A favorite verse —- misunderstood?

humbleSeldom have I read a text in the Hebrew bible and have been as surprised by how differently that text sounded in our English bibles than I was when I read 2 Chr. 7:14 this week. Most English versions read something similar to this rendering from the NIV.

“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 will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

When I followed along as this verse was read in English, my first thought was “Where is the ‘if’ in this verse?” In Hebrew, this verse reads like we began in the middle of the sentence and we missed something important that came earlier. This is how it sounds in Hebrew.

“…and my people, who are called by my name, are humbled and pray and seek my face and turn from their evil ways, I certainly will hear from heaven and I will forgive their sin and I will heal their land.”

As I looked back at the prior text to see what I had missed, the text appeared even stranger. Chapter 7 begins with the joyous celebration dedicating the Temple. Solomon had finished his prayer of dedication, and fire had come down from heaven,  consummating the temple dedication. Following this, there has been three weeks of celebration with praise, music, and feasting, and then when this had been completed and the people returned to their homes, God appeared to Solomon:

“And Lord appeared to Solomon at night. And he said to him, I have heard your prayer and I have chosen this place to be my house of sacrifice. Thus I will restrain the rain from the heavens, and thus I will command the grasshopper to eat the [produce of] the land! And if I send a plague against my people, and my people, who are called by my name, are humbled and pray and seek my face and turn from their evil ways, I certainly will hear from heaven and I will forgive their sin and I will heal their land.”

At first glance, this appears to be a rather strange response to the dedication of the Temple. Why would God promise to withhold the rain, and send plagues against his people in response to the dedication of the temple? The answer is that he didn’t, God’s answer here isn’t an unsolicited response to the dedication of the temple, it is a direct response to Solomon’s own prayer. Only when we look back to Solomon’s prayer recorded in Chapter 6 does God’s response begin to make sense. Here is a portion of Solomon’s prayer.

“May you hear the petitions of your servant and your people Israel who pray towards this place. Hear from your dwelling place in heaven, hear and forgive.

If a man sins against his neighbor, and is compelled to take an oath before your alter in this house, may you hear from heaven, act, and judge your servants, repaying the wicked for his deeds, and vindicating the righteous man, and rewarding him for his righteousness.

If your people are struck down by an enemy because they sinned against you, and they return and praise your name, and they pray and seek your favor in this house, may you hear from heaven and forgive the sin of your people Israel and bring them back to the land that you gave to them and their fathers.

When the heavens are restrained and it does not rain because they sinned against you, and they pray towards this place, praising your name, and turn from their sin because you have punished them, may you hear from heaven and forgive the sin of your servants. And teach your people Israel to walk in your good way, and send rain on your land, [a land] that you gave to your people to possess.

When there is famine in the land because of a plague, whether it is blight or mildew, locust or grasshopper, or because their enemies have raided their fortified cities. All are afflicted and all are ill. Every prayer and petition for every man and for all your people Israel, each man knowing his own affliction and pain and spreading out his hands towards this house, may you hear from heaven, your dwelling place. May you forgive and repay each man according to all his ways. You know his heart because you alone know the human heart. Do this so that they will fear you all the days that they live in the land you gave to our fathers.”

As we look at Solomon’s prayer, we can see that God’s response was not unexpected, it was a direct answer to thing for which Solomon had already prayed.

 

Some additional difference in the Hebrew text

  • While most versions translate‎ יִכָּנְע֙וּ reflexively i.e. ‘they will humble themselves,’ this Hebrew verb form is primarily used as a passive. ‘they will be humbled.’ The Hebrew text conveys a bit more strongly God’s part in humbling his people, while still conveying the idea that man has a responsibility to respond when God has humbled him. God’s response in 2 Chr. 7:14 mirrors Solomon’s declaration (2 Chr. 6:26) that it is God who punishes.
  • Most English texts use the conditional ‘if’ three times in verse 13 i.e. ‘If I will restrain the rain,’ ‘if I will command the grasshopper,’ and ‘if I send a plague’ but the first two instances in the Hebrew are not conditional. The Hebrew word used here is הן and is most often translated as ‘behold,’ ‘thus,’ etc… The text communicates that this is something God will do, and not something he might do.

 

Why then do our English translations read the way they do?

The LXX (an ancient Greek translation of the OT) of these verses reads much more closely to our English translations, and it includes all of the conditionals missing in the Hebrew text. The KJV relied heavily on this Greek text, and subsequent English translations very often follow the textual tradition set by the KJV translators. Additionally, some scholars have suggested that the Hebrew text may align closer to the Greek, positing the idea that ‘הן’ is an example of an Aramaism in this Hebrew text; ‘הן’ can be used in Aramaic as a conditional in some circumstances. If we accept this proposal, it could account for the two missing conditionals in verse 13, but it does not explain the missing conditional in verse 14. While this is a possible explanation for the differences between the Hebrew and Greek texts, it is much more likely that the author of Chronicles, who lived at a time when the Jewish people primarily spoke Hebrew, used this word with its Hebrew meaning, and the translators of the LXX, who lived centuries later at a time when Aramaic had become the prevalent spoken language used by the Jews, simply misunderstood the meaning of this word.

 

Concluding thoughts

Solomon, in his prayer, acknowledged that God, in his sovereignty, may choose to use life’s difficult circumstances to guide his people to repentance. He recognized that God’s punishment is not that of a tyrant ready to pounce, but rather it is that of a loving father who desires the very best for his children. When God appeared to Solomon, he himself confirmed that Solomon had correctly understood God’s heart for his people. The idea that God, as a loving father, uses the difficult circumstances in life to guide us back to his path is a theme often repeated in Scripture. Hosea describes God as blocking the wrong path of sinful Israel in order to bring them back into fellowship with him, and the author of Hebrews expounds on this idea in Chapter 12, declaring that God’s punishment demonstrates that we belong to him and that he truly loves us.

And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Heb. 12:5-11 NIV)

The story of the Gospel that is threaded throughout all of Scripture is not an instruction about what we must do to please God, but rather it is a description of what God has already done for us, and how we should respond to the God who first loved us and is always trying to draw us into true intimacy with him.