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Revival Replaces Captivity

Nehemiah 8:9 ESV
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.
This morning’s passage describes something very wonderful. Revival.
Revival is a marvelous gift of God. But it’s also something that is often misunderstood. To some folks, the word “revival” conjures up images of sawdust, and tents, and banners that say “REVIVAL EVERY NIGHT THIS WEEK—SINGING INCLUDED”.
But that’s only a caricature of what true revival is. True revival is not a kind of ‘meeting’. It’s not a work of man at all. Rather, it’s a work of God—something that He does to His people. Just think of the word “revive” itself. The word revive means to bring back to consciousness or life. To be ‘re-vived’, something has to have been “-vived” in the first place. It must first be ‘alive’ in order to be ‘revived’. Revival, then, is a matter of God giving ‘renewed life’ to that which is already His work. It’s a matter of God ‘reviving’ His church.
Revival is when, in the deepest levels of our being, we hear the call of God saying to us, “Come to Me, My people. Come closer. Go deeper. Leave your selfish, self-indulgent way of life behind. Turn from your sins. Be sorry for them. Confess them to Me with full faith in the work of My Son on the cross; and draw closer to Me. Let Me be your all. Let Me fulfill you and satisfy You fully.” And it’s not just simply that we hear the call and decide that it’s a good idea to come. When true revival comes upon us as a church and a community of believers, we become so overwhelmed by the work of the Holy Spirit that we cannot help but come! It’s a matter of the Holy Spirit sweeping us up, drawing us to a deeper relationship with God the Father through Jesus the Son, and dramatically and permanently transforming us as God’s people. And so often, when revival comes upon God’s people, it’s accompanied by a remarkable spread and success of the message of the gospel—so that many other people enter into life. In true revival, God so transforms His people that they—in turn—transform the times in which they live.
There have been many times in history when God has seen fit to give His people revival—and often at some of the darkest times of history. At one of the bleakest spiritual points in the history of England, for example—when it seemed as if things couldn’t have been darker—God saw fit to pour out revival and transform the British people through the preaching of such men as John Wesley and George Whitefield. That revival completely changed the times. At about the same time, God granted great revival in the American Colonies through the preaching of such men as Jonathan Edwards. That great revival came to be called “the Great Awakening”; and it helped set the stage for our becoming a nation. God granted another great period of revival just prior to the civil war.
Revival is what’s being described to us in Nehemiah 8. Let’s look at it together.
The book of Nehemiah tells the story of how the people of Israel had returned to the city of Jerusalem after long years of exile. They had disobeyed God; and just as God had promised, He allowed them to suffer seventy years of captivity in Babylon because of their sinful rebellion.
But the years of captivity were over; and the people were returning to Jerusalem. The Old Testament book that precedes this one—the Book of Ezra—tells the story of how the people began to return from captivity. The people had begun to rebuild the temple; and under the leadership of the godly scribe Ezra, they had began to restore the priestly ministry and the worship. And in the Book of Nehemiah, we’re told the story of how more Jewish people returned to Jerusalem and began to rebuild the city wall.
Now; by Chapter 8 of Nehemiah, the people had experienced a miracle. Not only had they been allowed to return; but they rebuilt the wall of the city in only fifty-two days—even while the enemies of Israel all around them were threatening them and trying to make them stop. This was something so remarkable that even those enemy nations had to recognize that it was a work of God. But rebuilding the temple and rebuilding the wall was not enough. It was time for the people themselves to be rebuilt. They needed to be ‘revived’.
It’s true, of course, that our situation today is quite different from that of the Old Testament people of Israel. In their day, they lived under the Old Testament covenant. Today, we live under New Covenant realities. We live in the light of the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross, and have the message of the gospel. We live under the principle of grace rather than of ceremonial law. What’s more, because Jesus our Lord has risen and has ascended to the Father, we now have the remarkable ministry of the Holy Spirit in this world—a ministry which began on the day of Pentecost. For us today, revival involves New Testament realities that had not yet come in the days of Nehemiah. But even so, I believe the eighth chapter of Nehemiah tells us much of what revival looks like.
I don’t believe we could find a better place to go in the Bible to understand true revival than Nehemiah 8. And the first thing we see in this chapter—a first feature in revival—is . . .
1. A DESIRE FOR GOD’S WORD (vv. 1-5).
The wall had been built; and the people had seen a tremendous work of God. They could plainly see that God had His hand on them, and was calling them to a deeper relationship with Himself.
Nehemiah 8:1 ESV
And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel.
I love that. “Bring the Book of the Law!” And do you know what’s remarkable about that? It was something that the people themselves initiated. They were the ones who asked for Ezra—the godly scribe—to get a copy of the word of God and feed them from it. They themselves had a yearning to hear from God!
And of course, Ezra answered that call and fulfilled that yearning.
Nehemiah 8:2–3 ESV
So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.
Imagine that! Men and women; young and old; all who had the ability to hear and understand—they all stood in the open square and listened carefully. They stood from morning to midday—perhaps as long as four to five hours—giving their full attention to the reading of God’s law.
I have been studying the history of revivals lately. I have been reading some of the works of those who lived in the times when great revivals occurred, and who wrote about what they saw—men like Jonathan Edwards, or the Presbyterian minister William Sprague. And one of the things that they all report that happened in times of revival—something that, in fact, was one of the chief characteristics of revival—was a renewed hunger and craving for the Scriptures. Times of great revival have been brought about by the preaching of the Bible; and those times of revival were nurtured and strengthened and made permanent in the lives of people by a persistent interaction with God’s holy word.
And that, by the way, is how it naturally should be. The work that God does to renew and revive His people has always been through His word. As He Himself says through the prophet Isaiah;
Isaiah 55:10–11 ESV
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
And note how this happened! Consider the solemnity with which the word of God was heard!
Nehemiah 8:4–5 ESV
And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood.
I like this story. It involves a pulpit. And though I’m certainly not suggesting that we do what this says today and that everyone should stand during the sermon; I do believe that it shows us that, in times of revival, the preaching of God’s word is received with the utmost seriousness and respect. It’s a time when everyone recognizes that when God’s word is faithfully being declared in a sermon or in a Bible lesson, it is God Himself who is doing the speaking!
When God begins to call us to a deeper relationship with Himself, He does it through His word. One of the great marks of revival is a new, notable, passionate desires to hear that word from God—a desire that is accompanied by great reverence and receptivity. God shows His work in us by the fact that we become hungry—desperately hungry—to hear from Him!
That’s a crucial element in times of revival!
A second step—one that I would say naturally follows from a serious hearing of God’s word—is . . .
True revival not only involves a hearing of the word of God. It also involves a response in worship of the God of the word. As this passage goes on to tell us about the reading of God’s Law to the people;
Nehemiah 8:6 ESV
And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
Think of Ezra—the reader of God’s word. He was leading the people in worship. He was “blessing the Lord, the great God”. And think of the people. They weren’t responding passively. They were very active. In fact, it’s hard to follow them in what they were doing. First they were lifting their hands and saying “Amen!”—which is to say, “It is true!” And then, they were bowing their heads and worshiping the Lord with their faces to the ground. They were up and down—emotionally high in enthusiasm, and humbly low in reverent awe.
And I hope you’ll allow me to offer a word of caution here. Many in times past have tried to manipulate people into ‘revival’ through such outward emotional expressions. I want to say this carefully; but some try to simply ‘work up the crowd’ into a state of a mere emotional frenzy and then call it ‘revival’. But that’s not true revival. I believe, of course, that true revival is often very emotional. When a community of people are being brought into a deep encounter with the living God in a transforming way, how can they not be emotional? But that transformation is not brought about by the emotions! It’s brought about by understanding God’s word; and that understanding—renewed by God’s word—results in a change internally; and it’s that internal change that shows itself in genuine emotion.
I say that because I believe it’s very wrong and hurtful to try to do things the other way around. Bypassing the understanding, and just trying to work up the emotions—well, that only leads to a temporary emotional state that fades after the meeting is over. People’s lives aren’t spiritually transformed by that. But when we hear the truth of God’s word in the power of the Holy Spirit; and genuinely understand what we hear; and it so grips our hearts that we are transformed inwardly by an awakened understanding—when that renewed understanding shows itself in our being made to grasp who God really is; and we become awestruck by His majesty holiness, and begin to realize who we are in His sight and how much we need His grace—then we worship God in great emotion. When that happens, I believe we’re seeing a true work of God—true revival.
That’s why I believe it’s so important that the meaning of God’s word be explained, and that people be helped to understand what it says in such a way that it feeds their minds and grips their hearts. Look at what we’re told in verses Nehemiah 8:7-8
Nehemiah 8:7–8 ESV
Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
That’s why they displayed such emotion in their worship. May God so impact us with a clear understanding of His word that we become inwardly transformed by truth—and may that inward transformation show itself in outward expressions of deep, emotional worship!
That kind of passionate worship of God’s majesty is a characteristic of true revival!
Now; because the people were understanding truth from God’s word—because they were getting an accurate glimpse of who God truly was, and of who they were before Him—we find yet another step in true revival; and that is . . .
Apparently, as the word of God was being read to the people, and as their understanding was being opened, and as they became increasingly overwhelmed with an emotional worship of God as He truly is, they began to get a sense of their own sinfulness before Him. We see this in vs. 9.
Nehemiah 8:9 ESV
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.
I believe we can understand this to have been a mourning over sin; because, in chapter 9, we read of how the people wrote a great public confession of sin and presented it to God in repentance. And so, this is another chief characteristic of true times of revival—a deep and sincere and profound mourning over sin that comes from an encounter with God.
One of the great examples of this is found in Isaiah 6. At the time that God called Isaiah into the prophetic ministry, He gave him a vision of Himself in heavenly glory—”high and lifted up”. God allowed Isaiah to see the angelic hosts singing loud praises all around the throne of God; and allowed him to feel the temple shaking and the pillars trembling at the glory of His majesty. And when Isaiah saw the majesty holiness of God, he responded by mourning over his own sin. He took a look at the glory of God and said, “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5).
Another great example of this is seen in the life of the apostle Peter. Jesus had asked Peter to let Him preach from his fishing boat. When the Lord was done, He told Peter to cast his net off to the side for a great catch of fish. And when Peter brought in so many fish that the boat almost began to sink, he realized who this was before him. And what did he do? He responded by mourning over his own sin. The Bible tells us that he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Luke 5:8).
I believe that true revival doesn’t leave us feeling proud of ourselves, or self-righteous, or looking down our noses at others. True revival is characterized by deep sorrow over sin. True revival involves nothing less than a profound encounter with God; and a true encounter with God reveals our sin—and reveals our need for His grace. Let me put it this way, true revival can be frightening and have a traumatic impact on us. It is often characterized by deep sorrow and mourning.
But it’s sorrow and mourning with a purpose. Most of all, true revival leads people to turn to Jesus for cleansing from that sin over which they sorrow.
* * * * * * * * * * *
But it’s not a time that’s characterized only by sorrowing and mourning. When we feel great sorrow before God for our sin and our disobedience of His commandments, and when we respond by turning with all our being to Jesus Christ for cleansing from our sins, then that deep sorrow turns into an even deeper and more permanent joy!
I believe this is also a step in true revival; that is . . .
As I have been reading about times of revival in the past, this is often mentioned as part of the story. There’s a notable transformation in people. They go through an unspeakably terrible time of sorrow over the guilt of sin—almost as if they feel God should just cast them into the flames of hell right then and there! But then—gradually for some; quite suddenly for others—God gives a profound and overwhelming sense of His love and forgiveness. The dark cloud of sorrow lifts. God assures their hearts that they have been washed clean in His sight by the blood of Jesus, and that they now belong to Him. And as deeply as they sorrowed over their sin and felt that they deserved eternal punishment, they have even more joy over their forgiveness through Christ, and rejoice that they have an eternal home in heaven. And in true revival, that confident joy lasts for a lifetime!
I think we see something of this in verses 10-12. We’re told this about Ezra;
Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites quieted all the people, saying, “Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink, to send portions and rejoice greatly, because they understood the words that were declared to them (vv. 10-12).
* * * * * * * * * *
And there’s one more thing that characterizes true revival; and that is . . .
One of the things that most characterizes true revival is genuine, lasting life change. People who used to have no care at all about following the Lord’s commands and instructions now eagerly seek to do so. They want to obey God. We’re told;
Now on the second day the heads of the fathers’ houses of all the people, with the priests and Levites, were gathered to Ezra the scribe, in order to understand the words of the Law. And they found written in the Law, which the Lord had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, and that they should announce and proclaim in all their cities and in Jerusalem, saying, “Go out to the mountain, and bring olive branches, branches of oil trees, myrtle branches, palm branches, and branches of leafy trees, to make booths, as it is written.”
This was a command that God gave Moses to give to the people of Israel long ago. They were to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles at a certain time of year—to commemorate their time of wandering in the wilderness. They were reminded of this command as Ezra had read to them from the Book of Leviticus; and they wasted no time in obeying it.
Then the people went out and brought them and made themselves booths, each one on the roof of his house, or in their courtyards or the courts of the house of God, and in the open square of the Water Gate and in the open square of the Gate of Ephraim. So the whole assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and sat under the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun until that day the children of Israel had not done so vv. 16-17a).
Think of that! They had neglected to obey this command since the days of Joshua! That means that they had been disobeying it for about eight centuries! But now—having heard of their neglect, they began doing what God had told them to do.
And there was very great gladness. Also day by day, from the first day until the last day, he read from the Book of the Law of God. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day there was a sacred assembly, according to the prescribed manner (vv. 17b-18).
And if I may, there’s an important spiritual lesson in this concerning obedience. When God draws a people to a deeper relationship with Himself, obedience doesn’t necessarily occur all at once. It grows. The people didn’t know everything they were to do yet; and they didn’t try to become perfect overnight. Instead, they began obeying right where they were. They heard form the reading of God’s word about what they had been neglecting, repented of their disobedience, and began obeying in that one thing. As we read on in the book of Nehemiah, other areas of neglect began to be revealed to them later on, and they repented in those things too.
Genuine revival isn’t characterized by instantaneous perfection. ‘Instantaneous perfection’ doesn’t really last long. Rather, true revival is characterized by a growing obedience—a life-long process in which the Lord Jesus reveals truth to us from His word at just the time in life in which we need it, and takes increasing rule over every area of our lives progressively. We grow in our obedience over a lifetime.
* * * * * * * * * *
Well; that’s what true revival looks like. It’s what I’m praying for. And I would ask that you pray for it with me as well. May God grant such revival to us here in this church. And may He even see fit to grant it once again to this city!
But as we pray, and as we wait, let’s allow God to make these a reality in our own lives. Let’s each one pray, “Give revival, O Lord—and begin with me!”
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