Sometime around the Fourth of July or Memorial Day, you might see a sign advertising a “God and country” rally or prayer breakfast. I can almost guarantee that, if you attend, you will hear, at least once, 2 Chronicles 7:14. For those of you who don’t know it, this passage reads: “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 I will heal their land.”
Often, the way this verse will be preached in many evangelical pulpits is as a rallying cry. In so many sermons, the “people” referred to in the passage are the American people, and the “land” is the American land. The meaning of the text is understood as an invitation to 21st century America to “return to God” and then enjoy God’s blessing once again. It’s no wonder one scholar said that 2 Chronicles 7:14 is “the John 3:16 of the American civil religion.”
If nothing else, the question must be asked of this kind of sermon: Where should we “take America back” to? Do you mean back to the era of the Founders, or back to the 1950s, or 1980s? When, exactly, in America’s blip of an existence did everything fall apart?
But the fact is 2 Chronicles 7:14 isn’t talking about America or national identity or some generic sense of “revival.” To apply the verse this way is, whatever one’s political ideology, theological liberalism.
This verse is a word written to a specific people–the people of God–who were coming home from exile. They were coming home from a time in which they were dominated and enslaved by a foreign power. At a time when they needed to be reminded of who they were, who God was and what he had promised to do, this passage was given to them to point them back to Solomon’s reign, reminding them of what Solomon did when he built the temple, the house of the Lord, the place of the gathering of the worship of God.
After all, it seemed as though the house of David was gone. It seemed as though even after a new temple was built, it wasn’t the “real” temple, because it’s not what it was before. The questions that God’s people were asking at this point were, “Where is God? What is our future as the people of God?”
When God said to them, “If my people who are called by name,” he was specifically pointing them back to the covenant that he made with their forefather Abraham. At a specific point in their history, God had told Abraham about his descendants, saying “I will be their God” and “They will be my people.” That’s what “My people” means. God reminded a people who had been exiled, enslaved, and defeated that a rebuilt temple or a displaced nation cannot change who they were. They were God’s people, and would see the future God has for them.
If we don’t understand the question of who we are, first and foremost, as the people of God, then we are going to miss this. If we take this text and bypass the people of God, applying it to America in general or the Bible Belt in particular, as though our citizenship as Americans or Australians or Albanians is the foundation of the “covenant” God has made with us, the problem is not just that we are misinterpreting the text; the problem is that we are missing Christ.
When we apply texts like this to the nation, apart from the story of Scripture, we do precisely what the prosperity gospel preachers do. The prosperity gospel teachers are drawn, after all, to passages from Deuteronomy and elsewhere promising material and physical blessing for those who are obedient, and material and physical curses for those who are disobedient. The message is that those who obey God’s word will abound with money and health, while those who disobey will face poverty and illness. They misuse the word of God though, by abstracting the promises of God from Jesus Christ. He is the one who, obedient to God, receives God’s blessing and he is the One who, bearing the sins of the people, receives God’s curse (Gal. 3). To apply these to the people directly, bypassing Christ, is to preach a false gospel of approaching God apart from a Mediator (1 Tim. 2:5). A prosperity gospel applied to a nation is no more biblical than a prosperity gospel applied to a person.
But the temptation to apply 2 Chronicles to the nation rather than to the church persists, for the same reasons that some insist on applying Genesis 12:3 (“I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will dishonor”) to foreign policy rather than to where the Bible applies it: to the gospel of Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:7-14). This happens because the first question of culture is one of identity, who are we and where do we fit in the broader culture. We too often see America as somehow more “real” than the kingdom, and our country as more important than the church. But 2 Chronicles 7:14 itself starts with the question of identity: “If my people…called by my name…” This, or any other country, is not called by the name of God. The kingdom of God, on the other hand, is (Isa. 62:3-5).
If that is true, then let’s crucify our generic civil religions and our discount-rate prosperity gospels and hear behind all of them the gentle lowing of golden calves, and let’s instead define ourselves not by the generic god of American values. We do not serve that god. We serve the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God and Father of Jesus Christ. The promises that he has made will outlast Mount Rushmore. He is the one who tells us who we are and tells us where we are going, because he’s promised us, in the short term, a cross on our backs, and in the long term, a crown of life.