Friday, March 11, 2022

Too Hot to Handle: How Do You Read It? (4)

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Tom: We haven’t done a post on commonly misunderstood Bible verses in a while, IC, so I thought that might be fun subject to get back to for a week or two. This one is a favorite, particularly south of the border:

“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.”

To be fair, I’ve heard it prayed by Christians here too, beseeching the Lord that Canadians would suddenly and inexplicably vote to abolish abortion on demand, or oust Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal Ontario government, or whatever.

A God-Fearing, Christian Nation

American preacher Richard White has put together an entire sermon on this Old Testament verse, the point of which is this:

“Our situation in this nation cannot be solved by human means, we need Divine intervention to bring this country back to being a God-fearing, Christian nation.”

Immanuel Can: It seems to me that these are expressions of the old mistake of confusing national Israel with one’s own nation. And, of course, people who make this mistake always see their own particular nation as substitutable into that particular biblical promise.

Tom: Right. There are a couple of problems with that. One is that Israel had a covenant relationship with Jehovah that no other nation in history can claim. At Sinai, they as a nation bound themselves to God and to his Law with the promise “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” God made certain promises to bless Israel contingent on her obedience, and Israel made corresponding promises to obey God’s law. Those are the “my people” of 2 Chronicles 7 — an ethnically-specific group of men and women that, at least in the beginning, professed across the board to have a unique national relationship with God. No modern nation — in fact, no other nation at any point in history — can claim that sort of relationship.

A City on a Hill

IC: Well, it IS fair to say that when America began there was a lot of Christian utopianism involved, heightened by the feeling of “a new start” that was offered by the New World. In 1630, for example, John Winthrop famously declared of the new Massachusetts Colony, “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” In the founders’ imagination, North America was destined to be the location of a totally new and totally exceptional nation, God’s nation, the one that would become all that the European (and other) nations had always failed to be.

That was the dream. Unfortunately, there is no more than the founders’ wishes to warrant such a declaration. Biblically speaking, there’s nothing to it. But the legend has lingered powerfully in the popular imagination.

Tom: Right. The second problem, evident from Richard White’s sermon, is the misconception that America has ever been a “God-fearing, Christian nation”. As you say, there was certainly a Christian influence upon the process of founding her. But to go from there to imagining that America’s citizens were behaving in a God-fearing way as they God-fearingly kept slaves and God-fearingly massacred native tribes and God-fearingly rebelled against Britain and had their God-fearing civil war … no. Just no. They were a nation like any other nation, and their people were a mixture of God-fearing, godless and somewhere in between, and they did both good and bad things.

The People “Called By My Name”

But even if America ever had been a God-fearing, Christian nation, it would not give them or anyone else license to claim a promise made to a covenant people.

IC: No, quite so. It is not because one calls upon God to bless one’s nation that he does so. Now, faith and obedience toward God always have benefits — for the individual, for the place where he lives, and for the people among whom he dwells — but that’s quite a different proposition than to say that God owes the entire nation special regard; especially when he’s made no promise of it.

Tom: Exactly. “Be obedient and get materially blessed” is no longer an accurate way to describe how things may be expected to go with God’s people. Sometimes God’s people do good and get evil done to them in return, as is currently happening in many places throughout the world. Sometimes God’s people do very badly and appear to be allowed to get away with it, at least in the short term, as appears to be the case in North America. But because all countries are a mixture of believers and unbelievers, usually weighted heavily toward the latter, it’s hard to imagine how an entire nation might be persuaded to repent even if repentance were guaranteed to bring about the desired consequences.

IC: The key is the identity of “the people who are called by my name”. It’s all too natural for us to think that means us: that we’re the “people” who are called by God’s name, and this is a promise for any nation that has even a nominal profession to be “Christian”. But this is a very specific promise, given to Solomon, concerning Jerusalem and the temple, and specifically directed to the only nation that has divine sanction for being associated with the name of God as a nation. There is, quite simply, no other nation on earth to which any such promise has been given — and definitely none under the New Covenant.

I have no doubt it would do our nation good to humble themselves and pray, and to seek God’s face. That sort of turning might save many people. And no doubt it would make our national politics a whole lot more savory. But it will not magically reconstitute us as “the people which are called by God’s name”.

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