When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you, if they pray toward this place and acknowledge your name and turn from their sin, when you afflict them, then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel, when you teach them the good way in which they should walk, and grant rain upon your land, which you have given to your people as an inheritance. – 1 Kings 8:35-36 ESV
1 Kings 8:22-53
This is the third of seven scenarios that Solomon used in his prayer as a means of illustrating the potential unfaithfulness of the people of Israel and to plead for God’s mercy and forgiveness. Solomon was no stranger to the promises of God concerning the land of Canaan. He knew that their very existence as a people and their presence in the land was the work of God. He had chosen them as His own and then provided them with a land in which to live. But their privileged position as His people and their possession of the land came with conditions. God had clearly warned them that, as His chosen people, they would be required to live in obedience to His commands. If they obeyed, they would experience His blessings. If they chose to disobey, their would be ramifications in the form of curses. “And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. And he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you shall eat and be full. Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you” (Deuteronomy 11:13-17 ESV).
It is with this warning in mind that Solomon prays. He knew full well that there was always a distinct possibility that they would prove to be unfaithful. As a people, their history was replete with stories of unfaithfulness and idolatry. Remaining true to God had proven to be difficult for them. During their 400 years of captivity in Egypt they had forgotten Yahweh and worshiped the gods of their captors. Even after God’s miraculous deliverance from their slavery in Egypt, it had not taken long before they were worshiping the golden calf in the wilderness. When they had arrived in the land of promise, God gave them victories over their enemies, but the people just couldn’t seem to keep their hearts and hands off the false gods of the very nations they had conquered. So the scenario Solomon used in his prayer was far from unlikely or impossible. He knew in his heart that their unfaithfulness was a distinct and potentially dangerous possibility. If Solomon knew anything about God, it was that He kept His word. So He appeals to God’s promise to forgive. But he knows that God’s forgiveness would be conditioned on their repentance and confession. They would have to acknowledge God’s name and turn from their sin. This would have to be more than just a casual, “I’m sorry.” To acknowledge God’s name was to confess that His unique character as the one true God. It was to openly admit that He alone was holy, righteous, almighty and worthy of their worship. And to turn from their sin was to reject all false gods and renounce their improper dependence upon them. Solomon knew that God’s forgiveness would required their genuine repentance. He also knew that God’s punishment of them would always be positive in nature, designed to turn them from their unfaithfulness and return them to a right relationship with Himself. God disciplines His people for their own good, so that they might give Him glory. “For the LORD corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:12 NLT). “I correct and discipline everyone I love. So be diligent and turn from your indifference” (Revelations 3:19 NLT).
The unfaithfulness of God’s people was inevitable, but God made provision for it. In Solomon’s day, it came in the form of the sacrificial system. It required repentance and confession. The shedding of blood was necessary. Sin required punishment. But God provided a means by which sin could be atoned for or covered over. It was through the death of an innocent animal whose life was sacrificed as a substitute or stand-in for the guilty party. But those sacrifices were never intended to be permanent or complete in their effectiveness. They simply foreshadowed a greater sacrifice to come. God would eventually provide His own Son as the perfect, sinless sacrifice for the sins of man. His Son, Jesus Christ, would give His life as payment for the sins of all men – past, present and future. He would die in their place, taking on their punishment and paying their debt so that they might have forgiveness from sin and escape the penalty of death – eternal separation from God. But this gift must be received. The payment made by God through His Son must be accepted. Men must acknowledge their sin and turn to God for the forgiveness made possible through the death of Jesus Christ. Many years after Solomon prayed this prayer, Peter would preach a message to the Jews gathered in Solomon’s Portico, an area just outside the temple. “But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus” (Acts 3:18-20 ESV). Repent. Return. And receive forgiveness from the hand of a loving God.