The “Promised Land” 50 years later

I’m sure by now many people realize that this year is the anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was shot and killed on April 4th, 1968. I was nine years old.

I have always been fascinated that his last speech, given April 3rd, 1968 in Memphis Tennessee, seemed to predict his fate. In this speech, among other things, Dr. King predicts his death. In addition, he uses the imagery of Moses who was not permitted to enter the promised land, yet was allowed to climb Mt. Nebo and view it from afar (Deuteronomy 34:1-4). Dr. King employs this imagery in the last paragraph of his final public speech:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Again, King delivered this thought-provoking, and some have even said prophetic, speech in Memphis, Tenn. April 3, 1968, and on April 4th, 1968 he was assassinated. (You can find the full speech audio and text here).

Unfortunately, as far as I can tell Dr. King never fully defined the significance of the “promised land.” However, those of us who understand the struggle realize it’s not a place, but ultimately a state of being. This year marks 50 years after his speech, but it also provides a unique opportunity to reignite his hope for an America full of promise.

As a man of great faith, he would have been familiar with the story of the promise to Abraham about a land that God promised to Abraham’s descendants. A place flowing with milk and honey. The promise is made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob but not realized until Moses leads them from bondage to freedom in search of the land of promise, up to its very border.

In the Biblical narrative, it’s not Moses who takes them into the land but Joshua. Moses is forbidden because he disobeys one of God’s commands and is thus not permitted to enter. As one last act of grace, God does allow Moses to view the land of promise from Mt. Nebo.

Israel would not remain faithful but would be the vehicle through which God would bring redemption for the nation and all who would come to faith and identify Jesus as their Messiah, savior. Those who came to faith in Christ would become disciples of Jesus by denying themselves taking up their cross daily and following Him.

In the New Testament, the idea of the land of promise only occurs in the book of Hebrews. In the hall of faith (Hebrews 11) the writer mentions Abraham’s faith in verses 9-10 that “By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” (ESV)

Thus, for the writer of Hebrews, the land of promise is not a place on earth but a city that is built by God. This city or place later in the biblical text identified as the Kingdom of God.

Therefore, if the land of promise is the Kingdom of God than there are certain expectations God has of us and a hope we have of God that I believe has not been articulated in the speech of Dr. King.

I intend to use the biblical text to explain the promise land spoken of in Dr. King’s speech based on the scripture that is the foundation for the imagery and the promise itself.

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