The Faithfulness of God

Bud Talbert

God’s faithfulness is His reliability, His determination to fulfill all that He promises. His faithfulness is grounded in His absolute truth. God is perfectly sincere in all His undertakings and dependable in discharging all His engagements (A. A. Hodge Outlines of Theology, p. 161). God’s faithfulness is made possible by His omnipotence. “Thus, he could never commit himself to do something of which he would eventually prove incapable.” (Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 291). J. Barton Payne (The Theology of the Older Testament, pp. 151–166) resolves God’s attributes into three aspects of His sovereignty: His cosmic sovereignty (His freedom to do whatever He wished in His universe), His ethical sovereignty (His determination as to what was right and wrong in His universe), and His beneficent sovereignty (His demonstration of kindness to mankind in His universe). Payne further describes God’s beneficent sovereignty using the four Hebrew words: s’dhaqa (righteousness), hesedh (loyalty), ahava (love), and emuna (faithfulness). God’s faithfulness is His steadiness, His firmness (Payne, p.162f): “Faithfulness is the idea of the very name Yahweh, the One who can be counted upon to be present.”

Scripture contains numerous declarations of God’s faithfulness. God promised to give the descendants of Abraham the land of Canaan, and His faithfulness is demonstrated in His fulfilment of that promise. “And the LORD gave unto Israel all the land which he sware to give unto their fathers . . . there failed not ought of any good thing which the LORD had spoken unto the house of Israel; all came to pass” (Joshua 21:43–45).

The psalmist expresses his confidence in Psalm 119:75—“I know, O LORD, that thy judgments (especially those concerning me) are right, and that thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me.” The afflictions themselves are a mark of God’s faithfulness to His own. God would not be faithful if He did not do everything that was for our good, and sometimes that involves affliction. Arthur Pink takes up this theme in The Attributes of God (p. 60): “There are seasons in the lives of all when it is not easy, no not even for Christians, to believe that God is faithful. Our faith is sorely tried, our eyes bedimmed with tears, and we can no longer trace the outworkings of His love. . . . Cherished plans have been thwarted, friends on whom we relied have failed us, a professed brother or sister in Christ has betrayed us. We are staggered. . . . We find it difficult, yea, impossible, for carnal reason to harmonize His frowning providence with His gracious promises.” At such times we need faith to believe that, in spite of appearances, God is faithful. This means that He is completely sovereign, that He is infinitely wise, and that He is perfect in love (Jerry Bridges, Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts, p.18).

Psalm 146 tells us that the God of Jacob “made heaven, and earth, the sea, and all that therein is” and that He is the God who “keepeth truth for ever.” God’s faithfulness is His determination to keep truth, and He does this forever.

Thomas O. Chisholm (1866-1960), a Methodist preacher and author of some 800 published hymns, is perhaps best known for his hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” The text for this hymn is based in part on Jeremiah’s classic passage: “It is of the LORD’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22, 23). Though he never revealed the particular circumstances leading to his authorship of this hymn, Chisholm did write to a friend: “My income has not been large at any time due to impaired health in earlier years which has followed me on until now” (and, ironically enough, followed him until he was 94 years of age). “I must not fail to record here the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God and that He has given me many wonderful displays of His providing care, for which I am filled with astonishing gratefulness” (Guye Johnson, Treasury of Great Hymns, p. 191).

Deuteronomy 7:9 tells the reader that Jehovah is “the faithful God.” How can they know that He is the faithful God? Look at all He has done (verses 1–8). What kind of God does this past activity reveal Him to be? The faithful God, the God you can believe in and rely on, the God you can trust. And what is the essence of His faithfulness? It is that He “keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations; and repayeth them that hate him to their face, to destroy them. . . .” (verses 9, 10). The Hebrew term translated faithful (emuna) refers to God’s quality as the certain supporter of His people. They did not have to fear being abandoned by God. His loving care was assured. Jack Scott (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, volume I, p. 51) says that this term “expresses the basic concept of support and is used in the sense of the strong arms of the parent supporting the helpless infant.” He even cites 2 Kings 18:16 where the idea of support is conveyed in the translation pillars. One of the most reassuring expressions of this loving support is Isaiah 49:15, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee.”

Psalm 89 presents the theme of God’s faithfulness to the covenant with David. The various forms of the term mentioned above (translated faithfulness, faithful, fast, truth, amen) occur here eleven times, a significant concentration. Charles Spurgeon (Treasury of David) says of the psalm: “It is the utterance of a believer . . . pleading with his God, urging the grand argument of covenant engagements, and expecting deliverance and help, because of the faithfulness of Jehovah.” The psalm begins: “I will sing of the mercies of the LORD for ever: with my mouth will I make known thy faithfulness to all generations.”

One of the grandest expressions of God’s faithfulness is the reference to Him as a Rock (sur), as in Deuteronomy 32:4, “He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he.” You will notice that the first two words of this verse are in italics in the biblical text, indicating that they are not in the original: “The Rock! His work is perfect!” This becomes a major theme in this chapter, and is mentioned six times (verses 4, 15, 18, & 30, 31). Matthew Henry says of verse 4: “God is the rock, for he is in himself immutable, immoveable, and he is to all that seek him and fly to him an impenetrable shelter, and to all that trust in him an everlasting foundation.” Alexander Maclaren, speaking from verse 31 (Expositions of Holy Scripture), says “If He is ‘our Rock,’ then we shall have a firm foundation, a safe refuge, inexhaustible refreshment, and untroubled rest.”

One cannot help thinking of the massive monolith rising almost 1400 feet out of the western end of the Mediterranean Sea, the Rock of Gibraltar. Or the imposing Herodian refuge west of the Dead Sea known as Masada, a name derived from the same Hebrew word translated fortress in Psalm 91:2—“I will say of the LORD, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.” Or Bass Rock, the “Alcatraz of Scotland” famous as the prison of many a godly preacher during the dark years after 1662. These could all serve as places of refuge and security, and constitute an appropriate illustration of God’s rock-like faithfulness. “Bow down thine ear to me; deliver me speedily: be thou my strong rock, for an house of defence to save me” (Psalm 31:2).

“God is called ‘the Rock’ as the unchangeable refuge, who grants a firm defence and secure resort to His people, by virtue of His unchangeableness or impregnable firmness” (C. F. Keil, The Pentateuch, p.467). John Hartley (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, volume II, p.762) says: “Yahweh is a Rock . . . in that he is totally reliable.” Sometimes this term is translated strength, as in Isaiah 26:4 “Trust ye in the LORD for ever: for in the LORD JEHOVAH is everlasting strength.” That last phrase everlasting strength can also be translated Rock of ages. Al Smith (Hymn Histories, p. 231) relates how a young pastor was overtaken by a sudden and unusually violent storm one day. Looking for shelter off the road, he found a small rock overhang behind some trees. Standing underneath it, he noticed it opened into a cave, and he drew back into it when the wind and rain would have wet him even under the overhang. Waiting out the storm, this text in Isaiah came to his mind: “The Lord Jehovah is the Rock of the ages.” But eleven years would pass before the pastor, Augustus Toplady (1740–1778), wrote of his experience that day.

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.
Let the water and the blood
From Thy riven side which flowed
Be for sin the double cure,
Save from wrath, and make me pure.

Years later, in the summer of 1868, a Christian woman was studying the life of Augustus Toplady, and especially the circumstances of his writing of this song. She became interested in this Biblical metaphor for God’s faithfulness, so she studied the references to God as the Rock. Slowly the lines of a poem began to form in her mind:

Beneath the cross of Jesus,
I feign would take my stand,
The shadow of a mighty Rock
within a weary land;
A home within the wilderness,
a rest along the way
From the burning of the noon-day heat
and the burden of the day.

Through these familiar words Elizabeth Clephane (1830–1869), the author, provides an excellent example of a hymn deriving from the study of God in the Scriptures (Ernest K. Emurian, Famous Stories of Inspiring Hymns, pp. 18, 19).

Bud Talbert is president of Foundation Baptist College in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

(Originally published in FrontLine • November / December 2003. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)