Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 10, 2019
Haggai 1:5b-2:9 Commentary
For me, one of the greatest proofs of the Bible’s divine inspiration is its applicability to life in every era of history. The prophecy given in Haggai was written in the last period of Old Testament prophetic activity, after Israel’s return from Exile, in the year 520 BC. And yet its narrow focus on a problem in ancient Israel is extremely relevant to life in 2019. How could such an old Jewish book possibly speak to contemporary life in North America? Because it is the Word of God, as Haggai the prophet claims over and over.
In 520 Israel has been back in the Land at least 18 years. As good covenant partners, they had begun to rebuild the Temple because it had been the focal point of their relationship with God. Get that relationship restored and all will be well. That was clear thinking. But after a couple of years at that vast project, they had slowed down and stopped rebuilding the Temple.
In part that was because of fierce opposition from those mixed breed Samaritans and other neighbors. And in part it was because of their own need to improve their lot in life, particularly their living situation, specifically their homes. So in 536, they stopped their temple building and focused on home construction. Here it is 520, sixteen years later. Over the course of 16 years, the Lord’s house was still a mess, while they had constructed their “paneled houses.”
Yet, in spite of their investment in their own lives (or as Haggai will say, because of their focus on their own lives), they were not happy, not prosperous, not fruitful. Haggai sums up their frantic and frustrated lives in verse 6: You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink but never have your fill. You put on clothes but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them into a purse with holes in it.” You never get ahead, you are never satisfied, you never even have enough. Why is that?
Well, says Haggai over and over, “Give careful thought to your ways.” You are living carelessly, thoughtlessly, instinctively. So think, people, think about your life, because as the Greek philosopher, Socrates, said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” So examine your lives and maybe you’ll discover the cause of your frustration.
Because Israel was so steeped in their ways and so caught up in their own thinking, God gives them a hint. “Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build [my] house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored.”
OK, if you still don’t get the message, the futility and emptiness of your lives is my response to your choice of priorities. “You expected much, but see, it has turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away! Why? Because of my house which remains a ruin while each of you is busy with his own house.”
And if you still can’t make sense of all this, I’ll put it as bluntly as I can. “Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. I called for a drought on the fields and mountains, on the grain and new wine, the oil and whatever the ground produces, on men and animals, and on the labor of your hands.” Note the dual agency in the creation of their unhappy lives—both you and I. Your unfruitfulness is the result of my response to your unfaithfulness.
Having just returned from exile, Israel should have known this, just as we should know it from our repeated reading of Scripture. While salvation is by grace through faith, God still expects obedience from his saved people. And he rewards obedience and responds harshly to disobedience. It’s not that obedience makes or breaks our relationship with a gracious God; it is rather that our gracious God expects us to respond to his grace with lives that are filled with fruit. When they aren’t, he responds with chastening (or pruning, as Jesus put it in John 15).
Because life was difficult, Israel wondered, as we do in such situations, if God had forsaken them again. But he hadn’t and he doesn’t. Indeed, as soon as the leaders and people of Israel began to fear the Lord again and obey him (verse 12), God assured them, “I am with you…. [and] my Spirit remains among you.”
Thus chastened by God’s stern words and heartened by his comforting words, the Israelites immediately began rebuilding the Temple. But not even a month later, the builders’ zeal began to flag. Those same enemies renewed their opposition. And this temple looked like “nothing” compared to the one built by Solomon. So God encourages them– “be strong” and “do not fear!” “I am with you and my Spirit remains among you.” You can do it, so keep at it. And the Lord stirred them to new enthusiasm and energy.
Then God issues a multi-faceted promise, a stunning piece of Good News that echoes down the ages into the 21st century and beyond. “In a little while (a phrase that often occurs in apocalyptic literature) I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all the nations….” If you think I’m done acting in dramatic fashion in world history, you have another think coming. I going to shake things up and “the glory of this present house will be greater than the former house and in this place I will grant peace….”
That “little while” happened initially when God shook up the international order, as Alexander the Great conquered the mighty Persian Empire. But the definitive shaking of the world happened when “the desired of all nations [came]…” Clearly a Messianic prophecy, this was fulfilled when Jesus came and filled the heavens and the earth with God’s glory. Think of the announcement of his birth, when the heavens were filled with glorious angels who sang, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those with whom God is well pleased.”
If we understand that Jesus is the “desired of all nations,” then we can understand the rest of our text. Jesus claimed that he was the new temple, the place where God dwells in the midst of his people. The glory of Jesus was “greater than this present house” or the temple of Solomon. And in Jesus Christ, in his person and work, God “grants peace.” The place where God dwelt among his people in Old Testament times has been replaced by the person in whom all the fullness of the God-head dwelt (Col. 1).
Thus, the hard words of Haggai about priorities are relevant to our lives. As God wanted them to prioritize his Temple, so God wants us to prioritize our relationship with Christ. As life became hectic and frustrating when Israel focused on their own needs, so our lives become empty and fruitless when we center on ourselves. Jesus said it definitively in Matthew 6, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you as well.”
As I meditated on these words, a couple of old songs came to mind. One is an Advent hymn, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” which includes the phrase at the center of God’s earthshaking promise in verse 7 of chapter 2.
Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art;
Dear desire of every nation, joy of every loving heart.
The second song is not a hymn, but it captures the gloomy frustration of someone who just can’t get ahead no matter how hard he works in the company coal mine. It was sung memorably by Tennessee Ernie Ford. Here’s the refrain:
He loaded sixteen tons.
What do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
St. Peter don’t you call me
Cause I can’t go,
I owe my soul to the company store.
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