Citizenship Confusion: Humble Yourselves and Repent and God may–or may not–Heal Our Land
Every Monday in Citizenship Confusion, Alan Noble discusses how we confuse our heavenly citizenship with citizenship to the state, culture, and the world.
There are few things more comforting to a believer than to rest on God’s eternal promises for our hope. And because it is so comforting, whole church movements, Christian retail brands, books, albums, and Precious Moments figurines have used promises in God’s Word to ply us from our money. Unfortunately, many (if not most) of the time, these promises are torn from their context and audience in order to make them appear to be promises for us! Perhaps the most notable example of misapplying God’s promises during this political season is the use of 2 Chronicles 7:14 to justify a national revival:
“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.”
This verse is a particular favorite of the Family Research Council. The FRC’s president, Tony Perkins, used this verse as the guide and inspiration for his national Call2Fall event earlier this year, which claimed that “From 9/11 to war to natural disasters to financial and moral collapse, we are witnessing what happens when a nation turns away from God.” The public policy arm of Focus on the Family, CitizenLink, recently shared this verse in a quote from G.H.W. Bush. Just yesterday, just before the DNC, thousands of evangelicals met to pray and “ask God for forgiveness for national sins” at an event called Charlotte 714, an event which was inspired by 2 Chronicles 7:14. And Right Wing Watch has reported on the popularity of this verse in Christian political rhetoric in recent years.
The idea that Americans have a convenant with God similar to the one between God and ancient Israel has a long history our country. For example, John Winthrop’s famous sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity” written in 1630 and preached to “his fellow Puritan colonists in advance of their landing at the Massachusetts Bay Colony” ends this way:
“And to shut this discourse with that exhortation of Moses, that faithful servant of the Lord, in his last farewell to Israel, Deut. 30. ‘Beloved, there is now set before us life and death, good and evil,’ in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in his ways and to keep his Commandments and his ordinance and his laws, and the articles of our Covenant with Him, that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it. But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.”
If we obey, God is obligated to bless us. If we disobey, He will curse us. And, citing 2 Chron 7:14, if we are under punishment and repent, God will return to blessing us. Perhaps our understanding of God’s Providence has not matured much in the last 382 years.
The problem is that 2 Chronicles 7:14 records a specific covenant God made with Israel, as our Illustrator-and-Chef, Seth Hahne explains it:
“God is interacting with Israel specifically within the context of the Mosaic covenant and the promises made to Israel within the scope of that covenant. The Mosaic covenant was particularly tied to national Israel during the pre-exilic era and concerned chiefly the land of Canaan (cf Deut. 28 and 29). It was all about how God would bless Israel in the land if they obeyed him and how God would curse them in the land (and eventually exile them from the land if they disobeyed. This is why the Chronicles promise here made to Solomon invokes the promise of healing within the land (of Canaan). The Mosaic covenant is fulfilled so promises that are tied to that covenant are no longer in effect.”
So, to treat this verse as a promise from God to America is bad theology, but if the application of this bad theology is good, does it matter if we’ve misinterpreted it? Humbling ourselves and repenting are unequivocally good actions, and if that’s what this verse calls us to do, then maybe we shouldn’t mind when Christians exhort us with 2 Chronicles 7:14 to political ends.
I’d like to suggest that this is not an instance of “wrong interpretation, but right application.” When 2 Chronicles 7:14 is used to encourage American Christians to repent in order to “heal our land,” they not only misinterpret the text, but also promote an unloving and inaccurate view of the nature and causes of brokenness in our land.
Whose Repentance and Whose Sin?
2 Chronicles 7:14 assumes that the land is under judgement from God because of the wickedness of Israel. So, if we force the passage to fit our situation, we must assume that the US is also under judgement from God because of the wickedness of its citizens. This doesn’t take much imagination to believe; all around us are crimes and injustice and suffering due to sin.
But if we follow FRC’s exhortation from this verse and repent of these sins, exactly whose sins are we repenting of? Is the US under judgement from God because of the sins of Christians or of the whole country–made up predominately of those outside the Church?
Of course, we know that Christians are sinners too, but do most of us sincerely believe that our country is under judgement, is suffering and broken because of the wickedness of the Church?
I suspect that most of us can only answer this question in the affirmative if we conceive of our lack of evangelism and apathy towards condemning and restraining sin in the world as the Church’s wickedness. And some of us do feel this way. Some believe that the American church is wicked because it does not preach against abortion and gay marriage daily.
But, for most of us, if we believe that our country is broken because of wickedness, we believe it is the wickedness of others, principally the unsaved. The sins of the Christian minority of the US hardly account for the suffering in our country. And if this is true, when we go to “repent” for “our” wickedness, aren’t we really just blaming our national problems upon our neighbors, stirring up in our hearts a deep animosity for the unsaved who have infiltrated and corrupted our republic? Aren’t we encouraged to believe that our country’s troubles began when non-Christians began to grow in number and the church did not stop them?
Ancient Israel never had this problem because for them God’s people and the nation of Israel were the same thing. But the Church and the US are not.
I am not at all implying that this is the goal of anyone at FRC–they very clearly see this as a call for Christians to repent–but I do think these concerns are a natural and reasonable outcome from the misuse of this Scripture.
I’d like to submit that this line of thinking is likely to encourage an unloving and uncharitable view of our neighbors, one that feeds the worst kind of Christian political rhetoric and engagement, which sees all non-Christians as existential threats to the righteousness, and therefore blessedness of our country–the militant form of the Culture War.
National Suffering and Sin
Naturally, we believe that sin does cause suffering in our country and the unsaved are lost in their sin. But we also believe in Common Grace, that God blesses the righteous and the wicked, that even leaders who are at war with God can be a blessing to the public, and that God-fearing leaders can support awful, hurtful public policies with the best of intentions.
What’s more, we know from Job that blessings and suffering cannot be directly and causally tied to righteousness and sin. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. The wicked man lives in peace and safety while the righteous suffer. God has not promised to bless us or curse us as a nation when we are good or bad.
To complicate things further, while sin will always cause suffering and righteousness will always result in blessing, the form those sufferings and blessings take will vary widely. Sinful living can lead to a very fulfilling and happy life for some–for a time at least. Likewise, righteous living can result in suffering. In fact, Jesus and the apostles are pretty clear that it will lead to suffering.
The Israelites could look at a draught, or locusts, or pestilence and know that it was a judgement from God for their wickedness, because God had made a covenant with them. He told them explicitly that he would punish them in precisely these ways and that He would rescue them if they repented (2 Chron 7:13).
But God has not made this covenant with us. And when we arrogantly assume that His promise refers to us, we invite ourselves to despise our neighbors for their wickedness and blame them for the economic collapse, mass shootings, wars, inflation, hurricanes, increased taxes, bad healthcare laws, and rising gas prices.
Not only is this unloving and uncharitable to our neighbor, it distracts us from the important work that needs to be done–the hard work of things like figuring out what good healthcare laws look like and how to be good stewards of our natural resources.
So, by all means, humble yourself and repent and petition God to heal our land. But do so knowing that our brokenness came from the Fall and that God is under no obligation to heal our nation if we or our neighbors repent.
Update 09-03-12: added reference to Charlotte714 and comments on “A Model of Christian Charity.”
THANK YOU for this article, Alan Noble. The misuse of this verse by American evangelicals has been a great frustration and concern to me for many years. It’s about time somebody spoke out eloquently against such error, and pointed out the ugly and unbiblical implications of interpreting a covenant promise given to Israel as though it were God’s present word for the church.
By all means, let us believers humble ourselves and fall on our knees in prayer and repentance. But as you say, that doesn’t mean God is going to rid the nation–any nation–of its economic, social and political problems if we do.
Another good article, Alan.
While many lessons from the Old Testament are applicable to the Church today, it seems that the Church has adopted a hermeneutic of convienence–using whatever Scripture is at hand to justify our political preconceptions. This is especially ironic when one considers that probably a majority (or at least a very large minority) of Evangelicals on the Religious Right are Dispensationalists who should at least be theoretically against applying Israel’s promisese to the Church.
Then there is also Jeremiah 29:11 a promise for Israel which is taken as a promise for the individual believer. There is unfortunately a lot of confusion for Christians as to what promises applied to Israel and do not apply to the Church.
Of course, if you are a covenantalist and see the church as the fulfillment/continuation of Israel, then this is completely appropriate, and it explains why the Puritans used this verse. If you look at Jeremiah 31, which is universally used as a prophecy foretelling the New Covenant for all peoples, the promise is aimed only at Israel and Judah. If that promise extends to Gentiles in America, why not 2 Chron. 7:14?
What is odd to me is to see those who are generally dispensationalists using this promise, but it seems altogether consistent with covenantal theology.
I think from a covenantal perspective many people would take these verses to apply to the New Heaven and the New Earth–so I certainly think as Alan has pointed out that believers should receive such verses as a call to humble themselves and seek the Lord but I don’t see any legitimate grounds for applying this to the United States or any other nation for that matter.
Well said Alan!
Actually, Brad. Most covenenatlists would probably point out that even if the church was the fulfillment of Israel,* the church would be participants in (and recipients of the blessings of) the Abrahamic covenant (and its reiterations) rather than the Mosaic one). Distinguishing between the covenants and their various stipulations, participants, and sanctions is a pretty integral part to covenantalism, generally.
Under a covenantalist framework, the Mosaic stipulations and sanctions are not (save for by theonomists, I guess) seen as continuing beyond the scope of ancient national Israel (the kingdom). The Abrahamic covenant, however, is lasting and expansive—and its blessings concern a people, land, and kingdom far beyond the geo-political blessings of the twleve tribes, Canaan, and the Israeilite regime. As Hebrews 11 tells us, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were looking for a land that was not Canaan and Joshua though giving rest on every side did not provide rest in Abrahaic sense.
So, no, the American expression of Puritanism was not seeing Scripture in a covenantalist sense when the took those promises for their own. At least not in one that jives with contemporary understanding and placement of the covenants.
*note: I, a covenentalist, would personally describe Christ as the fulfillment of the Israel—and then all believers as they consist in him
Have to disagree. The Puritans did not have the dis-entanglement of church and state that we currently enjoy, even the American ones. Jonathan Edwards is regarded as the last of the Puritans by many, and he still lived before the church/state division. Any response of modern day covenantalists is a reaction to that reality. They can and do still see themselves as the inheritors of the covenant promises of God given in the OT. If they are the inheritors of the promises, then they can make the claim upon them. There is also the little issue of Jer. 31 that is seen as universally applicable when only made to Israel.
Anyway, it isn’t simply a theonomist who would see that the 2 Chron. passage would be applicable to the church. After all, God would have spared Sodom for the sake of ten. So if Christ’s church, as the modern inheritors of the promises of Israel, rose up and prayed, then the country could receive the benefit of that. Even with your asterisked view, you would still have to see yourself as a recipient of all of Israel’s promises through Christ. So if you have continuity with Israel as a brother, why not claim the promise?
I should have noted that I’m not so sure that a covenantalist would indeed distinguish between a Mosaic/Abrahamic covenant. But normally, or maybe historically(?), this is a law/promise divide. In other words, the covenantalist normally doesn’t see themselves under law in the same why the Israelites where, but they almost unfailingly claim all the promises associated with the Mosaic covenant. With the land promises, they are generally simply extended to the world, not just the land of Canaan, as Christ’s kingdom is now worldwide instead of ethno-centric.
My point wasn’t to say that covenantalism isn’t diverse, but to point out that under that hermeneutic it is quite consistent to claim a promise of God that seemingly only pertains to ethnic/political Israel, as we do this across the disp/covenantal divide with Jer. 31. Why not 2 Chron. 7:21?
The reason to distinguish between Moses and Abraham is that the two covenants are entirely different in tone, scope, and stipulations. It’s the difference between Sinai and Zion (as expressed in Hebrews). It’s why we are children of Abraham, not children of Moses.
The Abrahamic covenant is expansion of the promise that God would save humanity through the woman’s seed and defeat evil—not because humanity could do anything to merit it but because God wished to do so. This was not a covenant of works but of faith. The Abrahamic promises are restated and expanded throughout the prophets and Jeremiah 31 contains one of those restatements (which is why we apply it to the church).
The Mosaic covenant is a reiteration of God’s edenic covenant with Adam, a covenant of works by which Adam would secure the land (Eden) by his good works and would lose the land by his wicked works. The Mosaic promises (both positive and negative, blessing and cursing) work similarly. The Mosaic covenant was one of works and by it Israel would either be blessed in the land or cursed out of it. And just as the Adamic covenant was fulfilled negatively and so no longer offered, neither Israel nor the church lays claim to the Mosaic covenant because its terms have also been fulfilled (negatively).
Also, Sodom was a very specific promise to Abraham (a very special person with a unique relationship with God). To draw normative principles from it seems dangerous.
The history of interpretation on this regarding the Puritans is not on your side here. It is not so easy to weed out which promises belong to which covenant, and the fact is that 2 Chron. 7:14 does not fit neatly into that category. This could easily be understood, and in fact historically has been understood, that this is a promise to God’s people throughout time. We no longer have a physical Temple, but we do have a risen Christ who is the embodiment of the shadow that the Temple represented.
The Jer. 31 example is interesting. We expand it out to the church, why again? Because it is an extension of the Abrahamic promise? I’m down with that, but the chapter explicitly ONLY includes Israel and Judah. Why do we get to apply it to Gentiles, again? Where is it clear that this is part of the Abrahamic promise and nothing to do with Moses? The same case could be made for Solomon’s prayer that is made for Jer. 31, except that in 2 Chron. 7:14 he specifically mentions Gentiles as part of this promises (2 Chron. 6:33-34), whereas in Jer. 31, he does not.
What you are saying is that there is no way that this promise of healing can apply to modern America (or Iraq for that matter.) I think it surely can, and I have historical and textual reasons to think so.
Again, my purpose is not to hash out the nuances of covenantalism, as if we could do that or it is monolithic in its dissection of the Abrahamic/Mosaic covenants. My point is that it seems to me that this verse could very easily be seen as an Abrahamic type of promise and not a mere attachment to the Mosaic law, and it has historically been understood that way.
Sorry, when I say that I don’t think that the Puritans are on your side, I’m not talking about a general agreement amongst them on this verse per se, but the general way in which they handle promises to Israel. In general, and I think that Jer. 31 is only one example of this, they tended to take promises and expunge “ceremonial” law. Solomon’s prayer had nothing to do with ceremony, but rather God’s faithful response to the prayer of His people, and that is universally applicable, especially with Christ as the fulfillment of that Temple.
I could easily see an application being that if God’s people humble themselves before Christ, then God will hear their prayers from heaven and bring healing to their land. I believe that is true, but what real humlliation looks like and what healing would look like would be surprising to all. Especially if our ‘humble’ prayers look like, “Lord, forgive us that we have all these wicked people in the USA. I’m sorry about them, so sorry. I thank you that I am not like them, and I pray that you will change them to look like me. Thanks, Amen!”
I was reading some old commentaries on this today to see what the “ancient divines” said. Arthur Pink said that this was to be applied to NT believers as physical healing. Isn’t that interesting? :p
This is an extremely important read and I pray it receives wide distribution. This conflation of biblical Christianity with political conservatism and nationalism is resulting in the ekklesia being further and further marginalized in political debates it should be engaged in.
As Alan rightly points out, the promises to Israel do not apply to America and it is bad theology and hermeneutic to advance such notions. I know that most evangelicals do this accidentally having never been trained in this regard, but the leaders of political activism will be held to a higher account.
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