When “Never” means Never-ever” Brad Jersak
On at least four occasions, the Scriptures record God’s promise, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
The first occurrences are specific to God’s promise to Israel that they would find their place in “the Promised Land”:
- Twice in Deuteronomy 31:6-8
- “Be valiant and strong, do not fear nor be afraid of them [the Canaanites], nor be terrified before them; for the Lord your God, He is the One who goes before you and with you and among you. He will not leave you nor forsake you.”
Then Moses called Joshua and said to him before all Israel, “Be valiant and strong, for you must go before this people to the land the Lord swore to their fathers to give them; and you shall cause them to inherit it.
But the Lord, he is the One who goes before you. He will be with you, He will not leave you nor forsake you; do not be afraid nor be terrified.”
We find the other Old Testament example in the same historical context, this time in Joshua 1:5, which says, “No one will be able to stand against you all the days for your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
The promise in these cases relates to Joshua’s leadership after Moses’ death, and to Israel’s conquest of Canaan. Joshua and the Jewish people would soon have to wonder about the veracity, or limitations, or conditions of this promise, given their spotty successes, regular failures, and incomplete conquest through the books of Joshua and Judges. For example, after the sin of Aachan, didn’t the Lord in fact forsake Israel at the battle of Ai? They were unexpectedly routed in only their second clash and suffered many casualties. And as history unfolded, the promise of quick and complete victory never panned out in Joshua’s lifetime or that of the judges who followed him. What gives?
Fast-forward to the New Testament, where the author of Hebrews will again cite this promise (and specify that he’s quoting Scripture). It’s best to read it in the author’s repurposed context:
- 5 Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,
“Never will I leave you;
never will I forsake you.”
6 So we say with confidence,
“The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid;
What can mere mortals do to me?” [Psalm 118:6-7]
- 7 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Hebrews has pulled up the ancient promise to Israel, never quite fulfilled as expected, and replanted it in the rich soil of the new covenant and the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. Whether we’re concerned about provision, or our need for help, or those who oppose us, or the outcome of our leaders’ lives (he alludes to these four different examples), on thing is sure: Jesus Christ is faithful to his promises and that will NEVER change (vs. 8).
In the face of pressure and persecution, the Hebrew Christians were once again wondering what “overcoming the world” could mean. Were they reliving the failures of Joshua and his armies? Was Christ’s promise, “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20) likewise limited, conditional, and incomplete?
The author wants us to know that despite appearances, NO, this promise, now fulfilled in Christ, is ground we can stand on with confidence. Here’s how he does it: instead of simply citing the OT text as it stood in the Hebrew language or their Greek translation (the Septuagint), this fresh announcement includes a unique feature… found only in this verse. When he says “never,” he loads the two phrases with a five-fold negative (as you can see for yourself in the image above).
Note that in English, a double-negative cancels itself out, like when we say “not unlike,” which is a pretentious way of saying “like.” But not so in Greek, where a double-negative doubles down from emphasis, more like when we say, “No, never!” Yet in this verse, it’s not just a double-negative. It’s a quintuple negative! You could translate it literally this way: “I will never, no never, not ever, NEVER leave you or forsake you!”
Why? Because he wants us to know that the second Joshua is NOT like the first Joshua… so the promise is not like the promise to Joshua. Because the second Joshua (Yeshua, Jesus) is ALWAYS faithful to his Father, the promises of the Father is guaranteed, unlimited, unconditional, and complete in Jesus. And that’s important. He makes the promise to us, based on the faithfulness of Jesus, not ours. Yes, we’ll experience screw-ups, setbacks, and opposition. Nevertheless, God-in-Christ is never changing or leaving us. Never, no never, not ever. NEVER.