The country of which I am a grateful citizen celebrated its bicentennial during my junior year of high school.
Among American Christians, it was common to hear a portion of the long prayer with which the ancient Israelite King dedicated the house that he had constructed for YHWH. Quoted according to the King James Bible in which more often than not it was remembered in that moment, it runs like this:
If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. (1 Chronicles 7.14)
Though it did not strike me at the time as out of place when quoted by Americans of their nation, that awkwardness was to grow on me in later years as I learned the tools of historical research and realized how far Solomon’s dedicatory words ranged from my modern country’s 200th birthday.
Yet these many years later I no longer cringe cringe. It strikes me as an authentic and good instinct for believers to wish for their nation what Solomon claimed to hope for his own. Hand-wringing about the ascription to one’s own tribe of privileges that the biblical literature of the Old Testament claims for Israel and the New Testament for the Christian community is well and good for a season and must be taken seriously. Yet caveats and protestations—if prolonged beyond their time—sometimes eclipse the main thing.
In this case, I see little harm when godly citizens of my own country—or any other—intone or sing this prayer in heartfelt concern for their own. It is, after all, an implicit summons to repentance and a moving casting of one’s nation’s lot upon the God of Second Chances.
The much-quoted words—in 1976, at least—are part of a much longer prayer. I quote a slightly more expansive portion here:
Then the LORD appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: ‘I have heard your prayer, and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. 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. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place. For now I have chosen and consecrated this house so that my name may be there forever; my eyes and my heart will be there for all time.’
The Chronicler has YHWH affirm that hungry eyes that turn back towards the place he has called his own house will in time meet the gaze of the One who dwells there, attentive to the eventual plea of the wanderer. YHWH, we are told, has eyes and ears for one who cries out in this way or, more literally, for that errant community who does so.
The text is full of conditions. The people must somehow find their way back to the ways and means that animated Solomon’s father David. Yet the main variable has nothing to do with the people’s penitent resolve to mend their ways. The main thing is in fact a certainty: YHWH, we read, is good. No deity ever has been nor ever shall be as persistently loyal to the covenant he has established with his people.
In context, we might infer that other deities are more easily ffed up, more put out by bald-faced rebellion, less moved by the cries of those who have gone astray and know it.
YHWH, Solomon, tells his people, is not like them.
If the people cry in his direction, he will hear. He will see. He will heal.
Divine audition as uniqueness. Divine eyesight as functional monotheism.
No one like him. It is the confession of a people desperate for healing, longing for Zion, much in mind of the time they knew YHWH’s house, how to find it, and who resided therein.