Steps to Revival
C. E. Hocking, Cardiff
DELIVERANCE HAD BEEN THE EXPERIENCED PORTION of Ezra and his company, the 'hand of God being upon them for good', 8. 31. Defilement was the condition found to be on the increase in Judah, the hands of the rulers and princes being chief in this evil, 9. 2. Ezra's confession followed by action with the Word of God in his hand resulted in the people giving their hands in solemn pledge to deal with the situation in a God-honouring fashion, 10. 19. The details of chapters 9 and 10 may be viewed as follows:
CHAPTER 9. A rude awakening.
1. Realization, vv. 1-2.
2. Humiliation, vv. 3-4.
3. Confession, vv. 5-15.
a. Estimation of the guilt, vv. 5-9.
b. Lamentation for guilt, vv. 10-15.
CHAPTER 10. Trembling at the Word.
1. Reaction, w. Ml,
a. Of the people, vv. 1-4.
b. Of Ezra, w. 5-11.
2. Commission, vv. 12-17.
a. Proposed, vv. 12-15.
b. Functioning, vv. 16-17.
3. Registration, vv. 18-44.
a. Priests, vv. 18-22.
b. Levites, v. 23.
c. Singers, v. 24.
d. Israelites in general, vv. 25-44.
THE PEOPLE'S SINFULNESS
This is sad reading indeed. The fad of contamination formed the substance of the princes' report to Ezra, 9. 1, 2. The governmental dealings of God, the reaping of what had been sown in the past, v. 7, proved no deterrent to disobedience to God's word and the indulgence of fleshly lusts. Tasting for 'a little space grace', v. 8, they turned this into lascivious-ness doing according to the abominations of the peoples of the land, v. 1. They fail again, past experience had taught them nothing, their sorrows had been 'lost sorrows'.
In reading this list of peoples, v. 1, with whom they, the holy seed, had mingled themselves, v. 2, the tremendous possibilities of contamination become apparent. No fewer than eight nations are named, the longest list of this type recorded. Those to whom reference is made here had been a constant thorn in the flesh to them. Deliverance from Egypt's bondage at the exodus did not prevent them becoming ensnared with her again, as the political alliances of kings show. Moab and Ammon, the fruit of Lot's incestuous union, had proved stumbling blocks to Israel from the inception. Then Israel's entrance into Canaan is recalled by five of the nations spoken of here (Canaanites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Hittites, Amorites). A weakness is betrayed in this for express command had been given them to exterminate these as the land was conquered and occupied. We rarely appreciate the far-reaching effects of indolence, spiritual incapacity, present worldliness, sinful indulgence and disobedience to the known will of God.
The reason for contamination is found in the carnal condition of the people at this time. Having tasted of the goodness of God, they were guilty of sin against His love. Fleshly lusts, or at best human affections, were given precedence over faithfulness to God and obedience to His express commands.
Many were the encouragements to contamination. Apart from the weakness and corruption of the flesh there was a bad example of those who were the acknowledged leaders among the saints. The hand of the princes and rulers had been first in this trespass, 9. 2, and even priests, Levites and singers had been ensnared, 10.10, 18, 23,24. Little wonder if so many of the Israelites were stumbled through their bad example, 10. 25-44. Leadership which rests on the mere holding of office or position is dangerous. To be a noble by name without the marks of true nobility may lead many to catastrophe. Here it is not 'sheep without a shepherd' but sheep with unspiritual, carnal and even evil shepherds. 'No man liveth to himself' and how much more true is this in the case of those who lead among the people of God.
It is for this reason that the warning concerning contamination has been so emphasized. Firstly, in the Word of truth, God had recorded His condemnation of the mingling of His people with the peoples around diem. It is to this that Ezra brings their notice and ours in 9. 11, 12, which is a quotation from Deut. 7. 1-3. Yet such is the perversity of the human heart that they had disobeyed this injunction and their consequent bitter experience is also recorded for our admonition, w. 7,13. Ezra appeals to the lesson of the national history and asks 'should we again break thy commandments and join in affinity with the people of these abominations?' How clearly Paul brings this home to us when he develops the subject of separation in 2 Cor. 6. 14-7. 1. Righteousness and unrighteousness, light and darkness, Christ and belial, the believer and the unbeliever, the temple of God and idols! There is no fellowship here, no communion, no harmony, no common portion, no agreement between these pairs of absolute contrasts. The apostle urges us not to be unequally yoked together with unbelievers, 6. 14. The God who separated light from darkness in the beginning is the One that would have that distinction manifest in those who are the children of the light.
Having executed the work committed to him, discharging his responsibility to the One who had commissioned him, 9. 1, Ezra was called to face a situation which might have caused many to retrace their steps. In his case, however, it revealed the depth of his exercise and his spiritual intensity. No doubt his hopes had been high as he contemplated the joy of meeting and helping those who out of spiritual exercise had hazarded so much to be back in the land. What a rude awakening was his! Had his journey been prompted and prospered of God, had his exercise concerning edifying the saints been real, was the glory of God and their spiritual welfare his chief concern? It is to the glory of God that this man was so wholly occupied with Him that he was enabled to face the situation and to be His instrument for the rectifying of the matter. His was a great ministry but in the discharging of it he proved himself to be greater.
The exceeding sinfulness of sin weighed heavily upon him, he was conscious that 'our trespass is grown up unto the heavens', v. 6 (see the references to trespass, transgression, iniquity, guilt, w. 2, 4, 6, 7,13, 15 ; 10. 10, 19). This brought great personal shame, v. 6, grief, 9. 3; 10. 1, bewilderment, 9. 3, and torrents of tears, 10. 1. Deep indeed are his exercises before God as he rends his outer and inner garments, v. 3, plucks off the hair of his head and beard, v. 3, sits dumbfounded, w. 3, 4, eats no bread and drinks no water, 10. 6, and arises but to fall on his knees, 9. 5, casting himself down before the house of God, 10. 1.
Yet perhaps what we hear as he spreads out his hands, holy hands, desirous of receiving the divine mercy, is the clearest revelation of his hatred of sin on the one hand and his love for the people of God on the other. His shame here drives him to cast all upon God (cp. 8. 22, 23). Though we read of him praying, 10. 1, not a single petition escapes his lips. There is much lamentation and confession as he associates himself with the guilt of the people. Note his constant reference to our iniquities, our trespass, our evil deeds. He says 'We have forsaken thy commandments ... we cannot stand before thee because of this', 9. 10, 15. Such is the living bond that he cannot exclude himself nor excuse the guilty. He opens his prayer indicating his personal experience of the blessedness of his relationship with the God he knew as 'my God', 9. 5, 6 (cp. 7. 28). Yet the consciousness of the common part with his people before God is developed as he refers to that which was true of them all through His grace, God was 'our God', 9. 8, 9, 10, 13. Then rising to the climax when he leaves all with God he addresses Him as 'Jehovah (the) God of Israel', v. 15.
THE PEOPLE'S THOROUGHNESS
What a real blessing to this community were those exemplary princes who sought out Ezra and unmasked the situation in their report to him, 9. 1. Their desire above all else was the righting of the wrong, the honour of God and the helping of the people in general. How long a process it would have been to become acquainted with the true condition of things. We arc reminded of the situation at Corinth. The saints there had many questions to ask the apostle which formed the substance of a letter they sent him. However, the appalling conditions existing were made known to Paul through those of the household of Chloe. May God give us increasingly eyes to see the gravity of a situation and grace to seek die help of men who arc spiritually qualified to deal with the matter.
Ezra's humiliation and grief brought to light yet another group among the saints, denoted by the phrase 'everyone that trembled', v. 4. Reverence for God's Word was the mark of this group and the Spirit of God drew these that had become exercised people. Perhaps the dread of the consequences of the guilt caused them to tremble rather than the realization of the heinousness of the sin. But knowing the sin, conscious of the words of the Lord with respect to the sin and seeing His servant so deeply exercised about the situation, they supported him. Encouragement was thus given Ezra as he saw the fruit of the Spirit's work among the people.
Still the influence of this godly soul is to overflow the banks of the minority affected thus far. The report of his prayer and confession spread through the city and a very great congregation of men and women and children gathered to him and wept sore, 10. 1. In this verse we learn that the vast majority of Israel had their consciences pricked and thus we meet enlightened people. In deep contrition they 'take sides with God'. Shechaniah speaks to Ezra for the congregation, his preparedness to do so indicating a mighty work of the Spirit in him. Members of his own family including his father Jehiel, v. 26, were ensnared in the very evil he now confesses, yet he unsparingly denounces the sin of taking strange wives, v. 2. What sad spiritual conditions exist among not a few companies of God's people today because of slackness in discipline and an unpreparedness to take God's part and deal with all situations in the light of the Word of God. Too often one of the causes of this is through partiality shown in dealing with the families of the Lord's people and especially if offenders are related to the more 'prominent' in die fellowship. May God give us grace to act according to the light of His Word in dealing with sin which mars the corporate witness. With purpose of heart those who 'wept sore', v. I, and trembled, v. 9, urged Ezra to apply himself to the righting of the situation. They would all be with him; he was to be of good courage, v. 4. A covenant would be made with God to put away all the strange wives, v. 3. As Ezra makes clear the course of action that must be taken they say 'as thou hast said so must we do', v. 12. Giving their hands in solemn pledge that they would put away their strange wives, the vast majority were prepared to submit to the truth and were determined to obey its precepts. Happy condition!
However, amidst all this yet another small group are noted, the infuriated people. The Revised Version of verse 15 more clearly focuses our attention on them. We read 'Only (perhaps 'nevertheless') Jonathan . . . and Jahzeiah . . . stood up against this . . .'. The views of a minority, who object to the application of the divine standards, are not permitted to prevent the furthering of the ministry of Ezra. Personal opinions and prejudices, an appeal along the line of expediency, or a 'graciousness' prepared to close the eyes to the claims of truth can only hinder the possibility of the righting of the wrong, turning away of the wrath of God, v. 14, and a new experience of reviving among the saints. Take note that record is made of those who withstand the truth as surely as of those who stand by it.
How pressing is the need for revival in our day. There is much activity, the whirring of machinery and yet little real evidence of power; much preaching, few conversions; multiplied conference seasons, little adjustment of life to the truth ministered. Do we not feel the need for reviving power? Let us return to Ezra's pages and see the steps taken in separation to God which saved the situation; reference to the Word of God with its lofty standards, a trembling on consideration of the consequences of continuance in sin, grief on recognizing the dishonour brought to God's name, and pre¬paredness to put things right whatever the cost. May we not join with Shechaniah, who, although the condition of things was far from what it should be, could say with assurance as he counted upon God, that there was yet hope, 10. 2. God is more ready to deal with us in mercy despite our failure as we measure ourselves and our activities in the light of the Word of God, than we are to come boldly to the throne of grace to obtain His mercy and seek grace for this our lime of need.
In our next issue our contributor will bring this series to « close by outlining some of the spiritual principles revealed by the book of Ezra as a whole.