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. – 2 Chronicles 7:14
If you’ve ever been to a special prayer service around the 4th of July in the United States, or attended a National Day of Prayer service, or other such “pray for our nation” event, chances are good that you’ve seen this verse printed on the bulletin cover, projected on the screen, or otherwise quoted in the advertising or at the event itself. I mean, it’s such a perfect verse, isn’t it? It calls for repentance and humility among Christians, it highlights God’s mercy and forgiveness when we do so, and gives us hope that God can “turn this country around” or something like that. What could possibly be wrong with using this verse in this way?
As is often the case in such misuses of Scripture, it’s a matter of context, context, context. And I type that three times because there are three levels of context that are ignored.
Context #1: finishing the sentence
Let’s start with the basics. This verse is often translated such that it is not a complete sentence on its own, but connected to the previous verse. Re-united with its other half, this is what it says now:
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.
I underlined three key words to make the message of this sentence clear. When God sends plagues upon the land itself because of his peoples’ sins, then God will stop and heal that land if his people humble themselves and repent. So verse 14’s “if/then” statement is connected to a particular set of circumstances: drought, famine, and disease. It’s not a blanket statement about how God will look after his (or any other) country based upon the repentance of believers. It is a promise that he will take away the punishments that he gives out if his people pray in repentance.
But wait, there’s more to the story than just that. Let’s zoom out from these two verses a bit more.
Context #2: completing the prayer
In 2 Chronicles 5, the Ark of the Covenant is brought into the newly-constructed Temple in Jerusalem. In chapter 6, King Solomon blesses the people and offers a prayer of dedication for the new Temple. In chapter 7 we see God’s responses to this prayer: he accepts the burnt sacrifices and than speaks to Solomon. It is in this response from God that we find our frequently-misused verse(s).
God begins his verbal response with these words: “I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice.” Immediately after that comes the two verses we’ve been examining thus far. Verses 15 and 16, following them, emphasize something critically important:
Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place. For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time.
Notice that the promise God makes about hearing the prayers of his people to look after them and the land he has given them is centered around the Temple. The Temple is the place that they are to “seek his face” and pray and repent to him. God’s promises are at this moment fixating on the “how” of prayer (come to me at the Temple) rather than the “what” of prayer (I’ll do all this stuff for you).
Obviously, we don’t have to seek God at the Temple of Jerusalem anymore, so how does this promise from God relate to Christian prayer today?
Context #3: accounting for the covenants
In the Old Covenant, given through Moses, “God’s people” was essentially a family: twelve tribes sharing a common ancestry, bound together with a Law, priesthood, and liturgy, detailed in the Books of Moses. God’s people, Israel, was liturgically centered around the Ark of the Covenant, which in Solomon’s day was housed in the Temple in Jerusalem. That was God’s house, where people could go to meet him face to face, if not visibly with the earthly eye.
In the New Covenant, given through Jesus, “God’s people” is a spiritual family: beginning with twelve apostles, continued through a spiritual ancestry, bound together with the New Testament Scriptures and its corresponding ministry and liturgy. God’s people, the Church, is liturgically centered around the Body of Christ, which is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. That is God’s house, where we go to meet him face to face, if not visibly with the earthly eye.
But there’s one other piece of this puzzle that we need to identify in order to understand 2 Chronicles 7:14 in its Christian application: what is the land?
In the Old Covenant, God’s people (Israel) was given an earthly inheritance of land.
In the New Covenant, God’s people (the Church) is given a heavenly inheritance.
We can talk about ourselves as God’s people, God’s family, God’s chosen or elect, just as the ancient Israelites did. But we do not claim for ourselves an earthly homeland that is “church territory.” Instead, Jesus and the Apostles emphasized a Kingdom not-from-this-world. Ultimately, Jesus is to become King of the entire world; the promised land is a New Heavens and a New Earth. So there is no “holy land” that we can lay claim to. There is no earthly “promised land” that we have to protect.
So what do we do with this verse?
As a result, when we see Old Testament promises that God will “heal their land,” we have to remember that we as Christians have no land for God to heal. That particular promise was for his ancient people, before Christ. Instead, when we turn to the Lord and humble ourselves and pray in his spiritual Temple, the Church, with our fellow Christians, God has promised a greater healing: the healing of our souls and bodies to be holy, reasonable, and living sacrifice unto Him. He promises us eternal life to those who “believe and are baptized” – that is, if we repent and follow him.
Praying for our earthly countries is a good thing, and there are several New Testament quotes that can be used to endorse this. But it is wrong of us to lay claim to one of God’s Old Covenant promises and force it into our New Covenant situation, when we (should) know that the promises he has given us to are far better than the promises of old!