Question: "What does God mean when He says, "I will never leave you nor forsake you" (Hebrews 13:5)?"
Answer: A comforting promise in Scripture is that God will never leave those who are His. Hebrews 13:5 says, in part, “He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (NKJV). In a world that is constantly changing and where people are constantly leaving, whether in a family, relationship, or in death, God’s promise of never leaving is encouraging.
The promise “I will never leave you nor forsake you” was first given to Israel and Joshua before entering the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 31:6). Encouragingly, Moses reminded Joshua that, as the succeeding leader, “the Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged” (Deuteronomy 31:8). Joshua’s task of taking the Promised Land seemed impossible, but with the Lord the task was possible, for He would not forsake Joshua.
Many other verses in the Old Testament include similar statements from God to individuals with the promise to never leave them. These individuals include
• Jacob (Genesis 28:15)
• Joshua (Deuteronomy 31:8; Joshua 1:5, 9)
• Solomon (1 Chronicles 28:20)
• The poor and needy (Isaiah 41:17)
In the New Testament, quoting from Deuteronomy 31:6, the author of Hebrews restates the promise of God’s eternal presence with believers (Hebrews 13:5). The promise is preceded by a command: “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have.” Instead of trusting in riches or material goods, which will ultimately fail, believers should place their hope in God, who promises, “I will never leave you and I will never abandon you” (NET). Riches and other resources can depart in a moment, but the Lord is with His children forever. One’s faith and trust, therefore, should be in Him alone.
Never will I leave you. At salvation, Christians are permanently indwelt with the Holy Spirit, who is God Himself (Acts 5:3–4). Christ affirmed that the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, would be with His followers always (John 14:16). Also, Jesus told His disciples that He would be with them “to the very end of the age”—a promise that has to include present-day believers (Matthew 28:20). The God who promised to never leave Joshua is the same Lord who says He will never leave believers today.
Never will I forsake you. Some versions translate Hebrews 13:5 as God’s promise not to “abandon” (CSB) or “desert” (CEV) us. Within the meaning of the Greek word enkatalipō is the idea of being completely abandoned or left alone (Strong’s Concordance 1459). Believers have the wonderful promise that God will never forsake them. Jesus felt utterly forsaken by the Father when He took the sins of the world upon Himself on the cross, and now those who trust in Him will not be abandoned in their sinful state (Matthew 27:46). He became a “curse” to free people from their slavery to sin in order that those who place faith in His death and resurrection would receive forgiveness and eternal life (see 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13–14). A 1999 worship song written by Billy James Foote, called “You Are My King (Amazing Love),” describes this concept well: “I’m forgiven because you were forsaken” (from Hymnary.org, accessed 11/12/20).
God’s eternal promise that He will never leave or forsake believers is not only comforting, but also provides courage to followers of Christ. Because God will never leave or forsake His children, they can live unafraid. Hebrews 13:6 follows God’s promise with the statement, “Hence we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’” (ISV). Essentially, this is a quote from Psalm 118:6–7, which portrays God as the Helper who protects His chosen people. Like Joshua being encouraged to complete his appointed task, Christians can also be emboldened and strengthened by the promise that the Lord will never leave or forsake them.