Consider how you have fared
The Curse of God
I have previously commented under 1:1-2 that I have made a break in the commentary after verse 2 because this passage begins afresh and seems to have been delivered, and is more applicable, to the nation of Israel as a whole. It is possible, however, that when the prophet speaks about their panelled houses (1:4) he is specifically referring to the luxury of the dwellings of both Zerubbabel and Joshua, as Baldwin notes
‘...it could be that the governor’s residence was being reconstructed with some of the elegance of Solomon’s palace. If so, there was particular point in addressing Zerubbabel and Joshua’
but the subsequent verses which speak of droughts and of meagre harvests could only be experienced in the life of the nation rather than just their two leaders. Therefore I have taken the first prophetic utterance (1:2) to be a statement of fact that was addressed specifically to the two Israelite leaders (1:1) but the following speech (1:4-11) to have been widened in its delivery to encompass all the people who had gathered in Jerusalem at the time of the celebrations of the new moon which commenced the sixth month.
I have commented on much of this passage under my notes entitled ‘Building for God’ located here where I have tried to use the first chapter of Haggai to show what God does not require from His followers in the NT and then gone on to show how the NT teaches believers to build both for the Kingdom of Christ’s extension and within the Church.
In Hag 1:2 and 1:4, God contrasts the time that the people are saying has not yet arrived with the time that their actions are confessing has.
There were certain justifications that would have arrived the nation at the conclusion that the time had not yet come when they should rise up and rebuild the Temple that they had begun some sixteen years previously.
Firstly there was their fear - probably the most important of their considerations - which had prevented them from continuing in the work so many years previous (Ezra 3:3, 4:4-5). Things had changed since then, too. Instead of a direct decree from King Cyrus being effective and Sheshbazzar governing the area with the words of the king still ringing in his ears, the king had been replaced by Darius who would not have known anything about such a decree (he had to have the royal archives searched when news reached him - Ezra 6:1) and the governors over them were now Tattenai and Shetharbozenai, probably Sheshbazar’s replacements who, again, had no record of such a decree being made.
What did the Jews expect their reaction to be? Certainly not favourable. Indeed, though they had been fearful of the nations round about 16 years previous, they now were in fear of a much greater threat - the Persian kingdom - who had large armies under their command which could (and possibly would) force them to stop.
Though fear was probably the most important compulsion that dissuaded them from doing God’s will, the temptation to devote their time and resources to their own personal luxury was also appealing. They weren’t content simply to build residences that would house them until the Temple was completed, they wanted to decorate them lavishly with panelling and adornment to make their lives more comfortable (see below).
Such resources employed in these tasks ultimately took provision away from the Temple’s reconstruction whether it be in building supplies or in manpower. As God said through the prophet (Hag 1:4)
‘Is it a time for you yourselves [you, you I say] to dwell in your panelled houses, while this house lies in ruins?’
The inference of proclaiming that the time was not yet to rebuild the Temple implied that the time had come to pamper themselves with the trappings of security that only the Lord can supply. And so they justified their great building projects on their own kingdoms by thinking, perhaps, that God wouldn’t mind if they made a name for themselves by building fancier and more glorious accommodation.
Wouldn’t that be a witness to foreigners that their God was the supreme God when they came and saw how well he had provided for them? Wasn’t it important that, having brought them back to the land, they should secure themselves in the land with residences that befitted God’s special people? The temptation was there and they rose to the occasion!
Finally, there was the dire problem of failing harvests and insufficient rainfall (Hag 1:10-11) which had produced a lack of real provision for them (Hag 1:6). How could they now commit manpower to the rebuilding work when they needed all the hands they had to till the soil and to look after the crops? And how could they give what dwindling resources they had in building supplies when most of it they could obtain was going to restructure and beautify their own houses?
So, they reasoned, the time had not yet come to rebuild the House of the Lord (Hag 1:2).
The Church needs to be wary here, too. It is not enough that we point the finger at the Jews of Haggai’s day and bemoan the fact that they laboured unprofitably for 16 years when we often do the very same things.
We fear what the people round about us might think of our involvement in building the Body of Christ. We use our resources on our own little kingdoms, buying replacement cars when they do not need replacing, redecorating our houses when the state of decoration is sufficient for many years to come and generally devoting resources that could otherwise be used in advancing the Kingdom of God and the Church of Christ for items that do not profit us eternally. And we find that our resources dwindle so we need to spend more time trying to possess the more we need to prop up our desires and tastes, not realising that it is only when we seek after God that we will find an abundance of provision (Mtw 6:33).
The lessons of Haggai’s time are the same ones we need to learn today - if we don’t, we shall be the generation of believers that the Lord turned against from being their friend to being their adversary (see below).
The RSV translates Hag 1:4 as
‘Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your panelled houses, while this house lies in ruins?’
where the italicised word (Strongs Heb number 5603) could equally well have been translated ‘roofed’. The two meanings are not the same, the RSV’s hinting at decoration and adornment of structures already in existence, while the alternative would simply speak of the completion of residential accommodation to prevent rain from entering.
In I Kings 6:9, the most obvious translation is that of the RSV which runs
‘So [Solomon] built the house, and finished it; and he made the ceiling of the house of beams and planks of cedar’
In the same place where details of Solomon’s construction work is recorded, we read the alternative translation which can simply mean a ‘covering’ (and hence the ‘panelling’ of Hag 1:4) in I Kings 7:3 which runs
‘And it was covered with cedar above the chambers that were upon the forty-five pillars, fifteen in each row’
Again, I Kings 7:7 makes it plain that ‘panelling’ is being detailed when the RSV’s translation runs
‘And he made the Hall of the Throne where he was to pronounce judgment, even the Hall of Judgment; it was finished with cedar from floor to rafters’
It is not possible here that the word ‘roofed’ would work and needs the interpretation applied that there was a ‘covering’ of cedar which was overlaid upon the existing construction materials.
Interestingly enough, there is quite a comparison in the life of both Solomon and the children of Israel in the time of Haggai the prophet for Scripture records for us the fact that Solomon busied himself in the construction of the Temple just seven years (I Kings 6:38) whereas he took thirteen years to build his own (I Kings 7:1)! The time spent in each of the two building projects belies the relative importance of each, just as it does in Haggai chapter 1.
The word is also used in Jer 22:14 where the RSV takes the meaning to be ‘panelling’ as it does in Haggai 1:4 - but it is true that the word could equally well be rendered ‘roofed’ here and, perhaps, the best translation of all would have been ‘covered’ so as to leave the interpretation of the verse up to the individual reader.
When we come to Haggai 1:4, both interpretations (‘roofed’ and ‘panelled’) could make equal sense but the context in which the word is used, when considered, points us towards the RSV’s interpretation.
The point is that sixteen years have elapsed since the returned exiles have left off rebuilding the Temple and it therefore hardly seems likely that the Lord God is now calling them to consider their recent construction work in roofing their houses! This would have taken place shortly after they had returned into the land and they could hardly have been expected to endure sixteen years of weather before getting round to capping their structures with adequate roofs!
Therefore, the Lord is talking about the decoration of their already constructed houses and is not pointing out that they should never have roofed their habitations before completing the work on His Temple. God is certainly no ogre here - His concern and objection to what they are doing is not that they don’t have needs that must be met but that their wants have taken the place of their investment in the work of God.
As Baldwin perceptively points out
‘The conflict between expenditure on luxury homes and worthy support of God’s work is still with us’
Too many believers today suffer from the ‘need’ of redecorating their houses to maintain or improve their living standards rather than invest what money they would have spent on the work of promoting the Gospel and extending the Kingdom of Christ. As shown here, the Lord knows that His people need houses to live in and roofs over their heads but what He does not tolerate from them is excessive commitment to ease and luxury when His work is poorly provided for.
Amazingly enough, the times in which Haggai lived all those centuries ago are still speaking into His people’s situations and experiences even though we like to think of ourselves as having more knowledge, more wisdom and more intelligence.
Consider how you have fared
There is a certain illogicalness in the ways of the Lord that we tend to try and overbleed into most of the situations that we experience. For instance, Gideon, one of the most cowardly of all God’s victorious soldiers in the OT is, firstly, the one chosen to repel the invasion forces of the Midianite army (Judges 6:11,27,34) and then, secondly, is told that the army must be whittled down to just three hundred men before the Lord will deliver them into his hands (Judges 7:2-8).
Such stories of defying the odds, of God delivering a nation out of the hands of a far stronger nation through the instrument of just a handful seem to inspire us to want to emulate them. We often remind ourselves that, because our churches are so small and our God so big, He will definitely move in our midst and bring a revival that we all long and hope for (though what we actually think a revival is is often flawed!) - almost Ezek 33:24 mentality!
In other passages, we read of God telling us that intelligence is not what is needed in order for men and women to come to accept and acknowledge the Gospel (I Cor 1:26-29) - though that doesn’t mean it’s just the dumb who can get into the Church! - and take it just one step too far, not realising that, although there is a simplicity in the Gospel, we should not be slack in learning and studying now that we have come to know Jesus Christ.
Verses such as I Cor 1:21 are often taken out of the context in which they were given and made to apply to all situations - that God hates all wisdom no matter whether it be demonstrated in the lives of non-christians or those who have been saved for many years.
Though the Gospel is for both the weak and slow of mind, it is also for the strong and the intelligent - but it is when the strong think that they can do God’s will because of their strength and so get the glory for themselves, it is when the intelligent think that they can solve the mysteries of the Bible through the rational workings of their own mind, that God moves to one side and lets men and women flounder in their natural ‘strengths’.
And so we stand in awe of God, tending to think that unless we remain both uninformed and physically weak, He will be unable to use us.
But, in Haggai, God asks the Israelites twice to use their minds in the opening chapter (Hag 1:5,7 - and three times further in 2:15,18 [x2]) and to
‘Consider how you have fared’
just as, on a previous occasion (Is 1:18-20), God chooses to sit down with His people and implores them to
‘...reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; But if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken’
God does not expect men and women to lay aside their mental faculties very often - only when the illogical nature of what God commands us do contradicts what our minds are telling us. When that moment comes - and come it often does - we are urged by the Lord to follow not our own understanding of the situation and neither our own reasoning, but to simply obey His spoken Word.
But, in Haggai, this is not that time.
God wants the nation to think about how they’ve fared - how they’ve devoted themselves to building up their own little kingdoms and yet grown poorer as a result of all their valiant efforts. God reasons that what has happened should wake them up to the fact that all is not well and, if He had been on their side and was pleased with them, they would surely by now have achieved what they had set their hearts on.
And so God expects us to use our brains and not leave them on the sideboard when we come before Him to pray and talk things through with Him. Though the answer to each of our problems will only come by a work of the Lord into our situation, there is much to consider if we allow God to direct our thoughts to see how our lives have been going upto the point at which we approach Him.
The Israelites should have had it within their own selves to work out what was going on when they see the return they’re getting for their outlay (Hag 1:6) but they don’t seem to have employed good sense and sound judgment. When God begins to move once more in the nation and to speak to His people to recommence their work on the Temple, He expects them to consider their own ways and come to the realisation that they have not prospered because of their insistence at devoting themselves to their own will.
The Church today also needs to heed such sound advice and, instead of launching out into projects that are devoid of any real anointing of God, sit down before the Lord and consider their ways, to ‘consider how we have fared’.
The Curse of God
God tells the Israelites that, because they have chosen to pursue their own interests and so neglected the work of rebuilding the Temple (Hag 1:10-11)
‘...the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. And I have called for a drought upon the land and the hills, upon the grain, the new wine, the oil, upon what the ground brings forth, upon men and cattle, and upon all their labours’
We have already read about the lack of provision that the Israelites have been reaping through successive seasons even though they have laboured industriously (Hag 1:6), but here God outlines the reasons for their failure. Though the root cause is their refusal to rise up and rebuild the Temple, the nation must realise that the lack of precipitation and the failure of their crops is due to a direct work of God against them.
We aren’t here looking at a problem that has naturally occurred while God has waited for His people to call upon His name so that He might change their fortunes - this is a direct work of God as a result of their own actions and is paralleled in Amos 4:6-8 where the start of God’s judgment upon the northern Kingdom before they went into exile was to do just the sorts of things that He is here repeating in the lives of the returned exiles.
God there said (my italics) that
‘I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places, yet you did not return to me...And I also withheld the rain from you when there were yet three months to the harvest...so two or three cities wandered to one city to drink water, and were not satisfied; yet you did not return to me...’
These controlled judgments were sent upon the people to wake them up to the need for a return to following God but, sadly, the northern Kingdom would not heed the warnings until, ultimately, they were removed from the land through the Assyrian conquest of their territory (II Kings chapter 17).
Here, though, as we will see, the nation gives heed to the words of God through His prophet Haggai and God, after their commitment to begin rebuilding the Temple, restores their prosperity to them (Hag 2:18-19).
Did the Israelites not pray to their God throughout the time when these things were happening to them? Did they not call upon YHWH to provide for them and to overcome their hardship with abundant rain and bountiful harvests? But their prayers went unheeded because they had the answer close at hand as to why they were faring so badly. Eventually, God has to raise up Haggai to speak to His people to wake them up to the problem that they’ve brought upon themselves.
There is a note of caution here that the Church would do well to heed. Just because things do not appear to go right in the Body of Christ does not mean that the action is the hand of satan against the children of God to oppose the work that they are seeking to do. Even in the NT Church, Paul noted that believers may bring judgment upon themselves (I Cor 11:29-30) and the experience of Ananias and Sapphira should suffice for warning believers that God will not tolerate certain acts of deceitfulness when His presence is moving in their midst (Acts 5:1-11).
God is the one who (Rev 3:7)
‘...opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens...’
and no amount of praying can remove God’s judgment upon individuals or groups if active repentance does not go hand in hand with those words.
What the returned exiles had failed to do was to recognise that God, although having brought them safely back to the land of Israel from Babylon, had now turned against them as their adversary rather than their friend - a fact brought home to both Zerubbabel and Joshua all the more by God’s use of the phrase ‘This people’ rather than ‘My people’ (Hag 1:2).
Natural disasters in this day and age are normally thought to be quirks of nature that need to be harnessed or predicted but, in so consigning such phenomena to chance, we may be missing the first whispers of God calling individuals and nations to wake up to the situation that they are standing in.
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