A Hard Lesson
If you ever have been in a Christian bookstore, you will notice that certain Bible passages naturally lend themselves to works of Christian artwork. You will find banners, posters, t-shirts and so on with just a handful of passages. They may include Psalm 23, the Ten Commandments or the Lord’s Prayer.
Another popular passage is 2 Chronicles 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 I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” It seems to be a beautiful passage that offers us hope in a dark time. I don’t think there has ever been a time that Christians haven’t looked at this and longed for this reality.
Unfortunately, this passage is often misinterpreted. It is looked as basically saying, “Spend some time in prayer and God will bless you.” Prayer is indeed important but that is not the message. If we are going to understand this passage, we need to look at it in its full context.
Dedicating the Temple
We need to position ourselves. Last time we were further down the timeline of Israel but are now going back. That is because Chronicles recounts many events from Samuel and Kings. At the point where we are, Solomon is king of Israel. Solomon was the son of David. David had wanted to build the temple in Jerusalem but God reserved that honour for Solomon. The temple has now been built and it is time to dedicate the building. In the midst of that, God spoke to Solomon.
What did Solomon expect God to say? We can’t know. But if we were dedicating a new part of our building and God spoke to me, I know what I would hope for. I would hope for something like: “Great job, keep up the good work, I will bless whatever you do, no matter what, I’m with you.” But what did God say?
God accepted the Jerusalem temple as the one place where he could be worshiped. So far, so good. But then there is a series of warnings. God had expectations for the people of Israel. They better be obedient or else there would be consequences. Disobedience would result in discipline on God’s part. Remain obedient and things will go well. Become disobedient and things will get bad. How bad? The temple had just been built. It was in perfect shape, without all of the wear and tear of thousands of worshippers. But this beautiful building, could become a heap of rubble if things went wrong. Imagine the look on Solomon’s face on hearing that.
This is where we need to get specific when it comes to historical contexts. There are two contexts for this passage. One is for the time being described. That is the time of Solomon and the time of the dedication of this first temple. But there is another context and that is when Chronicles was written.
Chronicles, which is the final book in the order of the Jewish Bible, was written after the exile. Which exile? Everything that God warned about came to pass. The people of Israel were disobedient. The result was the people in the north were conquered by the Assyrians and the people in the south were conquered by the Babylonians. Not only did the Babylonians capture Jerusalem, they destroyed Solomon’s beautiful temple. It indeed became a heap of rubble. The people in the south, now known as Jews, were exiled to Babylon. They stayed for 70 years and Chronicles was written as they were returning to Judah and Jerusalem.
The warning that were just theoretical to Solomon were reality to the Jews after the exile. But the lesson still stood. Now they knew that God’s warning was no ideal threat.
This brings us to our beloved 2 Chronicles 7:14. This prayer was specifically a prayer of repentance, a prayer that was to be accompanied by changed actions. As harsh as the concept of obedience and disobedience was, there was always a way to get right again. God was not interested in punishing out of anger but of disciplining out of love. The point was for Israel to make the right choices and to live out God’s will.
Dedicating Our Temple
What does this mean for us? There are two bad applications to this. One would be to look at Israel and seeing them as so bad but now with the church, God finally made the right choice. The second would be to look at this and see God as a vengeful judge who will destroy us if we make one mistake. Neither of those are helpful but there is an application.
It comes down to the nature of the temple. The original passage was closely tied to the dedication of the temple. What does the temple look like today? Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:16, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” The temple that Paul is speaking of here is not the individual Christian but the church. And by the church we mean the people and not the building. The original physical temple was a place where God’s presence dwelt. God by his Spirit is present among his people and so we are his temple.
If we are his temple, how do these warnings about obedience and disobedience affect us? I thought we lived in an age of grace and not of obedience? It is true that we are saved by grace and not works but even then that salvation assumes a change that makes us desire obedience. But we are not talking so much about the individual Christian as the church.
The question we need to ask is: Does God have expectations for the church and are there consequences if we choose to obey or disobey? The role of the church is far more that to just sing songs and read Bible passages. Our job is to expand the kingdom of God in our community and beyond. Some people have suggested that the church is meant to be a battleship and not a cruise ship. We exist not for our own entertainment but to make a difference in the world.
But can we really see God disciplining his church for disobedience in this Christian era? Listen to this passage from the letter to Ephesus in Revelation. “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” In Revelation, the lampstand represents the church. If they didn’t repent, that church would come to an end.
That doesn’t mean that every church that closes its doors was disobedient or that every church that is outwardly thriving is obedient. But it does mean that God expects obedience to his plan and repentance when we stumble. And we will stumble because we are human. This is where the grace comes in. God will forgive us as a church when we get off track. God’s desire is that we remain in close relationship with him and he will do everything to make that happen. Including discipline.
This is not the message that I want to preach. I am an easy going person and I much prefer to talk about pleasant things. But this passage challenges us with the example of Israel in a way that is directly applicable to the church. God has a mission for this church and he expects us to be obedient. Notice that I said obedient and not successful. The success comes from God, the obedience from us. I have watched in recent years as megachurches that have seemed to have everything that a church could want, lose their way and crumble. This is a problem not of megachurches but human churches. As long as we allow people to be a part of the church, we are in danger of disobedience. But disobedience is not the final word. “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 forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)