PUTTING GOD FIRST Haggai 1–2
“Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” (Hag. 1:4)The fall of Israel to Assyria, and of Judah to Babylon, illustrates what happens when people fail to put God first. The response of the postexilic community to Haggai’s preaching illustrates what happens when people do put God first.
The Babylonians had taken the Jewish people into Captivity in a series of deportations between 605 and 586B.C It was not until the fall of Babylon and the ascension of Cyrus of Persia in 538B.C that a small contingent of some 50,000 returned to their devastated homeland. During the years of Exile once-fertile fields had become overgrown with weeds and briars, houses had fallen into ruin, while orchards and vineyards had died. The returnees faced a formidable task: they must reclaim the land, plant crops, and rebuild houses, for once-prosperous Judah was now a wild frontier. In the grip of their first enthusiasm, a foundation for a new temple of God had been laid. But soon that enthusiasm was worn away under the pressures of survival. The focus of the community shifted from putting God first to putting their own many needs first. For some 18 years they struggled to reestablish a viable society. But somehow they seemed unable to make progress. Every step forward seemed matched by two back. It was at this point that Haggai was sent by God to speak to the discouraged pioneers, to urge them to once again put God first. Haggai is an encouraging book for believers today. It reminds us that blessings lie ahead for those who put God first.
On August 29, 520B.C, Haggai urged Judah to finish the temple (1:1–11). The people obeyed God’s voice and set to work (vv. 12–15). On October 17 Haggai promised the completed temple would be filled with glory (2:1–9), and on December 18 Haggai promised that from now on, God would bless (vv. 10–23).
Understanding the Text
“Give careful thought to your ways” Hag. 1:1–11. Haggai’s initial message was blunt and practical. He reminded the community how they had struggled to survive the past 18 years. They had worked constantly, and yet seemed to have made no progress. He also reminded them that they had put aside rebuilding the temple in order to concentrate on meeting their own needs. And Haggai had just three questions for them: Had it worked? Were they really better off than they were before? Had setting God aside helped them get ahead? The answer was no! They “expected much, but see, it turned out to be little.” The fact of the matter was that the prosperity of the postexilic community depended entirely on God. He was the One who controlled the reins; He was the One who could make them prosper. In setting God aside they abandoned the one essential for success. Christians too might well be practical. Never mind for the moment whether it’s right to set God aside for a time to concentrate on getting ahead. Just ask the question, “Will it work?” The answer today, as in Haggai’s time, is no! Our God is a sovereign God, who is able to bless our efforts, or to withhold blessing. If we set God aside, and fail to give Him the priority He deserves, we abandon the one resource essential for our own success. “They came and began to work on the house of the Lord Almighty, their God” Hag. 1:12–14. While the practical argument is compelling, it takes more than argument to cause a person to change his or her priorities. The text says that “the Lord stirred up the spirit” of the leaders and of the people (v. 14). You and I may give others the best of reasons why they should trust the Lord or follow Him. And there are many good and practical reasons. Yet people will only respond if the Lord Himself stirs up their spirits within them. Christian witnessing and Christian counseling both call for more than knowledge and more than skill in presenting good reasons for wise choices. Effective witness and counsel demands prayer that God will take our good reasons and good advice, open the heart of the hearer, and stir him or her up to respond. “Be strong . . . and work” Hag. 2:1–4. As the work commenced it became clear that the new temple would be far less splendid than the first. So the people became discouraged. It hardly seemed worthwhile, when what they were doing fell so far short of what others had done. You and I often fall into this trap. We compare our accomplishments or the tasks we are called to do with those of others. What we’re doing seems so unimportant. So we become discouraged, and let our hands fall to our sides. God’s first response to such an attitude is to give us a simple prescription. He says, “Be strong. . . . Be strong. . . . Be strong. . . . and work” (vv. 3–4). Our calling is not to compare, but to be strong, and work at the task God gives us. “I will fill this house with glory” Hag. 2:5–9. The dimensions of the new temple were far less than those of Solomon’s. The new temple would also lack the expensive adornment of the earlier house of worship. Yet God not only promised to fill the new house with glory, but said that “the glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house” (v. 9). The ancient rabbis saw this as a messianic prophecy. The “desired of all nations [who] will come” (v. 7) they held to be the Messiah. The temple would be filled with glory not because of its material trappings but because of His presence. How accurate this insight. Over half a millennium passed. But then Jesus of Nazareth did come, first as a Boy and then as an Adult, to the second temple. Herod had expanded and beautified the original structure. But the temple was glorious, not because of its ostentatious wealth, but because of the enfleshed presence of the God in whose honor it had been built. There is a lesson here for us. What we do may seem unimportant when compared with what some accomplish. Yet as long as what we do is done for Christ, His presence floods the simplest task with glory. “The silver is Mine and the gold is Mine” Hag. 2:8. The struggling community in Judah, hardly able to make ends meet, must have been discouraged by its poverty. How could it afford the high costs of construction, to say nothing of the costly equipment required for worship? Here God simply reminded His people, “The silver is Mine and the gold is Mine.” The people of Judah were responsible to work. God was responsible to provide. And God did! Ezra 6:8–12 tells us that when local opponents of the Jews complained, they were ordered by the Persian ruler to finance the entire project from tax revenues! We need not know where our resources will come from. But we do need to be sure that what we do is in the will of God. “From this day on I will bless you” Hag. 2:10–19. God promised to bless His obedient people. But He protected the little community, and us, from a common error. Haggai was told to raise a question of ritual purity with the priests. If a defiled person touched a holy object, would he be made holy? The answer was no. In fact, if a defiled person touched a holy object, that object became defiled! God was about to pour out blessings on His people in Judea. They might conclude that it was because they once again worshiped at a temple. The questions and their answers showed that no one would be made holy by going up to the temple. God’s blessing was to be poured out not because of the holiness of the people, but because of the grace of their God. In choosing to put God first, the little community had placed itself on the one path that led to the blessing God was eager to bestow. God’s blessing today is evidence of His grace. We can never earn the good things He gives us. Yet our obedience does bring us to that shore of the river where His blessings flow. “I will shake the heavens and the earth” Hag. 2:20–23. The book concludes with a word to Zerubbabel. This member of the royal family represented the Davidic line. The words mean that while the present generation will be blessed, a future generation will experience the full blessing promised by God. Then, at a future date, One from the house of David, the Messiah, will appear. He will shake the nations and establish the earthly kingdom of God.
After Putting God First (Hag. 2)
Haggai 1 invites us to look at the empty spaces in our lives, the disappointments and frustrations, and ask if this is what we want our lives to be. He then urges us to stop living selfishly, and put God first. The little Jewish community in Judea in Haggai’s day did just this—and decided to change their priorities. From then on, they would put the Lord first. I suppose if this were all there were to this little book, it would be well worth reading. But actually, there’s much more. Haggai 2 goes on to show us how life changes when we do put the Lord first in our lives. What do we see there? First, we find significance in even little things. The rebuilt temple seemed small when compared to Solomon’s spectacular structure. But then the Lord said, “I am with you,” and we know that when we have put Him first, what we do is important indeed. In fact, we have the assurance that there is far more glory in the littlest thing we do for the Lord than in anything we have ever done before (vv. 1–9). Second, we find repeated evidence of blessings we do not deserve. We discover that in putting God first, we have put ourselves in the center of that channel through which grace constantly flows. There are material blessings, yes. But even more important, there is the knowledge that we are pleasing God, and fulfilling ourselves. And in this we find peace.
The only way to get ahead is to put God before us.