First Things First

| Haggai 1:1-15 | July 9, 2017

Week of July 16, 2017

The Point:  Always put God first.

Consider Your Ways:  Haggai 1:1-15.

[1] In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest: [2] “Thus says the LORD of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD.” [3] Then the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, [4] “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? [5] Now, therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. [6] You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes. [7] “Thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. [8] Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD. [9] You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? declares the LORD of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house. [10] Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. [11] And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the ground brings forth, on man and beast, and on all their labors.” [12] Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Joshua the son of Jehozadak, 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 feared the LORD. [13] Then Haggai, the messenger of the LORD, spoke to the people with the LORD’s message, “I am with you, declares the LORD.” [14] And the LORD stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people. And they came and worked on the house of the LORD of hosts, their God, [15] on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month, in the second year of Darius the king.   [ESV]

Introduction to the Message [1:1].  According to Haggai 1:1 the prophet’s first message dates to the second year of Darius, which is best understood to be 520. The events of this book are confined to a period of about three and a half months. In that brief time Haggai was able to move his community from stark apathy to vigorous action. The word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai. This statement calls attention to two equally important features of Haggai’s message. First, it underscores the divine origin of his message, claiming for it revelatory status. Though conveyed by a human spokesman, the message did not originate with that messenger. The prophetic word as divine revelation is an essential part of the theology of this book. Second, the expression in verse 1 links this divine word to the human messenger who delivered it to the Lord’s people. It is a message that came by the hand of Haggai. Haggai will deliver the message, and it will be his personality and persona that will provide its human characteristics. But it is really the Lord’s message more so than it is Haggai’s. The implication that lies just below the surface of such language is that failure to receive this message and to act upon its counsel is tantamount to rejecting not just the prophet but the Lord Himself.

The People’s Excuse for Delay [1:2].  Haggai’s message strikes right to the heart of the matter. Haggai boldly announces, Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord. In the Book of Haggai the expression, the Lord of hosts, serves to remind the prophet’s audience of God’s transcendence and control over all human affairs. The Lord does not refer to the people as “my people,” but rather as these people. The personal pronoun “my,” which might have brought a measure of reassurance to the people in the midst of their hardships is replaced by the cold and detached demonstrative pronoun these. The word signals at the outset of this message that something was wrong in the relationship between the Lord and the inhabitants of Judah. The problem is identified in the people’s explanation for failure to rebuild the temple. The verb say that introduces their claim suggests that this is an assertion that had been set forth repeatedly in defense of their inactivity. According to the people the time was not yet right for the rebuilding of the temple. The temple would indeed be rebuilt, but not now. In this section Haggai repeatedly pictures the temple as a house in which the Lord resides. This notion of the temple as the house of God is important for understanding the urgency Haggai attaches to this structure. To leave the Lord’s dwelling in a state of disrepair was to show disrespect to its occupant. The word used in verse 2 to refer to the temple is a general word for house, the specific meaning of which can only be determined by context. Its flexibility enables Haggai to use the same word in two very different senses, highlighting the contrast between the people’s personal interests and their religious concerns. The fundamental problem to which Haggai points is that the people were concerned about the wrong house – they were looking after their own homes while neglecting the temple. The versatility of the word thus underscores a contrast to which Haggai repeatedly points in this chapter. It is a contrast between indulgent concern over matters of personal comfort on the one hand and callused disregard for spiritual responsibilities on the other hand.

Inverted Priorities of the People [1:3-4].  In response to the claim that the time was not right for rebuilding the temple, Haggai asks in the Lord’s behalf how it could be that the time was right for building their private dwellings. The prophet’s use of the word time at the beginning of verse 4 resumes the people’s reference to time in verse 2. The question is rhetorical. Rather, by means of an interrogative the prophet hints at the indignation he feels toward the callused display of selfish interests on the part of the people. His point is that it is repulsive to suggest that it is not yet time to rebuild the temple while at the same time suggesting that it is time to undertake building projects that contribute to their personal security and comfort. The question invites reflection on priorities. Whose interests were most important to them – their own or those of their God? The Hebrew wording used in verse 4 calls attention to the one-sided nature of their interests. By using the same word to refer both to individual homes and to the temple, Haggai stresses the inappropriate priorities of the people. If a choice is to be made with regard to which of the two “houses” should be built first, does it not stand to reason that the Lord’s wishes should take precedence over their own? Such is the logical basis of the prophet’s complaint.

Unsuccessful Efforts of the People [1:5-6].  In verse 5 the prophet once again stresses the divine origin of the prophetic word: Now, therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts. He urges the people to Consider your ways, suggesting that it is their religious failures that have triggered their economic misfortunes. The expression is a negative one, suggesting that their ways or paths have deviated from behavior characterized by integrity and obedience. Things were not as they should be. As described in verse 6, the people were caught in a web of diminishing return for their dogged efforts to provide life’s necessities. Five areas of economic failure are singled out in verse 6. The impact of such dismal conditions as Haggai describes had clearly taken a huge toll on the outlook and perspective of the people. Not being able to provide for even the basic necessities of life, how could they be expected to underwrite the significant financial costs and labor demands of an expensive project such as the temple?

The Necessity of Obedience [1:7-8].  The paragraph found in verses 7-11 develops along two lines. First, Haggai calls on the people to acknowledge their need to obey the Lord’s instructions about the temple given to them through the word that he had received from the Lord. Second, they must also acknowledge that they are experiencing the Lord’s discipline because of their own failure. The only thing that could lead to removal of the severe chastisement that had befallen them is genuine repentance and sincere obedience to the Lord’s instructions. Once again the prophet calls attention to  the fact that it is the Lord who is speaking through the prophetic message [cf. 1,2,3,5]. And once again he urges the people to consider your ways [cf. 5]. The implication is that proper reflection on their past course of action should lead to a change of behavior for the future. Now the people are urged to go up to the mountains to secure the necessary timber for construction. The structure of this verse centers around five verbs: go … bring … build … take pleasure … be glorified. This verse marks the conceptual center of Haggai’s message and its main emphasis. The Lord’s instructions as recounted here call for taking the necessary initiatives for gathering the timber needed for reconstructing the temple. It is timber that is emphasized, since the stone also needed for the project was readily available in the immediate environs of Jerusalem. Timber would have to be acquired elsewhere for such things as roofing the structure and the necessary carpentry work both inside and outside the edifice. As a result of their efforts, the Lord assures them, He will take pleasure in the rebuilt structure and will be glorified in it. The final two verbs in the citation of verse 8 are best understood as conveying purpose or result for the prior three imperative verbs pertaining to the work of rebuilding. The verb take pleasure in is part of the theological vocabulary of the Hebrew Bible; it is often used to signify the Lord’s acceptance of persons or sacrificial offerings. Haggai uses the word to refer to the Lord’s acceptance of the temple reconstruction. The context suggest that the sense of the fifth verb is that the Lord will be pleased once again to manifest Himself within the temple, or to appear in His glory, once the construction has been completed.

The Lord’s Discipline [1:9-11].  In 1:9-11 (and elsewhere) Haggai employs a question-and-answer device that is a familiar part of prophetic rhetorical speech in the Old Testament prophets. In verse 9 the prophet focuses on two things: first, there is the painful reminder of unrealized expectations on the part of the people. They had expected much in return for their hard labor and sustained efforts, but their anticipations had not come to fruition. Instead, the return for their work had been poor agricultural conditions resulting in failed crops, spiraling inflation accompanied by miserably low incomes, and a standard of living that plunged many of them into despair and depression. No doubt some of them were led to ask, as people of faith have often asked with regard to disappointing circumstances, “Why has the Lord not prevented all of this?” Many of the returnees would have found it difficult to understand the absence of prosperity in the land and the incredibly difficult times that the residents of the country were experiencing. After all, the return to the land had been undertaken in the belief that the Lord was finally bringing to an end the disciplinary hardships of the exile and was at long last renewing His magnanimous blessing upon a restored covenantal people. But those optimistic expectations were not being realized in any tangible sort of way. Instead of prosperity there was economic depression; instead of abundance there was deprivation; instead of joy there was frustration over present difficulties and anxiety with regard to the future. A heavy cloud of discouragement cast its darkening shadows over the people. Haggai’s reply was not that the Lord had somehow been passively removed from their plight or had carelessly failed to notice what was going on. Rather, according to Haggai, it was the Lord who had actually caused their misfortunes! In a vivid anthropomorphism Haggai says that what little advantage the people were able to collect from their labors the Lord Himself blew it away. And why had He done so? It was because of their decision to leave the temple in ruins while they expended tremendous efforts on their own dwellings. According to verse 9 what little they could gain they brought to the wrong house – their own house rather than the house of the Lord. The Lord had therefore scattered to the wind the meager results of their hard labors. Thus verse 9 describes the Lord’s judgmental action of scattering the attempts of a disobedient people to gain for themselves economic prosperity: when you brought it home, I blew it away. The language is figurative; it vividly pictures the Lord’s disciplinary interference with the vain attempts of His people at personal gain while the work of God suffered decline due to their inattention. As verse 9 makes abundantly clear, the damage inflicted by prior adverse climactic conditions and failed agricultural efforts was not coincidental, nor was it unrelated to the choices made by the people. Rather, these problems were due to the Lord’s intentional judgment upon His people because of their mistaken priorities. The logical connection between their religious choices and the difficulties that had befallen them is made apparent in Haggai’s argument by the because clause found in verse 9. There was a cause-and-effect relationship between the actions of the people and the crushing events that had transpired. For the first time in verse 9 we encounter what is a frequent expression in Haggai. The statement declares the Lord of hosts or the shorter version, declares the Lord, occurs twelve times in Haggai. The reason for its repetition is fairly obvious: the writer of this book is anxious to underscore the divine origin of his message to the people. If the task to which the prophet is calling the fledging nation is to be realized at all, it will only be due to a sincere response to a divine calling and not to fleeting enthusiasm generated by a mere human figure, no matter how charismatic that figure might be. The people must understand that Haggai’s message is in fact an “utterance of Yahweh.” The final part of verse 9 once again sets the neglect of the temple in the context of selfish pursuits on the part of the people: while each of you busies himself with his own house. When it came to their own interests, the people exerted a flurry of activity; but when it came to the Lord’s interests, they would not lift a finger. Furthermore, their selfish pursuits are pictured not as a single instance of failure but as a continual, ongoing habit or way of life. Surely the Lord would not tolerate such contradiction indefinitely. The final two verses of Haggai’s first sermon trace the origins of the people’s difficulties to the Lord’s sovereign actions. The language of this section is reminiscent of the covenant curses found in Deuteronomy 28-30. There the Lord promised great blessings in return for obedience to the covenant obligations that He spelled out; but He also warned of the serious consequences that would overtake His people if they did not remain faithful to their covenantal obligations. By invoking this language Haggai implied that the disasters being currently experienced were due to nothing less than the failure of the people to live up to their covenantal obligations. Because of their actions the heavens above you have withheld the dew and the earth has withheld its produce [10]. The implied contrast between people and nature is striking. The elements of nature modeled obedience to the divine will, while Haggai’s community modeled inattention to divine priorities. Haggai’s first message ends abruptly in verse 11 with no stated conclusion or direct call for action. But the implications are obvious. There could be no return to prosperity or normalization of relationship with the Lord until first there was a genuine repentance and a change of heart on the part of these people. They must acknowledge their prior sinful choices. They must accept the notion that their difficulties were a due recompense from the Lord for their failure to keep the stipulations of their covenant with Him. And they must determine to correct their course of action immediately. Specifically, they must give to the task of rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem the priority that the Lord through His prophet Haggai attached to it. Only in this way would God again look with favor upon them and bless them with renewed prosperity. To their credit, the people did respond to Haggai’s message in a favorable way, as verses 12-15 make clear.

The People’s Response [1:12-15].  Haggai’s first message met with amazing success. It had the effect of immediately lifting the people from their lethargy and self-indulgence and stimulating them to energetic involvement in the temple project. This was true not only of the political and religious leaders Zerubbabel and Joshua, who were the named recipients of Haggai’s sermon, but it was true of Haggai’s broader audience as well. The frustration caused by the economic difficulties of the day no doubt played a preparatory role in the responsiveness of the people. When times are prosperous, it may be easier to dismiss a word of prophetic rebuke; but hard times often expose raw nerves of the spiritual life that has grown insensitive to God’s spirit. Frequently it is in the midst of exceptional human difficulty that God’s word finds its greatest success. No time was wasted. Together leaders and lay population alike committed themselves to the great task at hand. Though their initial enthusiasm would soon be challenged by seemingly insuperable difficulties that lay just ahead, and though discouragement would quickly set in as they compared their fledgling project with memories of the more impressive Solomonic temple, nonetheless they had finally begun to chart a right course. Within the space of just a few weeks the necessary preparations had taken place, and before the conclusion of the very month in which Haggai first preached to them the people began the task of restoring the Jerusalem temple. Lethargy and reluctance had finally given way to obedience, at least for the moment! The response to Haggai’s message was immediate and decisive. The people acknowledged the prophet as a bona fide spokesman for the Lord, accepted his message to them, demonstrated appropriate reverence for the Lord and His word, and committed themselves to the work to which Haggai called them. The words their God, which appear twice in verse 12 and again in verse 14, are significant. In the preceding disputation the Lord spoke contemptuously of those who because of their disobedience to covenantal responsibilities He termed these people rather than “my people.” They were behaving as though Yahweh were not in reality their God. But in verse 12 we find affirmation of their obedience to the Lord’s voice as mediated through Haggai’s prophetic ministry. Now at long last they had begun to display the obedience that befitted their identity as a people of God, and with that obedience came renewed confidence that Yahweh was in fact their God. They obeyed the instructions He gave through Haggai, demonstrating by their actions the reverential awe that, at least in some measure, they had toward Him. Feared the Lord calls attention to the appropriate human reaction not a display of divine grace. The only proper response to hearing the word of the Lord that the prophets entertained was one of reverential awe and prompt obedience. In light of their favorable response to his message Haggai conveyed to the people the reassuring promise that the Lord’s presence would be with them in their endeavors: I am with you, declares the Lord [13]. Though their task must have seemed daunting in light of their meager resources, the postexilic community could take great comfort from the promise that God was with them, enabling their work and helping them to overcome all obstacles just as He consistently had done in the past for His people. Haggai now makes clear that the enthusiasm experienced by the people for the rebuilding project was caused by the Lord who stirred up the spirit of all those concerned with the work.”  [Taylor, pp. 101-146]

 Questions for Discussion:

  1. What excuse do the people give for not finishing the temple [2]? What is the significance of God saying “these people” instead of “my people’ [2]?
  2. Note the play on the word “house” [4]. What is the implication of this contrast between the two houses? What are the consequences of the people giving priority to the wrong house [6,9-11]? What was God’s role in these difficulties experienced by the people [9,11]?
  3. How did the people respond to Haggai’s message [12-15]? What is the connection between obedience to God and fear of God? How did God respond to the obedience and fear of His people?
  4. This passage deals with God’s people choosing their priorities wisely. Two times God calls upon His people to Consider your ways [5,7]. How we prioritize life is a reflection of the condition of our heart. God is calling you to Consider your ways. What are the priorities in your life? What changes do you need to make in your priorities so that God takes pleasure and is glorified in your life?

References:

The Minor Prophets, James Boice, Kregel.

Haggai, Malachi, Richard Taylor, NAC, B&H Publishing.

The Books of Haggai and Malachi, Pieter Verhoef, Eerdmans.