It’s Simply Too Late

So, Vice President-elect Mike Pence will take the oath of office on Ronald Reagan’s Bible, and he will place his hand specifically on 2 Chronicles 7:14

… if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

It’s an interesting choice.

Pence could have chosen anything from chapter 6, which is the Chronicler’s account of Solomon’s prayer after he blessed the people of Israel and dedicated the temple. In fact, the words of Solomon’s prayer would have made more sense, that long plea Solomon makes for mercy and forbearance from God to forgive Israel when Israel repents.

When the prayer is done, Solomon calls God down from Heaven to dwell in this newly built house, and this his presence may never depart Israel:

41 “And now arise, O Lord God, and go to your resting place, you and the ark of your might. Let your priests, O Lord God, be clothed with salvation, and let your saints rejoice in your goodness. 42 O Lord God, do not turn away the face of your anointed one! Remember your steadfast love for David your servant.” (2 Chronicles 6:41-42 ESV)

Fire does indeed come down from heaven during this long ceremony, after this long prayer, and Israel grovels before the Lord.

Then, long after the dedication is done and the ceremony finished, God appears to Solomon “in the night” (an interesting reference, given that Solomon said at the beginning of chapter 6, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness [Exodus 20:21]. But I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to well in forever.”) and answers Solomon’s prayer. I have chosen this house, God says:

13 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, 14 if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 15 Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place. 16 For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time. 17 And as for you, if you will walk before me as David your father walked, doing according to all that I have commanded you and keeping my statutes and my rules, 18 then I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father, saying, You shall not lack a man to rule Israel.’
19 “But if you turn aside and forsake my statutes and my commandments that I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them, 20 then I will pluck you up from my land that I have given you, and this house that I have consecrated for my name, I will cast out of my sight, and I will make it a proverb and a byword among all peoples. 21 And at this house, which was exalted, everyone passing by will be astonished and say, Why has the Lord done thus to this land and to this house?’ 22 Then they will say, ‘Because they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers who brought them out of the land of Egypt, and laid hold on other gods and worshiped them and served them. Therefore he has brought all this disaster on them.’” (2 Chronicles 7:13-22)

Pence is quoting from the promises of God made to Solomon, and by themselves, they sound like an open-ended promise to the people of God — remember me, and I will remember you. After all, God now dwells in the midst of the people, hearing and seeing all that they do. Feeling all they do.

Pence, like a lot of American Christians, confuses America the nation with the People of God. This promise is made to Israel, and by extension the church. There is no other people of God. Christians in Christendom easily confuse nation-state and community because the Christendom community is bounded by both church and state, it is both polity and congregation. To be Christian is to be a citizen (and vice versa). It’s an old problem, one Christians have never dealt well with. But I see no covenant between God and America, no evidence that God ever cut one with America past the self-righteous assertions of American Christians who confuse their civic enterprise with the call to follow Jesus.

But Pence makes another mistake here. This is not an open-ended promise. This is not a theoretical if-then, else-then. Like every set of promises God makes to Israel, it is embedded in the story of Israel’s failure. God speaks to Solomon of the consequences of turning away (Solomon is not the sinner in Chronicles he is the Deuteronomistic account), and Israel, under Solomon’s successor Reheboam, begins to turn away. Rebellion, idolatry, abandonment of the teaching, all lead to war and suffering and conquest.

It’s an object lesson — God demands our faithfulness, and God exacts a price for our faithlessness — but it must also be read embedded in the story of Israel. Which is one of faithlessness and failure. All that God promises Solomon in verses 19-22 comes to pass.

The repentance Pence quotes here comes, if it all, in Nehemiah 9, centuries later, when the exiles have been gathered, the law read, and the covenant renewed — under conditions of limited sovereignty, of Persian rule.

Most Christians do not want to deal with the fact that the story of Israel is one of failure. The story of the church, therefore, must also be one of failure. We will fail. We have found God’s favor and been blessed but God’s favor also included curses for faithlessness. And as often as we have done what we are told, we have not. Again and again, we are conquered and driven into exile, mindful that no arrangement we can put together on the basis of God’s promises and our adherence to the teaching will last forever.

It may be we are a faithful people living in a time of curses. That too is a divine calling, for which we are to bear witness, both prophetic and pastoral. Some of us, maybe many, are called to be priests without a temple. It may be if God’s people — the church in America — will repent, God will fulfill his promises and relent for a season. But we cannot even agree right now on what constitutes our sin, and because America, rather than the church, is what’s at stake for us, the supposed faithful remnant are constantly pointing at those outside, those others who do not share our virtues, and we say their sin got us here. And not ours.

And it may simply be far too late for repentance, whether we speak of Christians or Americans. Storm is coming, Assyrians and Babylonians are shoeing horses and sharpening swords. Consequences we began to bring upon ourselves long ago. God may relent, for a time, but it is probably too late to do much of anything except watch, pray, and seek safety.

One thought on “It’s Simply Too Late

  1. I have some sympathy for Pence’s choice. At least it does call for repentance, and I think (having some knowledge of the various ways of Indiana Christians) he probably realizes that he is one of those who must humble himself, as paradoxical as that would be in the midst of a ceremony by which the state is exalting him. And even though the land is not the Israel of David, anyone taking a position of secular responsibility must hope for the land to be healed and to be an instrument allowed to participate in the healing. And if the church is the new Israel, it seems also to have recapitulated the story of Israel, and many passing by must wonder why the LORD has done thus to his people.

    But I might have recommended rather the rhetorical climax of Peter’s first letter:

    6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.

    Our adversary (and I am not using this as a metaphor for any human agency) is certainly prowling and roaring, but he is also whispering malign things in everyone’s ear. It struck me yesterday that the only way out of our futile civil warring is to declare that this adversary is the universal oppressor — the only one we need to be watchful for, and that whoever we are, and whatever we think we are, in our resistance through humility and humiliation, we are remade by the God of all grace. To YHWH be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.

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