There are tons of different promises in the Old Testament. God speaks to many people and promises a variety of things. The Bible records those words and conversations. We need to treat those words and conversations like we would any other to understand them. The key to understanding biblical promises is context. CONTEXT, CONTEXT, CONTEXT. The truth is that some of the promises in the Old Testament apply to us and some of them don't. You have to read the context to see which is which. Here are a few categories that promises might fall into...
When I got married, I stood before my pastors, family and friends and made promises to Christy. I promised that I would be faithful to her til death parted us and that I would serve her in sickness and health. Who did I make that promise to? Christy. Who heard me make that promise? Over three hundred people. They all heard it, but it was just for her. Someone would have to be out of their mind to have sat in the pews that day at my wedding and thought to themself, "Wow, those are pretty nice things that Mark is promising me!" The promises I made that day were to one person. Christy
Likewise, God sometimes promises things to specific individuals.
..."I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count." -- Genesis 16:10
Did God promise that to you? Well read the context. Really, grab your Bible and read Genesis 16:6-10. You'll see very clearly that God is making this specific promise to one person: Hagar. We have to be careful not to decide that promises like this must be for us. Just like it would be silly to think I made my wedding vows to you, its silly to grab any promise in the Bible and think its automatically for you.
And this really doesn't even have to do with how much faith you have either. I find it helpful in revealing if promises are for everyone or not by seeing if Jesus got what was promised. If a promise applies to all believers, then certainly Jesus qualifies and it would apply to Him. Did this promise in Genesis 16 apply to Jesus? Jesus had a ton of faith, but God didn't give Him any children. It wasn't because God thought Jesus lacked faith that He didn't get this promise applied to Him, its because Jesus was not Hagar and God had different plans for the two of them. God often makes promises to individuals and those promises don't apply to us. You can spot these promises by looking for specific people God is speaking to in the context.
Some of the promises that God makes are national promises to Israel. Some of these are really obvious to find. If God promises military victory when the people trust in Him and not in chariots, you can be pretty sure that this was a promise God made to the nation of Israel and not to you. Promises that clearly have to do with the king of Israel, the military, or the land in Israel are usually in their context directed to Israel. But what about promises that seem like they might be for me?
"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future." -- Jeremiah 29:11
You've heard that one before right? Is that a promise to you? Read it in its context. Read Jeremiah 29:1-11. This promise is made to the nation of Israel right after they had been defeated and exiled from their homeland. They had been taken as slaves and God tells them that everything is going according to His plan. God then promises them that in seventy years, He will free them from their slavery and bring them into prosperity. His plan is to one day again prosper them. And we see this fulfilled in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah when the people are sent back home with many riches to rebuild.
Certainly, we can learn lots from this passage. We learn that God is faithful to His word. We learn that even when life is going badly, God is still in control. But we cannot grab this promise and pretend it is for us. We have to be very careful about this. God hasn't promised to prosper me (prosper means to succeed in material or physical terms such as having lots of money or growing strong and healthy). Again, lets apply the Jesus test. If this promise was for everyone who followed God, then certainly Jesus would have been prospered. But was He? No. He was poor materially. He didn't own a home, He crashed on other peoples beds a lot, and He had to go fishing for a miracle fish with money in its mouth to pay His taxes. He had many troubles physically. Not only does the Bible tell us that He wasn't exceptionally tall or handsome, but Jesus was tortured and murdered violently. He was not prospered. God had a different and good plan for Him.
Promises to All
There are, on the other hand, many promises that God makes throughout the Bible that apply to all people. Usually, these promises are conditional. God promises to give something to those who... Fill in the Blank .
...those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint." -- Isaiah 40:31
Is that one for us or just for Israel? Once again, read the context. Read all of Isaiah 40. If you do, you'll see that God desires to comfort His people and the passage quickly becomes all about how God deals with the whole world. It speaks of how God is sovereign over the whole world and how God is so much bigger than all the world combined. The passage even gets Messianic and declares that all mankind will see God's glory. Finally, we get to the end and find our promise. This promise does not say "Israelites who hope in the Lord" but simply says "those who hope in the Lord." Because the scope of the chapter is not focusing on Israel and the promise seems quite open ended to everyone who hopes in the Lord, I believe this promise is for everyone.
Does it pass the Jesus test? I think so. Did Jesus hope in the Lord? Yep. Did God give Jesus strength to press on when He was weary? Yep.
Context is Key
The Bible is filled with promises. All of them teach us about who God is and how God interacts with people like us. However, not all of the promises were meant for us. That's not a bad thing! My wedding vows were not meant for you and you're fine with that. God has different plans for all of us and its okay that certain promises are given to certain people or certain groups of people. Sometimes His promises are for individuals. The context will reveal this as you see God speaking to a specific person. Sometimes they are for the nation of Israel. The context will reveal this as you see God speaking of land, military, addressing the nation about a specific issue, etc. Sometimes they are open to all who would follow Him. The context will tell you as these passages often speak of all people and give requirements of faith (like hoping in the Lord from Isaiah).
If you used to grab and claim all of the promises in the Bible, you may need to rethink or let go of some of the biblical promises you were wrongly claiming. If you used to ignore the promises thinking none of them were for you, you may need to start believing God's promises to you in order to find the hope, comfort, trust, and faith He wants you to have. Most importantly, we should all rejoice that the greatest promise of all has been offered to everyone.
For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life. -- John 3:16