We’re beginning a new series of sermons today. And my plan for Sunday evenings is to preach through Haggai and Zechariah, because these two books really belong together, because Haggai and Zechariah conducted their prophetic ministry at the same time and in the same place. Both of the conducted their ministry in Jerusalem after the return from the exile. That means they were contemporaries of Ezra and Nehemiah. In fact, they’re even mentioned in Ezra chapters 5 and 6. And you might remember that the book of Ezra was about rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem after the exile in Babylon. And that’s what Haggai is about as well.
And since that’s the case, let me briefly remind you of the historical background to the rebuilding of the temple. God had rescued his people from Egypt in the days of Moses. He brought them through the wilderness. And he brought them into the Promised Land in the days of Joshua. It was a land flowing with milk and honey, a land like the Garden of Eden, where they had all that they needed. And God was with his people. In the early years, he dwelt among his people in a tent: the tabernacle. However, later, in the days of King Solomon, they built a temple for the Lord in Jerusalem. The temple was the sign that God was with them and it was the place they went to offer sacrifices to the Lord.
And the Lord was good to the people. However, over the years, despite the Lord’s loving-kindness and faithfulness, the people turned away from the Lord. Instead of loving, trusting and worshipping him above all other things, they bowed down to idols. Instead of walking in his ways and doing his will, they broke his laws and commandments. They disobeyed him again and again and again; and though the Lord sent them prophets to warn them and to call on them to repent, the people refused to listen. And so, eventually the Lord did to them what he had warned he would do: he let their enemies invade the land and defeat them in battle so that they were taken away into exile. Because of their sin and rebellion, they were sent out of the Eden-like Promised Land and away from the presence of the Lord. You can read in the books of 1 and 2 Kings about their sin and rebellion and how they were taken captive. Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and many of the people were taken away to Babylon between the years of 604 to 562 BC when Nebuchadnezzar was King of Babylon. The city of Jerusalem, including the temple within it, was destroyed, and many of the holy objects which were kept in the temple and which had been used to worship the Lord were taken away and stored in the treasury in Babylon.
So, God’s people were meant to dwell in the place God had prepared for them, where they could enjoy his presence with them, because God had chosen to dwell among them in the temple. But because of their sin and rebellion, God’s people were taken away from the place God has prepared for them.
And so, they remained in exile for 70 years. During that time, the Babylonians were conquered by Cyrus the Great, who was king of the Medes and Persians. Cyrus is also known in the Bible as Darius the Mede. He’s the one who threw Daniel into the den of lions. But at the end of 70 years, Cyrus issued a decree which is recorded for us at the end of 2 Chronicles and at the beginning of Ezra. Cyrus announced:
The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the LORD his God be with him. Let him go up. And so, at that time, many of the exiles returned to the land of Judah and to the city of Jerusalem.
When they got there, they began to rebuild the altar on the site of the old temple which was in ruins. And on the first day of the seventh month in the first year of their return, they began to offer burnt offerings to the Lord. These were the first sacrifices to be offered for 70 years.
And once the altar was built, they set about rebuilding the temple. And when the builders had laid the foundation, the priests and Levites praised the Lord, singing:
He is good;
his love to Israel endures forever.
However, very soon their enemies began to oppose the rebuilding of the temple. They discouraged them. They made them afraid. They hired counsellors to work against them and to frustrate their plans. And at the end of Ezra 4 we read that the work on the temple came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia. Now, this is not the Darius who was also known as Cyrus and who threw Daniel into the den of lions. This is a different Darius, a later Darius. And he’s the one who is mentioned in Haggai 1:1. And so — after that detour into the historical background — we come to the book of Haggai.
But, as we turn to this book, we mustn’t think that this is ancient history. Since the Lord’s message through Haggai has been written down and included in the Scriptures, then that tells us that this is God’s word to his people in every generation. This is God’s word to you today. And since the temple in Jerusalem was a place where God’s people could enjoy the presence of the Lord, then the message of Haggai is about the presence of the Lord with his people. But the Lord does not now dwell in a stone-temple, because now he dwells in his church. The church of Jesus Christ is God’s temple today and he dwells among us by his Spirit whenever we gather together for worship in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, who died once for all for our sins to bring us to God. And just as we gather in the presence of the Lord today, so we believe that we will gather in his presence in the new heavens and earth where we’ll live with him forever.
And so, let’s turn to Haggai 1. And it begins in verse 1 as follows:
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….
These two men — Zerubbabel and Joshua son of Jehozadak — both appear in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Zerubbabel was governor of Judah. Presumably he was appointed by Darius to govern the land on his behalf. And he was, in fact, a descendant of King David. So, he’s from the old royal family and his name appears in the Lord’s genealogy in Matthew and Luke. So, if it hadn’t been for the exile, Zerubbabel would have been king over Judah. Joshua son of Jehozadak was, of course, a different Joshua than the one who took over from Moses as leader of God’s people. He was also known as Jeshua. And he was a priest.
We’re also told that the word of the Lord came to them through Haggai on the first day of the month. Now, the date is significant because Numbers 28 and 29 tell us about the different religious festivals which the people had to observe in Old Testament times. And on the first day of each month, they were to observe the new moon festival, when they offered extra sacrifices to the Lord. And that means that lots of people had gathered together in Jerusalem on the first day of the sixth month to celebrate the new moon festival. But the festival this month was going to be different, because on this month God spoke to them through the prophet Haggai.
Verses 2 to 4
And the Lord’s message to them begins in verse 2:
This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘These people say, The time has not yet come for the Lord’s house to be built.’
So, the people had gathered in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices on the first day of the month, the day of the new moon festival. They were using the altar which had been built about 16 years or so before after the return from exile in the days of Cyrus. At that time, the altar had been built and the foundations of the temple had been laid. But then the work had stopped. And 16 years or so have passed and still they hadn’t resumed the work to rebuild the temple. And it’s not as if they were saying there’s no need to rebuild the temple. No one was saying we don’t need a temple and what we have is fine. No one was saying that. They were agreed that the temple should be built. But it should be built one day, but not today. Not today, but another day. Not today, but later. Someday. Someday we’ll build it. But not now. Now is not the right time.
That’s what the people were saying. And it seems everyone accepted it. Everyone apart from the Lord, because he now challenges them in the words which follow in verse 3. He said to them:
Is it time for you yourselves to be living in your panelled houses, while this house remains a ruin?
And now we get to understand what has been happening. They’re not like me. I hate DIY. I hate decorating. I hate anything to do with building or repairing. I don’t want to build or repair anything. But they were not like me, because they were prepared to build and repair their own homes. In the past 16 years or so, they were able to repair their homes in Jerusalem and to remodel them and to turn them into these panelled houses. We’re not too sure what was meant by a panelled house. It might mean the roof was made of timber. Or it might mean the walls were covered in wood. We see the same kind of thing in some fancy older houses in Belfast, where — instead of having wallpaper on the walls of the hallway — the walls are covered in wood panelling. In any case, the word for ‘panelled’ to describe their houses is the same word used in 1 Kings 7 to describe the former temple. And the point the Lord is making is that they have plenty of time to build their own houses. Meanwhile the house of the Lord lies in ruins. So, they’d got their priorities wrong. What came first in their lives was not the Lord, but themselves and their own possessions and their own comfort.
Verses 5 to 11
The Lord continues to speak to his people in the following verses. In verse 5 he tells them to consider their ways. In other words, think about your life and how you’ve been getting on. You have planted much, haven’t you? And yet you’ve harvested little. It’s not that there’s a famine and they have nothing. But the harvest has been disappointing, hasn’t it? It’s not what you were expecting. You expected more, didn’t you? And you eat, but you never seem to have enough, do you? And you drink, but you never have your fill. And you put on clothes, but they’re not enough to keep you warm. And you earn your wages, but it’s as if you put your wages in a bag with a hole, because you’re always running out. So, they’re doing okay, but it’s not quite what they expected. The Promised Land of Canaan was meant to be a land flowing with milk and honey, where they would have everything they needed, but it’s not like that.
Jump down now to verse 9, where the Lord says that they expected much, but it turned out to be little. What you brought home from the fields, blew away. So, whatever crops they brought home from the fields, were blown away. But the Lord doesn’t say the crops blew away, does he? The Lord says that he blew the crops away. He was the one who did it. It wasn’t bad luck. And it didn’t happen by chance. It was the Lord. The reason they did not have as much as they were expecting is because the Lord was acting against them. And he goes on to explain why he was acting against them. And it was because of his house, his temple. They didn’t care about the Lord’s temple, but he cared about it. And so, he said to them:
[I blew the crops away because] of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with his own house.
And because their priorities were wrong, and they were neglecting the house of the Lord, the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. The commentators explain that the dew was important in Judah, because when it didn’t rain, the farmers could still count on the morning dew to water their crops. But God withheld the dew and therefore their crops did not grow. He called for a drought on the fields and on the mountains. And so, there was a shortage of grain and wine and oil and of whatever other crops they normally grew. And it affected man and beast and all their labour.
In other words, the Lord sent his curses upon them. And so, do you remember when the people were preparing to enter the Promised Land in the days of Moses, how God promised them blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience? So, if they were careful to walk in his ways and to do his will, he would fill their lives with good things. But if they went astray, and disobeyed him, without confessing their sins and turning from them, but persisting in them, he would send trouble on the land. And the reason he would send trouble on the land was to discipline them so that they would realise what they had done and would confess their sins and return to the Lord with all of their heart. God announced to the people that this is what they would suffer if they turned from him. And, of course, the reason they went into exile all those years ago, was because they had turned from the Lord and done evil. After years of disregarding the will of the Lord, the Lord sent them away.
And here they are again. God had been gracious to them. He had been kind to them. He had brought them back to the Promised Land. But they were no better than before. They were still disobedient, because instead of rebuilding the temple, which is what they were supposed to do, they spent all their time and money on their own homes. They were still disobedient. And so, God once again sent his curses on them to discipline them. Wake up, he’s saying. Turn from your sin. Turn back to me. Instead of busying yourself with your own houses, build my house. And that’s his command to them in verse 8:
Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build the house, so that I might take pleasure in it and be honoured.
He will delight in it, because the temple was the place he had chosen as his dwelling place. It was the place where he met with his people and where they honoured him by bringing sacrifices and offerings and by praising him as the one, true and living God.
Verses 12 to 15
And so, according to verse 12, Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest and the whole remnant of the people obeyed the voice of the Lord their God and the message of Haggai the prophet. And if you jump forward to verse 14, you’ll see why they obeyed the word of the Lord which has come to them through Haggai. They obeyed the word of the Lord, because the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel and the spirit of Joshua and the spirit of the people. He worked in their hearts and enabled them to believe and to obey the message. And so, they came and began work on the house of the Lord Almighty.
According to the end of verse 12, the people feared the Lord. Sometimes fearing the Lord is a good thing, because those who fear the Lord are reverent before him and give him the honour he deserves. But here it means they were filled with terror. They were terrified because of what God had revealed to them. And fear paralyses, doesn’t it? And so, the Lord responded to their terror by reassuring them of his presence with them to help them. And so, they began the work with the help of the Lord in the 24th day of the same month.
What can we learn from this chapter? Firstly, it convicts us if we have our priorities wrong and if we have put ourselves and our own comfort first instead of putting God first in our lives. Indeed, which of us has not sinned in this way, because instead of loving God most of all, we have put other things before him in our lives. Instead of living to please him, we have lived to please ourselves. Instead of seeking first his kingdom and doing what is right in his sight, we have been self-seeking and selfish. And so, if have put ourselves first, then we ought to repent of our sin and ask for God’s mercy. And the good news of the gospel is that God is willing to pardon us for the sake of Christ our Saviour, who did not look to his own interests, but to the interests of others when he left the glory of heaven and came to earth as one of us to suffer and to die for you, laying down his life to pay for your sins and shedding his blood to cleanse you. By faith in him, you are pardoned by God for all the ways you have fallen short of doing his will. By faith in him, you are pardoned by God for the times when you have put yourself first and when you have said in your heart that God can wait. And by faith, you are reconciled to God, so that instead of suffering his curse, which is what you deserve for your sins, you can expect good from the Lord, so long as you trust in the Lord for forgiveness and turn from your sin in repentance.
Secondly, we see in this passage a great change in the people. At the beginning of the chapter the people were disobedient. They should have rebuilt the temple, but they hadn’t. But at the end of the chapter the people were obedient. They began to rebuild the temple of the Lord so that he could take delight in it and be honoured. So, the people went from disobedience to obedience.
And what was it that made the difference? What was it that produced this change in them? What made them turn from disobedience to obedience? It was the word of the Lord, which came to them through the prophet Haggai. The Lord used the preaching of Haggai to stir up the spirits of the people so that they turned from their disobedience and they began to obey the Lord. Instead of neglecting the Lord’s temple, they began to rebuild the temple. Instead of dishonouring the Lord they honoured him. Instead of living their lives for themselves, they lived their lives for God’s glory and honour. And this great change in them was produced by the word of God.
And the Lord has always used his word to change people and to turn unbelievers into believers and to turn disobedient believers into obedient believers. Read through the book of Acts of how the Lord sent the Apostles into the world and they were able to turn it upside down, merely by preaching God’s word in the power of the Spirit, because God used the reading and preaching of his word to turn men and women from their sin and misery and he filled them with zeal for the glory of his name so that they wanted to live their lives for him. In Ephesus, so many people gave up their idolatry that the idol makers were worried about their business. And all Paul did in Ephesus was preach the word; and the Lord enabled those who heard to give up their idolatry and to turn to Christ for salvation. And so, Paul would write in his letters about the power of gospel which he preached. And at the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther said that while he slept or relaxed with his friends, the word of God did its work in the hearts of sinners and enabled them to believe the good news of Jesus Christ. And so, he resolved to preach God’s word and to teach it and to write about it, because he believed God used his word to change lives. And Europe was turned upside down.
And that’s why, when we gather together, we spend so much time on the reading and preaching of God’s word, because God uses the preaching of his word to stir up our spirits and to change our lives. When we gather here on Sundays, the Lord God Almighty comes to us in the reading and preaching of his word to convict us of our sin and guilt; and to reassure us of his willingness to pardon us for the sake of Christ who died for sinners; and then to show us how to live as his people. By his word, he stirs us up and changes our lives. The Lord Almighty comes to us in his word just as he came to the people of Jerusalem in the days of Haggai. And so, that’s why we must always pray for the reading and preaching of God’s word. We must pray that God will use it to stir up our hearts which are often hard and heavy and unbelieving and that he will help us to love and obey him more.
But we should also think about the temple. In the past, God’s temple was in Jerusalem and it was made of stone. God still has a temple today, but it’s not made of stone. It’s made of believers. God’s temple today is the church of Jesus Christ. It’s built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, who bore witness to Jesus Christ; and the Lord Jesus is the chief cornerstone of this temple, because he holds it all together; and God dwells in this temple by his Spirit. And through the reading and preaching of his word, God builds his church, because through the reading and preaching of his word sinners are convinced and converted to faith in Christ and they’re added to the church. And so, just as God used his word to build his temple in the days of Haggai, so he uses his word to build his temple in our day.
Haggai doesn’t mention what it cost the people to build the temple in their day. But we know from the book of Ezra that they relied on help from the king, because Darius agreed to pay the costs from the royal treasury. And Christ our King has paid for the work in his temple, because he has paid for our sins with his life and by his blood we are cleansed and made holy so that we can be added to God’s holy temple. Unless Christ had paid for our sins with his life, we would be cut off from God and separated from him forever. And since he is the source of all that is good, then we would be separated from all that is good. But because Christ has paid for our sins, then we are added to God’s temple and brought near to him and can count on God for every good thing we need, as well as for eternal life in his presence.
And that brings me to my final point which is about eternal life in the presence of God. God wanted the people in Haggai’s day to build the temple, because the temple was the sign of God’s presence with them. And the great hope that Christ gives to all who trust in him is that one day, when he returns, we’ll be brought into God’s presence forever. And so, we read in Revelation of the new heavens and earth and of the new Jerusalem to come, of which you’ll be part if you trust in Christ. Now, it says that there will not be a temple in the new Jerusalem to come. But the reason there won’t be a temple there is because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. In other words, the new heavens and earth will be filled with their presence so that we will always be with the Lord and he will always be with us.
When we come to church on Sundays, God meets with us and he speaks to us from his word. What a privilege. What an honour. There’s nothing else like it, because it’s heaven on earth. But then the time comes for the service to end and we have to go home. But the day is coming when we’ll come into the presence of God in glory and we’ll never have to leave. And we’ll be able to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.