“and my people, who bear my name, humble themselves, pray and seek my face, and turn from their evil ways, then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sin, and heal their land.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
There is perhaps no verse claimed as a mantle for American exceptionalism and a guarantee of God’s blessing for our nation than this one. Politically conservative Christians have claimed this verse as a cherished promise for many years. Whenever the culture wars begin to intensify, or some moral tragedy begins to unfold, we are told that if we will just get on our knees and seek God again like we did in some nostalgia-tinged fantasy image from our past, everything will be better. God will make everything better. But what if we’re wrong? Let’s talk this morning about the uncomfortable truth of this verse and what is real.
There are two principles of biblical interpretation that are essential to understanding any text in the Scriptures. We’ve talked about these before, but they’re worth repeating again because you’ve probably forgotten them, and they come powerfully into play when talking about this verse.
The first principle is that context is king when interpreting a passage. If the author couldn’t have meant something, he didn’t mean it. If you take a verse out of context, a clever exegete could make it say just about anything. Plunk it down in a new context and the possibilities grow even greater.
The second principle is that a text can’t mean something it never could have meant. There was a commentator and author in the 1970s who tried to suggest that a particular description of something in Revelation was fulfilled by a certain type of then-modern helicopter. Human flight was not even a glimmer of a thought in John’s imagination. The idea of a modern attack helicopter was even more far-fetched. Simply put: nothing in Revelation is fulfilled by a modern helicopter. The text never could have meant that and so it doesn’t mean it now.
Here’s why all of this matters. For too long folks have looked at this verse and made a case that as American Christians we can claim it as our own. It appears on bumper stickers, wall art from places like Hobby Lobby, numerous sermons at Sunday services and revivals, and more Facebook memes than I could even begin to count. It’s an easy sell to patriotic believers who are looking for some kind of guarantee that if they’ll just toe the right lines, God will make everything better.
The trouble is, this all fails on both of these basic points of biblical interpretation. When God spoke these words to Solomon, He wasn’t speaking them about any nation that chose to claim them. He certainly didn’t have us in mind. No one who heard these words after they were spoken was thinking about anything other than Israel. They were for Israel, and Israel alone. God didn’t and doesn’t have a “people” the way Israel was His people. Modern followers of Jesus have an entirely different relationship with Him than Israel did.
Doing a bit of hypothetical thinking, if this verse somehow did apply to God’s people today, it would have to apply to all of them. Well, “all of them” includes believers in every nation on earth. Given that, this promise would technically be applicable to every nation on earth. That means believers in every nation could pray and seek God, and God will bless their nation and heal their land. Yet when American Christians claim this verse, that is hardly what they have in mind. On that understanding, this verse doesn’t speak a single word to our exceptionalism as a nation.
Well, this verse doesn’t speak a single word to our exceptionalism as a nation.
So, what am I saying? Do I not think America is an exceptional nation? I absolutely do. I am fully convinced that we are the freest, most prosperous, most just nation that has ever existed in the whole history of the world. We are not without our warts and problems. We have big, ugly skeletons in our closet that we are far too averse to talk about in meaningful ways that balance honesty, fair criticism, and a sincere desire to grow from them.
But we have moral progression as a part of our history in a way no other nation ever has. Our laws and culture have allowed a broader, bigger cross section of people to achieve incredible success than any other nation has ever managed. Our standard of living doesn’t mean there are no people who struggle to make ends meet, but it is higher for a higher percentage of the population than any nation has ever achieved.
Does this make us better than every other nation? I suppose that depends on your nationality identity, but I think it does. Furthermore, I think it’s okay for me to think that. I think that if you are a believer in another nation, you should be thinking something similarly patriotic about your own nation. I’ll go even one step further than that, though. I think our nation’s relationship with God is different than just about any other nation has experienced, much less pursued.
Come on, you knew that was coming.
We are not a Christian nation. We never have been. We never will be. Christianity informed our Constitution and has had a truly unique impact on our culture in a way unlike any other worldview has. But we are not a Christian nation. We are not God’s people like Israel was. We never have been. We never will be. We don’t have a covenantal relationship with Him like Israel did. Promises He made to them have no bearing on us. They aren’t applicable to us. No amount of wishing or claiming will change that fact. He doesn’t have plans for us like He did for them. Nothing of the sort is true.
Okay, but what do we do with this verse? Nothing. We read it. We marvel at the relationship God had with Israel—something they never took full advantage of. We look on with horror as Solomon received this promise and fairly soon thereafter turned his back on God. But that’s about it. We definitely don’t try to claim it. It doesn’t apply to us.
Instead, what we have is better. We don’t have a law to try to keep in order to get to God that we fail at constantly. We have God living in our hearts by His Spirit, helping us to stay in a relationship with Him in Christ. God’s not interested in making a single nation out of us He can bless in some kind of tangible way. He makes us agents of blessing who can bless the world wherever He has put us in every nation. We are not some limited nation with finite borders as Christians. We, the church, are everywhere, advancing His kingdom in every corner of the globe. That may not give us the easy road we’d like, but it’s a whole lot better.