by Lee Anderson, Jr. —
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, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.2 Chronicles 7:13–14*
The correct application of the meaning of Scripture demands we determine precisely who every passage in question is addressing.
In 2 Chronicles 7, God issues an encouraging promise, stating that if His people one day encounter His discipline for wicked behavior, but then commit to “humble themselves and pray” and to “turn from their wicked ways,” that He “will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” If you peruse the art section of your local Christian bookstore, you likely will see framed art featuring the text of 2 Chronicles 7:14 paired with pictures of the American flag, the Statue of Liberty, or some other distinctly American icon. Similar clip art often graces the front of church bulletins on the Sundays before national holidays; and this verse is commonly read aloud in Sunday schools, prayer meetings, and congregational services on days significant to the history of our country.
Although expressions of patriotism are commendable, the problem is that applying this verse within a contemporary American context strays very far from the intended meaning of the passage in which it appears. Beginning in 2 Chronicles 2, King Solomon commenced work on the Temple in Jerusalem. In chapter 5, the Ark of the Covenant is brought to its new home in the Most Holy Place and, in chapter 6, Solomon offers a prayer dedicating the new place of worship to the Lord. Then, as 2 Chronicles 7:1 records, “Fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the LORD filled the house.” Shortly thereafter, God appeared to Solomon in the night, expressing approval for the Temple, and giving warnings of what would happen should the people turn from following Him. Prefacing the warnings, God gives the conditional promise in verse 14 that if, in response to His discipline for disobedience, God’s people would “humble themselves and pray” and “turn from their wicked ways,” He “will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
The immediate literary context clearly indicates that this verse refers to Israel, its people and its land, respectively (see 2 Chronicles 6:32, “…Your people Israel…”); and the promise is uniquely pertinent to the historical situation in view. And, although it is surely fair to say that all of Scripture is written for us (note 1 Corinthians 10:11), the fact remains that it was not written to us; and we do not therefore have license to assume its promises apply beyond those to whom they were explicitly granted. This verse, biblically speaking, was for national Israel, and has no special significance for Christians living in the United States, plain and simple.
How then did 2 Chronicles 7:14 come to be so readily applied as if it were a promise to contemporary Christians living in America? Historically, ideas about American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny were often underscored by a recognition of the unique religious influences that were part of America’s history—especially the influence of the English Puritans.** Notably, the Puritans held to Covenant Theology, which maintains that God had abrogated many of the promises made to Israel throughout the Old Testament due to the nation’s disobedience (so, too, most proponents of Covenant Theology reject any concept of a future for national Israel). The Puritans likewise held that these promises had been transferred to or assumed by the Church, the so-called “true Israel” or the “Israel of God” (a term mistakenly drawn from Galatians 6:16***). In time, this obscuring of the intended recipients of certain Old Testament promises about material blessing and divine privilege for a special people in a unique land, combined with now-ingrained assumptions about Manifest Destiny, made it seem almost natural to take biblical promises given to the nation of Israel and apply them to Christians living in America. Today, with the rampant deterioration of the moral values that descended from America’s earlier Christian influences, it is not surprising in light of this background for some to look at 2 Chronicles 7:14 and see in it a call for believers in the United States to pray for God to heal our nation.****
And indeed, praying for our nation is good and necessary. Christians are commanded to pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:2), and it likewise makes sense to pray for the spiritual needs we see arising all around us. We are right to pray for God to intervene and to avert the suffering and injustice we see rampant in our country. Our nation is hurting, and it does need the spiritual healing and the restoration that only God can bring about. However, the seeming applicability of the implied instruction found in 2 Chronicles 7:14 is not justification for us to appropriate for our country (or even for the church in our country) the promise that—as the context makes clear—is intended specifically for the nation of Israel.
The next time you see the text of 2 Chronicles 7:14 emblazoned over a picture of the red, white, and blue, remember two things: First, remember to pray, because it is healthy to pray for our nation even though we cannot rightly claim the verse’s promise as if it were addressed to us. Second, remember to take note to whom each verse of God’s word is addressed, paying attention to the context, lest we naïvely buy into Sunday school myths.
*All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, is from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
**Manifest Destiny refers to the cultural belief originating in mid-1800s America that settlers would expand across the North American continent, which had been granted to them by “Providence,” in order to spread the ideals of “liberty and federated self-government.” The earliest clear formulation of this view can be traced to a newspaper column written by John L. O’Sullivan, published in the New York Morning News on December 27, 1845. It has been noted that the “wider audience” of O’Sullivan’s column “seized upon his reference to divine superintendence” in support of territorial expansion (see David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, “Manifest Destiny” in Encyclopædia Britannica, published March 20, 2020: https://www.britannica.com/event/Manifest-Destiny).
***Given that Paul consistently differentiates between Israel and the church (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:32), it is arguably best to take “Israel of God” as referring to Jewish people saved by faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
****The sloppy, almost haphazard biblical interpretation in some of our churches and Sunday schools, which often places sentimental application over exegetical accuracy, only serves to help cement this errant understanding.