As I began a recent study of the promises of the Bible, I was surprised to find that one of the very first promises in the Bible was not made by the Lord but by the devil!
I came to see that while the promises of God are sprinkled throughout the pages of Holy Writ like diamonds, in opposition to every promise of God in His Word stands this evil promise, lurking and leering in the dark, puffed up and hollow, yet accepted and believed by so many.
To look at Satan’s empty promise more closely, let us reconstruct and imagine that opening scene of mankind in the Bible, Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. It is a paradise in which the first couple live; all they need is provided.
But we notice that two trees in this paradise are singled out for comment by the Lord — the tree of Life and the tree of Knowledge of good and evil (
Two truths we see here: first, the permission is greater than the restriction — God fenced in one tree and threw open orchards of all kind, flower gardens of beauty unsurpassed, and cool, cascading silver streams. That which He granted is so much more than what is restricted.
Second, we see that this restriction brings the element of free will into the garden. God did not intend for Adam and Eve — or you and I — to be robots. God’s intention for Adam and Eve was that they choose fellowship with Him, eternal life (the tree of Life was not on the prohibited list), and partnership with God in dominion of the entire creation.
Into this paradise came the devil in the form of a serpent. For a fuller description of the devil than we have here in the first book of the Bible, turn to the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation: “And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world” (
Although Satan is able to assume many forms, including that of an angel of light, here we see him as a serpent. The artists of the Bible have sometimes painted the devil as a charming, glittering green snake coiled around the tree with the face of a young child, or with long flowing hair and siren’s face. Rembrandt did a pen-and-ink drawing of the Fall in which we see a grotesque dragon half-hidden among the branches of the forbidden tree, with wings and claws, while below an apprehensive Adam receives the fruit from Eve. One scholar, Adam Clarke, even felt the devil appeared as an ape!
However Adam and Eve saw Satan, he made a twofold promise to them. But before we look at the actual promise, listen to their conversation in verses 1-5, and see that: (1) the devil is aware that God forbade them to eat of the tree of Knowledge. (2) He makes it sound as if that were an unreasonable demand, and plants in their minds the seed of doubt — maybe God really didn’t have their good at heart. (3) Eve, in response to the devil, gives a slightly different, and important, twist to God’s words. She adds that God said they must not even touch the tree, lest they die.
An old Jewish legend says that at this point Satan thrust Eve’s hand against the forbidden fruit, and rather than killing her, the fruit was smooth and cool. Yet God did not say they could not touch the tree — though they ought not have touched it with a ten-foot pole!
She also changes the warning, the emphatic construction of
Now for Satan’s empty promise. It was twofold: you will not die, and you shall have knowledge, which will make you as God. This devil’s promise is based on three aspects of his nature which will be passed on to Adam and Eve if they believe his promise — his rebellion from God, his slander of God, and his desire to be equal with God.
In his rebellion, the tragedy of a good creation gone sour, corrupt, the Frankenstein of nature; in his slander, his raging hatred of Almighty God; in his frenzied obsession to take the place of God — the devil has become the Father of lies.
This Jesus Himself pointed out as He told the unbelieving Jews: “You are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father you do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it” (
The writer Thomas Wolfe draws a dreadful, and dreadfully true, pen picture of Satan from his own experience in the conclusion of his novel, You Can’t Go Home Again:
“I think the enemy is here before us with a thousand faces, but I think we know that all his faces wear one mask. I think the enemy is single selfishness and compulsive greed. I think the enemy is blind, but has the brutal power of his blind grab. I do not think the enemy was born yesterday, or that we began without the enemy, or that our vision faltered, that we lost the way, and suddenly were in his camp. I think the enemy is old as Time, and evil as Hell, and that he has been here with us from the beginning …
“He took our people and enslaved them, he polluted the fountains of our life, took unto himself the rarest treasures of our own possession, took our bread and left us with a crust, and — not content, for the nature of the enemy is insatiate — tried finally to take from us the crust.
“I think the enemy comes to us with the face of innocence and says to us: ‘I am your friend.’ I think the enemy deceives us with false words and lying phrases, saying: ‘See, I am one of you — I am one of your children, your son, and your friend … Am I not the living image of what each of you may hope to be, would wish to be, would desire for his own son? Would you destroy this glorious incarnation of your own heroic self?’
“He lives! He is not gloriously, or in any other way, ourselves. He is not a friend, a son, a brother … For, although he has a thousand familiar faces, his own true face is as old as Hell. Look about you and see what he has done!”1
So, standing before the forbidden tree, fenced in as it were by the command of God, with Satan whispering sweet nothings in her ear, Eve must decide whether the command to leave the tree of Knowledge alone is a parapet, a protective wall to keep them from falling into a terrible abyss, or whether it is a barrier preventing them from experiencing their full happiness.
Satan “flung a craving” on Eve — she simply must have the forbidden fruit! So our parents in the garden decided God’s command was a barrier; they decided Satan’s promise was true — they believed a lie and were damned! Act I of the garden’s drama ends quickly (
Now Act II of the drama in the garden: the result of the devil’s empty promise. He had said they would not die, but they began to die right then! For all the promises of God are true and unbreakable, and God had said, “in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (
Did God mean that from that hour the seeds of physical death would begin to bloom in the life of every human being? Did they then begin to age? From that day did they cringe in fear, tasting the unknown, and live in bondage to fear of death all the days of their lives?
Thus writes the author of the book of Hebrews, and adds that this is why Jesus came: “Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (
The second aspect of the devil’s empty promise was that they would have knowledge which would make them like God. Well, they certainly knew more, immediately. They knew that they were naked (
From that day, their bodies began to age, and Adam and Eve realized the corrupted and corruptible, passing and perishing, nature of the body. In a true sense, the soul was imprisoned.
They knew they were guilty (
But mainly what Adam and Eve learned was an intimate knowledge of sin. From that time until now, we know in our hearts that we are like him who deceived us. Now they knew that we are not like God, but rather like the serpent. We have traded in our birthright for a mess of pottage.
The other day I heard a story which illustrates comically this tragic truth: Adam came home late, and Eve was suspicious. “Where’ve you been? Have you been seeing another woman?” Adam replied, “Don’t be silly — you’re the only woman in the world for me!” But that didn’t keep her from marching over and counting his ribs! When the empty promise of the devil was believed, they learned about jealousy, distrust, anger, and fear.
The main loss of Adam and Eve was the intimate relationship with God. They were put out of the garden — symbol of that perfect relationship with God which He intended. One of my wife’s favorite quips illustrates in a light way that heavy truth: As Adam was out walking one day with the boys, Cain and Abel, they passed a beautiful gate guarded by an angel with a flaming sword. “Boys, take a good look,” said Adam. “That’s where we lived before your mother ate us out of house and home!”
Now, some observations about this empty promise. First, my name is Adam, and so is yours — Adam or Eve. It is a matter of life and death for each of us to see it as happening in our life today!
Satan whispers his promise in each person’s ear: “I will make you immortal and famous, rich and full of all knowledge; you will drink the cup of this world’s best!” The price is simple and deadly, as it was for the first Adam and Eve; you must consider God’s commandment and will and way not as a protecting wall, but as a barrier to your happiness. You must rebel from His rule. You must run your own life — which really means that the devil will run it for you!
Second, you can say in honesty that sin gives us only one thing: knowledge. A knowledge of our guilt, of our separation from God, of Satan’s lying nature. A knowledge which puts a burden on our back and a heaviness in our hearts. He promised us knowledge — and we became fools!
Oh, we have a wonderful amount of a certain kind of knowledge; we know a tremendous lot about our world. We can kill each other from outer space, we can take pictures of the Titanic miles down on the sea bottom, and we can walk on the moon. Was Daniel talking about us when he says he was told to “shut up the words and seal the book, even to the time of the end: many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased”? (
But without Jesus we are fatally deceived and do not know God. Paul speaks of Satan-deceived men in
The most important thing in life is to truly know God. The Bible is full of admonitions to know God: no less than ten times the Pharaoh of the Exodus is told that he does not know God; fifty-six times in the thirty-nine chapters of Ezekiel the people are urged to know God.
The sum of the whole matter is that each of us has chosen the empty promise of Satan, and the result is that natural man is spiritually ignorant: “He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not” (
The message of the Bible is that Jesus came, lived among us, and died on a cross that we might truly know God. And to know Him, and follow Him, is to be saved from the bondage of the empty promise of Satan. The whole purpose of Satan’s vain promise is to enslave us; God’s promise through Jesus is to set us free. Jesus said: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free!”
In the Galleria Borghese in Rome is a painting by Caravaggio known as the “Madonna of the Serpent.” The painting shows the child Jesus crushing the head of a snake while his mother and another woman watch. “You shall call his name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sin.”
1. Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1934), p. 741-43.