2 Chronicles 30:18-20 records a prayer of Hezekiah’s for the unclean Israelites who are celebrating Passover with Judah:
“‘May the good LORD pardon everyone who sets his heart to seek God, the LORD, the God of his fathers, even though not according to the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness.’ And the LORD heard Hezekiah and healed the people.” (ESV)
What are “the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness”? Does that refer to man-made, extra-biblical regulations of worship at the temple? Or to the laws laid down in the Law of Moses?
The phrase “not according to the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness” is in Hebrew “not according to the cleanness of holiness” or “the cleanness of the holy place.” This phrase refers to the laws laid down in the Law of Moses regulating the worship of God at the Ark of God (the holy place), which the context shows they are following in detail:
The context of Hezekiah’s reign is that the Law of Moses is being followed, and that worship of God at the temple is done according to the will of God. Hezekiah has established worship at the temple “by the words of the Lord” (29:15; cf. 30:12, 16). In 30:16, the priests and Levites are practicing their roles during the same events as Hezekiah’s prayer “according to the Law of Moses.”
Deuteronomy 16:5-6 establishes that normally laymen would have sacrificed their own Passover lambs for their own households and handed the blood to the priests. So in verse 17, the Levites sacrificed the Passover lamb for everyone who was not clean and handed the blood to the priests (v16b), because those who were unclean couldn’t observe the Passover with everyone else (Numbers 9:6-13).
Verse 18 says that the people from Israel had not cleansed themselves, but were eating the Passover anyway, seemingly contrary to Leviticus 7:20-21. Verses 18 to 20 explain that they were allowed eat the Passover because Hezekiah had prayed for them, asking that God would make them clean because they had set their hearts to seek God (cf. v11-12), even though it that was “not according to the cleanness of the holy place.” God responds by healing their uncleanness (v20), which harks to Psalm 51, where David says that the sacrifices that delight God’s heart are “a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17).
So “the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness” are the laws laid down in the Law of Moses regulating worship of God at the Ark of God, the holy place. So then the teaching of the narrative is that the post-exile Israelites who had returned to Jerusalem should seek God at the temple, according to his revealed will in the Law, so that God would bless them. Additionally, in seeking God at the temple, this narrative reminded the Israelites that God is merciful, regarding humble and seeking hearts as cleanness. For us in the New Covenant, it’s reassurance on multiple levels: that we have a great high priest who is always interceding for us like Hezekiah, and that Jesus has provided his own cleanness for us so we can always come before God in worship.