In 586 BC the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and took most of the Jews into exile. About 50 years later Cyrus, the Persian, took Babylon, and brought the Babylonian Empire to an end. The next year (538 BC) he allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. All of this was owing to the sovereign hand of God fulfilling the prophecies of Jeremiah (Ezra 1:1).
Return to the Land
Among the returning exiles were (probably) the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. Ezra 5:1, 2 sums up for us what these two contemporaries accomplished:
Now the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel who was over them. Then Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, and Joshua, the son of Jozadak, arose and began to rebuild the house of God which is in Jerusalem; and with them were the prophets of God helping them.
So Haggai and Zechariah were sent by God to assist in the rebuilding of the temple. This work was begun, according to Haggai 1:15, on the 24th day of the sixth month of the second year of the reign of Darius, which in our dating is September 21, 520 BC. So you can see that about 18 years went by between the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of the temple. This delay is what brings forth the message of Haggai.
The way Haggai motivates the Jews to build the temple of God has a powerful application to our own efforts to build the Church of God. I want to focus mainly on the message Haggai delivers in 2:1–9. But since the book is small, we can take a quick tour through the two chapters to see how 2:1–9 fits into the lay of the land.
Structure of Haggai
The book is clearly divided into four distinct messages from the Lord, each of which is precisely dated. The first message, delivered by Haggai to Zerubbabel, the governor, and Joshua, the priest, is dated (according to 1:1) in the second year of Darius (king of Persia), the first day of the sixth month (August 29, 520 BC). This message extends to the end of chapter 1. The second message is found in 2:1–9 and is dated (2:1) on the 21st day of the seventh month (October 17, 520 BC). The third message is found in 2:10–19 and is dated (2:10) on the 24th day of the ninth month (December 18, 520 BC). Finally, the fourth message comes in 2:20–23 on the same day as the third one. One of the things that we see when we look at this little book long enough is that the first and third messages are similar and the second and fourth messages are similar. This morning we will only have time to survey the first and third so that we understand the context for the second message (2:1–9).
Neglecting the Temple of God
The first message in chapter 1 reveals to the governor and priest and people that the reason they are all frustrated is that they have tried to make their own lives comfortable while neglecting the temple of God. Verses 4–6:
Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now therefore consider how you have fared (or: consider your ways). 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 earns wages to put them in a bag with holes.
So they lived in perpetual frustration and discontentment. Nothing satisfied. We can't pass over this lesson easily. It's for us, too. If you devote yourself to sowing and eating and drinking and clothing yourselves and earning wages, but neglect your ministry in the body of Christ (the temple of God, 1 Corinthians 3:16, 17), you will live in constant frustration. If you spend your time and energy seeking comfort and security from the world, and do not spend yourself for the glory of God, every pleasure will leave its sour aftertaste of depression and guilt and frustration.
The reason I mention the glory of God is because of verse 8. Haggai's remedy for frustration goes like this: "Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may appear in my glory, says the Lord." Both then and now the real problem is not the neglect of a building but indifference to the glory of God. The temple of the Old Testament existed for the glory of God. And the Church today exists for the glory of God (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14). Indifference to the growth and spiritual prosperity of the Church and its mission is always a sign of failure to love the glory of God. And the sour fruit of this failure is a life of chronic frustration. He who seeks to save his life will lose it to continual frustrations; but he who loses his life for the glory of God and the good of his cause will find life, deep and fulfilling. Verse 9 sums up the situation in Jerusalem: "You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the Lord of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while you busy yourself each with his own house."
Then in verses 12–15 Haggai reports that Zerubbabel and Joshua and the people obey and begin to work on the temple, on the 24th day of the sixth month. So, after 18 years of neglect and frustration, the people begin to learn their lesson: "seek the kingdom first, and all these other things will be added" (Matthew 6:33).
Now, skipping over 2:1–9 (the second message), look at 2:10–19, the third message. Verse 10 dates it in the 24th day of the ninth month, three months after the work on the temple began. Things have not gone well. Evidently the attitude of the people is that mere contact with the temple makes them clean in God's sight while, in fact, they are living in sin. The holiness of the temple is not rubbing off on them. On the contrary, their sin is desecrating the temple. That's the meaning of verses 11–14, a kind of parable applied in v. 14 to the people like this: "So it is with this people and with this nation before me, says the Lord; and so with every work of their hands; and what they offer there is unclean." So, even though they have begun to obey the Lord by working on the temple, their work is unclean because of sin in their lives.
So what Haggai does in response to this imperfect obedience is point the people back to the great turning point in their experience when they began to work on the temple. Verses 15–17 tell the people to consider what they should do now, in view of how life was for them before they started building the temple. "Pray now, consider what will come to pass from this day on (i.e., how you should live now, remembering) . . . I smote you and all the products of your toil with blight and mildew and hail; yet you did not return to me, says the Lord." In other words, recall how miserable and frustrated you were in your disobedience before you began to lay stone on stone in the temple. The implication is: surely it is utter folly to go on in sin now, if it cost so much then. So verses 15–17 call the people to consider what they should do now, in view of how life was for them before they started building the temple.
Verses 18–19 are more positive: they call the people to consider how they should live now, in view of how life has been for them (not before, but) since they began to build the temple. "Since that day," the prophet asks in verse 19, "is the seed yet in the barn? Do the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree still yield nothing? From this day on I will bless you." I think what he means is this: it has only been three months since you began to build. The seed is not in the barn but in the ground. The time for fruit-bearing is coming. I am not against you. I am for you and will help you. So consider your ways. Cleanse your hands, and keep working on my house. I promise to bless you.
So we have heard Haggai's first and third message. They are similar in that both of them seek to motivate the Jews to build the temple by showing them how frustrated they were before they began to obey, and how much blessing they can expect from God if they press on in their work with clean hands. What is at stake is the manifestation of God's glory, not merely brick and mortar and timber.
A Paltry Replacement?
Now, let's go back and look more closely at the second message in 2:1–9. According to verse 1, the message comes on the 21st day of the seventh month, a little less than a month after the people had begun to build. It seems as though the work has slowed or come to a complete stop, because Haggai's message is that they take courage and get on with the work (v. 4). What makes this message so practical and relevant is that we can see ourselves so easily in the workers. And God's encouraging words become very easily words of strength for us, too.
Verse 3 shows why the people have become weak and discouraged in their labors. Haggai asks, "Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?" The workers are discouraged because the memory is still alive of how glorious the temple used to be. Less than 70 years ago it stood in this very spot, the apple of God's eye, the magnificent achievement of Solomon, for centuries the center of holy worship. But instead of inspiring the people, this memory made the people look at the pitiful edifice they were building and feel hopeless. "How do you see it now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?" What's the use, they say. We can't match the glory of Solomon's temple. We're wasting our time. Nothing beautiful or worthwhile will ever come of it. We got along without it in Babylon; we can do without it here. Better to have the beauty of a great memory than a paltry imitation. So their hands are slack in the work.
Does that sound like anything in your experience? I think anybody who has ever undertaken a work for the cause of Christ has felt that kind of discouragement: the sense that you work and work and the product seems so paltry. You pour yourself into a thing week after week and month after month and the fruit is so minimal. Then you look back in history or across town and see the grand achievement of others, and your temple seems so trivial. And you get discouraged and are tempted to quit and put away your aspirations and drop your dreams and put your feet up in front of the television and coast. Who wants to devote his life to a second-rate temple?
Bethlehem is a prime target for discouragements like these. This church is the Solomon's temple of the Baptist General Conference. There once was such a glory here that across the Conference Bethlehem is still thought of mainly in the past tense: once the biggest church; once she gave almost 50% of her income to missions; a thousand people used to be in Sunday School; the spawning ground of great spiritual leaders. Perhaps some Sunday School teachers remember the halcyon days of Bethlehem and grow weary and discouraged over their small ministry. Most of you have known the discouragement of feeling that what you are doing for Christ is of so little significance that you may as well quit.
Take Courage, Work, Fear Not
If that's you, this message from Haggai is tailor-made for your heart today. God confronts the discouragement of the people, first of all, with a heartening command in verse 4: "Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work." God clearly does not agree with their assessment of the situation. If they think their work on the temple is of so little significance that they can quit, they are very wrong, for God says, "Take courage, . . . work!"
He gives two arguments why they should take courage and work heartily. And both of these are crucial for us as well. The text continues in verses 4 and 5: "Work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit abides among you; fear not." God's first argument why they should "take courage," "work," and "fear not" is that he is with them. For most of us the value of a job increases with the dignity and prestige of the people who are willing to do it. How could we ever, then, belittle a work when God says he is with us in it? When God is working at your side, nothing is trivial.
But the promise is not only that he will be at your side; he will also be in your heart encouraging you. Look back at the end of 1:13. "I am with you, says the Lord. And the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and worked on the house of the Lord." If we will ask him and trust him, God not only works with us, but he moves in to stir up our spirit and give us a heart for the work. He doesn't want crusty diehards in his work; he wants free and joyful laborers. And so he promises to be with them and stir them up to love the work.
But not only that. When he refers in 2:5 to the promise or covenant (literally: word) made at the Exodus, he shows that his presence is the same powerful presence that divided the Red Sea. Exodus 19:4 says, "You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself." So when he promises to be with the people in their work, he means: I will use all my divine power like I did at the Exodus to help you and strengthen you and protect you. Therefore, take courage, work, fear not.
But there is one other encouraging thing about this promise. For those Jews whose minds were all taken up with the glory of Solomon's temple, this promise may have had a very special impact. Just before David's death he encouraged his son, Solomon, with words very similar to Haggai 2:4 and 5: "David said to Solomon his son, 'Be strong and of good courage and work. Fear not, be not dismayed; for the Lord God, even my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you, until all the work of the service of the house of the Lord is finished"' (1 Chronicles 28:20). The implication of this similarity is that the same God who worked with Solomon to build his great temple is also at work with you now. Therefore, take courage, work, fear not.
The second argument God uses to encourage those who think their work only produces paltry results is found in verses 6–9:
For thus says the Lord of hosts: once again in a little while I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake the nations so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.
In other words, take courage, work, and fear not, because you build more than you see. All you see is a paltry temple. But God promises to take your work, fill it with his glory, and make your labors with a million times more than you ever imagined.
Fulfillment of the Prophecy
How was this prophecy fulfilled? Like most prophecies, it was fulfilled in stages, and the final fulfillment is yet to come. By the time Christ had begun his ministry, Herod had rebuilt Zerubbabel's temple so that it was truly magnificent. The temple was destroyed in AD 70, but Jesus had said in John 2:19, 20, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up . . . But he spoke of the temple of his body." Jesus said there is a direct continuity between the Old Testament temple and himself: once God met his people in the temple, now God meets us in Jesus Christ. Some interpreters believe a glorious temple will again be built in Jerusalem and stand through the millennium as Christ rules on earth (cf. Ezekiel 41ff.; 2 Thessalonians 2:4). That may be, but the final state of eternity is described in Revelation 21:22. When the new Jerusalem descends, John says, "And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb."
The point is this: God had a purpose for a temple. The Jews of Haggai's day could not see it all, and what they could see seemed so paltry. So God came to them with a word of promise: Take courage. You build more than you see. The heavens and the earth and sea and land and all treasures are mine. I will take the fruit of your little labor and make it glorious beyond measure, no matter how trivial and paltry it may seem to you now.
There is a principle here that applies to you and me: God takes small, imperfect things and builds them into a habitation for his glory. O, how we should take courage in our little spheres of influence! And is this not the message of Advent and Christmas? What more appropriate word could God have said to Mary as Jesus was growing up: Take courage, young mother, you build more than you see. And so it is with every one of us. Nothing you do is a trifle if you do it in the name of God. He will shake heaven and earth to fill your labor with splendor. Take courage, you build more than you see.