Build the House - Haggai 1
A large portion of the Old Testament centers around the 70 years the Israelites spent in captivity. Books like Kings, Chronicles, and Jeremiah describe the sin that led to the Exile. Most of the Major and Minor Prophets contain prophecies concerning the events surrounding the Exile. Books like Esther, Daniel and Ezekiel take place during the Exile. And the last three books of the Old Testament take place after the Israelites returned from exile. These books are Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.
I'd like to begin a study of these three books, starting with Haggai. We'll examine what God had to say to His people here at the end of the Old Testament period, and how the Israelites responded.
Israel and Judah were taken into captivity because of continuing sin, and especially for their stubborn practice of idolatry. Jeremiah describes this worship of idols in terms of adultery. Adultery is taking the love that belongs to one and giving it to another, and that's exactly what the Hebrews did. They took the love and worship that belonged to God and wasted them on pagan idols. God's people grew exceedingly wicked, and finally God put an end to it.
The events that ripped Israel apart and ended with the Hebrews captive in Babylon were terrible and bloody. Powerful invading armies swept through the land. Refugees crowded into the cities, where food and water were scarce. Read Lamentations for a poignant description of these days. Women cooked their own children for food. Once important people staggered through the streets. It was not an easy time, but it was all because of Israel's sin.
For 70 years the Hebrews sat in Babylon, plenty of time to reflect on their sin. Then, at long last, just as had been prophesied by Jeremiah, the Israelites were allowed to return home. Babylon had fallen to the Persian Empire, and Cyrus was now ruler. Ezra 1:1-4 records Cyrus' decree to let the Israelites return home. As verse 2 says, Cyrus specifically said the Jews were to return and rebuild their temple, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians.
Perhaps Cyrus was moved by a prophecy in Isaiah 44:28 which mentions Cyrus by name. This prophecy was written 100 years before Cyrus was even born, and yet this verse says that Cyrus would order the temple to be rebuilt. God is powerful, isn't he!
The first group of Israelites returned in 536 B.C., and began work on the temple. Ezra 3 describes the work they did. However, read on to Ezra 4. No sooner had the foundations of the temple been laid when opposition began to arise from the other people living around Jerusalem. They were not at all happy to see Israel return as a nation, and frustrated all efforts to rebuild the temple. This opposition was so effective that all work on the Temple stopped until 520 B.C.
This is where Haggai's ministry begins. God called him to speak to the Hebrews and shake them out of their lethargy. Notice what verse 2 of chapter 1 says. "These people say 'The time has not yet come for the Lord's house to be built.'" Two things. First, God refers to the Israelites as 'these people', not as 'my people'. God is obviously not pleased, and nor should He be, for look at the second half of that verse. The Israelites are saying it is not yet time to rebuild the Temple. Not yet time? It's been 16 years since the foundations were first laid! When will it be time?
The Temple was the center of the Jewish faith. It was the home for God's presence on earth. It is where the high priest went to meet with God once a year. Had the Hebrews learned nothing from their captivity? They were taken into exile because they had turned away from God. The Jews were let go with specific instructions to rebuild the temple. Now, they were once again forgetting the importance of making God the first priority in their lives.
Notice verse 3. Through Haggai, the Lord asks 'Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in paneled houses while this house remains a ruin?' That phrase 'paneled houses' refers to luxurious living quarters. The Israelites were more interested in their own comforts than they were in seeing that God's house was rebuilt.
In verses 5 through 11, God points out that the Israelites had been working hard with little to show for it. They planted much, but harvested little. Drought had affected their crops. They earned wages, but it ran out as if through a hole in their pocket.
God wanted the Israelites to realize that they were not prospering because they were worried only about themselves. They were working to enrich themselves, and had placed God on a shelf. How many times had they scurried about doing business and passed by the rubble on the Temple mount?
Haggai's message was 'build the temple first'. Give careful thought to the importance we place on our worship of God. We serve a Holy God. Do our priorities reflect that?