Chapter IV. Revival Under Asa
A GREAT revival of religion took place in the fifteenth year of the reign of Asa, king of Judah. The awakening was different from any of those which we have already considered. It did not follow a period of religious decline, but an era of reformation. Neither was it occasioned by national adversity, causing the people in despair to turn to God; but it came after a season of increase and prosperity; and after a great national victory and deliverance. During the two preceding reigns, the worship of Jehovah had been pushed into the background, and the erection of idols, and places for their worship, had proceeded with the active support of the rulers. Upon Asa's accession ecclesiastical reform was immediately effected. The State policy was reversed. The people were commanded to observe, the law of God, and an active campaign against idolatry was instituted. A period of quiet settled upon the land, and the freedom from external attack was utilized for internal development and the strengthening of the national defences. After ten years of progress, an army of one million Ethiopians came against Judah. Asa took the field] with only half that number of soldiers. But Asa "cried unto the Lord." And the Lord heard his prayer and gave a mighty victory to His people.
As the king and his hosts returned, the prophet Azariah met them and called their attention to the condition of Israel during the times of the judges, and to the fact that whenever the people turned to God He was found of them. Encouraged by the story of the past and the exhortation of the prophet, the zeal of Asa was quickened, and the work of reformation was carried further still. There were some abuses that had not yet been dealt with, and there were works for God which had not been undertaken. Following this increased zeal against the false faiths and on behalf of the true, was the calling of a national assembly at Jerusalem. The success which had crowned Asa's reforming zeal in the early years, the response made by God to his faith in the hour of national danger, the further zeal following the words of the prophet, all served to awaken the religious spirit in the people. They came "to him in abundance when they saw that the Lord his God was with him." In the fifteenth year of his reign Asa found his policy and example had borne fruit, and that his subjects were thoroughly infected with the spirit that animated him. "They entered into a covenant to seek the Lord God of their fathers with all their heart and with all their soul." And in accordance with the law which said, "He that sacrificeth unto any god, save unto the Lord only, he shall be utterly destroyed," they determined that "whosoever would not seek the Lord God of Israel should be put to death. " The revival was marked with great joy. The people "rejoiced at the oath, for they had sworn with all their heart, and sought Him with their whole desire." Asa also found another matter claiming his attention. The queen, Maacah, mother of the king, had erected an idol in a grove. This he destroyed, and Maacah he deposed. A further period of rest-this time of 20 years-marked the Lord's approval of the national awakening. This story shows
l. THAT REVIVAL IS POSSIBLE IN A TIME OF PROSPERITY.
The majority of the revivals of the Bible, and the majority of those in the Christian era, have followed periods of religious decline and of national trouble. It is with nations as with individuals- trouble is generally required to make them turn to the Lord. Not till we are in extreme case do we, as a rule, seek Him. And so it is possible for us to feel that revival cannot come without trouble. The statement has been frequently made about ourselves in South Africa that we have to be brought a good deal lower yet before any great blessing can come to us. It is true we have had a long spell of disastrous events, and that the spirit of our people is not yet one of deep humility before the Lord. If there is no great turning to the Lord we shall probably see more trouble and prolonged uncertainty. But there is nothing on God's side necessitating further chastisement. It is only human perversity that makes trouble a preliminary to blessing. The history of Asa shows that God's Spirit can work at all times. Other stories have told us that adversity is not a bar to revival. This one tells us that though prosperity is not generally conducive to it, it need not hinder it.
ll. REVIVAL IS HELPED BY A REMEMBRANCE OF THE PAST.
Azariah's address about former awakenings was a great stimulus to Asa. When he heard the prophecy he took courage. The prophecy was in the ancient story. What had been could be again. The history of the past is always possible in like conditions. In the time of the Judges-or rather in the period covered off and on by their rule, for their rule was spasmodic, not continuous-there had been great awakenings. The people were leaderless; civil government was not established; the work of God was unorganized; every city was in danger of attack ; there was no security anywhere for life or property; and yet in such conditions the people had sought and found the Lord. If this were possible then, what was not possible now? They were strong; the throne was firmly established; the country was safe; preachers had liberty to give their messages; the priests had facilities for sacrifice; and the influence of the court was all on the side of good. The story of the past was certainly possible of repetition. And in this manner we should encourage ourselves to-day. We read of many awakenings in Old Testament times, in seasons of adversity and prosperity, with the help of the king, and sometimes with his influence on the opposite side. About sixteen revivals are recorded, or hinted at, between the times of Moses and Nehemiah. These awakenings occurred before the advent of Christ, before the knowledge of God and of His will was so clear as it is to-day, and before His Spirit was poured out as at Pentecost. How much more possible is revival for us? The conditions are far more favourable.
Then the history of revival in the Christian era is helpful. God has never been without witness. In the darkest ages men have stood up for Him, and won others too. When confession of Christ meant death, the preaching of the Word imprisonment, attendance at public worship and possession of the Scriptures the confiscation of goods, revivals occurred. Before freedom of conscience was established, before printing was invented, and when; after the invention of printing, the Bible was a dear book, and the common people could not read, in all these times religious awakenings took place. With the multiplication of Christian agencies and influence, and the widespread diffusion of the Scriptures, coupled with the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, what wonderful seasons of refreshing may be ours.
The revival in Jonathan Edwards' church in America in the eighteenth century was occasioned by hearing of revival in England. The story of it in that church called forth prayerful and expectant effort in other quarters. The revival in Ireland and Wales in 1859 was helped by the story of a similar event in the United States in 1857, and the revival in Ireland and Wales led to a like work of grace in England and Scotland. The present awakening in Wales has already borne fruit in other lands; and in this country the blessing we are expecting will be largely due to the prayerful interest with which that movement is being followed.
III. REVIVAL REQUIRES AN INCREASE OF SPIRITUAL LIFE AMONGST THOSE ALREADY POSSESSING IT.
Asa had taken a strong stand against evil; he had put his hand with considerable energy to good things; he had exhibited great faith in a time of trouble; he had given evidence that he had learnt the art of successful prayer; and he had been blessed so conspicuously that people saw that God was with him, and yet there was room for improvement. There were evils still tolerated in the country and in his home. And there were also works of God awaiting his hand. The altar of the Lord required renewal, and the dedicated things needed to be brought into the temple. And when Asa consecrated himself to these things God sent the blessing.
In an admirable book on "The Revival in Wales and some of its Hidden Springs," Mrs. Penn Lewis traces the awakening there to a series of conventions and meetings, in which good men and women entered into a deeper life. If the tone of the life of the members of our churches be considerably raised the blessing will not tarry. The great masses of the people are unreached by our church agencies. They will not come to our meetings; but they are all touched during the week, in daily life, by Christian people. If in the midst of the world our spirit be different from its spirit, if there we are gentle, patient and forgiving, happy and contented, unselfish and loving, the masses will be brought face to face with personified Christianity. They will pause and consider its meaning. It will first rebuke them, and then in many cases it will win them. "The strangers out of Ephraim and Manasseh and out of Simeon fell to Asa in abundance, when they saw that the Lord his God was with him." The outsiders were reached by the deepening of his religious life.
IV. REVIVAL NECESSITATES DRASTIC MEASURES WITH EVILS.
Idolatry is degrading to character and demoralizing to social life. It obscures God. The world was so sunk in it that it was necessary for a people to be called out from the world, separated from it, and by strong laws and discipline purified from the prevailing faith and practices, in order that the true faith might be planted, preserved, and propagated. The history of the Jews shows that idolatry could not be dealt with on any other line but an intolerant one. In the New Testament the firm and intolerant attitude of the nation to evil is laid upon the individual. Habits which are as much a part of us as hands and eyes are to be surgically treated if they hinder the soul's growth. The power of God can only flow through the man whose life is clearly and definitely severed from sin. The same position must, be taken by the church. Her hands must be free from everything that degrades the life of the people. There are evils amongst us as demoralizing as idolatry was amongst the Jews.
The drink is one of these. The terrible increase of insanity, which is a national peril, is due to drink more than to any other one cause. Crime, poverty, and disease each owes more to intoxicants than to any other single thing. The physique, the mental power, the wealth, the social life, the character and security of our people, are threatened by this terrible scourge. The church must not be afraid to be intolerant of it. We are told we must not interfere with the liberty of the subject. But the liberties of us all have been long interfered with through the freedom and license granted to "the trade." The church should purge itself completely of the evil. No one interested in the liquor traffic should be elected to its sacred offices, and all should take the total abstinence position. Any other platform but the total abstinence one is ineffective for God's people to occupy.
Another evil sapping the best life of the country is gambling. The complete absorption of the masses of the people in sport-an absorption that means that in the time of national trouble the issue of a football or cricket match puts in the shade the issue of a battle or a campaign, an absorption that means that questions upon which the nation's future depends, and upon which each man is called to vote, are only seriously discussed by the few-is due not to the active participation of the people in the games themselves, but to the betting and sweepstakes connected therewith. And this interest means that the masses are financially and personally interested in the issue of each sporting event, and whilst the issue of these events is uncertain, the employer does not and cannot have the whole-hearted attention of his employees. The gambling spirit is against efficiency in business; and to men handling money it is a constant source of temptation. It fosters the spirit of dependence upon chance, and is a menace to honest, steady toil. Members of Christian churches should abstain from betting, sweepstakes, and playing for money in games of chance; and the churches in their corporate capacity should rigorously exclude all raffling, etc., from bazaars and sales of work. If the church allows these things, even "for a good cause," it cannot protest effectually against the evil.
V. REVIVAL CALLS FOR COURAGEOUS AND PURPOSEFUL EFFORT.
The conqueror of a million, himself at the head of an army of half a million victorious soldiers, is urged to be strong; and told that his hands should not be weak. The courage of the battlefield fails in the presence of moral evil. A different spirit is wanted to stand against sin, especially when that sin is in one's own household. It did my heart good the other night to hear two or three strapping young men, who looked as if they would be afraid of no one, confessing their weakness to the Lord, and asking Him to give them courage to confess Christ before their comrades. "Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall; but they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength."
Asa not only needed courage but purpose. He made up his mind to obey the Lord, and to work for the blessing promised. There is need for Christians to consecrate themselves for the work of revival. It will not come without definite purpose on the part of some. Individuals must make up their minds to live for this purpose, to study the laws of revivals, and to work and pray wholeheartedly for blessing. With courageous and purposeful effort the work will be hastened.
Chapter V. Revival Under Elijah
I Kings, xvii. and xviii.
In the reign of Ahab and Jezebel the children of Israel were becoming confirmed in idolatry. For over fifty years the people had been departing from the old faith, until the worship of Baal had become the State religion. For the first time in their history their ancient faith was persecuted. Men worshipped Jehovah with their lives in their hands. The prophets of the Lord were hunted down and put to death. One hundred of them were saved through the help of Obadiah, a friend at court, who hid them in a cave and supplied them with bread and water. The people were contented with this state of things. The country was prosperous; new towns were built; large palaces, public buildings, and temples were erected; and the prestige of the nation amongst the surrounding peoples was high.
One man, however, was studying his Bible. It was a small book compared with the one we have to-day. In it he found these words: "It shall come to pass, if ye shall hearken diligently unto My commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, and to serve Him with all your heart, and with all your soul, that I will give you the rain of your land in his due season, the first rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil. And I will send grass in thy fields for thy cattle, that thou mayest eat and be full. Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and ye turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them; and then the Lord's wrath be kindled against you, and He shut up the heaven, that there be no rain, and that the land yield not her fruit; and lest ye perish quickly from off the good land which the Lord giveth you." Under the influence of this, Elijah "prayed earnestly that it might not rain." It was an awful prayer, but he saw that if the people were to be won back to the faith of their fathers they must reap the consequences of their idolatry. They were not open to argument. They were utterly indifferent to the claims of God, and would not give them a moment's thought. It was imperative that they should find the way of transgressors to be hard; and so Elijah prayed that God's Word might be fulfilled.
When he was sure that what the Lord had said would come to pass he publicly announced the course of events. In the court of the king he declared : "As the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word." And then under command from God he retired from public life.
For three and a half years the Word of God was not preached. There was a famine of the Word. And there was also another famine. The logic of events was to make its appeal to the people. A drought settled upon the country. The land gradually dried up. The sky, for month after month, remained a pitiless blue. The crops failed; the cattle and sheep pined away; the people sickened and died. Ahab had the country scoured in vain to find provision for his horses. Under the stress of these years a scapegoat had to be found, and Elijah was denounced as the cause of all the trouble. There was not a place known to the king to which he did not send for the prophet. A price was upon his head. But the judgment was doing its work. As the hearts of the people fainted within them they were being prepared to hear God's message. They were getting hungry for comfort and help; and when the time was ripe Elijah was bidden to show himself to Ahab. This he did. But the king had no power to arrest him. There was a power with him that made the king tremble in his presence. The subject commanded the ruler. Under the direction of Elijah, Ahab summoned a national assembly. The people gathered in their thousands, and Elijah appealed to the masses direct with his message. "How long," he said, "halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord be God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him." To this there was no response. "The people answered him not a word." Then he proposed a test. Two bullocks should be selected for sacrifice. One should be prepared by the prophets of Baal, the other by himself. These should be placed on altars with wood, but no fire. "And," said the prophet, "call ye on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the Lord: and the god that answereth by fire, let him be God." To this the people agreed. The bullocks were brought, and the prophets of Baal were given the first opportunity of obtaining the desired effect. For hours, in the hottest part of the day, with the burning rays of the sun shining upon their offering, these men, 450 in number, arrayed in all the paraphernalia of their office, careered and danced around their altar, crying, "O Baal, hear us! O Baal, hear us " Tricks were impossible in the daylight, and under the eyes of such a multitude. As the hours dragged on the excitement rose, and in their frenzy they jumped upon the altar, cried aloud, and cut themselves with knives. But "there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded."
Then Elijah called the people near to him. The altar of the Lord, which was broken down, was repaired; the sacrifice was made ready; the wood was saturated with water; over the whole water was poured three times, and the trench surrounding the altar was filled. Then Elijah prayed: "Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that Thou art God in Israel, and that I am Thy servant, and that I have done all these things at Thy word. Hear me, O Lord, hear me; that this people may know that Thou art the Lord God, and that Thou hast turned their heart back again." And he did not pray in vain. The fire of the Lord fell, and "when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces, and they said, The Lord, He is the God; the Lord, He is the God." The people returned en masse to the God of their fathers. The prophets of Baal were destroyed. The national repentance was complete.
But as yet there was not a speck in the sky. The heavens continued to be as brass. But the people had repented, and Elijah once more publicly committed God. He declared that there was the sound of abundance of rain; and with that promise ringing in their ears the people returned to their homes. Elijah's work, however, was not complete. Though the promise of God was so absolute, and so certain of fulfilment, it needed human co-operation to make it effective. "Thus saith the Lord God, I will yet for this be inquired of by the house of Israel to do it for them." Elijah retired to pray, and as earnestly as he had requested that it might not rain, so now he prayed that the showers might fall. And when a cloud no bigger than a man's hand appeared in the sky he sent word at once to Ahab to hasten home before the storm broke.
On the surface of the story Elijah appears to us as a man of gigantic character, and quite impossible of imitation. But the Apostle James assures us he "was a man subject to like passions as we are". There were moments when he exhibited cowardice, faint-heartedness, and hopelessness, as we are prone to do. His greatness was due to that which is possible to us all-faith and prayer.
Elijah believed in the living God. "As the Lord God of Israel liveth before Whom I stand. This he said in the presence of Ahab. When he was before the whole court the most real being to him was God. He lived his life and uttered his words in the presence always of the King of Kings. To Him he was responsible. And this faith he had in an atmosphere similar to the one in which we live and work during the week. God is not real to the people of this land. He is not in all their thoughts. Business and pleasure absorb, and are realities; but God is far away. The complete banishment of God from the thoughts of the majority creates an atmosphere that affects our faith and our spiritual perceptions. In such an atmosphere Elijah also moved. But he came to it from another one. In retirement he had fellowship with God, he pondered over His words, he allowed them to sink into his soul till they governed his desires and thoughts. His inner life was brought into harmony with the revealed will of God. And after breathing this atmosphere for hours he could move amongst men and be unaffected by the air they breathed. His spiritual health was such that the diseased ideas of men could not impregnate him. When the presence of God is cultivated it becomes an overpowering, mastering sense, and with it a man moves victoriously amongst his fellows. It is not belief in the being of God that is our need, nor the furnishing of the mind with arguments for His existence; but the sense of God, of His presence, of His sympathy and imminent help, and of our responsibility to Him. Such a feeling will enable us to act independently of the fear of man, and will make us strong.
Elijah believed in the Word of God. He had no doubts about its truth. What God had said would come to pass. His words were not idle ones. His promises and threatenings were equally true. The latter were righteous and necessary. It was not vindictiveness, nor delight in human misery, that caused God to threaten, but love for the souls of men. The threatenings were warnings. Their fulfilment was to turn men back to Him. "That they may know that Thou hast turned their hearts back again." This word needed to be received by men. It called them to co-operate with God for its fulfilment. It was a guide. It contained a program. To this program human acquiescence was necessary. Men must consent to it as good and just. The will revealed in it was a will to be accomplished through men. It was made known in order to bring men into line with God. So, accepting the word, and loving the people and the honour of God, Elijah prayed that, until their hearts were right they might know the bitterness of sin. The absence of rain was terrible, but contentment in a state of sin was a greater calamity. And when the people were broken under the influence of the drought he prayed again that rain might come.
God's Word abides. Such a faith as Elijah's we require. The program of the Bible should be studied by us. To it we should agree. The revealed will of God should be our delight. For the realization of the promises we should pray and work.
This faith governed Elijah's life. It gave him courage to face Ahab and to tell him the truth. It enabled him to preach judgment to a people who did not believe in such a thing, and to whom such a doctrine was repugnant. He believed in the mercy of God to an unthinking, rebellious nation. God was more anxious to give rain than to withhold it. His faith enthused him, and he desired to communicate it. The people needed it. He desired they should understand and receive it. Prayer, hard work, earnestness, clear teaching, strong, loving desire, were born of such convictions. He could not help preaching. Such truths as he held with such intensity could not be bottled up. They must find expression. And the faith that enthused him was contagious. Men could not help feeling its power. It swayed the people. And though in some quarters it did not convince, it triumphed. It bore down the opposition of unbelief, and was found to be unanswerable. His faith, and not the unbelief of Ahab, ruled the people.
Such a faith, fed by the Word of God, and fostered in hours of retirement, is possible to us, and will make us instruments of revival to the people amongst whom we dwell.