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.
Fred Craddock tells a jarring story about a friend of his named Glenn Adsit this illustrates well what good priorities look like.
Glenn Adsit, a schoolmate from years ago, ministered mostly in China. He was under house arrest in China when the soldiers came one day and said, “You can return to America.”
They were celebrating, and the soldiers said, “You can take two hundred pounds with you.”
Well, they’d been there for years. Two hundred pounds. They got the scales and started the family arguments: two children, wife, husband. Must have this vase. Well, this is a new typewriter. What about my books? What about this? And they weighed everything and took it off and weighed this and took it off and weighed this and, finally, right on the dot, two hundred pounds.
The soldier asked, “Ready to go?”
“Did you weigh everything?”
“You weighed the kids?”
“No, we didn’t.”
“Weigh the kids.”
And in a moment, typewriter and vase and all became trash. Trash. It happens.
I suppose all of us get the point. The Adsits were given the gift of a shocking moment of perspective and priority. They suddenly understood and, in that moment, there was no question. Everything else becomes trash in the face of what really matters!
The book of Haggai tells the story of how God’s people were given a similar gift of clarity. God used a prophet named Haggai to bring it about. My prayer is that, as we study this amazing little book, we too will have a moment of shocking clarity!
First, however, we need to understand what is happening. The book of Haggai makes real sense only when we understand the historical context surrounding it. Probably the easiest way to get at this is to highlight five important moments in Israel’s life that set the scene for this book. They are:
606 & 597 BC – Babylon invades Jerusalem
586 BC – Babylon destroys the temple
538 BC – Persia conquers Babylon (with Cyrus ruling initially then Darius in 522 BC)
536 BC – many Jews return home
520 BC – Haggai prophecies to the Jews
The last two dates specifically will help us get at what is going on here. Many of the Jews return to Jerusalem in 536 BC. In 530 BC the prophet Haggai rebuked them for not rebuilding the temple of the Lord. Mark Dever puts the problem nicely when he writes:
The Israelites had been living back in the land for more than sixteen years at this point. They had spent several months rebuilding the temple at the beginning of those sixteen years. But then they had become indifferent to the rebuilding effort, and foreign opposition gave them all the more reason to spend their money elsewhere. In fact, they were taking the meager amount of money they did have and were spending it on their own homes. So the Lord used Haggai to rebuke them and tell them that this was not right.
What we find in the book of Haggai is therefore a corrective and a challenge to all who have neglected or forgotten or turned away from what matters most. But in order to understand this, we must first define what matters most!
What Matters Most
The book of Haggai begins with a list of the powers: the king of Persia, the governor of Judah, the high priest, and the prophet.
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.”
It is telling to note that Haggai’s prophecy was actually addressed to the governor, Zerubbabel, and the high priest, Jehozadak. Responsibility for the negligence that Haggai would address therefore rested on the shoulders of these leaders. However, as these institutions, for lack of a better word, represented the totality of the lives of the Jews, Haggai’s prophecy must be seen as being addressed to all Israel through these representative heads. And what, in essence, was Haggai’s complaint? His complaint was that, “These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord.”
His complaint, in other words, was against the shoddy priorities of the people who had lost their way. But his complaint also defined what mattered most, and what mattered most was the rebuilding of the house of the Lord, the temple?
Why? Because the temple was more than simply a structure. It was a living symbol (a) that God was in the midst of His people, (b) that the people were orienting their lives around the person and will of the one true God, and (c) that the people realized there was something above their own individual existences.
The Jews knew, of course, that God was omnipresent, that He was not literally contained in any structure, temple or not. Even so, the temple was where God’s people went to worship and the Holy of Holies was seen as that sacred and set-apart place where the high priest would stand before God interceding for His people. It meant, in a very real sense, that Israel at least recognized that their lives needed to be caught up in the life of their God and that His presence needed to be the empowering center of their existence.
Haggai’s complaint was not therefore primarily about a structure. It was primarily about what the neglect of the structure revealed about the hearts and minds of God’s people. His complaint was about their abandonment of what matters most. And, for our purposes, how would we articulate this great truth? We might say that what matters most is the alignment of our very existence with the person, work, character, attributes, and plans of the one true God who made us and in whom alone we can find meaning, peace, joy, and true life. What matters most, in other words, is God.
In essence, this is what Haggai was saying. It just so happened that the way in which this was communicated concretely in the life of Israel was through the great symbol of the temple and all that it meant. To neglect it was to neglect God, not because the temple was God but because they knew that the temple was the place where they consistently came to stand before God.
How about you? Does the temple stand in ruins in your own life? Do you walk by it every day without ever turning to consider it, to rebuild it, to see it regain a place of prominence in your life? Would you say that God is the single most important thing in your life and that your priorities reveal that fact?
How We Avoid What Matters Most
Many of us cannot say that this is the case. This is because we ignore the temple, the presence of God in our lives. It lies in ruins and we have become accustomed to the ruins. How does this happen? Haggai, fortunately, reveals how it happens.
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?”
There are two realities to which Haggai points in his diagnosis of the problem.
- Procrastination (“These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord.”)
- Bad priorities (“Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?”)
The former leads to the latter. When we neglect the things of God other things take the place that He alone should occupy. Things like our own comfort and our own lives. In other words, “paneled houses.” What does this mean. The IVP Bible Background Commentary offers a nice explanation.
The term “paneled” can mean “covered,” “roofed,” or “paneled,” but the point in any case is that it represents the finishing touches. Their homes were not “in process” but were fully appointed, while the temple remained a ruin. The term does not imply luxury or great expense, though paneling can be of that nature. Wood paneling was unusual in private residences, although Solomon’s throne was “paneled” (1 Kings 7:7).
Thus, whether or not this is a reference to luxury, it is definitely a reference to the shameful fact that their own houses were now finished while work on God’s house had been neglected and seemingly forgotten. What are your paneled houses? What are those areas of your life that you know you have neglected God to tend? They need not be negative things in and of themselves. They might just as easily be good things if tended to in the right season and in the context of a viable relationship with God. But good things can become condemnable things if they are achieved at the cost of the prioritizing of God and His ways.
Mark Dever poignantly asks:
Consider this: what would your life look like if you got what you really wanted? Do you have a picture of that in your mind? Now ask yourself, would God be there? Is he at the center of your desires, or is he repeatedly neglected by the true center of your heart’s desires?
And what is “the true center of your heart’s desires?” Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:21—“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Your heart is really in whatever you most treasure. The only question is, will we treasure our own paneled houses or will we treasure the Lord our God?
Be honest with yourself: are your procrastinating in building the temple? Is that showing up in your priorities? Is there even room in your life as you have created it for tending to the things of God? I plead with you to make it so if there is not!
The Folly of Avoiding What Matters Most
Why? Why does it matter so much? It matters so much because anything in life that you move to the center of your life where God alone should be is doomed to frustrate you and leave you empty. Consider Haggai’s description of what these returned exiles’ lives had turned into.
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.
Haggai’s description of the symptoms of Israel’s sickness is devastating:
- “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.”
This is devastating because it is one of the best descriptions of modern American life I have ever read. We consume and consume and consume, but all for nothing. At the end of the day, after all of our laboring and trying and buying and consuming, we are left empty.
Consider the ways of the modern, upwardly-mobile American. He must have that car and those clothes and that spouse and those kind of children who do those kinds of things with those kinds of people to create that specific kind of image for us to put on Facebook! Consider the ways of the modern American enslaved to social media. He must take one thousand selfies so he can delete all but one in an effort to find just the right image to put on his social media platforms so hopefully just the right people will think just the right thing. Consider the successful American businessman who spends all of his time, often to the neglect of his family, to climb the ladder so that he can finally tell himself and others that he has made it, that he has arrived! Consider the helicopter mom who must control her children and everybody else around them so as to create what she considers to be the optimal outcome. Consider the neurotic parents who demand that their children perform in such and such a way so that they can live vicariously through them.
Consider your ways! Consider all the ways we as modern American try desperately and spend ourselves in a frantic effort to achieve some goal, we often know not what, to impress some people, we often know not who, so that we can be thought well of! We consume things and time and each other in a frenzied and misguided circus of activity all in the hope that we might matter!
And we so often do these things while the temple of God lies in ruins in our own hearts!
Tellingly, these descriptions of Israel’s life are bookended by the statement, “Consider your ways.” In other words, the problems they were experiencing were a direct result of the lives they had chosen to live. So too with us! We are reaping what we have sown!
But here is the good news: you do not have to live that kind of life and you do not have to run that kind of race and you do not have to be a hamster on a wheel in a cage of empty consumption. You do not have to neglect the things of God! You could turn to God and to the life He has for you. You could lose yourself in His glory and nourish yourself on His word! You could turn to the rubble of the temple in your life and simply begin!
And when this happens, when we set down our stuff and dare to turn our attention back to what matters most, we will suddenly find that we are now equipped to handle our stuff! If we get the most important thing in the right place then the other things can get in their right places and then we can actually start living life as it is meant to be lived!
The beauty of this is that Jesus will say the exact same thing Haggai said. In Matthew 6, Jesus said:
33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
And that, in a nutshell, is what Haggai is about! It is about getting the kingdom in front of us instead of behind us or off to the side. It is about letting God’s Kingdom and His ways and His life dominate the horizon of our lives as we move forward. It is about following Jesus first, not as an afterthought or as a religious custom. For Christ is the temple of the living God! He said so in John 2:19 when He said, ““Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” He was speaking there of Himself!
Christ is the temple and, in His resurrection, He has been raised up in our midst! To turn back to what matters most, to turn our attention to the temple where we meet God and worship and abide in His presence, is to turn to Jesus Christ!
Jesus is what matters most!
Do not neglect the Lord of Lords! Consider your ways! Is He at the very center of your life?
 Fred Craddock. Craddock Stories (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2001), p.22.
 Mark Dever, The Message of the Old Testament. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006), p.886.
 John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p.797.
 Mark Dever, p.889.