Give Careful Thoughts To Your Ways
Key Verse 8
“’Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,’ says the Lord.”
Haggai was a very old prophet appointed by God to minister to the few exiled Jews who had returned to Jerusalem and the promised land. It was prophesied and fulfilled by God that after seventy years in the land of their exile, they would return to rebuild their ruined nation, their ruined city and their temple that was also in ruins. He was a very old prophet compared with his contemporary prophet Zechariah, whom we will be studying as well, because while the Bible refers to Zechariah as a “young man”, we know that Haggai was alive when the people were first sent into exile seventy years ago, and he was also among the first exiles to return when the Persian king Cyrus issued a decree for the first wave of exiles to return and to rebuild.
Both Haggai and Zechariah prophesied to the returned exiles during the same time, and their message was basically the same. They were commissioned by God to encourage, challenge and rebuke the returned remnant to rebuild the temple as well as the walls of the city of Jerusalem. In Ezra 5:1-2 we read: “Now Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the prophet, a descendant of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them. Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and Jeshua son of Jozadak set to work to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem. And the prophets of God were with them, helping them.” So we see that it was both prophets who were relaying God’s will to the people at the time, and who themselves helped in the work as well. Some time later in the book of Ezra we read: “So the elders of the Jews continued to build and prosper under the preaching of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah, a descendant of Iddo. They finished building the temple according to the command of the God of Israel and the decrees of Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes, kings of Persia.” (Ezra 6:14)
Look at verses 1-2 then. “In the second year of King Darius, on the first day of the sixth month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘These people say, “The time has not yet come for the Lord’s house to be built.”’” According to the Jewish calendar, the date is September the 1st of the year 520 b.c. I’m mentioning the date because it’s accurate and significant. Ever since God began the discipline of his people and sent them into exile some seventy years ago, in spiritual history, the times or the era changed to what our Lord Jesus referred to as “The times of the Gentiles” which will not come to an end until the Lord returns. So on that date which Haggai gives us, he tells us that “The word of the Lord came through the prophet” himself. And this is something we need to take notice of as well as take it to heart— the fact that the prophet’s words throughout the book aren’t his own words, but words that came through him to those for whom the Lord wished him to speak. The word through perfectly describes the prophet’s role. He’s not a teacher nor an interpreter of God’s word. He is simply the vessel through which God’s message is delivered verbatim. He is God’s mouthpiece serving God’s holy purpose. I have often wondered why the office of prophet had almost been made obsolete shortly after the Lord’s departure. But honestly speaking, once the Bible was completed, and the “all the counsel of God” [the whole will of God” Acts 20:27] was made known, no more vessels were needed, for no one is permitted to add nor to take away even a letter or a word of it. (Revelation 22:18-19)
Look at verses 1-2 again. God spoke through Haggai, and it was “To Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest” that he spoke. Basically, God’s word was for the whole community of returned exiles. But the Lord spoke what he had on his heart to two prominent people— Zerubbabel and Joshua. Who were they? Zerubbael was King Cyrus’ appointee as the Governor of the province of Judea— the people’s civil leader. And Joshua or Jeshua was of course, the high priest— or religious leader of the Jewish nation. The Lord’s message seems to have been directed first to the leaders of the nation, those in positions of responsibility. Why? Because responsibility and influence are serious elements of life which many seem to take lightly or even ignore. But the Lord Jesus took influence very seriously reminding us of its importance; He said: “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). If those in positions of responsibility take their influence seriously, others will follow. Whatever problems the Lord felt the returned exiles needed to be challenged and rebuked for, he certainly knew they had their roots with the leadership. So the word of God was addressed particularly to them, for they were in a spiritual slump which we want to look into.
When the people returned home from their seventy year long exile in Babylon what kind of spirit do you think they returned with? They were jubilant, ecstatic, greatly eager to begin the rebuilding project like children on a playground. But when we read the events that ensued the rebuilding of the city and the walls, you will see what terrible obstacles they had to contend with and the unbearable hardship they had to endure from the get-go. You can imagine the kind of severe discouragement they went through during the period of rebuilding, until when? Until they decided that the troubles they were having weren’t going away; that they were impossible to overcome; that it wasn’t worth the sacrifice they were putting into the project they had begun! So what did they conclude? They concluded what most rational people would conclude; It simply wasn’t the time to rebuild; otherwise wouldn’t have God intervened already and helped us! It was the way they comforted themselves in this fiasco and mega-failure on their part. And naturally they made up their minds to remain as they are, to survive in the conditions they were in— in the miserable— defeated— overwhelmingly failed circumstances they found themselves in. If you wonder how they might have settled for that, it’s not so hard to imagine how. Even Christians have said things like: “It’s just too hard— We’ve tried— Isn’t obvious then that God never intended us to do this?” These people had already worked very hard to set the foundations of the great temple of God in Jerusalem! But God’s enemies, who never wanted to see the work finish, made it so difficult for them to work, that they literally stopped building. But listen to this! What excuse did they use to justify their quitting the work? They convinced themselves and each other that: “It just wasn’t the right time to rebuild the temple— or so it seems!”
Look at verse 2 again. “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘These people say, “The time has not yet come for the Lord’s house to be built.”’” This is worth repeating; in his own account, the prophet Nehemiah details the enormous hostility the wall builders in his time were receiving at the hand of their enemies. So were they as they were rebuilding the temple! Satan never ever tires of his destructive work when it comes to opposing the constructive work of our loving God, regardless of what work is being done in the Lord’s name and done for his glory. For as long as there has been people serving God and his purpose on this earth, there has never been a moment where the Devil has not hindered their work. We should know this at heart! We should take to heart the Lord Jesus’ simple and profound words of truth which warn us of the enemy’s hostility: “No servant is greater than his master.” Jesus said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:20-21) And we should therefore expect it. But look at what these people were saying instead; they were saying: “Well, we guess it isn’t the right time to build the temple.” They have abandoned the will of God! They’ve totally despaired, and in their failure to fulfill his will, they’ve managed to ease their convictions regarding the will of God and to soothe their guilty consciences; they’ve managed to cover up their unbelief, their faithlessness and their disobedience so well. They’ve managed to convince themselves that it wasn’t the time to rebuild the temple. And oh, what a reasonable— and practical— and seemingly even holy and virtuous excuse that must have sounded to their own ears! It was absolutely justifiable. “It doesn’t seem to be in the will of God for us to rebuild it now. So let’s not resist his will. Let’s not labor any longer to get it done. If God wanted us to finish it, thins would have gone smoothly. Let’s wait for a more convenient time.”
Haggai and eventually Zechariah as well will not let them get away with this. Especially old Haggai, will be rebuking them where it hurts, and it will shake them up to the core, something that also speaks to many Christians of our time as well. It was Haggai who revealed the heart and mind of God to them when he said: “These people say”. In most cases, the Lord God refers to his people as “My people” even when they are in deep trouble with him. But in this case, the Lord is really displeased with them for him to refer to them as: “These people” for a people he dearly loves. It really displeases the Lord to abuse his will to one’s own benefit, motive or advantage. Haven’t we heard Christians say that they’ve given up doing something or going somewhere because it wasn’t the Lord’s will for them after-all! They might even say that God wants them or needs them somewhere else; or God wants them to do something else instead! It’s almost a cliché among Christians to say that it’s the Lord’s will to do this or that, or to go here or there, and they say such things mostly in order to cover up sins. What I mean is it’s easier to say “The Lord wanted me to do something else” rather than to stay and fight where the Lord really wants you to be. It’s easier to say “It isn’t the Lord’s will for me” rather than to face the hardship of actually fighting the good fight of faith and get bruised and wounded. It’s a quick fix and get away to use the Lord’s will to one’s advantage in order to get out of a tough situation; who can challenge it, they think. But they do so to cover us sins of disobedience and unbelief, sins of rebellion and of pride and plain stubbornness— all against the very will of God itself, or if not against the will of God, the very abuse of the will of God just to escape from responsibility and commitment, or to cover up failure or laziness or the sin of unbelief and despair. They might think no one knows, or no one can challenge them when they put out the will of God as their defense and justification. But God’s word through the prophet “These people say” always sheds light on our deepest most hidden thoughts. (Hebrews 4:12)
When the returned exiles started rebuilding the temple and the going got difficult, really difficult, they were saying: “It isn’t the Lord’s time to rebuild.” It was just an excuse! Now the shepherds and the people will hear more about this— and what the Lord has to say to them will sting badly. Read verses 3-4. “Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: ‘Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?’” There’s the word through again. Haggai is only a vessel through whom the Lord is speaking, for he is only delivering his message from the Lord to these people. And look what these people have done, leaders and all. The same people who were saying that it wasn’t time for the house of God to be built— the same people who had started building the temple of the Lord and then left it half way through and undone— look at them! It seems as if they have had all their own houses built. How peculiar that is! That it was just the right time for their own houses to be built! And notice how it doesn’t escape the Lord that the houses they built for themselves were “Paneled houses”, in other words— beautiful luxurious houses. Perhaps more so for the leadership than the common folk. None the less, the people’s houses were built while the Lord’s house as the Lord puts it was still in “Ruins”.
For fifteen long years, they took it somewhat easy, of course the persecution eased for them as soon as they stopped rebuilding the house of God and gave up working on the temple. For fifteen years, there was no longer any harassment from the enemy and his cohorts who never gave them rest neither night nor day. It’s good to remember what suffering the people were going through who worked the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. Nehemiah the prophet and Governor writes in his book that there was a time the wall workers under him “Did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other.” (Nehemiah 4:17) They had to, because the enemy could pounce on them at any moment night or day. But now for fifteen years it wasn’t necessary for these people since they had some peace return. Or some semblance of peace since the enemy Satan already had them cowed with fear and despair— for they had stopped working at his bidding. Yet we know that regardless, they would have had some difficulties in building their own houses as all people do— ordinary or even some extraordinary difficulties. But it’s amazing how people are willing to face their difficulties and fight their battles when their own interests are at stake, but as soon as they face a challenge, they are so quick to say: “I don’t think it’s the Lord’s will for me to be in this ministry at this time in my life”— simple because it’s not in their interest or to their own benefit any more! After that, you find them building their own paneled lives, making excuses that it’s the Lord’s will this and talking about the Lord’s will that. How wretched that is!
Every day for fifteen years they could see the house of God lying still in ruins, while their own houses stood there shining. Didn’t they get weary of entertaining the same excuses of why they had neglected the work of God while they go about their own work? Didn’t occur to them for a moment that the enemies’ lack of interest in them is a false peace and an enmity with God? Today’s Christians are so much like that, experiencing almost no persecution, having almost no trouble, no hardship, no hostility from the enemy, feeling no discomfort in this world at all— and most think it a good thing! In fact so many work towards better relations and an acceptance. Jesus told his disciples: “If the world hates you” (John 15:18) But most Christians today don’t want to be hated by the world, they rather want to be embraced and understood and accepted by the world in the hopes of identifying with the world and having the world see how loving we are and how accepting and different our Christ is from the monster Christ the gospels and history have thus far portrayed him to be. But our Christ has given us the Father’s will and if and when we follow and obey it, it makes the world hostile towards us. And it sets the enemy at war against us. There will be no peace for us when we set our hearts to obey the will of God. The question is, what do we set out to build, the house of the Lord or our own paneled houses? If we set out to build the house of the Lord in obedience to the will of God, then the should be ready to sacrifice our peaceful lives, our comforts, our happy relationships and the respect of the world, and so many other things. If we decide to rebuild the student ministry, some will have to sacrifice money to register for a class; others will sacrifice comfort to visit campus; others need stop making senseless excuses and participate by any means— we will need to find a way to rebuild the student one to one ministry. Otherwise, if we decide to continue rebuilding our own paneled houses, well then, we will continue experiencing this false peace and comfort that we seem to be enjoying. As one of the leaders who is severely rebuked by these words, I believe these words have woken me up to repentance. They have challenged me to the core!
Read verses 5-7. “Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but have harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.’ This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Give careful thought to your ways.’” After the Lord spoke to the leaders and the people pointing out what their sins, and naturally implying how they had offended the Lord of heaven, he still had much to say to them. “Give careful thought to your ways.” He says it twice here to them, which makes what he’s saying to them not only significant, but vital! I think we all can understand what this means. It’s clearer in the NIV than in the KJV where it says: “Consider your ways.” Give careful thought— Look at what you’re doing, and think about it very carefully. Take a hard look at what’s going on in your heart and in your life. And oh, if only people would do that! What would they find if they really carefully took a hard look at what’s going on? It seems while on the outside, their houses were paneled and beautiful and obviously finished, everything else in their lives wasn’t going so well. They eat and it’s not enough; they drink and they’re not satisfied; their paycheck disappears as soon as they cash it in. God wanted them to take a hard look and see that all this was no accident. Maybe like most people they complained and blamed the economy, or their wayward kids for giving them heartburn. But God wanted them to see that it was his own hand of love and discipline. God loved them and so his hand of discipline was upon them to help them do what is right before him. (Hebrews 12:7)
Read verse 8. [Look also at 9-11] “’Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,’ says the Lord.” That’s God’s message to them from the start to the end. It was his will for them and it had never changed. “Build the house”. He wanted them to “Give careful thought to [their] ways”. As a result, the Lord wanted them to change their ways— in other words, repent of their ways and change them. If they change their ways, they would do as the Lord’s will dictates, they would “Build [His] House”. Why did God want them not to put it on hold any longer? Because he wanted to take pleasure in it. Because he wanted to be honored. The temple would be a house of worship where his people would come from everywhere to worship him, and to confess their sins, to sacrifice to him, and to pray for all nations. His house would be a gathering house of fellowship of songs and hymns and praises to his holy name. But most of all, his house would be a house where his word would be spoken and declared night and day and all who heard it would know the glory and majesty of his name. His house would be a place where God would dwell with his people and his people would come to be with their God. And all nations on earth would hear of the might of the Lord who gave strength to resurrect what was in ruins and he had done it by a few returned people. God wanted that honor for himself. But these people had quickly given in to the enemy’s mischief and robbed God of his glory. And all who heard that the work is stopped can say: “it’s true, the enemies of the Lord who said they would not let this house be built have overcome.” And how terribly dishonored would our God be! Yet God did not give up on them. He challenged them: “Go up into the mountains….” It was a call to faith!
What was the response of the people when they heard the words of the Lord through Haggai the old prophet? Read verse 12. “Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the whole remnant of the people obeyed the voice of the Lord their God and the message of the prophet Haggai, because the Lord their God had sent him. And the people feared the Lord.” Their response was swift. Let me first say why they responded. “Because the Lord their God had sent him.” How beautiful that is! Because the Lord their God had sent him. They had suffered enough and now they had been waiting on God not knowing what to do. It happens a lot, where people are genuinely troubled in spirit but do not know what to do to correct a wrong they’ve done or how to do what might bring them peace of heart or even peace with the Lord God. The Samaritan woman was wayward and sinful and lost, but in the depth of her heart no one can deny that she was looking for and waiting for Messiah to come and tell her everything. She sensed that only Messiah can solve whatever problems she might have been having in her life. Likewise, these people were glad to hear God’s word from Haggai. The words were biting and harsh, challenging their life style and pointing out their sins, and even shaming them for putting their own interests ahead of God’s; even abandoning the will of God; and not to mention the truth that they had failed, despaired and covered it up with excuses. Still, they were hoping in the depth of their hearts that the Lord would intervene and help them emerge from this mess. And so at the emergence of Haggai, hearing the words he had to say, they were so glad and thankful that the Lord God Their God had sent him.
And so was their response. They responded in two ways. They obeyed the voice of God and they feared the Lord. This obedience wasn’t casual obedience, meaning that they didn’t decide to obey in an emotional way, which disappears the moment the emotions begin to dissipate. It means they obeyed from the heart, and literally restored their original decision to live by the will of God, to rebuild the temple whatever the cost. The prophet Samuel once said to the casually obedient king Saul as he rebuked him: “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams….. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king.” (1 Samuel 15:22) Sincere obedience is a matter of accepting the word of God, heeding it with reverence and carrying it out as a servant carries out the word of his Master. These people repented their arrogant rebellious spirit, and embraced God’s will fro the heart. They also “Feared the Lord”. As king Solomon puts it, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. (Proverbs 9:10) I believe that it takes wisdom to develop a healthy fear or reverence for the Lord our God. When people do not revere God, or hold him in esteem in their hearts, knowing him for who he is in relation to who they are, it truly shows utter foolishness. These people were acting foolishly when they were making excuses and abusing God’s will to their own advantage. It shows their utter disregard for the Lord, as well as their unbelief. But when they heard Haggai, they came to their senses, and the fear of God woke them up from the lull that the enemy had caused them. They knew they had devoted much time to their own business ignoring the Lord’s business, and suddenly they feared God, repented and turned their hearts to him. They were like Peter who for the first time realized who Jesus was and said: “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” That was the right and wise response. With that, the people’s hearts were restored. Now they were ready to do the work God gave them to do.
Read verses 13-15. “Then Haggai, the Lord’s messenger, gave this message of the Lord to the people: “I am with you,” declares the Lord. So the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of the whole remnant of the people. They came and began to work on the house of the Lord Almighty, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month in the second year of King Darius.” May the Lord give us grace to obey the will of God and to rebuild the student ministry he has entrusted us with. Amen.