Haggai 1:9-11

Haggai 1

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.”

One of the most profound reflections on death I have ever read is Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. As Ivan lay dying, he thinks about his life. As he does so it occurs to him that he has not lived his life well, that he has chased after things that do not matter, and that, in fact, his life was squandered. Here is how Tolstoy unfolds Ilyich’s thoughts on his life:

It occurred to him [Ivan Ilyich] that what had seemed utterly inconceivable before—that he had not lived the kind of life he should have—might in fact be true.  It occurred to him that those scarcely perceptible impulses of his to protest what people of high rank considered good, vague impulses which he had always suppressed, might have been precisely what mattered, and all the rest not been the real thing.  His official duties, his manner of life, his family, the values adhered to by people in society and in his profession—all these might not have been the real thing.  He tried to come up with a defense of these things and suddenly became aware of the insubstantiality of them all.  And there was nothing left to defend.

            “But if that is the case,” he asked himself, “and I am taking leave of life with the awareness that I squandered all I was given and have no possibility of rectifying matters—what then?”  He lay on his back and began to review his whole life in an entirely different light.

            When, in the morning, he saw first the footman, then his wife, then his daughter, and then the doctor, their every gesture, their every word, confirmed the horrible truth revealed to him during the night.  In them he saw himself, all he had lived by, saw clearly that all this was not the real thing but a dreadful, enormous deception that shut out both life and death.  This awareness intensified his physical sufferings, magnified them tenfold.  He moaned and tossed and clutched at his bedclothes.  He felt they were choking and suffocating him, and he hated them on that account…

            …Her [Ivan Ilyich’s wife’s] clothes, her figure, the expression of her face, the sound of her voice – all these said to him: “Not the real thing.  Everything you lived by and still live by is a lie, a deception that blinds you from the reality of life and death.”  And no sooner had he thought this than hatred welled up in him, and with the hatred, excruciating physical pain, and with the pain, an awareness of inevitable, imminent destruction.

As Ivan’s despair at having wasted his life grows, Tolstoy has him ask a poignant and desperate question.

            “Yes, all of it was simply not the real thing.  But no matter, I can still make it the real thing—I can.  But what is the real thing?”  Ivan Ilyich asked himself and suddenly grew quiet.[1]

Ivan Ilyich’s question is the question of the ages: “What is the real thing?” “What,” in other words, “matters most?” This is the question that we have been considering with the prophet Haggai’s help. And we have concluded that 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 ruins of which the Israelites had neglected for sixteen years, and the construction of which the prophet Haggai was now thunderously calling them back to. This mattered because the temple was more than a building. It symbolized the presence of God in the midst of His people. Thus, to neglect the temple was to neglect the Lord God most high. When Haggai called the people to come back to building the temple He was calling them back to an authentic and viable union with God’s person, God’s plan, and God’s priorities. It was never really about a building. The church father Theodoret of Cyr expressed this well when he wrote:

Now the God of all made these threats on account of the neglect of the divine house, though not for any need of it: the Maker of all things has no need even of heaven, creating everything out of lovingkindness alone. Rather, it was in his care for them all and his interest in their salvation that he ordered the building of the temple…[2]

So, too, with us! God calls us to come back to what matters most because it is only when we are grounded in what matters most that life can truly be lived. Christ Jesus, who is our temple, is what matters most, and our lives are only truly lived when they are lived in Him.

A life lived outside of what matters most is a life lived in perpetual frustration and exhaustion.

Haggai has already shown the people how their neglect of the God’s plan has backfired in their lives. He now returns yet again to what a life lived outside of what matters most looks like.

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.”

A life lived outside of what matters most is a life lived in perpetual frustration and exhaustion.

Hear the devastating effects of a life misspent:

  • Your big dreams never come to fruition in any meaningful sense. (v.9a) [John Peter Lange notes that “you looked for much” is an “allusion…to a frequent inspection of the growing crops.”[3]]
  • When you do finally get what you think you want its pleasure is fleeting and transitory. (v.9b)
  • You find yourself in a state of constant want and need. (v.10)

Yes, a life lived outside of God’s person and plan is a life of frustration and exhaustion. What an amazing picture of modern America this is! This image of drought that Haggai appeals to is a powerfully apt image. Life lived outside of God, outside of what matters most, is, in a powerful sense, a crushing drought!  David Smith observes that “I have called for a drought (chorebh) involves a word play with the earlier reference in v. 9, my house that lies in ruins (charebh).”[4] In other words, there was a direct connection between the people’s neglect of God’s house and the drought upon the land.

The emptiness of life lived outside of a relationship with God tends to lead people to (a) self-deception and the reduction of life to a lie, (b) a despair that brings a sense of nihilism and meaninglessness, or (c) repentance and a return to God.

The signs of despair and meaninglessness are all around us. Ravi Zacharias once quoted a New York taxi driver named Jose Martinez as saying:

We’re here to die, just live and die.  I live driving a cab.  I do some fishing, take my girl out, pay taxes, do a little reading, then get ready to drop dead.  Life is a big fake!  You’re rich or you’re poor.  You’re here, you’re gone.  You’re like the wind.  After you’re gone, other people will come.  It’s too late to make it better.  Everyone’s fed up, can’t believe in nothing no more.  People have no pride.  People have no fear!  People only care about one thing and that’s money.  We’re gonna destroy ourselves, nothing we can do about it.  The only cure for the world’s illness is nuclear war – wipe everything out and start over.  We’ve become like a cornered animal, fighting for survival.  Life is nothing.[5]

This sense of emptiness stretches far back into the past. Historian Larry Hurtado has said this of Roman burial inscriptions:

…it appears that for many (or most people) of the time death was the end, as in a saying found on more than one burial monument:  “I was not, I was, I am not, I care not.” (“non fui, fui, non sum, non curo” or “non exam, exam, non sum, non curo”)[6]

Here we see life leveled out beneath the crushing force of futility. Here is what life looks like when you think that frustration and drought is all there is! But there is another option: repentance and a return to what matters most, a return to the Lord Jesus Christ

God’s love is a ruthless love. It tolerates no competing affections.

The fact that we are forced to choose between self-delusion, despair, or God is itself a result of the ruthless love of God that will not allow us to feel ever completely at home outside of a relationship with Him. Hear the word of the Lord again but consider how it comes about that the peoples’ efforts consistently come to nought.

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.”

Did you see that? Their efforts came to nought and there was a famine in the land because God kept blowing away their idols and God sent a drought upon the land!

This idea of God “blowing away” their earnings and their possessions, their idols, is particularly powerful, as David Smith explains.

I blew it away is interpretation of the Hebrew napachti bo, “I blew on it.” Breath could have a beneficial or harmful effect. Obviously the mention here is that it was harmful, either in the sense given by the RSV of “blowing away” or with the idea of spoiling. The former is supported by a Near Eastern superstition: “It is in the highest degree disagreeable to Moslems if anyone whistles over a threshing floor heaped with grain. Then comes the devil, they say, in the night and takes a part of the harvest” (Mitchell…).[7]

This is interesting from a historical perspective, but it must be noted that what Haggai is describing is no mere Near Eastern superstition. The Lord is saying through the prophet Haggai that He in fact brings to nothing that which His children had come to trust in. The question is why? The answer is that God’s love is a ruthless love and it tolerates no competing affections. Why? Because we are made for God and we bear the image of God. For this reason, we can find no lasting contentment in anything outside of the will of God.

There is another dynamic at work. Because we are made for God, our hearts yearn for God, and they yearn for God even if we deny there is a God or neglect the things of God or fail to realize that it is God for which we are yearning. For this reason, whatever we try to put in the place of God in our lives will inevitably begin to take on disproportionate significance in our lives.

This explains why it is that a culture that has lost its dependence on God takes on all of the intensity of worship concerning the lesser things in which it is seeking to find its fulfillment outside of God. When the big things become small the small things become big. So when you see a grown man who becomes absolutely unglued at a college football game, who becomes a terror to his wife and children when his team loses, who ties his psychological and spiritual well-being to the performance of young men on a football field, you can be sure that college football has somehow been placed too close to the center of his being, to that place where God alone should have preeminence.

So too with the person who becomes obsessed with having more and more things and who cannot understand why others are not as obsessive as he or she is about these toys. So too with the girl who simply must be in a relationship in order to feel contentment, even if this leads her into unwise relationships and if the looked-for contentment never seems to last.

But the Lord, speaking through Haggai, says that He will blow away whatever these things are in which we misplace our minds and hearts. God blows them away! He will not leave us in peace with our toys and our diversions and our anything else that we put in His place. He will not allow us to find ultimate peace in anything but Himself!

This means that we must be very careful how we diagnose what we perceive to be misfortunes in our lives. We must be careful when we are tempted to say, “The devil did not let me get that promotion! The devil broke up that relationship! The devil took away my house, my car, my money, my possessions!”

We must be careful because, to be perfectly honest, it may be that God is blowing down your little castles because He know you are putting too much trust in them. That drought you resent may be a God-send not a devil’s-attack.

Why was God so frustrating His children by blowing away their crops and their gain? Because they were trusting in them instead of Him, because they had become a god to them, and because, due to their fixation on these things, they were neglecting God’s house!

Returning to what matters most—to life in Jesus Christ—is rest.

If life lived outside of the person, the plans, and the priorities of God leads to constant frustration and exhaustion, that means that returning to God, coming home to the God who made you, will be experienced as rest! And this is precisely what Jesus said in Matthew 11 when He said:

28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

In Christ we find rest! In Christ we find peace! In Christ we find a way out from the cycle of frustration and futility in which we find ourselves stuck. In Christ we find rest!

If life outside of Christ is exhausting and life in Christ is rest that means that God blows away our treasures because He truly has something greater to give us!

There once was a little girl who had loving, caring parents. She loved her mommy and daddy and, like a lot of little girls, she had her daddy wrapped around her finger! He loved her so very much, and she loved him. In fact, they had their own little nightly ritual that nurtured their love for one another. Each and every night, after dinner, her daddy would sit in his big chair in the den, next to the fireplace, and he would call his daughter to him. He never had to wait long, for the little girl delighted in these moments with her daddy. So every night she crawled up into his lap and they talked. “What did you do today?” he would ask. “Oh, daddy, today I learned my letters! Would you like to hear? Daddy, today our teacher read us an amazing story! You’ll never believe what it was about!”

On and on it went, every night, to the delight of them both.

One night, as the little girl climbed into her daddy’s lap, she was particularly animated. “Daddy, you will never imagine what happened today!” “What happened sweetie? Tell me?” “Mommy bought me this!” And with that she held up a plastic necklace comprised of multi-colored, plastic beads.

Her father smiled at her mother then at his daughter and said, “Oh, honey, they are so very, very pretty! Put them around your neck and show me how they look.” She did so and her daddy carried on with great enthusiasm: “Look at that! You look soooo pretty! How very pretty your necklace is!”

The next night the little girl crawled into her daddy’s lap. She had the beads on again and, like the night before, all she could talk about was her plastic, colorful beads. Her father complimented her and them yet again and then tried to change the subject to other topics, like her day and her life, the topics upon which their very relationship was built. But the little girl was having nothing of this. She was so enamored with her plastic beads that they dominated her speech.

The next night, once again, her plastic necklace dominated the conversation. She could speak of nothing else. By this time, her father was quite frustrated and somewhat concerned. His continued attempts to get his daughter to speak of other issues consistently failed. The little girl seemed to see nothing but her beads, her plastic necklace. Her interests did not and seemingly could not go beyond them.

The next night, she crawled into her daddy’s lap and started to talk about her beads again when her father stopped her.

“Honey, can I ask you a question?”

“Yes, daddy.”

“Do you know that I love you?”

“Yes, daddy!” she said, smiling.

“Do you know that your daddy would never hurt you?”

“I know that, daddy.”

“And do you trust me?”

“Yes, daddy,” laughed the little girl, hugging herself to her father.

“Good,” said her daddy. “Honey, I want to ask you to do something. It’s something you might not understand, but I need you to trust me, okay?”

“Okay, daddy, of course. I trust you.”

“Honey, what I want you to do is this: I want you to hop off of my lap, walk over to the fire there in the fireplace, take off your necklace, and drop it in the flames.”

The little girls’ expression changed from joy to horror. Tears filled her eyes and, through quivering lips, she asked: “What, daddy?”

“I want you to trust me, honey. I want you to go and drop your necklace in the fire.”

For a brief moment the little girl stared into her father’s eyes while tears brimmed over the lids of her own. Slowly, she slid off of her father’s lap, walked to the fireplace, took off the necklace, hesitated, looked back at her father, turned back to the fire, and dropped her necklace into the flames.

The flames made quick work of the plastic necklace as the little girl turned and ran past her father to her room where she cried herself to sleep.

The next night, after dinner, for the first time ever, the girls’ father had to ask her to come and sit with him. Slowly, her head lowered, her feet shuffling, she walked to her waiting father. He picked her up with strong hands, placed her on his lap, and hugged her tightly to himself. Again, the tears flowed down her cheeks.

After a moment, and a kiss on the head, her father spoke: “Sweetie, do you know that your daddy loves you?” She slowly nodded her “yes.” “Did it make you sad to throw your beads into the fire last night?” Again, the silent nod. “And do you understand why I asked you to do such a thing?” This time, a nodded “no.”

At this, her father lifted her face up so that their eyes might meet. “I know it was painful dear. I know you do not understand. But I asked you to throw your beads away because I need for you to know something very important. I need for you to know, dear, that your father will never ask you to give anything up unless he has something better to give you.”

And with that, her father reached into his shirt pocket and slowly drew out a pristine, perfect, beautiful strand of costly white pearls. To her amazement, he held the pearls before her face for a moment and then affixed them around her neck, saying as he did so: “I love you so much, honey!”

Do not resent when God asks you to throw the plastic beads of your own ambitions and priorities into the fire. He does so because He wants to give you the pearls of the gospel!

Israel was neglecting the temple for the plastic beads of their own houses and their own crops and their own advancement, so God sent a drought, in love, to drive them back to Him.

We put our faith and trust in things and possessions and goods…but they never satisfy! They can never do what God alone can do! So God blows them all away!

God blows away our plastic in order to give us pearls!

Set down your plastic toys so that God can put into your hands something much better!

Come back to what matters most.

Return to the One who matters most!


[1] Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. (New York, NY: Bantam Dell, 1981), p.108-109,110,112.

[2] Alberto Ferreiro, The Twelve Prophets. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Old Testament XIV. Gen. Ed., Thomas C. Oden (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ), p.223.

[3] John Peter Lange, “Haggai.” Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Minor Prophets. Translated by Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1874), p.10.

[4] David A. Smith, “Haggai.” The Broadman Bible Commentary (Nashville, Broadman Press, 1972), p.299.

[5] Ravi Zacharias, This We Believe (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publishing House, 2000), p.32-33.

[6] Larry W. Hurtado, Why On Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2016), p.127.

[7] David A. Smith, p.299.

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