Building the House of the Lord — Reflections on Haggai 1:1-15
Have you ever been scolded by a parent, a teacher, or an employer that you needed to get your priorities right? I can certainly recall times in my life when I had a severe case of misplaced priorities. It just seemed that what my parents and teachers wanted me to do wasn’t as important to me as watching cartoons on television or playing outside with my friends.
In the history of God’s people, there have been many times when they had a case of misplaced priorities. God’s people in the OT are often described as a “stiff-necked people,” meaning they were stubborn as all get out. In particular, the people of Haggai’s time were certainly suffering from misplaced priorities. Perhaps a little background is in order.
Throughout the period of the divided kingdom of Israel and Judah, God’s people went through various periods of apostasy and faithfulness. The northern kingdom of Israel immediately went off the rails and down the path of idolatry and unfaithfulness. Judah, the southern kingdom had its ups-and-downs, but in the end, they too succumbed to covenant unfaithfulness. All through this period, God sent prophets to warn the people that if they didn’t get their act together, God will enact the covenant curses spelled out in Deuteronomy 28:15ff. These curses included eventual deportation, which is what happened to Israel in 722BC (to Assyria) and Judah in 586BC (to Babylon).
This exile was predicted by the prophet Jeremiah to last 70 years (Jeremiah 25:11-12), and after Babylon was conquered by the Persian Empire, Cyrus, king of Persia, began allowing deportees to return to their land of origin—this included many Jews who were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city wall and the temple.
This generation of returning Jews to Jerusalem are the people to whom Haggai the prophet was sent (ca. 520BC). The people who had returned under the leadership of Zerubabel, son of Shealtiel, and Joshua, son of Jehozadok, started to rebuild the temple, but began to face fierce opposition from the people who had settled in Palestine (you can read about this in Ezra 3-4). As a result, the people postponed the rebuilding of the temple, and instead began their own rebuilding projects. They had a case of misplaced priorities.
Along comes Haggai who delivers a stinging indictment to the people by saying “Consider your ways!” (Haggai 1:5). In other words, “Think about what you’re doing!” Using their own words against them, the Lord of Hosts, through the prophet Haggai, says to the people, “You say it’s not time to build the house of the Lord...is it time to dwell in your paneled houses while My house lies in ruins?” (Haggai 1:2, 4). CONSIDER YOUR WAYS!!! What the people were doing was instead of rebuilding the temple, they were “templeizing” their own houses (the word for “paneled houses” is used in 1 Kings 6:9 to describe the decorations of Solomon’s temple).
The Lord tries to get the people to connect the dots between the temple which lies in ruins and their own fruitless labor (Haggai 1:6). They have sown much, but reaped little, they eat but remain hungry, they drink but remain thirsty, they put one clothes but are still cold, and they earn wages to put them into a bag with holes. The people are barely able to scratch by because they have neglected the Lord’s priorities, and instead have improved their own homes.
When God’s people pursue God’s kingdom they receive God’s blessing. This is a spiritual axiom. God rewards obedience and punishes disobedience, and we see it here in Haggai 1:1-15. Now the good news is that in Haggai 1:12, we see that the people respond to the Lord’s challenges with renewed vigor. The text says they “obeyed the voice of the Lord their God...and the people did fear before the Lord.” Obedience and fear (reverence) is the proper response of God’s people when they are convicted of their sin. The people get their priorities straight and begin to rebuild the temple with gusto. As a result, instead of “Consider your ways,” the Lord says to the people “I am with you” (Haggai 1:13). These are words of gospel assurance!
Now this is an interesting story, but how does this apply to the Christian in the 21st century? Are we to rebuild the temple today? Clearly the answer to this question is “no.” However, we need to understand what the temple represented to the people of God. The temple is representative of God’s presence among His people. From the Garden-Temple in Eden, to the Tabernacle at Sinai, to the Temple in Jerusalem, these are all modes, or manners, in which God dwelled among His people. When the tabernacle was built at the end of Exodus, we learn that the glory of God came down and filled the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34). The same thing happened when Solomon’s temple was completed (1 Kings 8:10-11).
Fast forward to the Gospel of John, when in John 1:14, we read, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the OT temple—He is God dwelling among us, He is full of the glory of the Lord. Later on in John 2:19, Jesus said (regarding the temple) “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” John later goes on to say that Jesus was speaking of the temple of His body (John 2:21). The body of Christ is the fulfillment of the temple. This refers not only to His literal body, but also to the church, which is the body of Christ.
Therefore, rebuilding the temple is building the church, the kingdom of God. This is accomplished through the means of the Great Commission: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Teaching them to observes all things whatsoever I have commanded you, and, lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world. Amen!” (Matthew 28:19-20).