The Returned Remnant
Some five hundred years before the Lord came into the world, an opportunity was given in the goodness of God for His earthly people to escape from the captivity in Babylon, and to return to God’s land and to re–build His house.
While the mass of God’s people chose to remain in the land of their captivity, a remnant “whose spirit God had stirred”, (Ezra 1: 5), left Babylon and returned to Jerusalem. Having returned and set up an altar for worship, they were immediately faced with the opposition of those who sought to hinder the special work for which they had been set free from Babylon. It was not the return to the land that was opposed, but the building of the house and the walls of the city, (Ezra 4: 1, 12). Through the weakness of the people, this opposition succeeded for a time. However sixteen years after the return God raised up the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, who aroused the people under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Joshua, to complete the building of the house of God.
Having failed to stop the building of the house, the enemy made a second attempt to mar their witness for God, by seeking to lower the standard of their walk through leading them into worldly associations. Thus, when Ezra with a further band of exiles returned to the land, it came to light that many of the people, including some of their leaders were associating with the people of the adjoining lands and doing according to their abominations, (Ezra 9: 1). The walk that was worthy of God’s house, and the necessary discipline of that house, had not been maintained. Through the ministry of Ezra, the people humbled themselves before God, confessed their sins and dealt with the evil.
Thirteen years pass, and the remnant that had escaped from captivity were found in great affliction and reproach: the “wall of Jerusalem”, which speaks of separation, was in ruins, and the “gates”, that stand for the place of discipline, were “burned with fire”, (Neh. 1: 1-3). Under the exhortations of Nehemiah, the people were led to build the walls and erect the gates, (Neh. 3, 4). The result was that once again separation and discipline were maintained.
Alas! In spite of these conflicts and revivals, we find only a few years later, in the days of Malachi, that though the house of God had been rebuilt, and the walls and the gates set up, and a regular service of sacrifices and feasts were being conducted, the moral state of both leaders and led was at such a thoroughly low ebb, that when rebuked by the Lord’s messenger, they were blind to their condition and indifferent to the Lord’s warnings, (Mal. 1-3).
Four hundred and eighty years later, when the Lord came into the world this returned remnant had become divided into several parties - Pharisees, Saducees, and Herodians. When brought into the presence of Christ, the low condition of each party was revealed. It is true they were no longer associated with idolatry or Babylonish corruptions, and that the temple was rebuilt and the round of religious services was being performed. The Lord, however, had to charge them with being hypocrites for though they honoured God with their lips, their heart was far from Him, (Mark 7: 6). Like the fig tree with its leaves but no fruit, they made a great show of piety before men, but in their lives there was nothing for God; and the house that they had been set free to build for God’s service, they had corrupted for their own ends, (Mark 11: 12-17).
Thus, on the one hand when the Lord was here, it is clear that the great mass of God’s earthly people were still dispersed in captivity amidst Babylonish corruption (though amongst them there had been many God-fearing individuals, as we know from the books of Esther and Daniel). On the other hand, as we have seen, those “whose spirit God had stirred” in the beginning to return to the land and build the house, had become broken up into different parties, marked with much outward piety before men but with little or no fruit before God; with faultless expressions on their lips when they approached God, but with hearts far from him.
We do well to ask ourselves Has the solemn history of this returned remnant no warning voice for God’s people today? Has it not, indeed, been “written for our instruction”? (Rom. 15: 4). Is there not a parallel between the revival of the truth of the Church as the house of God and as the body of Christ, and the revival in Ezra’s day? Is there also not a parallel between the rapid spiritual and moral decline of the Jewish remnant, and our own grievous failures?
However, throughout the history of the Jewish remnant, there were those who feared the Lord, who mourned the low spiritual condition, who confessed their failure, and who sought to be true to God’s house. It is in them, if we seek to walk pleasing to God in a day of ruin, that we can find instruction and encouragement. This remnant within a remnant is clearly seen in the day of Ezra, when a number confessed their failure and “wept very much”, (Ezra 10: 1). Again, we hear of them in Malachi’s day, when we read of those “that feared Jehovah, and that thought upon his name”, (Mal. 3: 16). Centuries later, when Christ came into the world, we find that despite the increasing gloom of the passing years, God has preserved a remnant for Himself. Thus, if the presence of the Lord exposed the low condition of the mass, it also brought to light the existence of these godly individuals of whom Zacharias and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, Simeon and Anna are shining examples, (Matt. 1, 2; Luke 1, 2).
Seeing then that this godly remnant had the Lord’s special approval, let us carefully consider their distinguishing traits as recorded by the Spirit of God.
They feared Jehovah, (Mal. 3: 16). This was their first and outstanding characteristic. Does this not imply that they were not content with an outward show of piety before men, with a round of religious services, and with drawing near to God with correct expressions on their lips; but that their secret lives were lived in the sense of being under the eye of God? They were conscious that their words were heard by God, their acts seen by God, and their thoughts known to God. With the psalmist such could say “He that planted the ear, shall he not hear? He that formed the eye, shall he not see?”, (Ps. 94: 9).
They had fellowship with one another: Being right with God there was nothing to hinder this. So we read that they “spoke often one to another”. (Mal. 3: 16). Their common fear of the Lord drew them together in a holy, happy fellowship of which the Lord was the bond.
They thought upon His name, (Mal. 3: 16). Does not this imply that they turned from themselves and their fellow men to delight their souls in the excellencies and glory of the Lord? Does not it also suggest that in all their ways, and walk, they did not consider what would be for their earthly advantage and ease, but what would be for the glory of that great Name?
They had before them the coming of Christ, for we read that “unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings”, (Mal. 4:2). They had no expectation that the surrounding darkness would be dispelled or that the world would grow better, or that any general healing would take place among the people of God “until the day dawn, and the shadows flee away”, (Song. 2: 17), when the Sun of righteousness would arise with healing in his wings.
Now we too are living in a day of ruin and breakdown, not only in the Christian profession, but also amongst the true people of God. What kind of instruction for ourselves then can we glean from the inspired record of these faithful Jews?
First, as with the godly in the midst of the returned remnant, let us admit our failure and humble ourselves in the dust before God, judging the low spiritual condition that has led to confusion and division amongst God’s people. As we have already observed, Ezra confessed the failure with weeping. The Lord in His day wept over the low condition of the returned remnant, (Luke 19: 41). The apostle Paul warned the saints night and day with tears, (Acts 20: 29, 31), as he foresaw the ruin coming in amongst the people of God. Let us challenge ourselves! Have we, with broken hearts, ever wept before the Lord over our individual and collective failures?
Secondly, as the godly Jews found relief in turning to the Lord, despite their weakness and failure, so let us remember, that, however great our failure, however many our difficulties, and whatever our weakness, we have an unfailing resource in CHRIST. Of Him we can say “thou art the same”, (Heb. 1: 12). In the divided state of the Lord’s people, we may seek to escape from false doctrine or evil ways, or seek relief from looseness and independency by changing from one company to another. But is this the Lord’s way of relief? When the disciples had to face the storm in a ship “tossed by the waves”, (Matt. 14: 24), Peter did not seek a way of escape from the danger by leaving one ship to join another ship. His resource was Christ. Acting in faith and attracted by love, he left the ship and walked on the water, “to go to Jesus”, (v29). In obedience to the Word, we rightly leave the camp order of religion, (that which claims the name of the Lord but is contrary to His word), but in so doing let our great object be to go forth to HIM without the camp, (see Heb. 13: 13). Unless Christ be our centre of gathering, we shall only end in forming another company after the order of the camp.
Thirdly, as with the godly of old, who “thought upon his name”, if we have Christ before us, we shall refuse all that in principle or practice is a denial of His headship and lordship. This will involve that we take the path of separation; for the word is “Let every one who names the name of [the] Lord withdraw from iniquity”, (2 Tim. 2: 19). Again, each one is exhorted to purify himself from vessels to dishonour by “[separating himself from them]”, (v21).
Further, in view of these difficult days, when professing Christendom has become a vast system having the form of piety, but denying the power thereof, we are exhorted to “turn away” from such, (2 Tim. 3: 5), in other words to “go forth to him without the camp”, (Heb. 13: 13). This will involve that we not only separate from corrupt bodies where wrong doctrine or practices are unjudged, but that we must come out from every company that by their principles and practices deny the truth of the fellowship into which we are called, (1 Cor. 1: 9), and the body of which we form part.
Fourthly, if we have taken the separate path to give Christ His place as Lord and Head, and walk in the light of the truth, let us each seek to be found walking in a right moral condition in our individual lives before God. As with the godly of Malachi’s day, let us walk in the fear of God. It is not enough to separate from that which is false - there must be the corresponding walk with God. Separation without God is pharisaism and invariably leads to a bad moral state. Let us each take heed to the word that exhorts us to lay “aside therefore all malice and all guile and hypocrisies and envyings and all evil speakings”, (1 Pet. 2: 1). Having gone forth “to him”, let us seek to abide in Him and to walk in secret communion with Him. It has been well said that Christ must live in me, if I am to live like Christ and for Christ.
Fifthly, let us each seek to get back to “first love”, (Rev. 2: 4). That which had the Lord’s approval, above all else, at the beginning of the Church period, was personal love to Himself. So at the end, when all has been ruined in our hands through the loss of first love, that which the Lord looks for is individual love to Himself. His last appeal to His own, in the midst of the ruin, is to remind us of His love, and to seek the response of our love: “I rebuke and discipline as many as I love; be zealous therefore and repent. Behold I stand at the door and am knocking: if any one hear my voice and open the door, I will come in unto him and sup with him, and he with me”, (Rev. 3: 19, 20). He does not demand some great sacrifice or service that will make a display before the world, or exalt us in the eyes of men, but He looks for a heart that will respond to His love. To such an one He may indeed open a door of service, but it will be service flowing from love.
Sixthly, if as with the godly in the days of Malachi, we seek individually to walk in the fear of the Lord, it will also be our privilege, as in their case to have fellowship with one another. Of those saints we read that they “spoke often one to another”, and in this day of breakdown, those who have separated from the corruptions of Christendom are encouraged to “pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart”, (2 Tim. 2: 22). They may be but a feeble few, but they have the word of the Lord that “where two or three are gathered together unto my name, there am I in the midst of them”, (Matt. 18: 20). Such will make no pretension of being the only people on earth with whom the Lord is found, nor will they seek to form a new fellowship. They will seek, in humble obedience to the Word, to act in the light of the fellowship into which all saints have been called, and of the one Body, of which all saints form part.
Lastly, as in the days of Malachi, when the godly had before them the coming of Christ, and realised that there would be no recovery for Israel until “the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings”, so it is our privilege to have before us the coming of the Lord, realising that no power on earth can patch up the fragments of the shattered church or heal the sorrows of the world. He alone can gather His people together, heal the broken hearts, bind up our wounds and still the storms of life.
If then, these are some of the outstanding marks that Scripture sets before us of those that have the approval of the Lord, both in the closing days of the Jewish period, and in the last days of Christendom, may we seek grace to profit by the example of the godly remnant of old, and answer to the Lord’s mind for His own today. Thus amid the encircling gloom may it be the desire of our hearts to be found walking in the fear of the Lord, obedient to His word, jealous of His name and looking for His coming.