A Prayer For Revival
Text: “Turn again our captivity, O Lord, as the streams in the south” (Psa. 126. 4).
This urgent prayer seems to be with so many of the Lord’s people at present, a desire that the Lord in love and mercy will “turn again our captivity.” Did you notice that this prayer was mentioned right at the very beginning of the prayer meeting, in the opening prayer this morning, and it was mentioned again in the closing prayer at the end of the business meeting, and it was mentioned right at the end of our Secretary’s report? This desire that almighty God in His love and mercy will “turn again our captivity” – because, beloved friends, only He can do it. No one else can do it.
It seems very clear that at present the church of God is in captivity; that is for the most part. And also many of the Lord’s dear people personally are in captivity. We see in our congregations so few going forth to minister the Word of life, in our congregations so few being clearly called by God’s grace, and very few being brought right out of the world into the church of God as happened so often in former days. So few of those who know and fear the Lord are blessed with the sweet assurance of faith; so, not many are able to make an open profession of the Lord’s name. You see – captivity.
But then what of our own hearts? And how is it with so many? The darkness, the deadness, the bondage, the guilt. O that it were otherwise that there were more light, and more life, and more love, and more liberty. “Captivity.” Some have known better days. “O that it were with me as in days past!” So I believe the Lord’s people are conscious of this spirit of captivity which abounds in the church of God and which abounds in the hearts of so many. “Captivity.” And only the Lord can bring out of it, and only the Lord can deliver.
So this is a prayer, an urgent prayer, and it is a prayer made to the Lord: “Turn again our captivity, O Lord.” Thinking on this verse, there seemed to be an emphasis on those two little words, “O Lord.” You see this is a vital thing. It is the person addressed, He who is almighty God, He who is omnipotent, and above all, He who is merciful, He who is gracious.
“Turn again our captivity, O Lord.” One thing is abundantly clear:
that if the Lord ever does condescend to turn again our captivity, it will be through the infinite merits of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. It will be for Jesus’ sake. “Every grace and every favour comes to us through Jesus’ blood.” No favour is given on any other ground. No sinner can merit it or deserve it. And even when the Lord’s people become fervent in their prayers (and O that we were more fervent in our prayers), but even when God’s people are, it is not because of the fervency of their prayers, it is for Jesus’ sake. So every blessing the church of God ever knows is on the grounds of the Saviour’s finished work at Calvary.
You know, beloved friends, there are so many blessed things spoken about the work of Christ at Calvary, and we love to speak of them, don’t we and we love to hear of them, but never forget that He “led captivity captive.” But you see, as it concerns this text and it concerns this prayer, our desire is that in love and mercy the Lord will “turn again our captivity.” And when we see that only He can do it, when we see it must be “for Jesus’ sake,” and when we see that it must be on the grounds of mercy through blood, then to remember that at Calvary the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ “led captivity captive.” When there He grappled with all the powers of darkness, with all the powers of hell, He conquered when He fell, and His death was a triumphant death. Dying He “led captivity captive.” So that wonderful word: “Thou hast ascended on high, Thou hast led captivity captive,” Satan, death, the powers of darkness, the powers of hell. “Thou hast ascended on high, Thou hast led captivity captive: Thou hast received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also, that the Lord God might dwell among them.” So may this be the prayer of many a heart this afternoon, and may we look for answers.
“Turn again our captivity, O Lord.” Now there have been those times when the Lord in love and mercy has turned again the captivity of His people. We think of Israel in Egypt. The captivity; no way of escape; no way of release; the taskmaster’s whip. And yet the time came when the Lord turned again their captivity. They could not do it themselves, but the Lord in mercy did it for them. And let us remember that when He turned again the captivity of His people in Egypt, it was not without blood. There was a lamb slain, and the blood shed, and the blood sprinkled, and the solemn Passover night. Redemption by blood had to be burnt in the heart of every faithful Israelite. I believe a few of them looked forward by faith to the cross. But the kindness of the Lord in turning again the captivity of His ancient people in Egypt. “I have surely seen the affliction of My people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; and I am come down to deliver them.” Now that is our God. A God who sees; a God who hears; a God who knows; a God who comes down; a God who delivers. And must we say, dare we say, “This God” – the God who delivered Israel out of Egypt – “this God is our God for ever and ever”? But this is the God to whom we pray here, the God who sees and hears and knows and comes down and delivers.
“Turn again our captivity, O Lord.” And then again we have the Babylonian captivity, when Israel was taken captive into Babylon. That beautiful chapter, Jeremiah chapter 33 (of which I read part this afternoon), speaks of captivity; but it speaks of captivity being turned. You see Jerusalem was desolate. Jerusalem was in ruins. Jerusalem was uninhabited. The people had been led forth captive into Babylon, and it seemed such a hopeless case, such an impossible case. “Call unto Me, and I will … show thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not.” There are some wonderful promises made in that chapter: “There shall be heard in this place, which ye say shall be desolate … the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride.” Of course these promises literally were that Jerusalem would be restored, Jerusalem would be inhabited. We think of the wonderful days of Ezra, Nehemiah, the rebuilding of the temple, the rebuilding of the city. They were praying at our prayer meeting on Thursday evening for the Lord to raise up Ezras and to raise up Nehemiahs in the church today. Well, may He do so.
Sometimes I have looked at that promise in Jeremiah chapter 33 in a gospel sense and long that it might be fulfilled: “In this place, which ye say shall be desolate.” Well people may, because we look round and we know the desolations of Jerusalem, don’t we? We do not need to have them proved. O but “this place, which ye say shall be desolate.” Well, that is what men say, but what does God say? “Again there shall be heard” – what, all kinds of things? – no, just this one: “Again there shall be heard … the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride.”
You know, when the Lord does turn again the captivity of His people this is one thing which is heard in the streets of Jerusalem: the voice of the heavenly Bridegroom. When things are desolate, His gracious voice is silent. But now again, “Again there shall be heard the voice of the bridegroom.” When He speaks with power to a dying sinner, sees him loathsome in his sin and blood, and says unto him, “Live.” That is the voice of the Bridegroom, that divine almighty voice. And when He gathers His sheep: “My sheep hear My voice.” And when His voice is heard in the promises, and when His voice is heard in the gospel. And when His voice is heard speaking words like this to a poor, lost, ruined, polluted sinner: “Thou art all fair, My love; there is no spot in thee.”
O you see, these are the days of the Son of Man when the voice of the Bridegroom is heard again in Jerusalem’s streets, when her captivity is turned. Wouldn’t the people love to hear the voice of the Bridegroom in the gospel, that almighty voice:
“Hark! the voice of love and mercy
Sounds aloud from Calvary!”?
The voice saying, “It is finished.” O these days of the Son of Man. This is the turning of Zion’s captivity, when again the voice of the Bridegroom is heard speaking in the streets of Jerusalem. Now may it be so. I have been thinking recently, it is almost exactly 200 years within a few days since William Gadsby came to live in Manchester, and he lived close to this spot. A poor house next to the chapel that was in danger of falling down. O but what a turning of Zion’s captivity followed! And how the voice of the heavenly Bridegroom was heard in this place! Now, may it be so again in love and mercy.
“Turn again our captivity, O Lord.” May the voice of the Bridegroom be heard in Jerusalem’s streets. And then you know, the voice of the bride will be heard. When it is captivity, when it is desolation, the bride is silent, isn’t she? O but when the voice of the Bridegroom is heard, when the voice of the Bridegroom speaks, then there will be the voice of the bride. Here will be one confessing her sin; it is the voice of the bride. Here will be another one crying for mercy; it is the voice of the bride. And here is one saying:
“Other refuge have I none,
Hangs my helpless soul on Thee.”
It is the voice of the bride. Then the voice of the bride in humble gratitude when her own captivity is turned, and when the church’s captivity is turned. “The voice of the Bridegroom, and the voice of the bride.” There is liberty now where it was captivity before. There is life now where it was death before. There is heavenly light shining where it was darkness before. O the turning again of the captivity of God’s people! And those are sweet seasons when the voice of the bride is heard saying, “Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what He hath done for my soul.”
“With wonder we attend,
While they the Sinner’s Friend,
With tears of holy joy, extol.”
“How pleasant is the gate
Where willing converts wait
For fellowship with Zion here;
Where they with wonder tell
How they escaped from hell,
And hope in glory to appear.”
O the turning again of the captivity of God’s people! But you know, even today it is not all darkness, it is not all death, is it? Now and again, not as often as we would like, but now and again we do see the Lord’s gracious work and we do hear the voice of the Bridegroom, and we do hear the voice of the bride, don’t we? O to know these things more.
“Turn again our captivity, O Lord.” And you see in the history of the church of God there have been those times when the Lord has turned again the captivity of His people. We think of those long, dark ages when Satan reigned and when the nations of the earth were held in bondage to the church of Rome. And then in love and mercy the Lord turned again the captivity of His people. There was a Luther raised up, there was a Calvin. There was life instead of death in our own beloved land. It was really the Word of God here more than any man, the Word of God used with divine almighty power. And then again it was almost like a second Glorious Reformation, after days of darkness and hardness and bondage and infidelity, and the Lord raised up a Whitefield and a Grimshaw and a Venn and a Berridge, and England was turned upside down. You see, “the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save.” It is only the Lord that can turn again our captivity. Thou must do it, Lord.
“Turn again our captivity, O Lord.” Really, every one of us personally is born in captivity, aren’t we? Born in captivity to sin and Satan. John Newton says, “Satan’s blind slave, I sported with death,” and another hymn-writer says, “Satan’s servant, and I loved his service well.” So we are all in captivity until the Lord in love and mercy puts His holy fear in our hearts in the new birth, when divine life is given. Then we are set free from the captivity of sin and Satan. But one of the great mysteries of the gospel is this: that by nature every one of us are captives, held in captivity to sin and Satan, but we do not know it until the Lord begins to set us free. And when the Lord begins to set us free then we feel our captivity. That is one of the mysteries. But I believe that is part of the meaning of that beautiful word, “Turn you to the Strong hold, ye prisoners of hope.” What is a prisoner of hope? Well, we are all prisoners by nature, we are all captives. But when a sinner begins to feel his captivity, begins to feel that he is a prisoner, then he is a prisoner of hope. “There is hope in Israel concerning this thing.” Then, “turn you to the Strong hold, ye prisoners of hope.”
“Prisoners of hope, to Jesus turn;
He’s a Strong hold, ordained for you;
Gird up your loins, and cease to mourn,
And to the Lamb your way pursue.”
And so a sinner feeling his captivity: “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.”
“Turn again our captivity, O Lord.” “He shall let go My captives, not for price nor reward.” And I think you will find that freedom from captivity, that liberty, whether it is doctrinally or experimentally or feelingly, it is by the blood of Christ. That beautiful word, “As for Thee also, by the blood of Thy covenant I have sent forth Thy prisoners out of the pit wherein is no water.” That is captivity, isn’t it? “The pit wherein is no water.” O but “through the blood of the everlasting covenant.” O to see the blessed Redeemer sealing the covenant of grace with His own precious blood; and it is life-giving blood, and it is liberty-speaking blood. “Turn again our captivity, O Lord.” But then there are times when the Lord’s people sink back into bondage, there is the darkness and the felt death; and there is not the liberty. But it must be on the same grounds as at the beginning, gospel ground: “Turn again our captivity, O Lord.” Well, what a subject, what a theme, the captivity! And yet the longing for liberty, the longing for the captivity to be turned.
“Turn again our captivity, O Lord, as the streams of the south.” Now, what does that mean? I take the analogy to be this – the south of Palestine, as it was called then, or Israel today, for part of the year is excessively dry, and the streams are dried up. You may go where there was once a lovely little stream and it is just a dry, rocky bed. You see there is nothing moving, there is no life; it is just that rocky bed. And then the rains come, the heavy rains, and the snow melts up in the mountains and it flows down. And in a very short time that dry, rocky bed is almost a raging torrent, a fast-flowing stream. Now, I take it that is the meaning of this verse. “Turn again our captivity, O Lord,” just like that. Because sure it is, so often in the church of God it is just like a dry, rocky bed, isn’t it? where the stream once used to flow. I am sure it is with our barren hearts, that dry, rocky bed; no life, nothing moving.
“Turn again our captivity, O Lord, as the streams of the south.” I want to speak graciously and carefully. O but in the church of God, it is a sad thing when people are completely satisfied with that dry, rocky bed! Well, they say, You can see it, it is clear that the stream flowed here once. You have got the Bible, you have got the hymnbook, you have got the services, you have got the system. And what about the death? And what about the nothingness? There isn’t a thing out of place! There are a lot of things out of place, you know, when that glorious stream begins to flow. Mind you, it is pure, clear, crystal water. But sometimes when that stream begins to flow, it carries a bit of rubbish along before it is cleared out of the way. O beware of being satisfied with outward, empty, dead formality. We want a religion of life, a religion of reality, a religion of power, a religion of the Holy Ghost. Nothing else will do, nothing else will satisfy, in the church of God or personally.
“Turn again our captivity, O Lord, as the streams of the south.” So one or two things, beloved friends. First of all, it must come from heaven. It is not done by some kind of irrigation, it is not done by someone filling a bucket and pouring it in the dry river bed. All other means cannot avail, however well-meant, however well-intentioned. O but when the rain comes, when the rain begins to fall; and now there is that beautiful, fast-flowing stream! But it must be God’s work; an imitation will not do, man’s work will not do; it must be a divine work, it must come down from heaven; it must be those “showers of blessing.” But there is a precious promise if only we could plead it: “Times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord.” But even naturally, when there is a period of drought, nobody can command the rain. We have that word in the prophets in a time of drought: “Are there any among the vanities of the Gentiles that can cause rain?” You see, there is that season of drought and then suddenly the rain begins to fall, and then the stream begins to flow, and then the captivity of the church of God is turned. But it must be from heaven. The Lord enable us to look up, confess our sin, our unworthiness, our helplessness, on mercy’s ground to pray for it.”Turn again our captivity, O Lord, as the streams in the south.”
Secondly, the suddenness of it. I understand in the east there may be not a cloud in the sky, and then suddenly things begin to happen. If you want a commentary on this, in a strictly natural sense – you remember when Elijah was wrestling on the top of Mount Carmel. There had not been rain for those months and years; the drought and the famine and the death. And then that sudden downpour. “Turn again our captivity, O Lord,” like that, suddenly, unexpectedly, undeservedly. But you see, that little servant boy that Elijah sent, he sent him to see if there was any sign of the rain – any sign of the church’s captivity being turned. He came back and said, “There is nothing.” Perhaps that is what you and I find. We pray for it and the answer comes back, “There is nothing;” “Go again seven times.” O to be able to persevere in prayer. There was an old illiterate man in one of our chapels, and he was so tried, “importunity” in prayer, he just could not understand it. And one day, to his delight, the old pastor said, “Do you want to know what importunity means?” And he knocked on the pulpit and said, “Keep on knocking, keep on knocking, keep on knocking.” “Go again seven times” and at last that cloud, “a little cloud … like a man’s hand.” O may we be able to pray that the Lord in love and mercy will appear and “turn again our captivity.” And personally in our hearts as well as in the church.
“Turn again our captivity, O Lord, as the streams in the south.” And the third thing, the power of it. O the power of it! It is a powerful work when the Lord turns again captivity. The work of the Holy Ghost is a powerful work. That rain descending from heaven, that stream flowing, carrying all before it; cleansing, healing. O the power of the Holy Spirit’s work in salvation, and the power of the Holy Spirit’s work in revival in the church of God. “Wilt Thou not revive us again: that Thy people may rejoice in Thee?” Turn us again.
“Turn again our captivity, O Lord, as the streams in the south.” And then fourthly, the gracious effect. And that is what we want, don’t we? Following the preaching, in answer to our prayers, in the church of God, in our own hearts. I read to you in the Acts of the Apostles at the end of chapter 4; really it was a little prayer meeting, wasn’t it? And before the prayer meeting was ended the answer came, and their captivity was turned. Now, again I want to speak graciously and carefully; but you know, sometimes we pray so vaguely and generally that if someone asked if those prayers were answered, we would hardly know whether they were or they were not, because we hardly remember or know what we have prayed for. O, but you see, there was a little holy boldness. It was not presumption, it was not irreverence. How definite they were, and how they pleaded the name of Jesus, and how the Lord gave the answer! O, but this gracious effect.
“Turn again our captivity, O Lord, as the streams in the south.” Something moving where all seemed death before. Life instead of death; something moving where everything seemed to be still, and where everything was so dry and hard and barren before. Now these showers of blessing, this watering, and what is it going to be? The softening where everything was hard before, and something growing where everything was lifeless before, and where it was barren it is going to be fruitful. O, we want the Lord to turn our captivity, don’t we? In the church of God. Yes, but, to know our hearts made soft, to know that gracious effect, a sanctifying effect, a cleansing effect. To know that refreshing, to know that reviving. And, beloved friends, with it a little heavenly joy because these showers, these springs, they flow from Calvary. And,
“A bleeding Saviour seen by faith,
A sense of pardoning love,
A hope that triumphs over death,
Give joys like those above.”
Then your captivity is gone, beloved friends. And then, you know something of the sweet and glorious liberty of the children of God. “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” “Turn again our captivity, O Lord, as the streams in the south.”
Pastor Ben Ramsbottom
Preached at Rochdale Road Chapel, Manchester, September 10th, 2005
By permission from the Gospel Standard, November 2005.
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