I recently installed an app on my phone that prompts me to pray for revival at the local, sate, and federal levels twice a day. It’s a great habit, even if it results in some short, less-than-glamorous prayers whispered under my breath as I’m about my other business each morning and evening.
But this new habit has me asking: what is revival? If God granted us revival, how would we know?
Charles Spurgeon once commented that the word “‘revive’ wears its meaning upon its forehead; it is from the Latin, and may be interpreted thus—to live again, to receive again a life which has almost expired; to rekindle into a flame the vital spark which was nearly extinguished” (Sword and Trowel, 1865). Martin Lloyd-Jones noted, “A revival is not the Church deciding to do something and doing it. It is something that is done to the Church, something that happens to the Church” (“What Is Revival?”).
I will not attempt to exhaustively define revival in this brief piece. Rather, I will assume a definition of revival as something sovereignly bestowed by God in which a people, en masse, receive an outpouring of “a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy” (Zechariah 12:10)—a corporate experience of renewed repentance and faith.1 This is what happened to Nineveh following Jonah’s preaching and to Jerusalem following Peter’s preaching on Pentecost. (There is frequent debate as to whether or not revival can be understood only in context of an already largely-regenerate body or if it may also apply to unbelievers who were never spiritually “alive” in the first place. I will not dive into this issue but will operate from a broader sense of the word “revival” that applies to the state of a nation or people as a whole and encompasses both definitions.)
Both testaments of Scripture are full of examples of revival in varying degrees. Yet one such example, which comes early in the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah documented in 2 Chronicles 29, is instructive for our purposes.
Setting the Stage
Israel’s history is noted for its high highs and low lows. Yet the pre-exilic King Ahaz had plunged the nations of Judah into a display of idolatry uniquely dismaying even in the context of the Old Testament record. “He even made metal images for the Baals, and he made offerings in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom and burned his sons as an offering, according to the abominations of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel” (2 Chronicles 28:2-3 ESV).
Enter Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah. The author of 2 Kings editorializes this king’s reforms as follows:
“And he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, according to all that David his father had done. He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan). He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him. For he held fast to the Lord. He did not depart from following him, but kept the commandments that the Lord commanded Moses. And the Lord was with him; wherever he went out, he prospered. He rebelled against the king of Assyria and would not serve him.” (2 Kings 18:3-7)
Whereas the author of 2 Kings flies at a high altitude, 2 Chronicles 29 fills in the details surrounding Hezekiah’s reforms in at least four notable respects. And although revival will look different in our day from its biblical portrayal under the paradigm of the old covenant, this narrative supplies us with four traits marking the sort of revival for which we should desperately pray.
1. Political Renewal (2 Chronicles 29:1-11)
Revival is not dependent upon political ground gained. The power of the Christian faith is in its ability to thrive under wicked civil authorities. Even when persecution looms, the Christian may still “live quietly… and be dependent on no one” (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12). We are commanded to “be subject… to every human institution” (1 Peter 2:13) and “honor the emperor” (v. 17; cf. Romans 13:1-7). These instructions, so far as they do not contradict the commands of God, generally apply regardless of the ideology of the current regime.
Moreover, the notion that church and state should remain separate and distinct institutions is not only biblical but is derived from the Old Testament theocratic system itself. Just three chapters prior, Hezekiah’s great-grandfather, King Uzziah, was swiftly punished by Yahweh for his intrusion into the priestly domain (2 Chronicles 26:16-21).
It is true that politics are downstream from culture. The gospel only transforms the political sphere by influencing culture, and culture is only changed by exchanging the cultus of unbelief for that of genuine Christian worship.
Yet in our despair, we are often quick to dismiss the role that righteous leadership can play in the spiritual life of a nation. Accustomed to the status quo of a generic, secularized, low-calorie “Christian” civil religion, we take all these aforementioned truths and steer clear of the political altogether. There are no political messiahs, many of us reason, and so we cede our political system to the totali-tolerant ruling class.
God placed King Hezekiah in a position of top-down political influence to lay the reformational groundwork for real, grassroots revival. God is never bound, of course, to act this way, and frequently he doesn’t. But we are free to pray for both the necessary bubble-up revival and the trickle-down leaders whose work may, in God’s providence, precede it.
“When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice” (Proverbs 29:2 KJV). We ought indeed to pray for rulers whose hearts belong to the Lord, and Christians may run for office and find themselves to be the answers to such prayers. That Hezekiah leveraged his bully pulpit in the cause of revival stands as a stark reminder that politics do indeed matter—not supremely, but really.
We ought indeed to pray for rulers whose hearts belong to the Lord, and Christians may run for office and find themselves to be the answers to such prayers.
Without repeating Uzziah’s blunder, Hezekiah exerted his influence to address the religious sphere laterally, chiding the ecclesiastical elites:
“[C]onsecrate yourselves. . . . For our fathers have been unfaithful and have done what was evil in the sight of the LORD our God. . . . Therefore the wrath of the LORD came on Judah. . . . Now it is in my heart to make a covenant with the LORD, the God of Israel, in order that his fierce anger may turn away from us. My sons, do not now be negligent, for the LORD has chosen you to stand in his presence, to minister to him and to be his ministers and make offerings to him.” (2 Chronicles 29:5-6, 8, 10-11)
What profit is a godly leader? Among other things, he may exhort his fellow men over in the adjacent sphere of the church to get their act together—to return to the Lord, attend to their pastoral duties, and help the nation avert wrath.
2. Corporate Consecration (vv. 12-19)
The Levites and priests heeded Hezekiah’s exhortation, cleansing both themselves, their kinsmen, the temple, and all its instruments (vv.12-19). This too is instructive for us—even though we have no earthly temple and priesthood.
The Lord was then, as he always is, zealous that his shepherds tend his people and not feed themselves (see Ezekiel 34). For revival to occur, reform had to begin with the ministers of God. From there it spilled out across the corporate body, who went out when all was finished and destroyed the idols, pagan altars, and high places (2 Chronicles 31:1).
To be used by God, the minister should cleanse himself from “what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:21). Biblical revival often eludes us because our own church leaders do not lead the way in repentance and removal of that which is offensive to God.
3. Dependence on the Atonement (vv. 20-24)
The narrative next takes a bloody turn. Seven bulls, seven rams, seven lambs, seven male goats are slain to make atonement for the nation (vv. 21, 24). This occurred with the customary priestly laying of hands on the sacrificial animals (v. 23; cf. Leviticus 1:4), symbolizing the ceremonial imputation of the people’s sin to the beast.
There was blood on the hands of the people. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). To offend so great a God as ours is to call for own blood. The soul that sins shall die (Ezekiel 18:20). Revival was necessary because the guilt ran deep.
Of course, these sacrifices were types and shadows. “[I]t is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). But they pointed to the infinitely greater, more precious, effectual blood of the Mediator who was to come—the Lord Christ. He is the ultimate high priest (Hebrews 4:14) whose blood avails for the justification of sinners (12:24). By his sacrifice those who are being consecrated are perfected once and for all time (10:14).
This critical point must not be lost on us. Our prayers for revival demand a sacrifice. There can be no cultural renewal through a mere “moral majority” of generically religious folk who lack the gospel of the substitutionary atonement of the Son of God. A “spirit of grace and pleas for mercy” will not be ours apart from looking on him who was pierced (Zechariah 12:10).
True revival only takes place when those guilty of sin plead for mercy on the basis of the once-for-all atonement of Jesus Christ. Cultural reform profits nothing unless those whose hearts are revived cling to the cross of Christ.
True revival only takes place when those guilty of sin plead for mercy on the basis of the once-for-all atonement of Jesus Christ.
4. Glad Song (vv. 25-30)
Increasingly, many evangelicals are beginning to revive the practice of lament. We are told that public mourning in worship is a lost art. This is, of course, true, and there is often an undeniable emotionlessness that marks much conservative, Reformed worship. Like most stereotypes, the cliché of the “frozen chosen” elicits chuckles because of its ring of truth. The solution—we are told often now—is to lament.
There is great cause for repentant lament in our day.
But lament is never the final destination. Genuine revival brings repentance without regret (2 Corinthians 7:10). This is sorrow over sin that doesn’t devolve into a case of the sulks.
As soon as the priests completed the sacrificial offerings, Hezekiah stationed a regiment of Levites to attend exclusively to the duty of song (2 Chronicles 29:25). Moreover, there was musical accompaniment and full congregational participation. “The whole assembly worshiped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded. All this continued until the burnt offering was finished” (v. 28). This was no dirge; “they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed down and worshiped” (v. 30).
Perhaps we are experiencing our present condition because we have not “serve[d] the LORD with gladness and a good heart” (Deuteronomy 28:47; cf. Psalm 100:1). Sullen, surly religiosity is a poor substitute for revival. Pursed lips, fretting about the downfall of culture, and navel-gazing about our own complicity are not only poor stand-ins for contrition but pale in comparison to the laughter, jubilance, and feasting that mark Spirit-wrought revival. (See Acts 2:46: “[B]reaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts.”)
Lament is never the final destination. Genuine revival brings repentance without regret.
Lament simply does not mark the new covenant in the same way as it did the old. In the new covenant, we now know our Redeemer by name in the person of Christ. To be constantly burdened and mourning as new covenant believers living post-Calvary is to place old wine in new wineskins (see Matthew 9:14-17).
Moreover, joy in worship is the evidence of God’s involvement in the whole business of revival: “And Hezekiah and all the people rejoiced because God had provided for the people, for the thing came about suddenly” (v. 36). A similar theme manifests itself after Judah’s exile. After hearing the Law read aloud, the Jews recognize their woeful disobedience. Yet Ezra the priest instructs them: “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep . . . Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:9b-10). God had revived them and brought them back into the land. This was cause for the people to celebrate and not afflict themselves further. When God grants revival, we should receive it joyfully. Thanksgiving follows. But if we rely on the flesh and adopt a sour, dim imitation of revival, we have no one to thank but ourselves—and our dour attitudes will reveal our self-righteousness.
The United States is not Israel, and the church today operates under a new and better covenant than that of Moses. But Hezekiah’s reforms give us a picture of renewal for which we should strive, labor, and pray. Let us ask the Lord for the type of revival that brings political renewal, corporate consecration unto the Lord’s service, pleading the atoning blood of Christ, and glad, worshipful singing—because if we do not know what kind of renewal we need, we cannot pray in faith for revival.
- The ESV, NASB, KJV and other English translations also provide “revival/reviving” for the Hebrew מִֽחְיָ֥ה in Ezra 9:8, 9 in the context of the Jews’ return to the land. The term is thus applied not only to spiritual restoration but also the accompanying geopolitical restoration that the covenant people experienced under the terms of Deuteronomy 30:1-10.