What do you think of when I mention the word revival? Perhaps your mind races to those “sawdust trails” of the early 1900s, which became all but synonymous with the evangelistic tent meetings of those days. Perhaps you think of the Second Great Awakening of the 1800s and names such as Finney or Judson or Campbell. Perhaps you think of the First Great Awakening of the 1700s and stalwarts such as Whitefield, Wesley, and Edwards. Perhaps your thoughts go all the way back to the 1600s to reflect on the “revival” of that era which we commonly call the Reformation. Nevertheless, when the word “revival” comes up, a host of distinct and divergent images marshals behind it, disfiguring our view of it with overt colors of intense religious enthusiasm and emotionalism. You know, “revival fire” and all that. But, I’d say, we’ve done a disservice to that word over the years, to the point that we’ve mostly lost what it means to be “revived” altogether.
It always makes me chuckle when I see church signs announcing that a “revival” is happening on this date, at this time. I chuckle because I dare not cackle, so as not to seem overly cynical about such things. Indeed, don’t get me wrong: I applaud the intent and the aim, and the purpose behind such things. There’s definitely something to be said for churches feeling the need to bring a “spirit of revival” to the hearts and lives of their church family. And, to be sure, we should be praying for revival (Ps. 71:20; 80:18; 85:6). But the fact of the matter is, you and I cannot “plan” a revival anymore than we can plan what the weather will be tomorrow. You and I are not in control of the Spirit of God (John 3:8). He’s not manipulatable. He’s not our genie. You and I aren’t given a formula or a set of magic words wherein if we say the right things, in the right order, we can imbibe the Holy Spirit, and poof! Revival!
True spiritual revival isn’t a simple mixture of well-organized logistical ingredients. Neither is it a prearranged outburst of religious emotion, despite that being its most common associative quality. Actually, true revivals are a little less flashy than that. The ones that stick require a little more work, a lot more faith, and a whole lotta patience. Whereas “planning” a revival might sound good, and most definitely sells better, for true revival to take effect in the hearts and minds God’s people, it must be preceded by a culture of revival — by which, I mean, that true and lasting change that reaches people’s hearts and souls doesn’t often happen during a one-time preaching event in the middle of the summer. It can and it does, at times. But, more often than not, the “success” of a revival is really just the fruit of previous discipleship. The revivals of bygone eras were made possible by the labors of untold others.
Nehemiah 8 is one of the most decisive chapters in Israel’s storied history. It recounts the formative moment when the walls of Jerusalem, the city of God, are rebuilt and the people of God are renewed in transcendent fashion. After decades of captivity and exile and ruin, we can only imagine the elation that must’ve exploded in the streets as the Israelites see their home remade once again. Indeed, they are struck with “very great gladness” (Neh. 8:17). But this wasn’t merely a spontaneous reaction to a standalone sermon. Years before, the Persian king Cyrus issued a decree which allowed for God’s people to return to their homeland (Ezra 1:1–4). The rest of Ezra records how that same priest and scribe arranged for the reconstruction of the temple of God and the reformation of God’s people by God’s Word. Approximately thirteen years go by before Nehemiah arrives with his dreams and plans to rebuild the walls of his beloved city (Neh. 2:1–5). Despite his naysayers, he gets to work, finishing that project in a mere 52 days (Neh. 6:15). Can you picture the scene? Israel is primed and ready to hear a word from the Lord. Yahweh’s temple is rebuilt. Yahweh’s city is rebuilt. It is time for Yahweh’s people to be rebuilt. And that’s exactly what happens.
The people of God have assembled in the streets near Jerusalem’s “Water Gate,” when they begin clamoring for Ezra the scribe to read from “the book of the law of Moses” (Neh. 8:1). And so he does, reading from those ancient texts “from the morning until midday” (Neh. 8:3). As he reads, “the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law.” They were listening intensely, not only hearing the words but absorbing them. You can picture the congregation on the edge of their seat, leaning in to hear the words of the Lord read and explained to them. “And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up: and Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground” (Neh. 8:5–6).
This scene is indicative of God’s law being brought to bear on God’s people, such that they’re all ushered to a stark realization of their sin. “All the people wept, when they heard the words of the law” (Neh. 8:9). The Israelites begin mourning, filling the streets with their downcast cries. Ezra’s sermon, then, did what it was supposed to do: unblind Israel’s eyes to see her guilt and failure and shame.
But that’s not all: “And Ezra the priest, the scribe, and the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people, This day is holy unto the Lord your God; mourn not, nor weep. For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law. Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength. So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, Hold your peace, for the day is holy; neither be ye grieved. And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them” (Neh. 8:9–12).
Although the Israelites were right to mourn over all the ways they had failed, turning their backs on their One True God, their weeping was not about to eclipse what Yahweh’s promises. Despite how disheveled their past was, they themselves could give testimony to the splendid ways God had restored them according to his holiness. Their generation was living proof that their God was “great in faithfulness.” The Israelites’ sorrow, though warranted, was but a prelude to what Israel’s God purposed to do in them and accomplish for them. Yahweh is “the Holy One of Israel” (Isa. 43:3), the One who covenanted to demonstrate his holiness precisely by making unholy people holy. Such is what is happening here. And such is why they are told to rejoice.
The revival of God’s people lingers into a second day, with the “chief of the fathers” waking up the next morning and seeking out Ezra and company for more wisdom and insight from “the words of the law” (Neh. 8:13). Ezra, of course, obliges, bringing them to the passage in the law that details the “Festival of Booths” (or “Feast of Tabernacles,” Lev. 23:33–36; Deut. 16:13–15) which was supposed to be observed during this time (Neh. 8:14–16). This week-long feast was meant to remind Israel of her days of wandering, with the booths serving as mini-tabernacles memorializing Yahweh’s faithful deliverance and presence throughout the sojourn in the wilderness. Apparently, it had been a quick minute since the last time the people of Israel had observed this feast (Neh. 8:17). But with God’s words ringing in their ears, they follow the Word without hesitation. They were not merely “hearers” of the Word; they were “doers of the Word” (James 1:22). And they delighted in it the entire time.
The “revival fire” of this scene outside Jerusalem’s pristine new walls is not in any way rare. Ezra wasn’t in possession of some secret special “Old Testament sauce” which allowed for revival to breakout. Actually, what did it was the Word, the same Word you and I possess. This wasn’t an achievement brought about by perfect planning and carefully crafted strategy sessions. This wasn’t a moment that called for a “smooth” sermons that would itch the congregants’ ears (Isa. 30:10; 2 Tim. 4:3). This was an achievement of the Spirit of God working in and through the Word of God as it was proclaimed and explained for the people of God. All of which were not new assignments for Ezra. He had been resolved to restore the Word to its rightful place in the hearts of God’s people well before this event (Ezra 7:9–10). But never in all his years had he witnessed anything like this. There had never been an altar call quite like the one on that day.
I often wonder, What if Ezra had given up? What might’ve been had this priest and scribe packed it in years easier after seeing no results from his ministry? Who’s to say? The point is, he didn’t. Despite everything against him, Ezra steadily, faithfully labored for the sake of Yahweh’s glory. His endeavor to give the people the sense of the words of God wasn’t a “once-done” event. It was a long-term investment made over the course of a long period of time. The fruits of which weren’t enjoyed until this exact moment, when a very great revival and “very great gladness” breaks out among God’s people (Neh. 8:17). But that’s the part about revivals that doesn’t “sell” — namely, all the arduous work that goes in well beforehand. “A longing for immediate revival and return,” writes author and pastor Zack Eswine, “can tempt us to say no to patience and yes to shortcuts.” (121) Those shortcuts rarely stick. Revivals — dare-I-say, reformations — aren’t built on flash-in-the-pan decisions but on steady faithfulness. Ezra “prepared his heart” (Ezra 7:10) for the work of making known God’s words, leaving the results up to God. Such has been the case in throughout history.
What precipitated this reawakening and veritable revival in God’s people was nothing other than a rediscovery of God’s Word. Study all the great revival movements of history, and you’ll find that to be the cogent element running through each and every one of them. Revival is triggered by a recovery of the awesomeness and authority of God’s Word. The Spirit of God works through the Word of God to bring about his sovereign ends. A group of faithful Christians find the Word, hear the Word, and then do the Word. That’s revival in a nutshell, so to speak. In fact, what do you suppose the famed German reformer Martin Luther credits for the stir he began in Wittenberg?
Not his wit, but God’s Word. “I have opposed,” Luther writes, “the indulgences and all the papists, but never by force. I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And then while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip and with Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy, that never a prince or emperor inflicted such damage upon it. I did nothing; the Word did it all. Had I desired to foment trouble, I could have brought great bloodshed upon German. Yea, I could have started such a little game at Worms that even the emperor would not have been safe. But what would it have been? A fool’s play. I did nothing; I left it to the Word. What do you suppose is Satan’s thought, when an effort is made to do things by violence? He sits back in hell and thinks: How fine a game these fools will make for me! But it brings him distress when we only spread the Word, and let it alone do the work. For the it is almighty and takes captive the hearts, and if the hearts are captured the evil work will fall of itself.” (399–400)
The firestorm of the Reformation which turned Europe upside-down was not Luther’s doing. It was the Word, and the Spirit working through it. Indeed, it is the Word of God alone that remains the bastion of every great move of God. “There are no words like the words of God for excellency and strength,” writes Rev. Horatius Bonar. “Words so weighty, so fit, so full, so big with meaning, are nowhere else to be found . . . it is the Almighty voice that speaks through them; it is the thoughts of God himself which they contain.” (163) Accordingly, we don’t need “something extra” from God to bring about revival in our churches, in our communities, in our country, in our world. We have all we need already. The Word has done it all before. And it can do it again.