God Promises Prosperity. But to Whom?

God promised to prosper Israel if they perfectly kept His Law. They never did. But would it have made any difference if they had?

Every Sunday morning, there is at least one pastor behind a pulpit somewhere in the world telling his hearers that God wants to make them rich.

We have seen the many lives ruined by this promise. The false hope of the health-and-wealth gospel has also made it difficult to think about “a God of prosperity” without feeling guilty. The message doesn’t always seem to fit the reality. It is almost a rule of life that those who are most devoted to God tend to be the poorest on earth.

But the Bible has numerous passages where God promises to prosper His followers. We can’t deny this, not even in our distaste for preachers who have amassed wealth at the expense of the poverty of their congregants. But it is getting more difficult to even imagine that a Christian should “aspire to be wealthy.”

Our fears are warranted. But what if they are slightly misguided? One of the oft quoted-out-of-context passages by the false prosperity gospel preachers is Jeremiah 29:11. Many of us know it by heart:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

We have often corrected the misuse of this scripture by pointing out that this passage was meant for a specific audience — the Israelites. We have criticised the “decontextualisation" of Old Testament (OT) promises and we have felt accomplished for having “debunked” this false prosperity teaching.

The Israelites, of course, never quite lived up to God’s standards, and any success or prosperity they got was a product of God’s grace. They never merited it. They couldn’t. Perhaps that was the point all along.

But something else occurred to me as I re-read the story of Israel’s journey from Egypt to the promised land. It’s a rather obvious observation that many of us tend to miss or dismiss it.

You see, the people who received God’s promises; Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and even Moses… never actually lived to see them fulfilled. In fact, the Israelites who left Egypt aged 20 and above never entered the promised land (Num 14:29–30), and those who stepped across the Jordan never got to see the land prosper.

It was their children’s children who experienced some semblance of the promised “land of milk and honey”. What am I getting at? Well, two things for starters:

  1. God’s promises to Israel were never fully (if at all) realised in the lives of individual Israelites. Even those who faithfully obeyed and “worked” for the promises died before they saw their fulfilment. This means, at least, that God’s promises were made to Israel as a “people” not constrained to time and space. They were promises to Israel as part of the larger story of planet earth, a story that is as wide as the universe and as long as the beginning of time to the end of time.
  2. Even if all the individual Israelites kept all of God’s commandments and observe all the rituals, they were still subject to death. Those who received the promise would never live long enough to see the fulfillment. Again, this means that the promises only make sense when Israel is viewed as a “people” not constrained by time and space.

So what are the implications of this observation for us, 21st century Christians? First, it means that unless we learn to see ourselves as part of a story that is larger than ourselves and a story that transcends here and now, we are bound to misunderstand and misapply scripture.

You cannot preach prosperity unless you preach the whole story of God, from the beginning of time to the end. There is no reason in the Bible to believe that God has promised prosperity to anyone in their microcosm. But there is every reason to believe that God has promised to prosper His church — not the 21st century church, but the church not constrained by time and space.

Secondly, this is not a subtle way of saying the only prosperity we can experience is far off in the future when Jesus returns and we are “caught up” into heaven. Neither is this a way of saying that the only valid idea of prosperity is a “spiritual” one and we should therefore not think about material health and wealth.

But this calls us to think again about the fact that the story of earth is not about us. Yes, the story does include us, and we are often invited to play our part as examples and metaphors, but the big story is about God. Not us.

So the question that all of us, health-and-wealth preachers included, should always ask when we read about God’s promises of prosperity is: What does this say about God and what does this say about the story of creation?

Another similar question is, what part can I play in the here and now to contribute to the development and fulfillment of God’s story? The truth is, very rarely does God make promises of prosperity in the Bible that are constrained to an individual’s lifetime or even a given generation. It wasn’t the case for Israel and we have no good reason to think it should be the case now.

“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” Hebrews 11:13–16