. It is always craving, coveting, longing for the things of this world, for things that can never satisfy. God says this to those individuals in Is 55:1–3, “Ho! Every one who thirsts, come to the waters; And you who have no money come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk Without money and without cost. Why do you spend money for what is not bread, And your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, And delight your soul in richness. Incline your ear and come to Me. Listen, that your soul may live; And I will cut an everlasting covenant with you, According to the faithful lovingkindnesses of David.” Superb refreshment and the bliss of contentment are found in the Lord alone. 

This is exactly where the text goes next. “... For He Himself has said, ‘I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you.’” That’s God’s choice word toward His children. Do a quick count here. How many “no’s,” or prohibitions do you see in that sentence? I see two of them in English. There are five of them in Greek! You may not read a lick of Greek, in which case the expression, “it’s Greek to me,” will certainly apply. Even still, I want you to see this so that you get a feel for the presence of these negations. We see, “... αὐτὸς γὰρ εἴρηκεν· οὐ μή σε ἀνῶ οὐδʼ οὐ μή σε ⸁ἐγκαταλίπω.” The “no’s” are in bold.

Now, in English, if I say, “I will not not eat.” What does that mean? It means I will eat. Why? The second “not” cancels out the first. It’s a grammatical rule called a double negation in English. I imagine, some of you are thinking at this point, if you weren’t before… do those negations cancel out so that this text actually means, “for He Himself has said, I will desert you, I will not ever forsake you?” The answer is an absolute, no––though the latter half still rings true.

Greek and English function differently here. In English, the negatives cancel out, but in Greek, each negative particle doesn’t cancel the other or lessen the force, it’s the opposite. Each particle strengthens the next. That gladdens the heart in considering this passage. You could translate this promise in this way, “for He Himself has said, “I will not… I will never desert you, and I will not… I will never… I will in no circumstance forsake you!” While that translation is a bit verbose, it communicates the heart of this text. It is stronger here than in our English translations. 

Keep in mind that the book of Hebrews is written to a tempted and suffering people, and this promise pursues these people with hope and beacons them to remain faithful to God. How could you consider leaving a God who is utterly faithful, a God who never ever ever leaves or forsakes His people? 

This is the desire of Eden from the moment of the fall, fleshed out in a blanket statement for God’s people. God will not abandon you. Let that truth hit you afresh. God doesn’t tell us this to encourage waywardness, rather, it’s an encouragement to come to Him (cf. Rom 6:1; Matt 11:28–30). While friends, family, and even brothers and sisters in the Lord at times will desert you, or leave you in death, the Lord will not. He won’t ever do it. This is God’s guarantee to you. Even in seasons where God may seem to be more distant, in coming to this promise you are reminded that God has not left you or turned away from you. Our hope must be anchored in the forever settled word, and not in our feelings.

Stacking one similar concept upon another, He will not forsake or desert you. In 2 Tim 4:9–10, we see Paul deserted. Paul tells Timothy toward the end of his life, “Be diligent to come to me soon, for Demas, having loved this present age, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia.” This warning is more haunting in light of the context of Heb 13:5 concerning riches. Paul was deserted by Demas for riches. Paul was left alone. He was forsaken by Demas but not by God. And yes, in case you were wondering, this is the same word that Jesus cried out in issuing forth Ps 22:1 on the cross. Matt 27:46 says, “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’” As Jesus began to bear the weight of the Father’s wrath for our sins at around noon on the cross, we see God forsaken of God. 

What Christ experienced in dying for your sins on the cross, in the One who knew no sin experiencing forsakenness as a man, He suffered that for you so that you would never be forsaken of God. It’s by Jesus’ suffering, that the Lord will never leave you. Through the salvation you have in Jesus in belief in His perfect life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection… you have Christ’s robes of righteousness, everlasting life, and an unbroken, unfailing relationship with God. He will never desert you. Oh, the wonder of the cross, oh the splendor of our God. 

It’s not often that a hymn gets the thrust of a text a bit more comprehensively than a Bible translation, but that’s the case with “How Firm a Foundation,” which appears to be based on the preaching of John Rippon. The last stanza is an exposition of Heb 13:5… and a translation to a degree. It reads, “The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose, I will not, I will not desert to its foes; that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I'll never, no, never, no, never forsake.” I hope that hymn has additional definition and color now when you sing it. 

Amid temptation and affliction, draw this deep well of a promise to mind for spiritual refreshment. It is the promise that God will not leave you. He is with you, and nothing will separate you from Him (Matt 28:20; Rom 8:31–39). Run to Him, worship Him, glory in Him… our Great God who says “no.” He will not leave us, He’s always with us. That’s the precious promise of no.

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