During the period of this CMCO, we will be publishing just one devotional a week. For the next 4 weeks, starting today, we will work through the short book of Haggai in the Old Testament.
Read Haggai 1:1-11
In 538BC, the Israelites returned from exile. They had been conquered and carted off to Babylon, but the Persian king Cyrus decreed that God’s people could return to their homeland and rebuild the temple. Ezra 1:1-5 tells us God moved their hearts to return to rebuild a ruined city. However, as a result of local opposition, they stopped building (Ezra 4:1-5, 24). Almost two decades later, the temple still lies in ruins. This is the situation that God sends his prophet Haggai into, to speak words of challenge and comfort. He speaks 4 messages, each focusing on slightly different concerns. It is a book for discouraged people, who find it hard to order their priorities.
As such, Haggai, like all Scripture, is a book for us. As we begin to emerge from our abrupt descent into a coronavirus-ravaged world, we now begin to see more clearly how the landscape has changed. This is our “new normal”, and it certainly isn’t a more glorious one. It’s very likely we’re in for a more difficult time, and so discouragement easily sets in. Very quickly, our desire to live for the Lord begins to wilt and wane.
And so, 1:1, the “word of the LORD” comes. Again and again, in this short book, Haggai stresses no less than 27 times that his message comes from God. Over the coming month, you will read thousands of words on blogs, books, news-articles and WhatsApp messages. But the word we most need to hear in these discouraging times are those from God. Notice how Haggai dates his message, with reference to a pagan king. To an Israelite, that only serves as a painful reminder as to what is missing – namely, there is no son of David on the throne in Jerusalem. Didn’t God promise that a Davidic king will rule forever? It is as if God has turned his back on them. We can feel the same way, which is precisely why we need to hear the word of the Lord.
But perhaps all is not lost. Haggai addresses his first message to two individuals (although obviously the whole community is meant to listen – see 1:12). One is Zerubabbel, governor of Judah, son of Shealtiel, and therefore grandson of Jehoiachin, the Davidic king at the time of exile (1 Chron. 3:17). Here is someone with Davidic lineage! The second is Joshua, a priest from the line of Levi, and responsible for the temple and sacrificial system. There is no king, no temple – but here are two leaders who are symbols of hope things might be different.
The people, however, can’t see this yet. 1:2 reveals to us the people’s attitude. They said – it’s not yet time to rebuild the temple, but at this stage, they had been without the temple for 66 years! Why didn’t they think so? We’re not told exactly, but verse 6 suggest a clue. The people were not blessed with abundant resources, and so they probably prioritized their own material needs above everything else. However, given that in verse 4 they were living in paneled houses, that meant that while they might not have reached the golden years when the economy was booming, they weren’t exactly starving in the streets. They were simply putting their self-interests above God’s purposes. And now the word of the Lord has exposed their self-centred attitudes.
The beginning of Haggai, therefore, challenges us to examine our own priorities. Christians no longer need a physical building in Jerusalem. But the temple God is building today is the people of God. We build this temple as we bring people into faith, and as we help each other grow in faith. The question, however, is which house we care about more – our own house or the house of God (remember, that’s the people not the actual building!). Are we eager to keep building our retirement funds, our career prospects, our family name, at the expense of neglecting our brothers and sisters in Christ? Do we put off thinking about how we care for others because we say: “I’ve got to look after me first?” That’s the attitude God is questioning. “Give careful thought to your ways” he says in verse 5, something he repeats again in verse 7. Clearly, we should!
Why? Because ironically, prioritizing themselves led not to prosperity but poverty. Verse 6 needs to be read against the backdrop of the covenant curses of Deuteronomy 28. To eat and be full is a sign of covenant blessing (eg. Deut. 6:11, 11:15), but the hand of the Lord was withdrawn from them because God was not first in their lives (v.9-11). This was what had gotten them into trouble and into exile in the first place!
Instead, God says, consider your ways, and give priority to my priorities (v.8). Seek my honour and glory. The temple, after all, was a symbol of God’s dwelling place. It showcased his desire for relationship with them. However, by neglecting the temple for almost two decades, the people showed they were indifferent to having a relationship with God. Perhaps they thought: “I can sort out my relationship with God later, let me put my own house in order first!”
This is the prime temptation we will face during this period. As times are hard, many of us will be tempted to think that there is no time for God. There is no time to seek first his kingdom and righteousness (Matt 6:33). Let me concentrate on myself first, we think. Yet Haggai says it is precisely because we do not seek first his kingdom, that times may continue to be difficult. While it is not always the case, God sometimes does permit frustrations to pile up in our lives to help us understand the futility of life without him.
So a good question to ask is: are we putting off investing in our relationship with God, as well as his people? Are we too “busy with [our] own house” (v9)? The Lord Jesus gives us better investment advice. Store up treasures in heaven, he says, where moths and vermin and thieves can never ever break in (Matt 6:20). Then you will eat and be full.
- Pray that we will consider our ways, and ask God for forgiveness where we have selfishly put our own interests above his. Pray that he will show us how we can concretely participate in seeking his kingdom first and building his church in our own particular situations.
- Pray for workplaces and churches everywhere, and for bosses and Christian leaders, as they work out the best S.O.Ps and guidelines to put in place to minimize risk and ensure a safe working environment for their employees and congregations. Pray that even in times of “social distancing”, people will still find ways to connect with each other.