Repentance Brings Times Of Refreshing
By Rich Carmicheal
Scripture: Ezra 9-10; Nehemiah 8-9
Repentance is a gift from the Lord. He is full of goodness, forbearance and longsuffering, and His goodness leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). His desire for us is not that we wallow or perish in our sins, but that we repent of our sins and experience abundant spiritual life and “times of refreshing” (2 Pet. 3:9; Acts 3:19).
Consider, for example, the impact of repentance in the time of Ezra. In the first eight chapters of the Book of Ezra, good things are happening for God’s people. The story begins as God, in fulfillment of His promise of restoration (see Jeremiah 29:10-11), moves the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to issue a proclamation for the Jews in exile to return to Judah and rebuild the temple. They do indeed return, and with the help of the Lord, they overcome opposition and rebuild the altar and the temple. Chapter six records the celebration of the dedication of the temple and the celebration of the Passover.
In chapter seven, Ezra enters the story. He comes full of zeal for the Law of God and with the favor of the king and God upon him (Ezra 7:6, 10). He also comes full of faith and courage as he trusts God for a safe passage, without any military escort, for those traveling with him and all of their possessions, including sacred articles for the temple.
Consequences of Sin
Though such good things are happening up to this point, an abrupt change occurs in chapter nine. Ezra learns that the people of Israel, including the leaders, have not kept themselves separate “from the peoples of the lands, with respect to the abominations,” but have intermarried with them (Ezra 9:1-2). Ezra’s reaction is severe: “So when I heard this thing, I tore my garment and my robe, and plucked out some of the hair of my head and beard, and sat down astonished. Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel assembled to me, because of the transgression…” (9:3-4).
God had called His people to be separate from the peoples around them. He did not want the people to intermarry because He knew that the interaction with the foreign peoples would bring corruption and impurity, and would rob the Israelites of the physical and spiritual well-being He desired for them (9:10-12). He also knew that such marriages would turn their hearts to other gods, and decrease their devotion to Him. He also had it on His heart all along for His people to be set apart in order to become a source of light and blessing to other nations. By intermingling with the neighboring peoples, God’s people were compromising their calling and influence.
Compromise in the Church Today
Unfortunately, the influence of many of God’s people today is also compromised by sin. We are called to be “in the world” not “of the world” (John 17:14-15), but in too many cases the church has become “of the world.” For example, many sins (such as greed, materialism, gossip, immorality, pride, etc.) are just as prevalent in the church as they are in the world. Much of the church has lost her distinction as God’s holy people, set apart for His purposes, called to serve as light and salt in the world. She has become worldly and has allowed worldliness to enter her.
Sin, of course, has great consequences. Ezra, well aware of this, with his tunic and cloak torn, fell on his knees with his hands spread out to the Lord and prayed, “O my God, I am too ashamed and humiliated to lift up my face to You, my God; for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has grown up to the heavens. Since the days of our fathers to this day we have been very guilty, and for our iniquities we…have been delivered into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plunder, and to humiliation…” (Ezra 9:6-7). He knew that sin had led God’s people into captivity, and that if now, in this season of return and restoration, God’s people again embraced sin, they could lose everything God had on His heart for them (9:13-14).
What compounded the remorse in Ezra’s heart was his awareness of how gracious God had been to His people. He had punished them less than they deserved, and in His grace He had shown kindness toward them and granted them new life to rebuild (9:9). For the people of God to once again embrace sin would be an affront to the grace of God. Ezra knew that the well-being of God’s people and His plans and purposes for them were at stake.
Have you ever been as upset as Ezra over sin and its consequences? Do you grieve over the loss of the influence of the church (or maybe your own life) because of the impact of sin?
There Is Still Hope!
As Ezra is praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a large crowd of men, women and children gathers around him, and they too weep bitterly (10:1). In the midst of this, something wonderful happens. Shecaniah, one of the men, acknowledges the great sin of the people, but adds: “…yet now there is hope in Israel in spite of this” (10:2).
What a pivotal statement! No matter how bleak the situation, there is still hope! Why? Because God is a God of hope, a God of forgiveness, a God of grace, a God of patience, a God of mercy and a God of love. He is eager for us to turn from our sins and toward Him. And if the Jews in Ezra’s day could have such hope, how much greater is our hope in Christ! “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (Eph. 1:7); “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Ezra went on to lead the people to confession and repentance. Their sin was great, and took some time to untangle, but they were faithful to honor and respond to God’s commands (see Ezra 10:10-44).
The Restoration of God’s Word
We have another glimpse of Ezra and the impact of confession and repentance in the Book of Nehemiah. In the first portion of this book, God enables His people to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. In chapter eight, the people assemble and tell Ezra to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses. He does accordingly and reads it aloud to them from daybreak till noon. He stands on a wooden platform as he reads, and he and the people show great reverence for God and His Word: “And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. Then all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen!’ while lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground” (Neh. 8:5-6).
Oh for such reverence for the Word of God today! Do we not need greater devotion to the public and private reading of God’s Word? Do we not need greater study to show ourselves approved as those who correctly handle the Word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15)? Do we not need more preachers who will take to heart the Apostle Paul’s exhortation: “Preach the Word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching” (4:2)? Do we not need stronger teaching that builds up the body of Christ and leads others to repentance?
The Word of God needs to be central in churches, homes and individual lives! What a wonderful gift the Lord gave to the Jews rebuilding Jerusalem as He sent Ezra, a man devoted to God’s Word. Along with restoring the altar, the temple and the wall, the Lord sent Ezra to help restore His Word to His people.
The Response to God’s Word: Rejoicing and Repentance
As the people listened to the words of the Law, they grieved and wept (Neh. 8:9-10). Perhaps one of the main reasons for this is because they realized how far they had drifted from the Lord and His desires for them. The Levites, however, encouraged the people not to mourn or weep: “Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved” (see 8:10-12).
Even though the restoration of the Word of God may bring great conviction as it reveals our shortcomings and sins, it is a gift when the Lord shares His Word with us. Consider, for example, Jesus’ hard message to the church at Laodicea recorded in Revelation 3:14-22. He lays bare the fact that the church is lukewarm and “wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” (v. 17). And yet, He shares His word with them not to condemn or destroy them, but to call them to repentance. His strong words are based in His love for the church and His desire for them to enjoy fellowship with Him: “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (vv. 19-20).
Whenever God shares a word of correction with us, the proper response is to “be zealous and repent.” Following the celebration of the restoration of the Law of God recorded in the eighth chapter of Nehemiah, God’s people assembled and “confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for one-fourth of the day; and for another fourth they confessed and worshiped the Lord their God” (Neh. 9:1-3). They blessed and praised the Lord for His faithfulness, forgiveness, graciousness, compassion, patience and love, while confessing the sins of their forefathers as well as their own sins (9:5-37). They also acknowledged that because of these sins, they were facing hardship and not enjoying the abundant blessings God intended for them (9:32-37).
That day the people were deeply stirred and repented of sin and turned their lives toward the Lord. They were very serious about this and made a binding agreement in writing (9:38). They committed that day to walk according to God’s Word and to observe and do all of His commandments (10:29). Their heartfelt response to the Lord and His Word eventually led to great rejoicing! (12:43).
God does indeed call His people to repentance so that times of refreshing may come from Him. Whenever you sense the Lord leading you to repentance, be thankful because such correction is evidence of His love for you. And at the same time, respond to Him in all earnestness and sincerity. Sin is not to be treated lightly. God calls us to be a holy people, set apart for Him and His purposes. He is eager and faithful to bless and work through those who confess sin and turn from it toward Him!