In my last post I introduced the story of Haggai, one of two prophets who preached to the Jews who had returned from captivity in Babylon. As I noted there, they had rebuilt the altar and reinstituted animal sacrifice, so as to address their most pressing need, a right relationship with God. And they began to rebuild the Temple until local opposition stopped them.
It’s now 16 years later, and the Temple remains in ruins, with a functioning altar standing amidst the rubble. On August 29, 520 BC, the word of Yahweh comes to Haggai. The Lord directs the message to Zerubbabel, the governor, and to Joshua, the high priest. (Obviously, this is not the Joshua we know best; he’s been dead for nearly a thousand years.)
Haggai begins by telling the hearers to “Consider your ways” (Hag 1.5)—in other words, to rethink what they’re doing. Something is wrong with their priorities.
What could that be? Well, they’re living in nicely decorated houses—well beyond what’s functionally necessary—and the Lord’s house still lies in ruins (Hag 1.4, 9b).
And for at least the most recent of these past 16 years, God has been nudging them toward dependence. He has withheld the rain that would provide bountiful crops (Hag 1.10)—something the Lord had promised them if they would but serve him (Dt 7.12-13). Every sector of the economy has been affected—the grain, the grape, the olive, and all the other agricultural products; and the suppression of this key element of the economy has exerted downward pressure on even the wages for labor (Hag 1.11).
And the judgment has not been limited to decreased income. Cash outflow has been increased at the same time:
You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes (Hag 1.6).
Does that sound at all familiar? Have you ever seen the bills increasing just at the times that you need to cut expenses to match your income? Frustrating, isn’t it?
Now, I’m not saying that when that happens to you, God is judging you, and you need to go out and build a temple—or even put more money in the offering plate. God has many reasons other than judgment to take us through deep waters and fiery trials, and in fact Christ has endured all of the judgment that God has ever had for us.
But at least this common experience helps us understand a little bit of what Judah was going through.
And what does the Lord prescribe as the solution to the problem?
Get some wood. Build the house. Glorify God (Hag 1.8).
I don’t think the solution to divine displeasure is to work harder; the Scripture pictures God as a God of grace, of love, of care. And that is the key to what he’s asking for here.
The problem is not their failure to build the Temple; that’s the symptom. The problem is that they don’t care about their God as much as they care about themselves. And so God tells them, yes, to get wood and build the house—and most important, in that to glorify him, to make him look big, to demonstrate by their actions that they hold him close and hold him reverently, that they value him above all else.
Like every good sermon, this one has a theme, a key takeaway idea. How would you state it?
I’d put it pretty simply: God comes first.
We put him first. In everything—in our thoughts, in our plans, in our labors, and especially in our affections—because if he is first there, he will be first everywhere else.
The account tells us that Zerubbabel, and Joshua, and all the people responded to Haggai’s words as they should have. With the promise of the Lord’s presence and empowerment (Hag 1.13), they get wood, and they begin to build the house. Construction begins just 23 days later (Hag 1.15).
This is a great first step. But as we’ll see, setting off down the path of obedience does not mean that the path will be straight, or level, or free of danger. In less than a month, God’s people will need another sermon.