When asked what he needed for his birthday, a six-year-old said firmly, “I don’t want to need, I want to want.” Perceptive kid!
What do you want in life? That question requires careful thought! The story of King Midas, who was granted his ultimate wish that everything he touched would turn to gold, shows us how easy it is to want the wrong things. Midas quickly discovered that you can’t eat gold and you can’t relate to gold people! He made the wrong choice!
What I want more than anything—I covet it—is God’s blessing. When you’ve got God’s blessing, you’ve got it all. You may be rich or poor, healthy or ill, living in a mansion or hiding out in a cave. But if you know that God is blessing your life, you’ve got something that the world can’t give or take away. You are truly satisfied! On the other hand, if you lack God’s blessing, you may get what you think will satisfy, but you will have leanness in your soul (Ps. 106:15, KJV).
The prophet Haggai’s third message (2:10-19) to the remnant that had returned from the Babylonian captivity tells us how we can experience God’s true blessing. As we saw in his first message, the people to whom he was preaching were, for the most part, believers. They had made the difficult commitment to leave their familiar circumstances in Persia and return to the Promised Land. We see their commitment to the Lord in that one of the first things they did when they got back was to rebuild the altar and to begin to rebuild the temple. But they encountered strong opposition from the Samaritans and other peoples of the land, and the project came to a halt.
Meanwhile, they got busy with their own work and their own houses, and the temple got set aside. About 15-16 years later, God raised up Haggai with the message, “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses while this house lies desolate?” (1:4). The people responded and the work on the temple started again.
In Haggai, the first and the third messages are similar, as are the second and fourth. The first and third are messages of rebuke or exhortation. The second and fourth are messages of encouragement. The first message told us to seek first God’s kingdom, not our own priorities. This third message shows that not only should we seek first God’s kingdom, but that we must do so from pure hearts. Thus it develops the second half of Matthew 6:33, “and His righteousness.” The first message was, God will grant true blessing when we put His house first. The third message is:
God will grant true blessing when we put His house first from righteous lives.
Why did this message come from Haggai when it did, on December 18, 520 B.C., about three months after the first message? A couple of factors may explain the timing. First, the early rains begin in Jerusalem in mid-October, softening the ground for plowing and planting seed. By mid-December, this work would be done, but there would be no evidence yet as to whether it would be a good year for the crops. As verse 19 implies, the seed was not in the barn; it had been planted. But neither the seed nor the fruit trees had yet given any evidence as to the harvest. Would it be another year of drought (1:11)? Would it be another frustrating year of sowing much, but harvesting little (1:6)? God assures the anxious people that because they had put His house first by rebuilding again, He would bless them.
But it was not enough just to reconstruct the physical temple. God never desires a fancy building and lots of sacrifices if the hearts of the worshipers are not right before Him. Among those working on the rebuilding project there were some, if not many, who thought that if they just got that building reconstructed, it would be like a good luck charm. Since they rebuilt God’s temple, He would bless them with a bountiful harvest. But their hearts were not right before God. They were not drawing near to Him with clean hands and pure hearts (Ps. 24:3-4). So Haggai delivers this message to exhort the people not only to keep working on the temple, but also to do it from hearts that are right before God. Outward religion is never enough. God looks on the heart.
We will look at the two sections in reverse order, because the second section really reiterates the message of chapter 1, whereas the first section adds to it the requirement of personal holiness.
Haggai’s message reveals both the negative and positive sides:
There is some confusion over the time references here. It could mean, “Think back over the past years of drought and frustration and you will see that your problems began when you set aside the Lord’s house and put your houses first.” Or, it could have the nuance that the NIV gives it, “From now on, start thinking about the past and how your problems correlate to your neglect of God’s house.” Either way, the main idea is clear: “There is a direct correlation between your selfish priorities and your difficult circumstances of the past few years.” Perhaps the reason that they were still experiencing frustrating circumstances was that God had not removed the consequences of their past neglect.
God’s discipline is not pleasant but it really is a blessing, as Hebrews 12:1-11 tells us, because it is a mark of His love toward us as His children. Those who lack God’s discipline are not His true children (Heb. 12:8)! Sometimes His discipline stems directly from some sin in our lives. It is like a spanking: we sinned and our Heavenly Father administers the rod of His love to teach us not to sin.
At other times, His discipline is not directly related to any specific sin, but rather it is to bring us to spiritual maturity. This is like a loving parent who gives his child a difficult chore to do. It is not pleasant, but by submitting to his father, the child learns some valuable lessons that he will need throughout life. As a general rule, we do not learn to trust God and to submit to Him when everything is smooth as much as we do when things are difficult. The trials force us to rely on Him, because we have no where else to go.
In the case of the Jews here, the frustrations and hardships that they had been experiencing were due to their neglect, whether deliberate or inadvertent, of God’s house. They had slipped into the wrong priorities, putting their own pleasure and comfort ahead of God’s kingdom. God sent His discipline to get them to stop and consider their mixed up priorities.
The people had begun to obey three months earlier, but as of yet, they did not see any results. But God graciously assures them through Haggai (2:19), “From this day on I will bless you.” Verse 18 has a couple of problems. First, why does Haggai seem to say that God would bless them from this day (Dec. 18th) on, when they had started to rebuild three months earlier? And, why does he mention the founding of the temple then, when it had been founded some 16-18 years before?
As to the first question, probably the sense of what he is saying is, “From today onward, start thinking about how things have been for the past 16-18 years. Write it down and you will later see that God’s true blessing began at this very time” (adapted from Robert Alden, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 7:590).
As to the founding of the temple, the Hebrew word does not necessarily refer to the foundation being laid, but to the start of the work (Joyce Baldwin, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries [IVP], pp. 52-53). The work of rebuilding had begun 16-18 years before; now it was beginning again. Haggai’s point is that God would truly bless them because of their obedience in putting His house first. Note two things in this regard:
Without God’s blessing, our work ends in frustration. We go to our store of grain expecting to find 20 measures, but only 10 are there. We expect to draw 50 measures of wine, but only find 20 (2:16). We plant expecting a crop, but blasting wind, mildew, and hail decimate the yield (2:17).
In Leviticus 26, God spells out for Israel the blessings that He would bring on them if they obeyed Him, as well as the curses that would come if they disobeyed. If they obeyed, God promised that five Israelites would chase 100 enemies, and 100 would chase 10,000 (Lev. 26:8). That is way out of proportion to any human explanation. The only explanation was God’s blessing. His blessing gives results that are out of proportion to human ability, calculations, or effort.
We see the same thing in the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus tested the disciples by asking them where they would get the bread to feed this huge crowd (John 6:5-6). They did some quick calculations and figured that 200 denarii would not be sufficient for everyone just to get a little. Of course, this was hypothetical, because the disciples didn’t have anywhere near 200 denarii (200 day’s wages). But the point of the miracle is that when Jesus blessed the five loaves and two fish, it was sufficient for everyone to eat plenty and to have 12 baskets full of leftovers.
When we scheme how to build God’s church by using the latest slick methods or how to raise money for God’s work by hiring professional fund raisers who could get the same guaranteed results from any group of people, we are operating outside the sphere of God’s blessing. Any time that I get a flyer advertising “proven methods” for building your church or boosting attendance, I know that while the methods may work, they work apart from God’s blessing. I am not interested in such approaches.
But when we simply obey God, honor His Word, depend on Him in prayer, and preach the gospel, and the results are far beyond any human explanation, that is His blessing! I must add, we may not see any such results in our lifetimes, and only eternity will reveal what God does with such sacrifices of obedience on His altar. Many missionaries have labored for years in dependence on God with no visible fruit. But because they were obedient to Him, He will bless their labors in eternity, if not in their lifetimes. We need to keep His perspective. But let’s ask Him for His blessing on all that we do in dependence on Him!
But what about godly people who are truly seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness, but they have many great trials?
These Jews were still under Persian rule. They were still surrounded by hostile nations. They were still just a small remnant in the land. None of them lived long enough to see God’s glory rest on this humble temple in greater splendor than it had on Solomon’s temple. I agree with John Calvin, who says, “It often happens that those who sincerely and from the heart serve God, are deprived of earthly blessings, because God intends to elevate their minds to the hope of eternal reward” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker reprint], on Haggai 2:15-19, p. 382).
In other words, the greatest blessings are not temporal blessings that quickly vanish, but the abiding joy and satisfaction that God’s obedient servants will know throughout eternity in heaven. While God often blesses His obedient servants on earth with material things (as He here promised the Jews), His greatest blessings are reserved for us in heaven. We need to keep the eternal perspective or we could easily become discouraged.
How can we get God’s true blessing on our lives and our work for the Lord?
Through Haggai, the Lord asks two questions of the priests. First, if a man carries holy meat (meat offered in a sacrifice) in the fold of his garment and touches bread (or other food) with this garment, will that food become holy? The priests correctly answer, no (the meat would make the garment holy, but the process stopped there; see Lev. 6:27). The second question was, if one who is unclean through contact with a dead body touches any of these things, will it become unclean? The priests correctly answer, “yes” (see Lev. 22:4-6; Num. 19:11-16). Note three lessons:
It’s like health and disease. If I am healthy and you have the flu, my coughing in your face won’t make you well, but your coughing in my face will make me sick. Health is not contagious, but disease is. As we all know, it’s much easier to get sick than it is to stay healthy, especially when you have constant contact with sick people. At school, kids pick up germs from other kids and then they bring those germs home. It takes a lot of careful effort to avoid catching whatever is going around!
Sin is like that! You don’t pick up “holiness antibodies” by hanging around holy people, but you do pick up “sin viruses” by hanging around sinful people. But we tend to think just the opposite. We think that if you hang out in church buildings around the “God crowd,” surely some of it will rub off! We also tend to think that we can hang out with godless people without any adverse effects on us. Wrong on both counts!
I’m not suggesting that you check yourself into a monastery to avoid contact with the world. But I am saying two things. First, you won’t catch godliness by joining a godly group of people. You must personally get right with God by repenting of your sins and trusting in Jesus Christ, and you must walk in personal holiness before Him. Hanging out with godly people will definitely help you to walk with God, but you won’t catch holiness by osmosis.
Second, you should view your contacts with the world, whether it’s worldly people or exposure to worldly ideas, as a doctor views his patients. There is a very real danger of infection, so you must exercise proper caution and keep your objectives in mind. You are not in the world to cavort with sinners. You are there to snatch them from the fire, “hating even the garment polluted by the flesh” (Jude 23). In other words, you have contact to lead them to Jesus Christ, but you must be careful or you will be contaminated by their infection of sin. It’s contagious!
The temple was the greatest cause on earth in that day. God would manifest His presence and His glory to His people there. Sacrifices for sins would be offered there. The various feasts and celebrations took place there. These people were offering sacrifices and going through the prescribed rituals, but their hearts were not right before God. The contamination of their disobedient hearts was defiling the very sacrifices that they offered, just as those who touched a dead body contaminated others who touched them (2:14). To live in sin during the week and then come to the temple to worship was like dragging a corpse into the temple. It defiled everything. If they thought that God would bless them just because they were involved in rebuilding the temple, they were sadly mistaken. God isn’t fooled by anyone who labors for Him while hiding sin in his heart.
In our day, the church is the greatest cause in the world. Jesus said, “I will build My church” (Matt. 16:18). Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her (Eph. 5:25). The church (people, not buildings) is God’s temple, where He dwells and makes Himself known on earth today (Eph. 2:21-22). But Haggai’s word to us is, “You can be involved to the hilt in the local church, you can give money to the church, you can even be on the staff of a church, but if your heart is not clean before God, you’re defiling everything you touch!”
As we all know, there are professing Christians who build multimillion dollar ministries, who are on TV and in the national news, and who have thousands flocking to hear them speak. Sometimes they sell millions of copies of their books on how to have God’s blessing in your life. But if they are not broken and contrite of heart, if they are not striving against sin and for holiness on the heart level, then they are just slick showmen who happen to be in the church business. God’s true blessing is not on them.
We often look on the outward activity: “Lord, look at all that I’m doing for You!” But God looks on the heart. Do we do what we do from hearts made clean through faith in Christ? Do we abstain from evil when no one else is looking, except God?
It’s not enough to build His temple; we must build from hearts that please Him who knows our every thought. Motives are important to God. Our private thought life matters to Him. Do we truly seek Him every day, or is our Christianity just a mask to cover the corruption of our hearts? Do we take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5)? Do we pluck out our eye or cut off our hand, if need be, in order to be holy before God (Matt. 5:27-30)? If not, we’re only practicing our righteousness before men (Matt. 6:1), but God sees right through us. The godly 19th century Scottish pastor, Robert Murray McCheyne, said, “According to your holiness, so shall be your success. A holy man is an awesome weapon in the hands of God.”
So, what is the bottom line? What should we do?
Three times God repeats the same phrase that He repeated three times in the first section (1:5, 7): “Consider” (2:15, 18). It is literally, “set your heart,” or “fix your attention on this.” What God wants us to consider is, if we seek first His kingdom from righteous hearts, He will bless us. So we need to take frequent inventory of our lives, beginning on the heart level.
“Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way” (Ps. 139:23, 24).
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation