READ : Haggai 2:1-9
Do you ever think that things aren’t as good as they used to be? Do you ever long for “the good old days”? Well, if you’re a Christian, your best days are still ahead!
I have come in this series of studies on the Old Testament prophets – Men Who Spoke for God – to one of the lesser-known prophets. Haggai lived in the post-Exilic period, the time following the return of the first group of Jewish refugees to their home in Jerusalem after seventy years of exile in Babylon. The little book that bears Haggai’s name is mostly devoted to the subject of the rebuilding of God’s temple in Jerusalem.
In the fall of the year 539 b.c. King Cyrus of Persia fulfilled the prophecies written centuries earlier in the book of Isaiah by conquering the city of Babylon and taking control of the entire Babylonian empire. With the change of rulers from Babylon to Persia, the Jewish exiles who had been taken into captivity two generations before were given the opportunity of returning home.
The problem was that “home” for most of these people had by now become the land of Babylon. They had settled down there. Many had even prospered. These Babylonian Jews did not look with excitement, to say the least, on the prospect of selling their homes and uprooting their families, then traveling hundreds of miles across a desert in order to settle in a city that must have looked the way the cities of Europe did at the close of the Second World War. Jerusalem had been lying in ruins for more than half a century. The actual number of exiles who traveled back there to resettle the city was small. The majority of the people had no wish to leave their comfortable lives in Babylon. I, for one, can readily understand them. Would you choose to move your family into a war-torn, broken-down, burned-out city, just for the chance to spend lots of money and years of toil rebuilding it? To me, the wonder isn’t that so few of the people responded to the invitation to return to Jerusalem; it’s that any did at all!
BUILDING THE TEMPLE
I’m sure that among the returning exiles, the reasons for coming back to the promised land were varied. No doubt some were looking for adventure. Some wanted the chance of a new start in life. There were old people among them who had been raised in Jerusalem and longed to see the land of their youth once more. Many of the exiles were motivated by spiritual concerns. They sensed in this opportunity the call of God to rebuild his city and temple, and to restore his people in their land of promise. So it was really an act of obedience to God and the desire to serve him that motivated them to return.
It was people like this who, shortly after their arrival in Jerusalem in 536 b.c., began working on a second temple to replace the magnificent temple of Solomon that had been destroyed generations before. But the construction had barely started before difficulties and threats interrupted it. The people became discouraged, and they stopped working. By the time the prophet Haggai appeared on the scene, more than fifteen years had passed from that first beginning, and the temple site was overgrown with weeds and covered with rubbish. It was worse than if they had never started building at all, for the depressing sight of that abandoned project was a constant reminder to the people of their failure. Every day it stood there in the middle of Jerusalem, silently rebuking them – and no one did anything about it.
What troubled Haggai in all of this – and what troubled the Lord as well! – was the fact that while God’s house stood in ruins the people were busy pursuing their personal agendas. While they were building up their own fortunes, their place of worship remained unbuilt. As they devoted all their time and energy to their economic needs, the citizens of Jerusalem were ignoring their spiritual needs. They had all become complacent about the appalling neglect of the things of God in their city. In the Old Testament the temple was a necessity for the worship of God. It was in the temple that God received the prayers and sacrifices of his people Israel. There he met with them. There his presence symbolically dwelt. God’s worship is ultimately spiritual and inward. In the last analysis, it depends on the work of his Spirit. But even today worship still involves physical things like buildings, people and money. We’re not completely spiritual creatures, and though we worship God in spirit and in truth, we also need a place and we need other people, and we need leadership to help us do that. In the case of the people in Jerusalem, their interest in building the temple actually reflected their interest in knowing and serving God. Their attitude was a thermometer indicating their spiritual temperature – and that was pretty cold by the time Haggai began his ministry.
Naturally, the citizens of Jerusalem had lots of excuses. “It’s not yet time to build,” they said (chapter 1 verse 2). Times were hard, the economic situation was precarious, there was still much work to be done in the city. Better to wait for more favorable conditions. And of course they had gotten by all these years with things as they were, so what was the big rush in finishing the temple? Shouldn’t that wait until the whole city was rebuilt? But Haggai shows us the real situation: “Is it a time for you yourselves,” he asks, “to be living in your paneled houses, while [the Lord’s] house remains a ruin?” (1:4, niv). The people’s houses were not only finished, they were decorated inside with fine panels of cedar wood. Apparently the economic situation wasn’t so bad after all -at least not bad enough to prevent folks from building costly and comfortable, even luxurious houses for themselves. And all the while God’s house remained a heap of rubble.
It’s clear that the problem in Jerusalem wasn’t economic. It wasn’t lack of money or skill that was preventing the Lord’s temple from being finished. It wasn’t some kind of political obstacle. No. The problem lay in the people’s misplaced values. They were committed first to their own comfort. They put themselves and what they identified as their needs above God’s kingdom and his concerns. Their priorities in life were scrambled. They weren’t putting first things first and second things second. Jesus talked about the very same problem with his followers:
“Don’t worry. Don’t say, ‘What will we eat?’ Or, ‘What will we drink?’ Or, ‘What will we wear?’ [People who don’t know God] run after all of those things. Your Father who is in heaven knows that you need them. But put God’s kingdom first. Do what he wants you to do. Then all of those things will also be given to you.”
(Matthew 6:31-33, NIrV)
It’s just not possible to experience the blessing of knowing God when our values are out of whack and we’re living selfish, materialistic lives. A life can never go well unless God has first place in it. It’s awfully easy for us to spend so much time decorating our own houses that we forget all about God’s kingdom, his concerns, his justice, his gospel. Stop for just a moment and think about your life. Is your relationship with God your highest priority? Do God’s kingdom and honor take first place in your thoughts, in your work, in your spending?
I WILL FILL MY TEMPLE WITH GLORY
Things began to change in Jerusalem when the people once more listened to God’s word and started obeying it. The Holy Spirit stirred their hearts in response to the message that came from God through Haggai, and things began to move forward with excitement once more.
But not for long. Less than a month later, God spoke again through Haggai:
“A second message came to me from the Lord. . . . ‘Did any of you who are here see how beautiful this temple used to be? How does it look to you now? It doesn’t look so good, does it?
“‘But be strong . . . all of you people in the land,’ announces the Lord. ‘Start rebuilding. I am with you . . . So do not be afraid.’”
(Haggai 2:3-5, NIrV)
Apparently, as things got going and the work resumed, folks could see just what the new temple was starting to look like, and when they saw it they were discouraged. It wasn’t just that the building job was so big. It was that their efforts seemed so pitiful, especially for those who could remember the magnificence and splendor of the first temple built by King Solomon. That imposing building, covered with enormous quantities of gold and silver, made this poor effort look pathetic. No wonder some of the old-timers wept when they saw it (see Ezra 3:12). Haggai expressed what many of the people were thinking, but probably none dared to say aloud, when he asked: “Does it not seem to you like nothing?” (v. 3). Surely the people must have been tempted to quit building again.
But God’s promise was their encouragement: “Be strong . . . be strong all you people, and work. For I am with you. Don’t be afraid.” We have to learn not to be so affected by outward appearances. You really can’t tell whether the Lord is in something by how big it is. God is often present in small beginnings, in impoverished circumstances, in obscure efforts, in bleak outlooks. After all, Jesus promised “that where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be with them” – not two or three thousand! And if he has promised to be with us, he will be with us, no matter how things seem or what they look like. The Lord’s presence and his promise are the only things that matter. That makes all the difference. We can take courage and work when we know that God is with us. “If God is with us, who can be against us?”
God does not judge by how something (or someone) looks, and neither should we. Yet usually we’re still impressed by size and splendor and numbers. We equate these things with success and importance. But God sees things differently. He was pleased with this small beginning at the temple in Jerusalem, and speaking through his prophet Haggai, the Lord predicted an even greater glory for this building than its predecessor enjoyed:
“The Lord says, “In a little while I will shake the heavens and the earth once more. I will shake the ocean and the dry land. I will shake all of the nations. . . . And I will fill the temple with glory,” says the Lord who rules over all. . . .
“The new temple will be more beautiful than the first one was,” says the Lord. “And in this place I will give peace to my people . . . .”
(Haggai 2:69, NIrV)
On one level that prophecy was fulfilled in an architectural sense. Bit by bit over the centuries the second temple was rebuilt and expanded and decorated, until, just before the birth of Christ, Herod the Great completed the magnificent structure. But God’s promise through Haggai points to something far more significant than physical grandeur. God’s glory refers primarily to his presence. In the Old Testament it was sometimes visible, as in the cloud of glory that filled the tent where Moses met with God or the old temple when Solomon first dedicated it. But the glory that filled this second temple was greater by far than that, for this was the building Jesus visited. Jesus Christ was God’s glory made visible permanently. When he came to the Temple, the Lord was present in the truest and best sense. And through his Spirit he now promises not just to visit, but to live in the heart of everyone who loves and trusts him. To find God you don’t need to visit a building. You only have to believe in Jesus Christ.
Whenever I think of Haggai and that sad little temple they started in Jerusalem, I’m reminded that God’s people never need to dwell in the past. Nostalgia is not a fruit of the Spirit. If you know the Lord Jesus, your best days and happiest moments aren’t behind you. For Christians, the best is always yet to come, and glory is what’s ahead of us. So we can rejoice and give thanks right now, even if it seems like the present is only a “day of small beginnings” (Zechariah 4:10).