His love endures forever
In 2 Chronicles 2-4 we have a description of the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, and then in chapters 5-7 the dedication of the Temple.
As I read those chapters recently as part of my Bible reading plan, I noticed something important: the centrality of God’s love.
It is somewhat in vogue in churches currently to exaggerate the differences between the Old and New Testaments, and one of the ways I hear this most frequently goes something like this: ‘The Old Testament is about a different God / I don’t recognise the God of the Old Testament – the New Testament God is a God of love, not bloodthirsty / violent / vengeful.’
There is much that could be written about that. There are, of course, differences – but not as many as people suppose. There is plenty of ‘vengeance’ in the New Testament, particularly coming from Jesus. And there is plenty of ‘love’ in the Old Testament – and 2 Chronicles 5-7 is a prime example of that.
The song of love
In 2 Chronicles 5, the ark is brought into the newly-built Temple. So many sacrifices were made in worship and praise, ‘they could not be recorded or counted’ (5.6, NIV).
But as well as the sacrifices, there was a cacophony of sound. According to the divisions set out by David (1 Chronicles 25) the Temple was about more than sacrifices: it was about music. And so the Temple musicians, singers and trumpeters played, ‘in unison to give praise and thanks to the Lord’ (5.13, NIV). And what was their song?
‘He is good;2 Chronicles 5.13 (NIV)
his love endures for ever.’
And here’s the part I’d love to see happen in my church:
Then the temple of the Lord was filed with the cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God.2 Chronicles 5.13b-14 (NIV)
When they saw that, the ordinary Israelites in attendance couldn’t stay silent, so it wasn’t only the official musicians and singers who sang the song of God’s love:
When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the Lord above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshipped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, ‘He is good; his love endures for ever.’2 Chronicles 7.3 (NIV)
At what is arguably one of the key moments in the narrative of God and his people – the establishment of the kingdom, and the construction of a magnificent building as a focus for their worship – what is their song?
God is good; his love endures for ever.
The covenant of love
The second point is the basis of Solomon’s prayer: the covenant of love God has made with his people. It has two parts:
(14) ‘Lord, the God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven or on earth – you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way.’
(42) ‘Lord God, do not reject your anointed one. Remember the great love promised to David your servant.’2 Chronicles 6.14 & 42 (NIV)
Verse 14 is where Solomon begins his prayer. This is the foundation of the life of God’s people: his covenant of love with his people, which is not cheap but costly, and therefore demands a proper response.
Solomon’s prayer then looks ahead to the failings of God’s people make that proper response, based on their previous failings. (Some will argue this is a post-Exile editorial gloss, but I don’t see why anyone with half a brain wouldn’t expect God’s people to fail – the Old Testament history is a catalogue of them doing precisely that, so why would this moment be any difference?)
God’s people will fail – ‘for there is no-one who does not sin’ (6.36, NIV) – but Solomon’s prayer recognises that God will always be there to forgive when they turn back to him (6.21, 25, 27, 30, 39). This is because the covenant of love comes first. It is not dependent upon good behaviour – God did not choose his people Israel because they were particularly special or numerous, but because he loved them (see Deuteronomy 7.7-9).
All that is true of God’s people is also true of the anointed leaders of God’s people – who reflect and exemplify the swinging faithfulness and failure that is the shared experience of all who seek to follow God. As they are faithful, so they lead the people in faithfulness. As they fail and turn away from God, so they lead the people away from God. This is a sobering truth to reflect on for those of us who are leaders of God’s people.
Despite all this the covenant of love – first to God’s people, and then to God’s anointed (David’s line culminating in Jesus, not church leaders!) – will and can never fail, because although it demands obedience as a right and proper response, it is not based on that obedience, so forgiveness is never withheld to those who turn back to God when they fail.
It would be wrong to insist there are no differences between the Old and New Testaments; they come from very different times in the history of God’s people. However, the underlying theology is consistent, because the God behind and above and before the revealed words, is the same God.
It is right to wrestle with the challenging sections of the Old Testament, as it is right to wrestle with the challenging sections of the New Testament (!), but we should only do so from the positive statement that the Bible is one book, with one God revealed in different ways, and through the mouths of difference people.
Therein lies the difference: not in God himself, but in our fragile attempts to understand and describe the infinite and supremely other God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.