Microsoft Word Format:
By Stephen Green. (First published in Christian Voice December 2005)
At this time of writing, towards the end of 2005, a serious pensions shortfall has been exposed, there is a growing shortage of affordable housing, we are importing more food then ever, the tax burden is nudging ever closer to 50%, the young are drinking themselves oblivious, never satisfied, people are living in fear of crime and terrorism and the recent cold snap has exposed an energy crisis. In addition, we seem as a nation to be constantly dissatisfied with our lot - we always want something better. Could it be that we have forgotten what should come first in our personal lives and in our national life?
If so, we should not be the first nation in such a predicament. According to the prophet Haggai, the Jewish exiles who returned from Babylon to Jerusalem faced similar problems:
1:5 Now therefore thus saith the LORD of hosts; Consider your ways.
6 Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink; ye clothe you, but there is none warm; and he that earneth wages earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes.
7 Thus saith the LORD of hosts; Consider your ways.
REBUILDING THE TEMPLE
The particular issue on Haggai's mind was the rebuilding of the temple. There seemed to be no urgency to it in the public mind. The people were saying "The time is not come, the time that the Lord's house should be built." (vs 2) To that frame of mind, that of 'not quite the right time', Haggai responded pointedly: "Time for you, O ye, to dwell in your ceiled houses, and this house lie waste?" (vs 4) What was particularly irritating to Haggai seems to have been that they were not just throwing up temporary shelters, but making a very good job of finishing off their permanent dwellings, ceilings and all. Meanwhile, although the temple foundations had been laid (Ezra 3:8-13) with much ceremony and celebration, work on the structure had since ground to a halt.
We do not have precisely the same religious issue in Britain today, but we have something similar. We do not so much let the fabric of important Christian buildings go into disrepair as the Christian fabric of our whole national life. Rather than a dilapidated temple, we could probably point to the poison of political correctness which is squeezing Christianity out of public life, or to the lack of a culture, let alone a national day, of prayer, or to the embarrassment with which figures in authority refuse to acknowledge God, or Christ, or prayer as in any way important. 'Multi-culturalism' will probably do as a collective expression for all of these.
A 'TOTEM' ISSUE
Each age has its 'totem' issue, around which people take sides and to which they pin everything else. If ours is anti-Christian multi-culturalism, theirs in 520 BC was the temple. The issue was as serious for them as multi-culturalism is for us. The whole of Hebrew life revolved around the temple. It was not just the temple which was in disrepair, their religious focus, like ours is today, was in a mess. Without the temple there were no sacrifices and no remission of sin, either personally or corporately, and that was a major problem for such a religious people. One would have thought they could have seen that. It is almost incomprehensible that there was such indifference to pressing on with building the temple in such a society.
It is just as strange to me that we have so neglected to maintain our Christian national life in this United Kingdom. The temple was central to the Jewish exiles. Just fifty years ago, church observance and acceptance of Christianity as the faith which sustained our nation was just as important to us. Who said the purpose of history is to teach us about ourselves? These exiles are people just like us. The majority are self-centred, refusing to put God first, and wondering why it is all going wrong. A few are calling out "Consider your ways!" Times haven't changed much.
THE 'SUCCESSFUL' PROPHET
God allows some prophets to be successful, in the sense that their word is immediately acted upon. Isaiah and Jonah saw immediate repentance, one from inside the king's court, and the other as an outsider, and to his evident annoyance. Others cry out and are simply ignored. Jeremiah is the saddest example of the latter. Why did the people of Judah not do as Jeremiah said? It is easy to ask with hindsight.
Haggai is one of the first kind. He was obviously at ease bringing his message to the ear of the rulers, but he probably started a full public debate with his appeal to Zerubbabel and Joshua, in which he showed that God was behind the appalling weather they had recently experienced, which had ruined the crops. Ye looked for much, and, lo it came to little; and when ye brought it home, I did blow upon it. Why? saith the LORD of hosts. Because of mine house that is waste, and ye run every man unto his own house. (Hag. 1:9) It was a blunt and uncompromising message, and one can imagine the squeals today from those who would accuse a present-day Haggai of being 'judgmental.' What is so encouraging is that in, plainly, a fairly godless remnant of people the debate ran but a short time before Haggai was honoured with success:
Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Joshua the son of Josedech, the high priest, with all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the LORD their God, and the words of Haggai the prophet, as the LORD their God had sent him, and the people did fear before the LORD. (Hag. 1:12)
GODLY LEADERS ARE ESSENTIAL
The late Harold, Lord Wilson once said, 'a week is a long time in politics.' Just over three weeks after Haggai gave his message, work had re-started on the temple. It is clear from what comes later that God was way ahead of Haggai, and had put into positions of leadership two men after His own heart. Zerubbabel, whose name means 'scattered in Babylon,' and Joshua, whose name means 'God saves', heard the word of Haggai and lost little time in leading the people in repentance. In Deborah's song, her heart was toward the governors of Israel who 'offered themselves willingly among the people' (Judg 5:9) to go to battle for the Lord. Other leaders, and one thinks of most of the kings of Israel and Judah, only lead the people into sin.
The presence by God's grace of receptive, God-fearing leaders appears to be vital if the prophetic word is to be heeded. Leaders are important. People follow them, for good or ill. Even though the people of Haggai's time were self-centred, yet there was still some Godly kindling wood in their hearts, which Haggai's spark could ignite. In Britain today, some 72% of the population ticked the box marked 'Christian' in the last census. I am not saying they were all born-again, spirit-filled, washed-in-the-blood-of-the-Lamb, but I am suggesting there may still be some fire to be kindled deep within them.
The matter of building the Lord's house before our own can of course be applied to us personally and spiritually. Do we put the things of the Lord first in our own lives, or do material things crowd out our worship? God looks to each individual to make God his priority, and he looks to each family, each church, each city and community, and every nation, to do the same. "The silver is mine and the gold is mine, saith the Lord of hosts." (vs 8) We must all recognise that everything we have is from the Lord, and continue to bless the Lord for His gracious provision. But I look, as always, for the corporate dimension in all this.
WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT
As soon as the people under Zerubbabel's leadership had committed themselves to fear the Lord and start rebuilding the temple, Haggai had words of encouragement. Firstly, he assured them: "I am with you, saith the Lord" (Hag 1:13). And then once the rebuilding had started:
According to the word that I covenanted with you when ye came out of Egypt, so my spirit remaineth among you: fear ye not. (Hag. 2:5)
Equally, the small remnant in Jerusalem, an isolated province of Persia surrounded by hostile tribes, must also have been encouraged by Haggai's no less than twelve references to "the Lord of hosts." Haggai was also alert to rumblings of discontent among the older generation. He may well have seen Solomon's temple himself, and if so, as that temple was destroyed in 586 BC, he would have been at least in his late seventies or early eighties at the time of his ministry in 520 BC. At any rate, he understood those who were saying that the new temple would be nothing like the old one (Hag 2:3) and he was given further words of encouragement:
Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, saith the LORD; and be strong, O Joshua, son of Josedech, the high priest; and be strong, all ye people of the land, saith the LORD, and work: for I am with you, saith the LORD of hosts: (Hag. 2:4) ...
The glory of this latter house shall be greater than of the former, saith the LORD of hosts: and in this place will I give peace, saith the LORD of hosts. (Hag. 2:9)
Three months to the day after work started, Haggai was given one final word of encouragement. It seems from Hag 2:11-14 that ritual cleanliness had been somewhat neglected and that this had reflected on the whole people. In Hag 2:15-17 he sets out once again their sinfulness before God, and reminds them of their material shortages, which punishments, Haggai says, have come from the hand of the Lord. They must 'consider' again, and make sure their motives are right before the Lord God of hosts. However, God had seen the quality of their work over the previous three months, and in His perfect timing, the next harvest would be a good one:
Is the seed yet in the barn? yea, as yet the vine, and the fig tree, and the pomegranate, and the olive tree, hath not brought forth: from this day will I bless you. (Hag. 2:19)
LOOKING FURTHER AHEAD
The final verse is a personal word of encouragement to Zerubbabel. The temple work would not bring him material wealth or political power, but would ensure his place in history. God had removed Jeconiah from the line of David, and indeed Jeremiah says he was plucked off as a signet (Jer 22:24). Haggai picks up the signet motive and announces that Zerubbabel has become the royal line. Zechariah chapter 4 enlarges the promises to Zerubbabel. 'Scattered in Babel' has been restored to Jerusalem. God saves. Of course, Jesus Christ is hidden in this final verse of Haggai as well, to be the ultimate chosen signet of the Lord of hosts.
In that day, saith the LORD of hosts, will I take thee, O Zerubbabel, my servant, the son of Shealtiel, saith the LORD, and will make thee as a signet: for I have chosen thee, saith the LORD of hosts. (Hag. 2:23)
That surely leads to the other verses of Haggai which look forward to the end times:
For thus saith the LORD of hosts; Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; (Hag. 2:6)
And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, saith the LORD of hosts. (Hag. 2:7)
Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying, I will shake the heavens and the earth; (Hag. 2:21)
And I will overthrow the throne of kingdoms, and I will destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the heathen; and I will overthrow the chariots, and those that ride in them; and the horses and their riders shall come down, every one by the sword of his brother. (Hag. 2:22)
Shaking the heavens and the earth is a theme in Isaiah 13:13 and Joel 3:16 as well. It can refer to an earthquake, to a political shaking, to a supernatural event, or to all three. Verse 2:7 also looks to a time when 'all nations' will come up to Jerusalem. Isaiah 2:2 says they will 'flow unto' the Lord's house, and in 66:18 that they will come and see His glory. Jeremiah sees something similar (Jer 3:17) and Zechariah says that those left of the nations which battle against Jerusalem (Zech 14:2) will come up to celebrate the feast of Tabernacles (Zech 14:16). However bad things seem, God is in control and there will be a day of peace and righteousness, when the meek will inherit the earth (Psalm 37:11; Prov 10:30; Matt 5:5).
The name Haggai means 'festive'. Some people seem only able to criticise. They seem to have been given a 'ministry of discouragement.' Haggai's, in contrast, appears to have been the near-perfect ministry of encouragement. He had some sharp words, but even those are uttered with wit and compassion. The 'bag with holes' illustration which the Holy Spirit lays on him is sheer genius. Haggai chides, lifts up, builds spirits, brings forgotten and hidden matters to the light to be put right, then brings words of blessing and celebration. 'Festive' surely suits this lovely man. Would that the Lord would raise up men like him in Britain today, men with the ear of Government, with the standing and personality to start a public debate about the priorities of our nation, the reasons for all that is going wrong, including the way we seem to earn money only to put it into a 'bag with holes'.
The temple was completed in 516 BC, after only four years of work, and just seventy years after Solomon's original was destroyed. Did Haggai see it in its latter glory? It would be nice to think so. However, his prophecy does not record the event. It may be that when he had done his job for the Lord of hosts, stirring up the people with a reproach, then encouraging them constantly as they started the work, the Lord called him home, his mission accomplished. What a life to have lived.