[100 years ago, back in 1914, the Editor of the Free Presbyterian Magazine wrote an article for the new year that could have been written today for its timely appropriateness. Within months of its original publication divine wrath broke forth in the devastations of the First World War. It was based on Habakkuk’s prayer for revival: “O Lord, I have heard thy speech, and was afraid: O Lord, revive thy work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make known; in wrath remember mercy” (Hab. 3:2). Here is the article.]
At the beginning of a new year it is customary for people to express to one another their good wishes for happiness and prosperity during the year on which they have entered. The thoughts in this connection that manifestly occupy the mind of the greater number are those of natural happiness and material prosperity. They have no concern about anything higher, and desire nothing better than their own and their neighbour’s worldly success. But the case is – or at least ought to be – different with those who fear God. The thought which should have the uppermost place in their minds at this season, as at all seasons, is the spiritual prosperity of the kingdom of God. It would become them to be deeply concerned, in times of darkness and declension such as ours, that the Lord would send, for His own name’s sake, a season of genuine spiritual prosperity to the vineyard of the visible Church.
The prophet Habakkuk, in his own day, was greatly concerned about this matter. True, he did not live in the very worst times that the Jewish people ever saw. It is reckoned that he wrote his prophecy during the reign of good King Josiah. This excellent king had made a valuable reformation of an outward kind in Judah; but it would appear that many of the sins which had been encouraged by his predecessors still held too large a place in the land. The Lord sent messages of warning by His servants, Jeremiah and Habakkuk, and intimated to the people that He would “raise up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation,” to chastise them for their sins – a judgment which came to pass in due time. Habakkuk was thus deeply moved to plead with the Most High for a time of reviving in the following terms: “O Lord, I have heard thy speech and was afraid; O Lord, revive thy work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make known; in wrath remember mercy.” We shall briefly notice the words, with application to the case of Church and nation in our own day.
1. Let us observe the prophet’s fear: “Lord, I have heard thy speech and was afraid.”
The prophet had heard the voice of Jehovah speaking concerning the evils of his time and proclaiming woes unto those who were guilty of indulging in these evils. To all appearance, the wicked were at this period numerous, strong, and deceitful, and the truly just few and weak, unable to resist effectually the inroads of iniquity. The Lord had declared His intention of sending dreadful enemies into the country, and the prophet, conscious not only of the sins of the wicked but of his own sins and the sins of God’s children in general, trembled with fear lest the work of God should be entirely swept out of the land. He confesses this in lowly entreaty before God. “Rottenness entered into my bones, and I trembled in myself that I might rest in the day of trouble.”
Now, it is plain to everyone who studies, under the teaching of the Holy Spirit, the condition of Church and nation in our day, that things are in a low and degenerate condition. If we have ears to hear the Lord’s voice speaking to us in the Word, we may well tremble and be afraid lest marked judgments speedily overtake us. Sins against the precepts of law and Gospel abound on almost every hand. Immorality of life and vain practices in worship are on the increase. The living witnesses for truth are few, and some of them spiritually weak and powerless. It would be good if those who perceive the need of the times were filled with a humble, earnest, godly fear for the cause of God and righteousness.
2. Let us notice, secondly, the prophet’s supplication: “O Lord, revive thy work in the midst of the years; in the midst of the years make known.”
His godly fear impelled him to earnest prayer. There is an unbelieving, slavish fear that drives many poor sinners away from God; but there is a believing, filial fear that constrains them to draw near to Him with all their difficulties and temptations. Such was the fear of Habakkuk, and such is the fear of all those who truly know the Lord still. The prophet felt that the grand remedy for the sad state of affairs was the revival of God’s special and saving work – the making known of His glorious character as the God of salvation. “In the midst of the years” of calamity he felt much afraid of God’s judgments, and longed and prayed for manifestations of His grace and power. “O Lord, revive thy work.” And such is the exercise of those in our own time who earnestly desire to see the coming of Christ’s kingdom in power and in the Holy Ghost.
Let it be observed, then, that there are two things that are needed in order to constitute a true revival of the Lord’s cause first, the revival of His work in the souls of those who are already among His living people; and secondly, the revival of His work in relation to sinners outside the kingdom – “the other sheep” who must be brought in from the mountains of vanity.
(1) There is need to seek the revival of God’s work in the souls of His children.
It is plain that we live in a comparatively dark and dead time in the spiritual experience of even the living in Jerusalem. We do not see the liveliness and vigour of soul, the heavenly elevation of spirit, the intense earnestness at a throne of grace, the warm, loving, and self-sacrificing zeal, and the close and holy walk with God, of Christians of a bygone generation. Possibly a few here and there may be found exemplifying these characteristics in some marked degree. But the lamentable case is that, in general, among those who may be credited with the possession of divine life there is too much spiritual lethargy, carnal security, coldness, and worldliness of mind and conversation. People are at ease in Zion – too much satisfied with the form of religion apart from “the power” – exceedingly diligent in attending to their worldly affairs and prospects, but lukewarm in the all-important matters of making “their calling and election sure,” and of seeking the real advancement of the kingdom of God. There is great necessity that the Lord would send forth anew His Spirit and Word with special power, into the understandings, consciences, and hearts of His own people, so that they might be humbled, emptied, laid low, and brought afresh – as if it were for the first time – to the feet of Christ and to “the blood of sprinkling, which speaketh better things than that of Abel,” and might thus experience special outflowings of the love and power of God in their souls, and be filled with a more tender and lively zeal for the glory of His name and the good of His cause.
When the Spirit was poured forth on the day of Pentecost He first descended on the disciples in the upper room before He came upon the multitude who were awakened to a sense of their sins. Peter and the eleven were eminently anointed of the Holy Ghost. It is greatly to be desired in our own day that those who stand up in the name of Christ to preach the Word would receive a special baptism of the Spirit, and that the Gospel would go forth from their lips “not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Ghost and in much assurance.” The preaching of the Gospel has been the chief means employed by the Lord in all ages for promoting His kingdom in the souls of those already taught from above, and in calling effectually others out of darkness into His marvellous light.
(2) There is special need for the revival of God’s work in relation to those outside the kingdom.
It is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles that “the Lord added to the church daily such as should be (or rather, were being) saved” (Acts 2:47). Now, it is perfectly plain that there is a most urgent call that prayer would ascend for the revival of the Lord’s work in this respect. We must not be deterred from earnestness in this direction because we see, perhaps, others proceeding upon wrong and unscriptural lines, imagining that they can, by fleshly means, convince and convert sinners. Their mistaken efforts must not make us callous about the salvation of perishing souls. Nor must we abuse certain solemn and precious aspects of divine truth by misapplying them to the detriment of real zeal for the everlasting benefit of our fellow-sinners. Some may be ready to fold their hands in ease and say, “The Lord will make sure of His own elect – all those whom He has ordained unto eternal life; He will call them effectually at His own time, and none of them shall be lost.” These are certainly valuable truths, but it must not be forgotten that the Lord has ordained the means as well as the end, and that He employs such means as the reading of His Word, the preaching of the Gospel, Christian counsel, and earnest prayer at the throne of grace, for the accomplishment of His gracious purposes in the conversion of poor sinners. If we neglect or undervalue these means we fight against God and against the ways of infinite wisdom and goodness, and are in danger of being consumed with spiritual judgments, if not with eternal miseries.
Let us consider how few they are that truly fear the Lord in our day and generation, and how few are savingly impressed even when the truth is proclaimed in a lively and convincing manner, and we shall see abundant reason for crying mightily unto Him who sitteth between the cherubim, that He would vouchsafe a season of awakening and converting power. Young people are growing up, even in godly households, who continue quite unconcerned about their eternal prospects. The messenger of death is frequently busy, and what an awful thing it is to contemplate poor sinners who are brought to the very gate of heaven – so far as outward privileges are concerned – falling thence into the blackness of darkness for ever!
The very smallness of the flock of Christ in the present day ought to be a stimulus to those who call upon the name of the Lord, to plead earnestly with Him for a day of power, as also a goad in the side of those who may be near “the door” – not far from the kingdom – pressing them to “strive to enter in,” that they may be saved. “The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence and the violent take it by force.”
3. Let us observe, in the last place, the prophet’s plea: “in wrath, remember mercy.”
He acknowledges that the Lord is justly displeased with the land and the people. He cannot plead the righteousness of any creature whatsoever, good or bad. All had sinned and come short of the glory of God. The Most High is “slow to wrath,” and so when He is manifestly displeased it is a sign that much iniquity has been committed. “Judgment is his strange work.” Habakkuk feels that he must cast himself unreservedly on the mercy of Jehovah. He entreats that the Lord in His just anger would not forget the attribute of His mercy. He had manifested Himself times and ways without number in the past history of His chosen people as a God of abundant mercy, and now, the prophet pleads, is a large opportunity for the display of that same mercy.
This is the plea that is suitable for our own case as a generation. We have sinned and done wickedly and God is justly angry with us. We have provoked Him to hide His face and to send spiritual and temporal judgments upon us. Our only becoming plea is that He would remember His covenant mercy. That mercy is abundantly revealed in His Son Jesus Christ, and so when we ask Him to remember mercy, we ask Him to remember one whom He shall not forget eternally, His only-begotten and well-beloved Son. “The Father loveth the Son and hath given all things into His hand.” Let us plead then that for the sake of the gift of His infinite mercy, He would revive His work among us as a people, and throughout the land in which we live. The prophet was beginning to cherish the fear that the Lord had forgotten to be gracious, as has been often the case with God’s people under lengthened and trying dispensations, and so He pleads that He would remember mercy. But this fear must be resisted by the power of divine grace, and we should seek to have our expectations enlarged and our hopes strengthened in view of the riches and unchangeableness of God’s mercy in Christ. Let us seek to wait with earnestness and patience upon Him, praying that He may grant a little reviving, in the midst of the bondage of the present time, during the coming year. “His mercy endureth for ever.”