Q&R with Brad Jersak – 2 Chronicles 7 and the Pandemic
I have a question regarding the scripture in 2 Chronicles 7:13,14 “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, 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.”
So many churches, pastors and leaders are quoting this OT scripture regarding the current pandemic and asking people to pray to have God stop this pandemic, and these are leaders of denominations and movements here in Australia.
In my mind, the premise of this interpretation of this text is that God has sent this plague because of our sin and so it is a punishment from God. Wouldn’t it be a more appropriate interpretation to understand this text in light of the author’s perspective and mindset of their understanding of what God was like?
I would love to hear your thoughts or ask that you would be able to point me in the right direction regarding this particular scripture and how we interpret in light of prayer and this current pandemic.
Good and timely question!
I would begin by saying that Christians have no business in this text without reference to Christ and his gospel. That is, we are not welcome to read it as if we were Jews who had never heard of Jesus, his ministry and his teachings. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, our invitation is to read the OT (Moses, the Prophets and all the Scriptures) as they prefigure Christ. Jesus must be our Rabbi and Sponsor into 2 Chronicles.
Most importantly, it is ultimately Christ alone who reveals the true nature of God, especially on the Cross, showing us that God IS self-giving, radically forgiving, co-suffering love. God-in-Christ also shows and tells us how he relates to ‘wrath’ in ways more nuanced (and still developing) than in the OT writings. The characters, narrators and authors of the OT anticipate and foreshadow Christ but John 1:18 and Hebrews 1:1-3 indicate that only in Christ do we see the fulness of God’s nature and ways.
All of that informs how Christians came to read the OT. Early Jewish worldviews describe God directly blessing and cursing our virtues and vices by sending health, good weather and abundant crops on the righteous and sending disease, droughts and plagues on the wicked. This kind of direct intervention into secondary causes comes through in the Deuteronomic Covenant (e.g. Deut. 28). The OT prophets were typically and simply ‘covenant enforcers.’ observing their culture and applying those covenant passages to the situation as the voice of God.
But already within the OT, various authors are challenging that worldview. They understand that it doesn’t always work that way. The foolish friends in the book of Job who see the world that way are rebuked for saying things that very much echo those covenants. David loves the law but also asks, “Then why do the wicked prosper? And why are the righteous afflicted?”
By the time you get to Isaiah and Ezekiel (for example), you still have this type of covenant enforcement lingo, but they also begin to distance God from direct wrath. Instead of “if you sin, God will destroy you,” you get “if you sin, Babylon will destroy you.” Where is God in that? First, his wrath becomes indirect: “He will give you over to your sin” or “He will give you over to Babylon.” The idea is that God is not the destroyer. But God warns them that he will consent to their defiance and the consequences that naturally follow. Second, God becomes their co-suffering deliverer from the wrath (which gradually becomes a synonym for Satan). In Romans, Paul will make the same clarification: the wages of sin is death while the free gift of God is life. God is not the death-dealer. In chapter 1, he defines wrath as ‘he gave them over’ three times. So wrath is now a metaphor for the self-destructive consequences of our own defiance and God in his love both consents to our waywardness and participates in our salvation.
And now this brings us to Christ, who gets the last word. Christ has come into a world where people are already perishing (John 3:16-17) with an agenda to save. He IS the image of God in this world. And as God, he addresses the problem of direct wrath (as cited in Chronicles) on two major occasions.
1. John 9 – “Who sinned that this man should be born blind? Him or his parents?” Implication, Sickness, disease and disability are God’s punishments for sin. Jesus denies it. Wrong question. Wrong worldview. His response is that when we see sickness, disease and death, we don’t know for sure if sin was involved except in the sense that we’ve all been part of a cosmic bus crash and some people had worse seats. You just can’t judge and individual as righteous or wicked, blessed or cursed by God, based on their struggles. Rather, we should see human maladies as an occasion for God’s mercy and healing. That’s always where Christians must start.
2. Luke 13 – Pilate’s Temple Massacre and the Fall of the Tower of Siloam: Here we have people dying at the hands of the Romans and in a tragic collapse of a local highrise. Jesus addresses how we should see the victims. Were they any more wicked than the survivors? No. You can’t judge that because God was not the death-dealer. In one case, it fell to human wickedness and in the other, it was probably a random tragedy. We cannot infer anything about the victims’ standing before God and we cannot attribute these deaths to God. In effect, he says, “Worry about your own hearts. Stop pointing the finger. Everyone is perishing. Turn to God for mercy. Ask God for deliverance.”
With that established, how do we read the passage in Chronicles? We understand that a Christological reading prohibits us from a literalist read that adopts a worldview that Christ already redirected into the gospel image of God. And when there is turmoil in the land, we may certainly ask ourselves, did we somehow cause these tragedies, but we cannot venture to assign blame to God or to the victims of tragedy. But where we see injustice at work, we can acknowledge our complicity, turn back to God and watch how the fruit of our lives changes (whether naturally or supernaturally).
Examples: When the twin towers fell, did God send the planes? When hurricane Katrina hit, did God swamp New Orleans? How about this pandemic? Some have said so. Why would he do that? Obviously to punish America. For what? Televangelists suggested various pet sins that they like to rail on. Their proclamations completely ignore the teachings and revelation of Christ.
Yes, we can ask ourselves, have WE done anything to cause these events? Did WE instigate the kind of hate and desperation that leads to terror? Did WE cut corners that led to collapsing sea walls and dikes? Have WE mishandled COVID by neglecting to love our neighbors as we ought? Perhaps we should turn toward God to ask these questions, change our self-defeating practices and look for mercy. But we don’t blame God for directly sending death and we don’t sort the righteous from the wicked by measuring who was hit hardest and who got off lucky. And then we look at how these events become occasions for grace.
Where is God in this? He’s digging through rubble and hard at work in ICU through people who manifest his love and grace in the world. We partner with his ministry of redemption rather than siding with the accuser of the brethren. We become the change we want to see. And in this way, we fulfill a Christocentric reading of the Chronicles passage.