During the early years of my ministry, a popular text for revival preaching was II Chronicles 7:14. It called God’s people to “turn from their wicked ways.” The “wicked ways” most often addressed by those revival preachers related to personal immorality: things like drinking and smoking and illicit sex, none of which were the specific focus of this text; indeed, none of which were major emphases through most of the Hebrew Scriptures.
In real estate, it is said that the three most important factors are “location, location, location.” In that spirit, I would say that three of the most important factors in biblical studies are “context, context, context.” In this case, the text cited above is a part of the story of the dedication of Solomon’s newly built temple.
The verse does not address any specific evil or wickedness, but, rather, is a general promise from God regarding future times when the predictable consequences of Israel’s predictable behavior predictably would result in hard times and suffering. When that happens, God says, “…if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (NRSV)
In the context of the entire biblical account of God’s relationship with God’s people, the sins and wickedness most often addressed were not instances of personal immorality, but, rather, corporate sins of injustice, idolatry, cruelty, and the ill treatment of the poor and the dispossessed.
Jesus’ focus also was on the plight of the poor; indeed, he welcomed and included those whose personal morality was most questionable. Personal morality can be changed for the better when the person is addressed with compassion and dignity; in other words, when addressed with grace.
On the other hand, corporate sins, including organized greed, injustice, racism, class distinction, indifference toward the poor, are more difficult to overcome. Over and over in the Hebrew Scriptures, it was these corporate sins that most often were confronted and said to be the cause of Israel’s downfall.
In that context, I want to take a fresh look at II Chronicles 7:14.
“If my people, who are called by my name…” In ancient cultures, a name was not simply a label for identification. One’s name was a part of one’s identity. To name a person was to call that person into presence. To call God’s name was to call God into presence. To do so frivolously (“in vain”) was considered blasphemy and invited divine wrath. The implication is that a people who identify themselves with God’s name are called to reflect the nature and will of God.
“…humble themselves…” Another of God’s pet peeves regarding God’s people was their penchant for pride. God often called them “stiff-necked.” Pride. Arrogance. Almost always it is expressed as a certitude that one’s own ways and ideologies are the only correct ones. Sound familiar? Opposing groups in our culture generally look at each other with disdain—even with hatred. Differences are not tolerated. Diversity is seen as a negative, rather than an enriching quality.
“…pray…” Not “thoughts and prayers” for victims and their families in response to tragedy. The call is to intense, regular, systematic prayer that, indeed, will “…seek (God’s) face…”; prayer that seeks to align one’s own life and will with the life and will of God; prayer that establishes a godly character; prayer that changes the one who prays. If more people prayed like that, and then lived out the identity established through that kind of prayer—lived it in the presence of all with whom they came in contact, including the depressed, the lonely, the bullied and the rejected—perhaps there would be fewer reasons to offer “thoughts and prayers.”
“…and turn from their wicked ways…” This is one of the simplest biblical descriptions of repentance. As stated above, the wickedness that most offended God, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, was arrogance, injustice, idolatry (the worship of other gods, including wealth and power), cruelty and indifference toward the poor. There’s plenty of that still going around today. Do you suppose that wickedness still offends God?
Then comes the promise: “…then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”
Is it possible that the outrage against personal immorality (you fill in the blank), is at least partially a way of deflecting a sense of guilt over the corporate sins that offend God and divide us?
Is it possible that the obsession with personal responsibility, while refusing demand accountability and responsibility at the corporate level, is at least partially a causal factor in the decline of our culture?
From the other perspective, is it possible that an unbalanced emphasis on corporate, to the neglect of personal responsibility is a root cause of cultural deterioration?
Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” (Matthew 23:23 NRSV, emphasis mine)
I passionately believe it is this imbalanced approach to morality and ethical relatioships that leads to narrow, partisan division.
What if we read this text while looking in the mirror? And what if we got together in groups and did the same?
That’s the way it looks through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,