Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Text Out Of Context: 2 Chronicles 7:14

One of the most frequently quoted passages from 2 Chronicles is verse 7:14:

If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

I hear this verse often because it is commonly quoted with reference to America. We need revival people! And if America as a nation would only humble itself, pray, seek the face of God, and turn from wickedness, then God would hear from heaven, forgive our sin, and heal our land. Sometimes the verse is applied more specifically to Christians living in America since God refers to "my people." Regardless, notice that God is making a promise: If you do this, then God will do that.

No doubt you have heard this verse quoted every year on the National Day of Prayer. Look for it again this coming May 6, 2010. However, to use 2 Chronicles 7:14 in this manner is to take the passage out of context and skew its application.

What is the Context?

What is the broader context of this passage? This is always an important question to start with whenever we are seeking to correctly interpret and apply a biblical passage.

Very briefly, as we read the beginning chapters of 2 Chronicles we discover that Solomon is preparing to build a temple for Yahweh in Jerusalem (chapters 2-5). He completes the temple and dedicates it with a prayer before all the assembly of Israel (chapter 6). Yahweh responds by filling the temple with His glory and making His dwelling there (chapter 7). After sacrifices are offered and the feast of dedication is observed, Yahweh appears to Solomon with both a promise and a warning:

Then the Lord appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: "I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land... But if you turn aside and forsake my statutes and my commandments that I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will pluck you up from my land that I have given you, and this house that I have consecrated for my name, I will cast out of my sight, and I will make it a proverb and a byword among all peoples" (7:12-14, 19-20).

Interpretive Issues

Reading this passage in context brings up several important interpretive issues:

First, notice who is being addressed. God is speaking directly to Solomon, though Israel as a nation is clearly in view. In fact, God is giving Solomon a point-by-point response regarding his prayer for Israel in 2 Chronicles 6. Therefore, the promise of blessing and the warning regarding disobedience was given to Israel, not America or Christians living in America.

Second, what is "this place" that God has chosen in verse 12? Clearly it refers to the temple Solomon built in Jerusalem, not America.

Third, who is the group of "my people" that God is referring to in verse 14? It is certainly not Christians under the new covenant. That is an anachronistic reading which would be completely foreign to the original author and audience. Clearly this is referring to the Israelite nation. The nation of Israel was God's chosen people in the Old Testament, not America or Christians living in America.

Fourth, what "land" is God promising to heal in verse 14? Again, clearly this is referring to the promised land of Israel, not America.

Fifth, what exactly is meant by "heal their land" in verse 14? Many assume this refers to some sort of spiritual healing, a spiritual revival of sorts. This is the way it is often applied today. But notice what verse 13 states, a verse that is frequently skipped over to get to verse 14:

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people... 

The consequences of disobedience  mentioned here is how God dealt with Israel under the old covenant when they were unfaithful to Him. It is with respect to these calamities that God promises to "heal their land." In other words, "heal their land" has nothing to do with spiritual revival but rather a physical restoration of the land and people. God is promising Israel He will restore them to prosperity and "heal their land" if they return to Him. This is a promise of physical restoration for Israel, not a promise of spiritual revival for America.

Sixth, notice the language that is being used in this passage. This is covenant specific language reflective of Deuteronomy 28. Yahweh is reminding Israel of the covenant He has established with them, specifically the blessings that come with obedience and the curses that come with disobedience. God established this covenant with Israel, not America or Christians living in America.

Seventh, notice what verse 19 states:

But if you turn aside and forsake my statutes and my commandments... I will pluck you up from my land that I have given you.

Why don't Christians in America claim this part of the passage for themselves? And if we do claim this for ourselves, are we to believe that God is warning us that we will be uprooted and taken to a foreign land if we forsake the Lord? Of course, this passage makes perfect sense when applied to the history of Israel as a nation. Israel forsook Yahweh and the northern kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BC and the southern kingdom was conquered and exiled by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Then again, this is exactly what we should expect given the fact that this warning was for Israel, not America or Christians living in America.

Furthermore, in verses 17-18 God tells Solomon,

...if you walk before Me as your father David walked... then I will establish your royal throne as I covenanted with your father David.

Should Christians claim this promise for themselves as well? After all, if Christians in America are going to claim the promises made to Israel, why not claim the promises made to Solomon also? Why not just claim every promise made in Scripture for ourselves and adopt a "name it and claim it" approach? We find 2 Chronicles 7:14 emotionally appealing so we are more than willing to claim it as our own. At the same time we disregard every other verse that would equally apply to us given this method of hermeneutics.

In sum, it is entirely presumptuous for Christians in America to quote a verse such as this and claim the promise for themselves. America is not God's chosen nation or land. Americans are not God's chosen people. America is nowhere to be found in this passage nor is any other nation besides Israel. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stewart sum this up nicely on page 105 of their book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth:

The context clearly relates the promise to "this place" (the temple in Jerusalem) and "their land" (Israel, the land of Solomon and the Israelites). Yet because modern Christians yearn for it to be true of their land--wherever they live in the modern world--they tend to ignore the fact that God's promise that he "will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land" was about the only earthly land God's people could ever claim as "theirs," the Old Testament land of Israel. In the new covenant, God's people have no earthly country that is "their land." The country they belong to is a heavenly one (Heb. 11:16).

But it can still apply to America...right??

Despite the clear context of this passage I have heard interesting attempts to make 2 Chronicles 7:14 still apply to Christians in America. One speaker made reference to 2 Chronicles 6:32-33 where Solomon is offering his prayer of dedication:

Also concerning the foreigner who is not from Your people Israel, when he comes from a far country for Your great name's sake and Your mighty hand and Your outstretched arm, when they come and pray toward this house, then hear from heaven, from Your dwelling place, and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to You, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know Your name, and fear You as do Your people Israel, and that they may know that this house which I have built is called by Your name.

The speaker stated that the "foreigner" in this passage could refer to Americans. Does this work? I don't think it does for at least two reasons:

First, notice the context again. Solomon refers to the foreigner coming "from a far country" and praying toward "this house." In other words, there are stipulations in Solomon's request. The foreigner must fulfill two conditions: he must come to the land of Israel and he must pray toward the temple Solomon built. No foreigner could fulfill these conditions today for the simple fact that Solomon's temple is no longer in existence.

Second, notice that one of the reasons Solomon makes the request regarding foreigners is so that "they may know that this house which I have built is called by Your name." But again, since the temple is no longer in existence this means that at least one of the reasons Solomon makes the request regarding foreigners is null and void. This could not be fulfilled in our day and age.

In sum, taking 2 Chronicles 6:32-33 out of context does not justify taking 2 Chronicles 7:14 out of context.

So what's the point of this passage??

We need to remember that not everything in the Bible is about us! When we approach the text of Scripture with "What does this say about me?" as a primary interpretive question we take a me-centered approach that is inherently narcissistic and individualistic. This does not mean the Bible does not apply to us. It certainly does. But before we move to application we need to first discover the correct meaning by using legitimate interpretive principles.

The Bible is about God first and foremost. The Bible is God's self-revelation. God is the hero! Therefore, a good interpretive question applicable to many passages is, "What does this teach about the nature and character of God?" Looking at 2 Chronicles 7:11-22 with this question in mind I think we learn several important things:

First, we learn about the tremendous mercy, love, and graciousness of God. Yahweh would have been completely justified in breaking covenant with Israel and forsaking them in light of their persistent rebellion. But instead Yahweh is constantly faithful. He keeps His promises and the covenant He established with Israel despite their continued unfaithfulness toward Him.

Second, we learn about God's desire to be in communion with His people. In response to Solomon's prayer we are told "the glory of the Lord filled the house" and Yahweh states, "For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that My name may be there forever, and My eyes and My heart will be there perpetually" (2 Chronicles 7:1, 16). In Yahweh's covenant relationship with Israel and His presence among them we see His desire to overturn the effects of the Fall and reestablish shalom between Creator and creation.

Finally, we can even learn that God desires us to humble ourselves, pray, seek His face, and turn from wickedness. These prescriptions for Israel in the Old Testament are even repeated for Christians in the New Testament. This should not surprise us since God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. What we cannot do is take a promise out of context, claim it for ourselves when it was never given to us, and assume that if we do these things God is somehow obligated to renew America. 2 Chronicles 7:14 is not a magic formula for spiritual revival.

Updated: 06/06/11


Nate Mital said...

Really good article. Loved the focus on what the Bible actually says not what we want it to say.

Jeremy Gadd said...

Thanks ever so much for this article. I need to mull it over but it certainly makes sense. I have heard these verses quoted so much that I have never really considered it in its context.

Anonymous said...

It's good to see someone actually using the Hermeneutical process and not just trying to get the text to say what we want it to say. I'm in a Hermeneutics class right now in my college, so this was of interest to me.

Shev said...

John MacArthur says, “That familiar text is often misused and perhaps too frequently avoided (The Call to Repentance, Grace to You, 1997).” “Obviously, that was a covenant promise specifically for Israel. But, again, the principle is true for the people of God for all time. We who are Christ’s “are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29). That means even the promise of 2 Chronicles 7:14 has a valid application for Christians. “For all the promises of God in [Christ] are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us” (2 Corinthians 1:20). (MacArthur, J., Can God bless America? : The Biblical Pathway to Blessing (66). Nashville: W Pub. Group. 2002).
How is the text wrongly applied? The biggest way is when we take this covenantal promise for the theocracy of Israel and force fit it on America. I cringe when people lift this passage from its roots and attempt to transplant it on the United States. But I am also disappointed when the principles of revival inherent in this text are jettisoned by those going to the other extreme.
Bible scholar Walter Kaiser, the academic dean and professor of Old Testament and Sematic languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, says this,
No doubt a significant number of God's people will object that 2 Chronicles 7:14 has no reference to them because it was addressed to Israel; it is strictly not their mail. But though the desire for a consistent hermeneutic, which underlies this objection is admirable, the conclusion is wide of the mark on several counts. First of all, the phrase “If my people” is immediately glossed or explained by the little epexegetical, or appositional, clause “who are called by my name,” a clause so distinctive to both testaments that is meaning could never be confused or mistaken… Another reason for applying this promise to present day believers is that it involves the same hermeneutical principle as the one used in applying the New Covenant to the church. The New Covenant in its original setting was clearly addressed to the house of Israel and the house of Judah (Jer. 31:31), apparently setting aside all claims of the church to the promise. But we are ministers of the New Covenant (2 Cor. 3:6), and we do drink the blood of the New covenant in the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 26:28; 1 Cor. 11:25)… Finally, the assurance given in Romans 15:4 and 1 Corinthians 10:111 should keep us from insulating the contemporary Christian from 2 Chronicles 7:14. Paul teaches, “Whatever was written in earlier days was written for our instruction, so that … from the Scriptures we might have hope,” and “All these things happened as types for us, and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages has come” (italics added). (Quest for Renewal, Personal Revival in the Old Testament, pages 13-15.)
I would add to this that each of the principles of this verse is supported by New Testament Scriptures. The balance point is this: Let’s not take the promise to the nation of Israel and stamp it on the United States but let’s readily apply its principles to the lives of Christians.