When the foundations of the temple were laid in Jerusalem in the year 536, the younger men shouted for joy while the older men wept (Ezra 3:8-13). Although Haggai probably had seen Solomon's temple in its glory (Hag. 2:3), he was undoubtedly among those who expressed joy, for the Lord was at work among His people.
But it doesn't take long for zeal to cool and God's people to grow apathetic, especially when opposition began an ominous growl that soon became a roar. The shout awakened the enemies of the Jews, aroused official opposition, and caused the work to stop (Ezra 4:1-6, 24); and the temple lay unfinished from 536 to 520, when Haggai and Zechariah brought God's message to Zerubbabel and Joshua.
In this first message, the prophet gave four admonitions to the leaders and to the people to encourage them to get back to work and finish rebuilding the temple.
The first statement in the divine message went right to the heart of the problem and exposed the hypocrisy and unbelief of the people.
Excuses. "It isn't time to rebuild the house of the Lord" was their defense of their inactivity. Billy Sunday called an excuse "the skin of a reason stuffed with a lie," and Benjamin Franklin wrote, "I never knew a man who was good at making excuses who was good at anything else."
The first congregation I pastored met in a corrugated metal tabernacle that should have been replaced years before, but whenever somebody would suggest a building program, some of the fearful people would resurrect their excuses for maintaining the status quo. "The economy isn't good and there might be another strike," was the major excuse we heard, but in that part of the country, there were always strikes! And who can predict or control the economy? "Our pastors don't stay long," one member told me, "and it would be a tragedy to be in a building program without a leader." But the Lord led us to build a lovely sanctuary and He saw us through!
Evidence. What more evidence did the Jewish people need that God's time had come? How could they doubt that it was God's will for them to rebuild the temple and restore true worship in Jerusalem? Hadn't God moved King Cyrus to free the exiles and commission them to return to Jerusalem for that very purpose? (See 2 Chron. 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4.) Didn't the king generously give them the money and materials they needed, and didn't the Lord graciously protect the exiles carrying the temple treasures as they traveled from Babylon to Judah?
The Jews certainly knew the words that the Prophet Isaiah had recorded about Cyrus: "He is My shepherd, and he shall perform all My pleasure, even saying to Jerusalem, 'You shall be rebuilt,' and the temple, 'Your foundation shall be laid' "(Isa. 44:28, nkjv). Isaiah had also written, "I have raised him [Cyrus] up in righteousness, and I will direct all his ways; he shall build My city and let My exiles go free" (Isa. 45:13). By stopping their work, the Jews were admitting that they had no faith in God's Word or in God's power to perform it.
In the light of these facts, on what basis were the people refusing to obey God and build His house? For one thing, both Isaiah and Jeremiah had predicted a national restoration that would amaze the Gentile nations and bring glory to Israel, but that wonderful event had not yet occurred. (See Isa. 2:1-5; 11; 35; 60:1-5; Jer. 30-31.) The people failed to understand that some of these promises would be fulfilled in the end times ("the last days"); and when the situation in Judah became worse, the people questioned the dependability of the Word of God.
Perhaps some of the scribes studied Jeremiah's promise about the seventy years of captivity (25:1-14) and decided that the allotted time hadn't yet ended. Only fifty years had transpired since the temple had been destroyed in 586, said the experts, so the Jews would have to wait another twenty years for the prophecy to be fulfilled. God took them at their word, and the work stopped for sixteen years. The temple was completed in 515, so the scholars got their seventy years accounted for!
Evasion. The people were terribly inconsistent: it wasn't time to build the house of God, but it was time to build their own houses! And some of the people had built, not just ordinary dwellings, but "paneled houses," the kind that kings built for themselves (1 Kings 7:3, 7; Jer. 22:14).
"But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things [food, clothing, shelter] shall be added to you" (Matt. 6:33, nkjv). Haggai's congregation had never heard that great promise, but the principle behind Christ's words was written into their Law. "Honor the Lord with your possessions, and with the firstfruits of all your increase; so your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will overflow with new wine" (Prov. 3:9-10, nkjv; and see Lev. 26:3-13; Deut. 16:17; 28:1-14; 30:3-9).
It's obvious that the nation had its priorities confused, but are God's people today any different from those ancient Jews?
Local churches can't expand their budgets for world evangelism because the money isn't there, and yet many church members don't believe Matthew 6:33 and put God first in their giving. Measured by Third World standards, Christians in the Western world are living in luxury, yet their giving is low and their debts are high because their wealth is being used for things that really don't matter.
When we put God first and give Him what's rightfully His, we open the door to spiritual enrichment and the kind of stewardship that honors the Lord. A century after Haggai ministered, the Prophet Malachi accused the people of robbing God of tithes and offerings and thereby robbing themselves of blessing (Mal. 3:7-12); and his words need to be heeded today.
Haggai's second admonition invited the people to examine their lifestyle and actions in the light of the covenant God made with them before the nation entered the land of Canaan (Lev. 26; Deut. 27-28). The word translated "consider" in the kjv is translated "give careful thought to" in the niv (Hag. 1:5). It was time for the people to do some serious self-examination before the Lord.
God's covenant stated clearly that He would bless them if they obeyed His Law and discipline them if they disobeyed. "If you do not obey Me, then I will punish you seven times more for your sins. I will break the pride of your power; I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like bronze. And your strength shall be spent in vain; for your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit" (Lev. 26:18-20; see Deut. 28:38-40).
Indeed, their strength was spent in vain! They sowed abundantly but reaped a meager harvest. When they ate and drank, they weren't filled or satisfied. Their clothing didn't keep them warm and their income didn't cover their expenses. As supplies became scarcer, prices got higher, and a shopper might as well have carried his wealth in a wallet filled with holes!
While I don't believe that the Old Testament tithe is demanded of the New Testament believer (Acts 5:1-4), I think that tithing is a good place to start when it comes to systematic stewardship. After all, if an Old Covenant Jew under Law could gladly give tithes to the Lord, should a New Covenant believer under grace do less? But the tithe is only a start! The principles laid down in 2 Corinthians 8-9 encourage us to give offerings to the Lord and trust Him for all that we need (see 2 Cor. 8:9).
Because the Jews returned to the land in obedience to the Lord, they thought He would give them special blessings because of their sacrifices, but they were disappointed (Hag. 1:9). Instead, the Lord called for a drought and withheld both the dew and the rain. He took His blessing away from the men who labored in the fields, vineyards, and orchards. In verse 11, Haggai named the basic products that the people needed to survive: water, grain, wine, and oil (Deut. 7:13; 11:14).
Once more, the prophet revealed the source of their trouble: the people were busy building their own houses and had no time for the house of the Lord (Hag. 1:9). It's Matthew 6:33 all over again! Had the nation believed what God promised in His covenants, they would have obeyed Him and enjoyed His blessing.
However, we must be careful not to turn giving into a "business arrangement," for our obedience should be the evidence of our love and faith. Christian industrialist R.G. LeTourneau used to say, "If you give because it pays, it won't pay!" He was right.
The Lord never made a "prosperity covenant" with the church as He did with Israel. In fact, our Lord's first statement in the Sermon on the Mount is, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:3). "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6:20). God has seen fit to bless some Christians with wealth, but it isn't a guarantee for every believer, in spite of what the contemporary "prosperity preachers" claim. If we help to meet the needs of others, God does promise to meet our needs (Phil. 4:10-20; 2 Cor. 9:6-11), but this isn't a pledge of material prosperity. No matter how much God gives us materially, we all must say with Paul, "as poor, yet making many rich" (2 Cor. 6:10).
When the Babylonian army set fire to the temple, this destroyed the great timbers that helped to hold the massive stonework together. The stones were still usable, but the interior woodwork had been demolished and burned and had to be replaced.
According to Ezra 3:7, the Jews purchased wood from Tyre and Sidon, just as Solomon had done when he built the original temple (1 Kings 5:6-12). Now Haggai commanded the men to go into the forests on the mountains and cut down timber to be used for repairing and rebuilding the temple. What happened to that original supply of wood? Did the people use it for themselves? Did some clever entrepreneur profit by selling wood that had been bought with the king's grant? We don't know, but we wonder where the people got the wood for their paneled houses when no wood was available for God's house.
During nearly fifty years of ministry, I've noted that some professed Christians buy the best for themselves and give to the Lord whatever is left over. Worn-out furniture is given to the church and worn-out clothing is sent to the missionaries. Like the priests in Malachi's day, we bring to the Lord gifts we'd be embarrassed to give to our family and friends (Mal. 1:6-8). But when we do this, we commit two sins: (1) we displease the Lord, and (2) we disgrace His name. The Lord told the people through Haggai, "Build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored" (Hag. 1:7). God delights in the obedient service of His people, and His name is glorified when we sacrifice for Him and serve Him.
"Hallowed be Thy name" is the first petition in the Lord's Prayer (Matt. 6:9), but it's often the last thing we think about as we seek to serve God. Jesus said, "I do always those things that please Him [the Father]" (John 8:29), and that's a good example for us to follow. "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father, who is in heaven" (Matt. 5:16).
It certainly didn't please God or honor His name when the people neglected God's house and built elaborate houses for themselves. We know that God doesn't live in temples made by hands (Acts 7:48-50), and that our church buildings are not His holy habitation, but the way we care for these buildings reflects our spiritual priorities and our love for Him. Dr. G. Campbell Morgan said it best in a sermon he preached on Haggai 1:4 many years ago:
Whereas the house of God today is no longer material but spiritual, the material is still a very real symbol of the spiritual. When the Church of God in any place in any locality is careless about the material place of assembly, the place of its worship and its work, it is a sign and evidence that its life is at a low ebb.
When God speaks to us by His Word, there's only one acceptable response, and that's obedience. We don't weigh the options, we don't examine the alternatives, and we don't negotiate the terms. We simply do what God tells us to do and leave the rest with Him. "Faith is not believing in spite of evidence," said the British preacher Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy; "it's obeying in spite of consequence."
The leaders and all the people united in obeying God's instructions, and they were motivated by a reverent fear of the Lord (v. 12). After all, He is the "Lord of hosts," a title used ten times in this little book (vv. 2, 9, 14; 2:4, 7, 8, 9, 23). It means "the Lord of the armies," the God who is in supreme command of the armies of heaven (stars and angels) and of earth. Obedience always brings further truth (John 7:17), and the prophet assured them that God was with them in their endeavors (Hag. 1:13; see 2:4). "The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge" (Ps. 46:7, 11). The obedience of the leaders and people was the result of God working in their hearts, just as He had worked in the heart of King Cyrus and in the hearts of the exiles who had returned to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel (Ezra 1:5). "For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13, nkjv).
Haggai delivered this first message on August 29, 520, but it wasn't until September 21 that the people resumed their work on the temple. Why the three-week delay? For one thing, it was the month when figs and grapes were harvested, and the people didn't want to lose their crop. Also, before they could build, the Jews had to remove the debris from the temple site, take inventory of their supplies, and organize their work crews. It would have been foolish, to rush ahead totally unprepared. It's also possible that they took time to confess their sins and purify themselves so that their work would be pleasing to the Lord (Ps. 51:16-19).
The church today can learn a lesson from the Jewish remnant of Haggai's day. Too often we make excuses when we ought to be making confessions and obeying the Lord. We say, "It's not time for an evangelistic crusade," "It's not time for the Spirit to bring revival," "It's not time to expand the ministry." We act as though we fully understand "the times and the seasons" that God has ordained for His people, but we don't understand them (Acts 1:6-7).
Any interpretation of the Bible that limits God and encourages His people to be lazy instead of busy in ministry is a false interpretation and must be abandoned. If the Lord is to be pleased with us and glorified before an unbelieving world, we must hear His Word, believe it, and act upon it, no matter what the circumstances may be. After all, God is with us, and "If God be for us, who can be against us?" (Rom. 8:31)