The past week has marked one of the most bitter and violent times in our beloved South Africa. It has driven us to our knees to cry out to God for peace and mercy upon this nation. Prayer is one of the most spontaneous responses to crises and a command that God instructs us to practice. Therefore, this is an opportune time to unpack how to pray for our country rightly while living as citizens of heaven. We also will look at the misuse and the right use of specific Old Testament texts when praying for our nation.
We carry dual citizenship
I carry two passports. I am a citizen of the Seychelles, where I was born, and I am a citizen of South Africa, in which I’ve been living since 1974. Similarly, as Christians, we also carry dual citizenship. We are legally children of God with a spiritual address. We reside “with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6) and “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). Yet, we also live in South Africa (or whichever country applies to you) as citizens with a physical address and ID.
We see this principle illustrated in the book of Jeremiah and reinforced in the New Testament.
Praying as exiles
Around 600 BC, the Israelites were forcefully removed from their homeland and taken to Babylon as captives. But instead of a quick return home, Jeremiah, the prophet, tells them to put their roots down. Babylon wasn’t to be their ultimate home. Still, as temporary residents, the Lord wanted them to “seek the welfare of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7), to pray for its peace, and to be good citizens building houses and businesses and families (Jeremiah 29:5). By living this way, they would be glorifying God.
In the New Testament, Christians are also called exiles and temporary residents (1 Peter 2:11) in this world. But rather than being no earthly good, we are urged to be good citizens, doing good to everyone (Galatians 6:10), and praying for our government. Paul commands us to pray for “kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2). We must note that a few verses on, Paul emphasises how God “desires all people to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4). Hence, by praying for our country and government, we trust God to create stability for the gospel to be shared freely. Persecution can indeed purify the church, but we are never called to pray for persecution but rather for peace. A stable and free country enables healthy families and churches to grow, the gospel to be shared freely, and people to live out their faith without fear.
Honouring corrupt leaders
Some Christians feel justified by not praying and honouring authority. And why should they do so when there are dishonourable leaders and an inept government? While some of the criticisms are valid, God desires his people to “honour the emperor” (1 Peter 3:17) and to “be submissive to rulers and authorities… to speak evil of no one” (Titus 3:1-2).
We tend to forget that the Lord gave these commands to Christians who lived under oppressive government systems led by power-hungry, self-serving, corrupt men and their lackeys. Reading through the history of Roman emperors and their ilk makes me very thankful to be living in these times. The implication for us is that we must honour governing authorities whether they deserve it or not. We do so by praying for them, paying our taxes and obeying the law (as long as it doesn’t cause us to disobey the law of God).
Claiming promises given to Israel
Some believe we should be praying for nothing less than a transformed nation under God. That we should put all our energy into trusting God to reform South Africa under biblical values – to become a “Christian nation”. This stance comes about because they believe the promises given to ancient Israel can be applied to South Africa today for national revival and prosperity in our country.
The most well-known and prayed promise used today must be 2 Chronicles 7:14. In it, God says to Solomon, “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.”
The Old Testament and Christians
We must aim to apply this text correctly because we want to be faithful in “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). First, we note that 2 Chronicles 7:14 (and the entire Old Testament) wasn’t written to Christians, but to Jews who lived in ancient Israel, under the old covenant law brought by Moses. As followers of Jesus, we live in the new covenant (as expressed in the New Testament). Hence the laws of Moses are no longer applicable to us unless they get restated in the new covenant (such as the moral laws in the ten commandments).
By reading the Old Testament, we see how God makes undeserving promises to his people (many of them fulfilled in Jesus). We get to see the extraordinary nature of God and his incredible dealings with mostly stubborn and hard-headed people. And so our faith in God is built up when we understand and read the Old Testament.
Coming back to 2 Chronicles 7 then, the assurance that God would heal their land is not given directly to us since we are not ancient Israelites. However, even though it was written to the Jews, it has principles in it that can be prayed and applied for us today, but not in the way we might expect.
Applying 2 Chronicles 7:14 for us today
“My people who are called by my name” (2 Chronicles 7:14) is not referring to South Africans, or Americans, or any other traditionally “Christian” nation. The only “holy nation” spoken of in the New Testament is now the church (1 Peter 2:9). The New Testament never calls any nation a Christian country. The only elect country is God’s people, the church. So as believers, if we take the principles here and learn to seek God wholeheartedly, God can transform and reform churches and believers. The church in South Africa by-and-large is sick, and have drifted from their biblical moorings.
The text also deals with humility (“humble themselves and pray”), hunger for God (“seek my face”), and repentance (“turn from their wicked ways”). God responds when we learn to humble ourselves (1 Peter 5:6), he forgives when we repent of our sin (1 John 1:9), and he draws near to those who draw near to him (James 4:8). When we do these things, God renews us.
The verse ends with the promise of God to “heal their land”. Part of this meant material blessings given to Israel if they would obey God. But for the obedient follower of Jesus, the New Testament does not guarantee material blessings and prosperity in the same way. For example, there were times of great material need in the early Church (Romans 15:26, 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, 2 Corinthians 8). Even the apostle Paul suffered material need and had to be content with little (Acts 18:3, Philippians 4). Being blessed in Christ does not always translate to material blessing or wealth. Our hope is in the land to come, in the future age where those who have been faithful here will receive their full reward. More than we could ever dream!
And so applying the principles in 2 Chronicles 7 gives us hope and helps us get right with God. It can cause renewal for the people of God and those who turn to find him. But as a promise today for national prosperity? The New Testament writers who quoted many Old Testament scriptures and wrote much on prayer don’t ever quote or claim this promise.
Reforming the world
To conclude our section on 2 Chronicles 7, we see that so many Christians are so eager to reform the world that they forget our mandate is to bring the gospel to it, not try to change it.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, “The church is not here to reform the world, for the world cannot be reformed. The business of the church is to evangelise”. Of course, individual believers can do good works and influence society in their own capacities, but the church and pastors are not to bring politics into the pulpit or judge the world. Our role is to reform the church, teach saints the knowledge of God, and the gospel’s power.
Our highest aim
In closing, as God’s people, we should be praying for South Africa’s leaders to rule with wisdom, integrity and truthfulness. In addition, we do well to pray for the peace, stability and prosperity of this land. We do this not because our country is the promised land or a special place that God has covenanted with, but because he loves people, desires to see them saved, and sustains the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45).
Our highest aim is not to reform our nation but to reform the church, so that we can be a witness to the world of godliness, power and love. It is the church that displays the wisdom of God in this world, not a country. And it is the church, the bride of Christ, that the Lord Jesus, the glorious bridegroom, will be returning for. Let’s then continue to pray earnestly with our feet planted on earth and our hearts seeking his kingdom.