I can’t think of a good way to preface this, so I won’t other than to say I’m not a minister, theologian, or biblical scholar of any note. You can feel free not to listen to anything I’m about to say…
That said, there has been a significant amount of 2 Chronicles 7:13-14 memes and first world statements tangentially derived from similar theological standpoints floating around in reference to our current Covid-19 pandemic. Things like this…
This needs to stop. Now!
This type of thing is not a unique situation. Mainline Christianity often seems drawn to hard-line statements in Scripture in times of personal distress. When facing great uncertainty, we are drawn more to the “black and white;” the do’s and don’ts.
What we fail to often see, is that hard lines create the sharpest edges of our human rendering of the divine. They cut us apart into the In and the Out; the faithful and the not; those God listens to and those He doesn’t.
I think it has a lot to do with feeling hopeless and helpless, and these dividing lines are hopefully not intentional. We know that we have scriptures to point to the Divine presence within times of duress like Psalm 46 where “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” We love to quote Psalms 23 when someone close to us has already passed away – “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
We know these verses exist, but when it seems that threats and tragedies are much more personally imminent, and seemingly out of control, we look less for messages of a comforter and more for messages of an escape, no matter what message that sends to people more directly affected and afflicted.
Unfortunately, when push comes to shove; when the hammer apparently must meet the nail, we tend toward the far away, Zeus-like, anthropomorphized, marionette God of Old Testament and apocalyptic lore, and we back away from the intimately close, co-suffering picture of the Divine pointed to at the Cross. If there is a God doling out favor on people who [fill in the blank], then we have a clear direct line to and task for our own individual salvation. We’d rather ascribe some very odd and arbitrary characteristics to the God we are told is defined as pure eternal Love just for the sake of feeling that He is truly in control of all things. Maybe we want an “if this, then that” King, not an “I’m with you even in this” Friend. Maybe we only want a God that “is in control” so we can, by our actions, control Him, and that might mean we don’t want a god at all, just control.
- If my God controls the tornado, there still may be unanswerable questions about why He would choose to send/allow one, but it won’t hit my praying house.
- If God is the one that sends pestilence, then the blood of His Son is prayed over my doorsill.
- God knew I was in a rush, but He made me lose my keys throwing me 5 minutes off my schedule; the same 5 minutes behind that horrific crash on I-35.
It sounds good to say. It feels like declarations of faith. It feels like worship. But what does this say of God’s feeling toward your neighbor who did lose their home or even their life in a natural disaster? Why would God protect your family on the highway but irreparably destroy mine? What about the hundreds of thousands of individuals currently battling COVID-19? What of those thousands who have already died? Were their prayers not sincere enough? Was their faith a little weaker than yours or mine? Was the meme they shared not “looked on in favor” like Cain’s fruit offering? Is it that they are simply casualties of the lesson God sought to teach the rest of us? Are they simply sacrificial lambs?
Acknowledging that this time of slowing down and isolating really helps put your priorities in perspective is not the same thing as saying God wanted to show us all how reliant we were on sports, money, and bars so he sent/is using COVID-19 as an awakening. Seeing a positive that can be derived in the midst of tragic circumstances is a good thing. It is, itself, grace. However, suggesting God sends tragedies for the purpose of re-patterning our behavior is just bad theology. Real people are really dying across the globe from a novel virus pandemic by the thousands and right now, unaffected American church folk are using them as marketing material.
You may recall that Job’s friends said a lot of things that sound a lot like 2 Chronicles 7:13-14 (and 19-22 for that matter.) They repeatedly declared there must be something Job has done or forgotten to do, or there must be something Job now needs to do to explain and halt the horrific things that were happening to him. But the point of the book of Job being written from the perspective that it was, is so the reader knows all along that his friends were wrong. That even though they seemed to be making rational theological sounding statements, what was actually going on in the life of their friend defied all of them. Instead of being the co-suffering friends Job needed, their own need for certainty in their own lives caused them to espouse theological positions that harmed Job with their every word and deed and mischaracterized the God He was keeping his trust in despite his desperate circumstances.
So why are so many people using Scripture this way and why is it so easy to do so? That’s complicated, but a part of it is because we’ve learned to read the Bible irresponsibly, both as a manual of basic instructions and as a literal history book, and, as a result, we often miss many of the lessons unveiled within. Lessons that teach us not only about the god the scriptures speak of but also about ourselves.
Yes, there are verses like 2 Chronicles 7:13-14 that say:
“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, 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.”
On their face, these texts paint a god that brings havoc when he is disobeyed but will eventually relent if we do the right things to earn it. A god who knows you are relying on his help, who is in fact somewhat responsible for the severity of the state you are in, but one who will only provide that help if you first pay tribute 🤔. However, this is never how anything actually works out in the biblical story. “God’s people,” starting in the beginning with Adam and Eve, never get it right. The prophets fail, the priests fail, the kings fail, and the people continuously break their divine covenants, but God never fails to deliver them. So, what’s going on then?
In the immediate context of 2 Chronicles 7, King Solomon has just given a big speech to dedicate the completion of the Temple. To this point, things in and around the nation of Israel have always been too volatile and too unsettled to build a proper place for YHWH to “dwell among His people.” They have desired to build this Temple from the day they were first brought out of bondage in Egypt – a reference that is specifically made by King Solomon right before his prayer of dedication. YHWH responds by telling Solomon that Israel is to be obedient and serve no other gods, or they will be uprooted for “forsaking the Lord…who brought them out of Egypt” (verse 22.) Mind you, by the time Solomon comes around, there are a lot of “evil” and “pagan” nations that could have been the negative example since the days of Moses, but Egypt is the only nation specifically mentioned and BOTH Solomon and YHWH bring it up.
Maybe that’s something. Maybe that’s nothing, but in the very next chapter (2 Chronicles 8) we immediately find Solomon conquering the surrounding people and nations, and forcing them into slavery – just like the Egyptians had done to them previously. (Ah!) If that weren’t bad enough, in verse 8, the scribe appends the phrase to Solomon’s enslavement of people, “as is still the case today.”
Why is that interesting? As I understand it, Solomon’s reign is the high point of the kingdom ideal of Israel from its own perspective. Solomon was the chance to show that this kingdom is finally established, belongs to YHWH, the one true God, and will not be like any of the others before it. Yet, not only did Solomon immediately go do exactly what God didn’t want His people doing, the people were still doing it when they cycled back after the kingdom had split, fallen into exile, returned from exile, and was now finally writing this history and warning down.
Solomon’s reign is believed to have been from 970 BCE to 931 BCE (at least that’s what wikipedia says.) Israel fell into Babylonian captivity and exile after Jerusalem fell to King Nebuchadnezzar in 605 BCE. It was some 70 years before the Persians allowed Judeans to return to Judah and the second temple in Jerusalem could begin being built. 2 Chronicles was written (or at least found its final written form) some 230 years after that. 2 Chronicles is the final book of the Hebrew Bible. As a people, they have risen and fallen and been restored a few times over. It could happen again, and the scribes are stating that at least some of the same discretions that led their forefathers into a downfall are still taking place, even now, after God has restored them to their home.
“As is still the case today,” suggests these people of God were still actively in a long, open defiance of their own beliefs about right behavior when the communal story penned 2 Chronicles 7:13-14. They were not ignorant to the suffering they’d experienced as a people from the days of Solomon until this point, and maybe they could sense they were out of step with their divine directive in similar ways King Solomon was hundreds of years prior. Their prophets (like Daniel and Isaiah) have pointed to a coming reckoning. They are home again, but it isn’t like when David was on the throne. This home isn’t yet “their kingdom” again, and perhaps in 2 Chronicles 8, foreshadowing of why leaked into the pages of the people’s own history with – “as is still the case today.”
That alone should suggest that something more is going on than simply what’s on the surface of the page. This statement about “how God works” in verses 13-14 doesn’t even seem to be accurate at the time it was written down. It’s almost as if the aside in 2 Chronicles 8:8 goes on to immediately prove that God must not be that blatantly transactional or controlling in character as even the prior chapter might have you believe. Almost as if you really shouldn’t just pull quote 2 Chronicles 7:13-14 at all because it doesn’t tell the full story. Almost as if 2 Chronicles 7:13-14 sits more as a reminder of the nation’s previous failures, not a future prophecy uncovering God’s “true” transactional, quid pro quo nature.
Actually, as it turns out, that’s exactly what 2 Chronicles 7 appears to be. 2 Chronicles 7 is a point-by-point retelling of 1 Kings 9. Both are the story of Solomon completing and blessing the great temple and the accompanying message from YHWH that Solomon received in return. But in 1 Kings 9, when YHWH speaks, there’s no mention of Him sending locusts or drought or pestilence. No specific signs to look for or directions at all. God simply says if the people turn from Him, He will cut them from their land, cast them out, and the nation would become a proverb; a warning to all other people groups. End of sentence. No redemption. Transaction complete. There’s no option of humbling themselves, repenting, and getting a second chance to get it right. No. “Mess up, and you’re done-done.”
When the story is retold in 2 Chronicles, verses 13-16 are injected into YHWH’s speech from 1 Kings 9. By then, more history has happened. When 1 Kings 9 was written (during the exile), the people had already messed up and were broken and lost. I can only assume that they were fasting and praying and calling on YHWH for help long before and after 1 Kings 9 was written, yet, there they were, still in exile.
Much later, they end up being brought back to the land. What God threatened in 1 Kings 9 appeared to have happened: the people did not keep the rules, and they had been cut off from the land. After their failures under their various kings, the people had now literally seen swarms of locusts destroying crops, droughts leading to famine and pestilence in their time and history – things they took as divine signs of their despair and loss of favor. Clearly, that was not the end. Somehow, by 2 Chronicles 7, they have found themselves restored to their land with a new temple for YHWH to come and tabernacle with them. Why? How?
In 2 Chronicles 7, we read their re-interpreted story. What once said “we messed up and this privilege is all over,” now says “we messed up but we eventually humbled ourselves and repented and YWHW eventually restored us this far.” They are attempting to explain their current better fortunes, despite their ancestors’ previous failures – after the fact. If God promised Solomon to make them a global history lesson of what not to do, but instead restored them to their former glories, perhaps there was something they had done to warrant this second chance. Maybe there was still something they could do to screw up that second chance. Maybe they were already at risk of not fully turning from their wicked ways, even after restoration from exile. Is that why chapter 8 vs. 8 makes sure to include the point that their first mistake – enslaving their neighbors – was “still the case today?”
Wouldn’t this type of theological view make sense as being strongly entrenched as humankind’s understanding of existential things ventured toward “new testament” times? Doesn’t this sound like a “saving gospel” of works and legalism; the systems we’re taught the first century life of Jesus was lived to upend?
When we latch on to these types of verses at the surface level, we today as they then, continue to argue a system of cause, effect, and then remedy. We’ll say that sometimes God causes a thing – a pestilence – which has the effect of awakening his people to turn from their ways, so God can be the remedy of restoration and health. Sometimes our own actions – sin – is said to cause an undesirable effect (disease, addiction, poverty, divorce, etc.) to which the Grace of God provides the remedy if we come with a repentant heart.
So we turn to the bible, not to find the divine, but to find clear directives and answers when the writers of the Bible were asking questions. They just ask the questions in story form. In fact, they keep asking the same question over and over: “Where is the limit to where God will no longer provide the remedy?” That’s why 1 Kings 9, written in exile, seems to say that God told Solomon there’d be no second chances, but 2 Chronicles 7, written after the return from exile, takes the exact same story and adds to it seeking to explain the second chances they’ve ultimately received.
The text asking questions is also why earlier texts seem to say the limits of God’s favor was a blood right for Abraham’s family: “we have it; they don’t.” Then there are texts that claimed the God’s favor was communally, collectively earned and lost through obedience and disobedience: “Only we have it; but we haven’t been faithful, will He continue to be?” New Testament Christians took the ball and opened the potential to the world but made it an individual earning and losing through obedience: “Say these words and you have it, do these things and keep/prove it, but they still don’t.”
Further complicating things, even as these different biblical stances develop within the text, they themselves are disrupted by further scripture:
- While salvation was a future concept spoken to Abram as coming through his eventual family, and long before Moses and Aaron and a Levitical priesthood, Melchizedek, “King of Salem and Priest of the El Elyon” (the most high God,) essentially partakes in the Eucharist with Abram (not even full blown Abraham.) Where’d he come from? He’s not in the line of Seth. He’s not Hebrew, such a conception didn’t exist. He just shows up and brings bread, wine, and a blessing all the way back in Genesis 14?
- When salvation and connection to YHWH was only “for the Jews” and forgiveness came only through repentance and the sacrificial system, many decades before Peter and Paul argue about eating with “Gentiles,” three Magi from an entirely different religious structure, with a different name and beliefs for the Divine, showed up to pay respects to a baby after following a star that none of the people “called by My name” were looking for. What’s that about?
- While the first century carpenter we worship as God was walking around still trying to convince his own people of who He was, He randomly said stuff like “I have other sheep that are not in this fold.” Where were they? What fold were they in? They weren’t in my fold but they were already His sheep?
Truth is, and this shouldn’t be controversial, we’ve never really figured it all out. What we have is simply as far as the canonization process took us. Even though many of us often claim to be so certain and confident in the veracity and completeness of our beliefs and what one “must do to be saved,” we are fools to think we see other than “through a glass darkly.”
What the biblical scribes and communities struggled with and all of us that followed them, has been these particulars of cause and effect: What are we doing or not doing that makes God do what He’s doing or not doing? We fight wars, we make laws, we name our denominations, and we condemn our neighbors over the cause and the effect. All the while, we fail to see what I consider to be an inevitable truth, that regardless of our disagreements over cause and effect, deep down, throughout history, we all intrinsically sense the remedy is coming. No matter our variables, Divine Remedy has been the only constant.
Restoration. Renewal. Rebirth. Resurrection. Redemption. It is coming. We may not know what it looks like, and we may not always be the ones who see it, like the people of 1 Kings 9. Still, wherever we fail and we fall, the Remedy has always come. That is the lesson 2 Chronicles 7:13-14 should teach people today. It represents an advancement in humanity’s conception of Grace, but it was far from the final word.
God is not a marionette out there somewhere controlling the tragic storm that is wrecking your ship, waiting on you to come to your senses. The Divine image your scriptures ultimately reveals is in your ship with you, feeling your fears, pains and concerns with you, yet simultaneously so zenned out about it, He almost appears to be sleeping. The Divine is a source of peace in your storm, not the judgment force behind it. The Divine doesn’t show up only if and when we properly seek It out in our time of need. God is spirit that is all and in all. Sometimes that looks inexplicable and miraculous and feels like the sun breaking through on a stormy day. Sometimes that looks like a nurse in a makeshift mask and feels like slowly lapsing into insanity isolated in your own house.
There is no great being purposely causing this season of “pestilence” to teach mankind a lesson, nor has one capitalized on this tragic time as an opportunity to teach one. This is definitely a time to hold on to faith in whatever form it presents itself in your life, but so are the times of good health and fortune. We should always find the space to be grateful and loving in this existence even in, especially in times of great uncertainty and communal fear.
This pandemic is happening. It’s scary, and it sucks. Pray, meditate, send good vibes, dance, drink, curse and throw a tantrum. Deal how you deal but know that what sustains you is already with you, not on the other side of the storm. The remedy, restoration, resurrection is coming whether we get it right or not.
 Granted, the reason the reader knows this is false is because we’ve been told Job is suffering because God and Satan made a bet. That is, of course, problematic in its own right.
 This slavery detail is an issue you’ll miss if you read the KJV. It states that Solomon caused these non-Israelites to “pay tribute” instead of slavery or forced-labor. That buries the lead.
 It is from this system that we currently pull quote 2 Chronicles 7 because we want to feel that if we, individually, turn to God, He will save us from this uncertainty. However, the language in 2 Chronicles 7 isn’t about individual earning and losing, it is communal. “The people called by my name” weren’t individuals who answered alter calls, it was the whole nation of Israel.