It had been seventy long years since the captives had seen their homeland. Most of them were too young to remember what it was like, of course, but the older ones among them could not forget-and their enthusiasm quickly spread.
As they neared the ancient city, their hearts welled up with anticipation. But a heart-breaking sight awaited them. Not only had Nebuchadnezzar leveled the city of Jerusalem, but he had also completely destroyed the glorious structure that had once been Solomon’s temple.
After the initial disappointment had passed, the people, still grateful for their return, began the long, arduous task of constructing a new temple, a house where God’s presence could dwell. The foundation was soon laid and an emotional celebration followed (Ezra 3:10-13).
But before long the newly returned remnant met with opposition. The surrounding people-who were Samaritans-rose up against them and hampered the work (Ezra 4:1-5). Although the threat passed, the people failed to resume the reconstruction.
No doubt they intended to take up the work again at some point, but sixteen years quickly came and went. Their excuse? “The time has not yet come,” they said (Haggai 1:2).
Haggai, an aged, straight-talking prophet, stepped onto the scene with an uncompromising call to action. Speaking to the heart of the issue, he challenged the people’s priorities: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house [the temple] remains a ruin?” (Haggai 1:4).
The solution Haggai gave was equally succinct: “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored'”(Haggai 1:7-8).
For sixteen years the people had been busily pursuing their own selfish interests, building and decorating their own homes. But they had neglected the one item which should have been given top priority-the rebuilding of the temple.
Though the temple itself was of no great importance to God, the end for which it was designed-the worship of God-was of monumental importance. Without the temple, the worship of God according to the Older Covenant had diminished.
Meanwhile, poverty conditions took hold in the land. Haggai twice challenged both the leaders and the people to reflect upon their experiences to understand why poverty had struck.
Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but have 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 in a purse with holes in it….
“You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the Lord Almighty.
“Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with his own house.
“Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the oil and whatever the ground produces, on men and cattle, and on the labor of your hands.” (Haggai 1:5-6 and 1:9-11)
Because of their misplaced priorities, the Israelites had once again fallen under the heavy-handed judgment of God.
Haggai was one of the few prophets who was privileged to see the people respond positively to his message.
The whole remnant of the people obeyed the voice of the Lord their God and the message of the prophet Haggai, because the Lord their God had sent him. And the people feared the Lord. (Haggai 1:12)
It is important to note, however, that their obedience was not the result of their own moral uprightness or godly zeal. Indeed, their coldness of heart toward things of God had first necessitated Haggai’s rebuke.
No, the people now obeyed because the Lord was at work within them. “The Lord stirred up… the spirit of the whole remnant of the people. They came and began to work on the house of the Lord Almighty, their God” (Haggai 1:14). God stirred them up “to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13).
And once they resolved to carry out Haggai’s instructions, the Lord reassured them of his continued presence, saying, “Be strong, all you people of the land, and work. For I am with you” (Haggai 2:4). The temple was finished just four years later.
The message of the prophet Haggai is as relevant to us today as it was to the people of his own generation. Several points are worth noting.
First, although a physical temple is no longer needed under the New Covenant (“For we are the temple of the living God,” 2 Corinthians 6:16), worship is still the single most important task in which we can engage. God is worthy-infinitely worthy!-of our worship. But in an age when people are “lovers of themselves” and “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:1-4), we must be especially careful not to be squeezed into the world’s mold.
The best insurance against this subtle but dangerous temptation is to persistently maintain a daily time of personal worship of God. A consistent devotional life causes us to refocus our attention, turning our thoughts from ourselves to the Lord.
Second, it is easy to begin well-to “lay the foundations” and proclaim a celebration as the people in Jerusalem did-but not continue. After committing ourselves to the practice of daily devotions, how many of us really follow through? Unfortunately, like the Israelites of old, many of us lose heart after our early encounters wit enemy.
Nothing worthwhile comes easily, and this includes our devotional life. It took the people of Haggai’s day four years of hard work to finish building the temple, and it may take us a while to establish good devotional habits as well.
Third, we need to consider the serious consequences of not giving God the worship he deserves. The experience of Israel stands as a sober warning. Their failure to rebuild the temple had dreadful results, as God caused a terrible drought to grip their land. This action makes clear the fact that disobedience not only forfeits God’s blessing, but brings his discipline as well. Finally, as we agree to do God’s will and to give him the worship he desires, he in turn promises to live with us and to stir up our spirits to continue in the things that please him (Haggai 1:13-14). In other words, God endorses and strengthens our good resolves.
With that encouragement, let us join with the heavenly hosts and “fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives forever and ever” (Revelation 4:10).