Haggai 1:8

Haggai 1

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. 

Of all the stories surrounding the amazing life of Francis of Assisi, I think the most compelling is the story of his efforts to restore the little church of San Damiano. In the year 1205, Francis, a young man in the midst of a spiritual crisis, wondered into the ruins of a little church called San Damiano. While there, he says he heard the voice of God speaking to him through a suspended crucifix. The voice said, “Francis, can’t you see that my church is in ruins? Build my church!”

Many people would have interpreted these words to be a call to become a great reformer in the church across the world. But not Francis. On the contrary, he interpreted it with all the literalness of a child. He took it to mean to that he should literally rebuild that church, the church of San Damiano. So, one stone at a time, Francis starting building. He would go out and beg for stones. In fact, Francis started working on rebuilding a number of churches that had fallen into ruin.

Eventually, Francis would become known as “Saint Francis” and would, indeed, be used by God as a worldwide church reformer. But I like to think that Francis became so great precisely because Francis had no notion of greatness. I believe that Francis was used to build something amazing precisely because he was willing to build something small.

Of all the lessons we can learn from Francis, I think the lesson of how to start is one of the greatest.

Once you have become convinced of the need to get back to what matters most, how do we begin? Once we desire to see the temple of God built in our lives (to use the analogy we are using to interpret the book of Haggai), how do we start? Where do we begin?

Let us remind ourselves of what matters most. What matters most in life is an authentic and viable union with God’s person, God’s plan, and God’s priorities. For Israel, this was symbolized in the temple, the rebuilding of which they had neglected for sixteen years after returning from exile in Babylon. But Haggai the prophet had been sent by God to call them back to what mattered most, to the rebuilding of the temple, to the restoration of what mattered most. And so, through Haggai, the call continues to this day. We too are being called to return to what matters most, to rebuild the temple, we might say, to return to an authentic and viable union with God’s person, God’s plan, and God’s priorities.

But how? How do we start?

Go where it is most conducive to the restoration of your relationship with God.

We will consider one verse, a verse of instruction, verse 8 of Haggai 1.

8a Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house

After having rebuked God’s children for neglecting the rebuilding of the temple by pointing out to them how utterly empty their lives had become as a result of their prizing other things, Haggai turns to a verse of simple direction. He is, in other words, answering their implied question, “How do we start? Where do we begin? How on earth do we start to get back to what matters most? It is such a huge task you have called us to! How do we start?!

The first instruction that God gave Israel through Haggai the prophet was for them to (a) leave what they were currently doing and (b) go to the place where God could begin doing a great work through them. In other words, they were to go where it was most conducive to the restoration of their relationship with God. And that place was “the hills,” the place where they would find wood they could use to build the temple!

Andrew E. Hill is right when he writes that “the charge to secure lumber for the temple reconstruction project is an indirect call to repentance” and that “by taking action to remedy their plight, the leaders and the people are rejecting the defeatism bred by apathy and indifference.”[1]

Let us understand a key principle in getting back to a right relationship with God: we must be willing to walk away from those things that have deteriorated our relationship with God and we must put ourselves in a place where He can use us and work through us! For Israel, that meant leaving their personal vanity projects and turning their attention to the practicalities of building the temple.

Modern Christianity seems to operate under the mistaken notion that a deep and life-altering relationship with God just happens (a) automatically, (b) by osmosis, (c) and in a way in which we are purely passive. I suspect this last point is a sad result of a misunderstanding of what we call “works righteousness,” the faulty idea that we can earn our salvation. I believe that has now come to mean in the modern church age that since we cannot earn our salvation we therefore should not exert effort in our salvation. But Dallas Willard was certainly correct when he said that “grace is opposed to earning, not to effort.”

Notice that God calls upon His children to get up and go! Were they to have sat back and taken a purely passive posture then the temple never would have been built! And so it is with us. We want to do nothing, change nothing, exert no effort, and then somehow magically drift into a deep and abiding relationship with God. However, what we should do is get up and go where it was most conducive to the restoration of their relationship with God.

What if, at the end of the day, the most basic and humble first steps really do include such simple things as a consistent practice of daily prayer, a consistent practice of diving into and hiding God’s word in our hearts, a consistent practice of corporate worship and ministry, and a consistent practice of being on mission in word and deed for the Kingdom? I would propose to you that we are frustrated that the temple is not being built when, in reality, we are too lazy to even go up to the hill where the wood is!

That raises another interesting question, by the way. Why were they only instructed to get wood and not stone? In answering this question Pieter A. Verhoef views as “most probable” the idea that “in the ruins of the temple and in its immediate vicinity were ample stones for building purposes” and that “because all the timber of the temple was burned in 587 B.C., it was necessary only to obtain large quantities of timber from the forests on the nearby hills surrounding Jerusalem.” That is likely so. They would simply use the stone already there. But Verhoef goes on to make the interesting observation that there is evidence that the type of wood on the hills surrounding Jerusalem was “olive, myrtle, and palm wood” and that “it is doubtful whether they would have been suitable for supporting the roof” of the temple.[2]

This has led some to believe that God’s intention in sending His children to the hills surrounding Jerusalem was not to gather wood to be used in the actual temple structure, but rather to gather wood to be used for scaffolding. It is an interesting thought. If this is so, it means that what God was calling them to was not first and foremost the actual act of construction but rather preparatory steps, first steps that were necessary for all the steps to follow.

Could it be that sometimes we are so overwhelmed by the task of building the temple that we fail to realize that God is calling us first simply to put up scaffolding? Could it be that we want the glory of the finished product without the utterly necessary first steps of trust, of movement, and of preparation?

Are you paralyzed by frustration? Do you not know how to begin? Just start putting up the scaffolding in your life. Determine that you will spend 15 minutes a day, every day, reading some portion of scripture and praying over it. Determine that you simply will be present when the body of Christ gathers unless there is some crisis preventing you from it. Determine that you will at least begin to interject the name of Jesus and the good news of the gospel when the opportunity is clearly there in conversations with friends, family, or coworkers.

Put up scaffolding!

View your efforts as offerings and God’s pleasure as your prize.

In addition to going and starting, we must go and start with the right mindset. Haggai gives two results of obedience and of returning to what matters most. The first has to do with the pleasure of God.

8a-b Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it

We may tell ourselves that this is a simple reference to “pleasure” as we understand it, that is, as some vague sense of feeling happy about something or of feeling delighted. That does have its place in the word, but the word as it is used here means more. David L. Petersen explains:

Yahweh promises to be pleased with, or better, to accept this action. The verb rsh, as many commentators have remarked, often refers to the acceptance of a sacrifice or gift in the ritual sphere (II Sam. 24:23; Jer. 14:10, 12; Ezek. 20:40, 41; 43:27; Mal. 1:10, 13; Pss. 51:18 [17E]; 119:108; Micah 6:7, Amos 5:22).[3]

Let us consider two of these examples followed by one from the New Testament. First, consider God’s pleasure as spoken of in Ezekiel 20.

40 “For on my holy mountain, the mountain height of Israel, declares the Lord God, there all the house of Israel, all of them, shall serve me in the land. There I will accept them, and there I will require your contributions and the choicest of your gifts, with all your sacred offerings.41 As a pleasing aroma I will accept you, when I bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you have been scattered. And I will manifest my holiness among you in the sight of the nations.

We see that this idea of the pleasure of God refers to his gracious acceptance with an offering. It is offering language. So, too, we see it appear as “acceptance” in Ezekiel 43.

27 And when they have completed these days, then from the eighth day onward the priests shall offer on the altar your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, and I will accept you, declares the Lord God.

The concept is likewise present in Romans 12.

1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Here we see that, through Christ, our very lives, our bodies, all that we are, are to be offered as a pleasing sacrifice and offering to God.  The pleasure of God, then, refers not merely to His sense of happiness with this or that. It refers to his joyful acceptance of an offering joyfully given! With that in mind, consider our verse again:

8a-b Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it

It is not just that God will look upon the efforts of His children and feel happy. It is that God will see their efforts as a joyful offering back to Him and gladly accept it. From the perspective of the human wishing to get back to what matters most in life, wishing, that is, to return to a right relationship with God, we must view our going up to the hills, our efforts, our devotional disciplines, our worship activities, in short, all that we do, not as meritorious acts for which we should be thanked and not even as acts of moral and spiritual reformation per se, but rather as offerings to the Lord most High! If we fail in this, then every act done ostensibly in the service of God can be perverted ultimately into acts done for our ownselves. What determines this is whether or not we are doing what we do so that God will be pleased or so that we will be pleased or bettered or reformed or however we want to dress it up.

We should build the temple because God desires a temple.

We should serve not first because of what we think we gain from it but first because of how God is pleased with it!

Perhaps this might help us understand how it is that we can go through long seasons of checking this or that devotional practice off of a spiritual to-do list and yet feel no closer to God. It is because we are trying to build the temple while focusing on our prowess as a builder and not God’s pleasure as God! But the whole point of the temple, and the whole point of a right relationship with God, is God’s pleasure! It is bringing our lives and our priorities into line with God’s priorities.

This is not to say that there is no pleasure on our end in building and serving. Quite the contrary! I actually very much agree with John Piper’s frequently-made statement that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” But the pleasure we receive is not the pleasure of our own advancement, even our own advancement in God. The pleasure we receive is derived from the pleasure of God Himself!

“He must increase, but I must decrease,” proclaimed John the Baptist! Do what you do for the pleasure of God! View your efforts as an offering and His pleasure as your prize!

See beyond your own efforts to the coming display of God’s glory in the world.

But it is not merely that God takes pleasure in the temple and the alignment of His people’s lives with His own person, plans, and priorities. It is also that God is glorified in it!

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.

See beyond your own efforts to the coming display of God’s glory in the world. What you do for God is never merely contained in what you do. Its reverberations go outward and onward far beyond you and your life! Our works, in this way, become signposts to all who come after us of the goodness and glory of God!

Israel was not simply to build the temple so that they could build the temple. They were to build the temple so that the generations following them could experience all that the temple signified and meant! What God was calling them to do was to look far beyond their present moment to the ages to come. They were to realize that what is done for God lasts and is carried on in the hearts and minds of His people. We are so knit together in God that our temple building ripples outward to all who are around us and all who come after us.

Jesus said the same thing in Matthew 5 when He said:

14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Ah! They will see your good works but they will give glory to the Father! We do what we do because God is who He is and because God is due the glory of the nations! The whole world should glorify God and, in time, the whole world will kneel before Him. The job of the follower of Jesus is to point all people’s toward that glory here and now!

Temple building is a glory-reflecting act! Temple building is a God-pointing act!

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.

Time and time again in our frustrated human experience we find ourselves saying, “I just cannot find it in myself to start! I just cannot find it in myself to go! I just cannot find it in myself to serve!” But what if that is the problem, finding it in yourself? The Lord through the prophet Haggai seems to be saying, “Find it in me! Find it in my pleasure! Find it in my glory! Find it in my joy! Find it in who I am! In me there is all you need for the living of these days and the accomplishing of great things!”

If we tie our intentions and efforts off to the anchor of our own minds and hearts then those intentions and efforts will inevitably be as fickle as we all are! But if we tie them off in the beauty and power of the pleasure and glory of God, then we will find a foundation firm enough for us to start on and build on!

Listen:  GO! START! TRY! GO UP TO THE HILLS!

See there the pleasure of our great God! See there the beauty of our great God!

God is at work and He has invited us to join with Him in this amazing reality! Let us start! Let us start today!

 

[1] Andrew E. Hill, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2012), p.67.

[2] Pieter A. Verhoef, The Books of Haggai and Malachi. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), p.65-66.

[3] David L. Petersen, Haggai and Zechariah 1-8. The Old Testament Library. (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1984), p.51.

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