Perhaps you can quote it verbatim, too: ‘If My people, who are called by My name, humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.’ It is, of course, 2 Chronicles 7:14, and it is a promise given by God to King Solomon after he had finished and dedicated the temple in Jerusalem.
I have seen this verse used as the theme of revivals, caligraphied on posters with pictures of people praying earnestly, placarded on signs carried in demonstrations against the immorality of the day, written in giant letters at the most prominent place in at least one large church I know, inscribed on coffee mugs. I’ve heard TV evangelist preach with emotion on it, I’ve heard lesser known revivalist pull this verse out as their trump card and rail at their audiences for their lack of repentance and imply that the bad state we are in is our fault for not having followed the simple instructions given here in God’s word. I’ve heard this verse put to music, again with the implications that the solution to all this trouble we seem to be in is to humble ourselves and pray, and, quid pro quo, God will hear and act and heal.
There are two problems with all of this. First, I have never seen any indication that God is in the business these days of forgiving corporate sin. Nor have I seen any evidence whatsoever that, despite the earnest efforts of preachers to persuade us otherwise, and the efforts of earnest pray-ers to create the right conditions, there is no evidence that God has ‘healed [our] land’.
But secondly, and even more seriously, there is almost no recognition among all of the preaching that I have heard on this topic, that this verse actually has nothing to do with us Christians today living in America (or fill in the blank whatever country you are in) whatsoever. This verse is a promise, that’s pretty obvious. But it is a promise that is not made to Christians. It’s a promise made to the people God is actually addressing – the Israelites – Jews – God’s covenant people. It’s a promise given in the context of God’s covenant with his people. And by the way, while we are at it, God’s Sinai covenant (the 10 commandments and all those other laws) is a covenant that God has not made with Christians, nor with anybody running around today. This was a covenant God made with his people whom he delivered from Egypt and then led by Moses’ and Joshua’s hands into the promised land. And the stipulations and consequences were clear – do what is written in this covenant and I will bless you. But if you don’t do what is written in this covenant I will curse you.
Fast forward to Solomon’s day. God’s promise is being given to his people Israel that should they break the covenant and begin to incur God’s covenant curses (which they did repeatedly) many of said curses had to do with curses on the land and its fertility, the way out of that dreadful situation of living under God’s curse was to humble themselves and pray and repent. It’s in this context that God promises to hear and to forgive how they have broken his covenant and to heal or undo the consequences of the curse on them as a people and on the land.
The confusion comes because many of us Christians for whatever reason think that we are under obligation to keep the laws of the Old Testament. This is the same problem that the Christians in Galatia were having. They had been persuaded that they needed to keep the Sinai covenant stipulations regarding circumcision and eating kosher before they could be truly pleasing to God as Gentiles. In other words, Gentiles needed first to become Jews in order to be proper Christians.
Paul, however, was apoplectic when he heard what was going on in the new Galatian churches, and he wrote his letter to express his exasperation that they were so quickly abandoning the gospel that had saved them. Paul makes the point repeatedly that not even the Jews could keep the old covenant and that they had suffered the curses of the old covenant. And why would Christians ever believe that they too needed to keep the old covenant when the old covenant simply brought curses. Even the Jews themselves couldn't keep the covenant. For this very reason, Christ came to set Jews free from the curse of the law, says Paul in Galatians 3:13-14, in what must be one of the most important verses in the entire Pauline corpus: ‘Christ redeemed us [believing Jews] from the curse of the Torah by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hands on a tree” - in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we [all – Jews and Gentiles] might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.’
As Gentiles (that would be you, and me), our problem is not the same problem that Jews faced. Our problems have to do with the consequences of our rebellion against God and our captivity to sin and death - the same problem that Adam and Eve had. The Jews had the added issue in that they simply for the life of them could not keep their covenant with God, and so rather than experience God’s blessing, they called upon their on heads the curses that were to follow those who broke God’s covenant. See the blessings that are promised to Israel for keeping the covenant in Deuteronomy 28:1-14 (‘If you will only obey the LORD your God by diligently observing all his commandments…’). And see the curses that are promised Israel for breaking God’s covenant in Deuteronomy 28:15-68 (‘But if you do not obey the LORD your God by diligently observing all of his commandments…then all these curses shall come and overtake you…).
One final thought. Often the ‘If my people…’ exhortation is used as if the ‘my people’ refer to us Americans or us Kenyans, with the implication being that if us Americans just all got on our knees and humbled ourselves and prayed, then God would do all this wonderful stuff in our country. But we are not living in Old Testament times. The only nation that God ever made these sorts of promises to was the nation of Israel, and they were promises conditioned by an actual covenant he had with them. And we are not Israel! God does not deal with nations today. He deals with individuals, and with churches.
So when we read passages like the 2 Chronicles 7 verse, how should we understand it if it is not addressing us here today? God may not be addressing us here today with these words, but we do learn a lot about God and what he values and about what his priorities are and what he is doing in the world. There is a lot we can take away when we read about Solomon or David or Saul and Samuel. We just have to keep reminding ourselves that ‘We are not Israel, and God did not make his covenant with us.’
The same is true with prophetic passages like Jeremiah 29:11-14, again, another coffee mug all time favorite: ‘
For I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you search for me with all your heart. I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.’
Most quotations of this passage stop with verse 11. And most people who preach this passage or write about it or sing it shamelessly individualize it, as if Jeremiah is saying this to ME, or YOU. And so we do silly things like make this our ‘Life Verse’ and cling to it as an example of God’s love and care for ME. Well there are plenty of passages in the Bible that talk about God’s love and care for ME, but this is not one of them! Again, Jeremiah is not addressing me or you or the church or anybody today, he is addressing the Jews who are living in the horrific state of exile in Babylon, and exile that is one of the curses that came upon them for their chronic breaking of the covenant. And Jeremiah is reminding them that God has not forgotten them as His people, nor has he abandoned them, but he will bring them out of exile and restore them to their land and their place as God’s covenant-keeping people.
When all is said and done, we don’t want these passages to be applicable to us, because that would mean that we were under obligation to keep the Sinai covenant, which as has been conclusively demonstrated, nobody can keep. And if history (and our Bibles) show us anything, it’s that no one has managed to keep the covenant, except Jesus. Which is why responding to the gospel and becoming one with him in baptism and chrismation opens up a whole new life for us.