The Old Men Weeping and the People Shouting for Joy

Notes of an address on Ezra 3

"And they sang together by course in praising and giving thanks to the Lord; because He is good, for His mercy endureth for ever toward Israel. And all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and chief of the fathers, who were ancient men, that had seen the first house, when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, wept with a loud voice; and many shouted aloud for joy: so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people: for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the noise was heard afar off" (Ezra 3:11-13).

Neither encouragement nor strength can be derived from the backward look on the failure of the church in responsibility on earth to maintain the truth and testimony of the Lord. The failure cannot be ignored, and every one of us must give an account to God for his part in it — truly a solemn consideration — but too much occupation with it will not help us to be overcomers in the future, it can only weaken and discourage us. Now to discourage and weaken His saints and servants is not God's way, that is the devil's own particular job, but the pity is that he finds so many who otherwise are most estimable, to help him in it; let us beware that he does not make use of us in this godless work.

There are both encouragement and strength for us, so that we may be more than conquerors, but these are drawn from God's faithfulness and ever-enduring mercy, and from the fact that there abides that which all the machinations and powers of hell cannot prevail against.

An Impregnable Structure

It is my intention to notice, before speaking on the passage in Ezra, that which cannot be overthrown. You will find the first mention of it in Matthew 16:18 — a most familiar passage. There we read the words of the Lord Jesus Christ to Simon, "I say to thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church [assembly]; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." This of which the Lord speaks was something entirely new; there had been an assembly in the wilderness when Israel sojourned there for forty years (Acts 7:31), but it was not this that the Lord calls "My assembly," for the building of this was still future when He announced His intentions with regard to it. But that of which He speaks in this first revelation of it is now a fact. And Christ has upon this earth His assembly which He is building. It is His special and prized possession, He calls it "MY ASSEMBLY," and the longer you dwell upon those words the more your heart will be moved by them, especially if you realize that you are part of that of which He so speaks. You may ask: but has not that assembly been smashed and marred? Is it not now a battered ruin, witnessing only to the devil's strategy and power, and the feebleness and failure of the saints of God? No, the very opposite is the truth, for Christ is building it by the unconquerable power and all-prevailing wisdom of God, and, fitly framed together, it groweth to a holy temple in the Lord. It is a special object of the devil's malice, but it will withstand all his assaults. Neither by frontal attack nor by subtle flank movement can he take it; he cannot undermine its foundations, and his big guns will thunder against it in vain: "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." It may seem otherwise to you, but if so you are walking by sight and not by faith, and you need to meditate upon this wonderful triumphant declaration, "I will build My assembly, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."

Every stone placed in this impregnable structure by the Lord's own hand is a living stone, living because brought into vital relationship with Himself, the living One, and the whole building is unified and bound together by His life, which animates every stone in it, and by the presence of the Holy Ghost who dwells in all. It may increase your interest in this great subject if you realize that you are a part of this living building — a living stone in it, if you have confessed that Jesus is "the Christ the Son of the living God," as Peter did; but what should move your heart most profoundly is the fact that your Saviour calls it "My assembly."

The Foundation of It

The foundation of it is Himself, as the One who has gotten the victory over death, for this is what Peter's confession of Him implied. He did not say when challenged by the Lord, "Thou art Jesus of Nazareth," or "Thou art the Messiah," but "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." The mightiest foe in the universe — DEATH — has fallen before the victorious advance of the Son of Man. He has been "declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead" (Rom. 1:4). Consider for a moment that lonely Sufferer, weak and despicable in the eyes of men, hanging on a cross between two malefactors. Every element of defeat judged by human standards was there. He would not, or could not save Himself. No voice was raised on his behalf; by universal consent, as far as could be seen, He was condemned to that death of shame. Yet going down into death He overthrew the power of death, and having come up from the tomb He will die no more. And from that point of victory He has begun to build His assembly. The resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ is a heartening theme. Do we realize what it means? He is on the other side, beyond all the misery of this world, having gone out of it by death, but He has come up out of the desolation of death, having conquered it. He has taken up new ground — resurrection ground, where man never stood before. He is there as the Last Adam — a life-giving Spirit (1 Cor. 15:45). He is there as the Builder of His assembly, and all to whom He imparts this new life are put by Him into the assembly as living stones; He is there as the Chief Corner-Stone upon which the whole building is immutably founded. The life which He gives is not of the world, it is resurrection life — Christ's own life, in fact. The Spirit that dwells in those whom He makes to live is not of this world, nor can the world receive Him (John 14:17); He belongs to heaven, and is only imparted to those who own the supremacy of Christ. So that Christ's assembly though still in the world is not of it. It had no existence until Christ was glorified in heaven; from thence the Holy Ghost came down at Pentecost and by His coming formed it. So that its origin, as well as its character and destiny, is heavenly. What glorious liberty of soul the realization of this gives. It is true that those of whom it is composed, you and I, were of the world; we had no portion but its evil and no hope beyond its misery, but in the very gutter of it the Lord sought us. We heard His voice saying, "Come to Me." We came and tasted that He was gracious, for He pardoned our sins and lifted our burden and gave our tired hearts rest. His precious atoning blood wiped out all the guilty past, and we found peace in Him. But there is more. Having come to Him we learn that He is the living Stone, rejected of men, having no place in the pretentious edifice that they are building, but nevertheless a chief corner-stone, elect and precious. And the more we consider Him in this character the more we shall praise Him, and the fuller will be our appreciation of that grace that has put us into His assembly.

Thus the building goes on, and when it is completed the assembly, in another aspect of it, shall share the glory of its Builder as the Son of Man. It shall be His help-meet in that glorious day when everything that has breath shall own His supremacy. Faith will then have given place to sight, for then no veil shall hide His glory from the admiring eyes of countless hosts. But now it is a question of faith, and I would challenge all our hearts as to whether our faith has laid hold on Him in the way we have considered Him, and owned His supremacy. Have we come to Him as the Living Stone, and owned Him as the Christ, the Son of the living God, the builder of His impregnable assembly? If so, God be praised; let us hold to that whatever the appearances may be.

He is Himself the foundation of this structure, a foundation that cannot be moved. The Popish church claims that Peter is the foundation, and I sometimes wonder whether the devil in his lack of perception did not so interpret the Lord's words, for from that moment he made Peter a special object of attack. Notice in this very chapter that he put it into Peter's heart and mouth to endeavour to turn the Lord from suffering and death, the only way by which He could obtain the right to build His assembly. Failing to accomplish his end at the first attempt he next forced the impetuous and self-confident disciple to deny that he ever knew the One whom He had confessed as the Son of the living God. And finding at length that the building of the assembly which he would have frustrated had begun, he used Peter again in making his first great attack upon the structure itself in an endeavour to destroy the unity of it (see Gal. 2:11-13). And every division and sect maker or maintainer from that day to this has followed the lead given by Peter when he did not walk uprightly according to the truth of the gospel. It may be said that there was some excuse for Peter's failure before the death of Christ, for he had not then received the Holy Ghost, but there was no excuse for his sectarian act at Antioch, and the lesson we should learn from it is that man cannot be trusted; we must look wholly to the Lord. Let us thank God that Christ, not Peter, is the foundation, and resting securely upon this unshakable rock let us use diligence to understand the truth of Christ's assembly and how we should be affected by it who form part of it.

We Must Walk Worthy of It

We are called to walk worthy of this vocation wherewith we are called, and this can only be done with "all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love." Nor is that all. We might do that as fellow members of a society who had no link with each other save a common cause, but we belong to a living unity; every one of us is an integral part of one whole, and we have to use diligence to keep this unity — which is the unity of the Spirit, in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:1-3). It is here, in the practical carrying out of the truth that the failure we have to deplore has come in. Instead of using diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, men have arisen who have looked upon it as a sacred duty to make and maintain sects and parties for the upholding of their own special views on doctrine or church order. The result is that instead of the assembly presenting its proper and unchanging indivisibility before the world, the world only sees it broken up into warring factions. But this does not affect the truth that we have been considering; that abides, and it is a perpetual rebuke to our failure to carry it out.

Many are mourning this failure. They look back to Pentecost and cry, "Alas, that things now should be so unlike what they were then." They recall revivals that have taken place since then, when the saints of God were brought under the power of the truth, and are cast down at the contrast between the bright "then" and the dead "now." Pamphlets are written and widely circulated calling attention to this sad contrast; we read one of these the other day which to us was full of pathos. The writer of it was an aged Christian, and he recalls in his pamphlet the bright days he knew seventy years ago — the zeal and freshness of soul; the endeavour that the whole truth might be known and lived; the response to the love of Christ; and the oneness of heart and mind and purpose amongst the saints. I would not quarrel with such a reminder that these days are not as those were, but I would warn you against being depressed by the contrast. I would not say do not look at the failure at all, for looking at it and seeing how that better men, more zealous and enlightened as to the truth than any of us are, have failed, will lead you to be less self-confident and more dependent upon the Lord for yourselves; but I would say do not look too long at it, for there is something better upon which your eyes may rest. The failure will make you weep, that which is better will make you shout for joy.

The pamphlet of which I speak turned my thoughts to Ezra, the chapter that we have read together, and I should like it to speak to you now as it spoke to me then.

The Shouting and the Weeping

Israel had terribly failed, and that that lay at the root of all the failure and brought in all the disaster that had overtaken them was disobedience to the Word of God. Solomon's Temple, reared in the midst of the beloved city, had been the visible answer in the midst of them for the time then being of God's gracious thoughts and purposes towards them. It was His dwelling-place and there He had set His Name; but it had become a heap of ruins in consequence of their sin, and the city itself had been laid waste. Now they had come to a time of reviving. They discovered that God was faithful though they had failed, and in a mighty paean they celebrated the fact that, "THE LORD IS GOOD AND HIS MERCY ENDURETH FOR EVER." What a consolation was this to them, what a comfort and joy it is to us. Let the thought of it sing through our souls until it brings us into tune with the triumph of God which shall be celebrated by His church in ever-lasting praise.

The laying again of the foundations of the temple made the people realise that though Israel had failed God had not: His purposes and promises remained unchanged, and though they were a feeble band and their work as feeble as themselves yet they associated themselves now with GOD, HIS PURPOSES, and HIS HOUSE. It is this that we must do. And though they were a feeble band, a mere remnant, they were able to take up sanctuary service to the Lord and to praise Him "after the ordinance of King David" — and David's day was the brightest hour of Israel's history. This was not imitation on their part, but the joy of the Lord's house, and their devotion to it because it was His house, produced in them the same results that were produced in David. And we only need to come afresh under the influence of Christ, and have our hearts devoted to Himself and His assembly because it is His, and there will be effected in us the joy and liberty of the best days.

But many of the chief of the fathers and the ancient men wept as they thought of the splendour of the former days, so that the noise of the joy could not be discerned from the noise of the weeping. It is the failure that causes the tears, and we must not be indifferent to it. The truth will not make us indifferent to it, the more we know it the more deeply we shall feel the failure; but it will not depress us, for we shall turn from it to the Lord, "because He is good, for His mercy endureth for ever."

The Brightest Days Are Before Us

Now let us hear the word that the Lord sent to these weepers through His prophet Haggai in the second chapter of His prophecy: "Who is left among you that saw this house in her first glory? and how do ye see it now? Is it not in your eyes in comparison as nothing? Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; and be strong, O Joshua, son of Josedech, the high priest; and be strong all ye people of the land, says the Lord, AND WORK: FOR I AM WITH YOU, says the Lord of hosts: according to the word that I covenanted with you when ye came out of Egypt, so my Spirit remaineth among you: fear ye not."

Note that the Lord goes back to their deliverance from Egypt, and spans the whole period and story of their failure, and says, "My Spirit remaineth with you." He had remained true to His own word and purpose, and if that was true for Israel it is more intensely and blessedly true for His assembly.

"Christ with His church has ever stood."

And His Spirit is still here.

Then He goes on to tell them that He would shake everything — the heavens, the earth, the sea, and the dry land. So that everything that was mutable and without foundations would be removed out of the way; but He would fill that house with His glory, and the glory of it should be greater than any that had gone before.

The shaking has begun, beloved hearers, and nothing that is not founded upon God's immovable foundation will stand; but His assembly will stand, for it is founded upon THE ROCK, and the glory that is coming is greater than any that has gone before. THE BEST DAYS ARE BEFORE US, and hope lifts up her head and rejoices. You may tell me of those Pentecostal days, when all were together of one mind and one heart and the unhindered power of the Holy Spirit went forth in widespread blessing. We can rejoice in it, but there are brighter days before us. You may recall later days when God graciously gave revival, and the word was with power and the Lord's name greatly prized. Again we rejoice, but there are brighter days before us. We are hastening on to the time which cannot be far distant now when the assembly completed, as the holy Jerusalem, shall descend "out of heaven from God, having the glory of God: and her light like to a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone clear as crystal" (Rev. 21:10-11). In view of that bright day let us labour, for what privilege could be greater or honour higher than to be permitted to hold on to the truth and work on for the truth, and to be found doing this when the Lord comes to catch up His assembly for that glory? Can you imagine anything more blessed than for the Lord to come and find us maintaining His truth and testimony, holding steadfastly the fact of His supremacy and walking in the truth of His assembly? But we must know the truth if we are to hold it, and if we know it and hold it we shall be like the people who shouted for joy in Ezra's day, and we shall not dwell upon the past with its failure, but we shall look onward to the future with its glory, and we shall sing as we press on to that future. "The Lord is good and His mercy ENDURETH FOR EVER."