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Repressed Faith (Haggai 1:1–12)

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

Growing in the Christian faith

For many of us, Covid has been a sickness of the lungs, and the heart. It has at times challenged and perhaps even repressed our faith and devotion in Jesus Christ. But like the lion, Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, breathing life into stone-cold statues, Jesus is breathing new life into the church, and our hearts, calling each of us now by name to participate in his glorious kingdom work.

I have the wonderful privilege to begin the 5-part series, From Ruin to Renewal. We have called this section, Repressed Faith. But first, we need to consider some fascinating background.

The prophet, Haggai lived among the Jews who had returned to Judea after about 70 years of exile in Babylon, modern-day Iraq. The Babylonians had invaded Judea and taken all the people into exile but left the poorest people behind. Later, Cyrus the Great, a Persian ruler, captured Babylon. A year later he allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. Within a year after returning from Babylon, the Jews had laid the foundation for the new temple, but when opposition arose the building project was put on hold.

The prophetic ministry of Haggai aligns with what we read about in the book of Ezra and Nehemiah. God spoke through Haggai to encourage everyone after they had returned from exile to renew their efforts to rebuild the temple. The Lord sent the prophet to the governor of Judah, Zerubbabel, and the high priest, Joshua to mobilize the Jewish people to participate in the restoration of the temple. The Babylonians had destroyed the temple and the walls of Jerusalem when they had invaded Judea some time back. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah were called by God to charge the people to stop focusing on their economic well-being and complete the construction of the Lord’s house. This was God’s initiative because now that people were returning, he desired to renew a covenant relationship with them.

The passage opens up with a fascinating chain of command to get the project on the move. God calls Haggai and gives him a message to proclaim to the governor of Judah and the high priest, and from there the message is proclaimed to everyone. Like a mega burger, you have the chain of command at the start and the end of the passage, and in the centre, you have layers of God’s message to his people. This message to the ancient Jews is much the same for us today, for we too have been in exile during the lockdowns and have lost momentum, perhaps even for some our devotion to Jesus and love for his church has waned.

The Lord begins by saying, “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the LORD’s house.’” He knows what they think. He knows that people are brilliant procrastinators, we all share that trait, don’t we? The people put off building the house of the Lord, thinking the time to rebuild is not here yet, let’s postpone it. I can imagine God saying, “If not now, when? There is no better time than right now!”

In the NIV translation, God shows himself as ‘the Lord Almighty’, which is fair, but the Hebrew has יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת meaning, ‘the Lord of Hosts’, or ‘the Lord of Armies’. God does this to emphasize his majestic sovereignty, universal rule, and power, which would have pricked up the ears of the Jews who lived in the post-exile world of great empires and armies.

I am the head of student research at the South African Theological Seminary, and occasionally, the registrar calls me, “I am struggling to get the attention of one of our PhD examiners to submit their report. I need someone with a Dr. before their name to leverage some authority.” Within an hour of sending my email, we get the report. I am quite happy being called Robert, but sometimes you need to use whatever means are at our disposal to get the job done, and this is what is going on here. God uses the language of the great empires of the time to get the attention of his people, “This is what the Lord of Hosts says”.

Now that he has told the people who he is in a way that they can understand, and that he knows what they are thinking, he challenges them, “Where is your priority? Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in opulent houses while my house is still a ruin? We are told that these opulent houses were panelled, and in the Old Testament, such construction was associated with the temple (1 Kings 6:9) and the royal palace (2 Kings 7:3, 7). It smacks of luxury and decoration. The unseemliness of the people living in such lavish homes while the temple remained unfinished and in ruins is striking. It was wrong-headed, people focused on their comfortable private homes, but were inattentive to their celestial King who was in a way ‘homeless’.

The Lord of Hosts calls upon the ancient Jews to reflect carefully on their ways. To think about their attitude and their current situation. Whatever work they did seems futile and gives them no satisfaction. They work hard but have little to show for it. The Lord says:

- You have planted much, but 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.

Plant … Eat … drink … clothe … earn wages, as long as one only cares for themselves and their families, their labour will lead to frustration. So, the Lord says, “Stop and think about your ways.” Their comfort is more urgent than the building of the temple. No wonder they had a frustrating yield.

Although you and I might find ourselves in another situation with different consequences, let us not make the mistake of saying that the words of the Lord here are irrelevant for us today, for the Lord of Hosts is calling you and me as well to reflect carefully upon our attitude and our ways. For we have come out of lockdowns, a very odd sort of exile, but an exile, nonetheless.

In verse 7, the Lord repeats the call to “Give careful thought to your ways”. And then he commands his people to go up into the mountains and bring down timber, and then to build his temple. Keep in mind that the temple before; the one that was destroyed was the one that Solomon built. That temple was built with fine cedar wood imported from Lebanon. However, in these circumstances and the urgency in which the Lord is calling his people to begin construction, he tells them to cut down trees from a local mountain. In other words, the Lord asks them to give what they have, there is no need to be extravagant and fancy, any wood would do. The Lord provides the reason for the urgency of building his temple, he wants to take pleasure in it and to be honoured. It’s the age-old principle that when our priorities are set in order, God’s blessings flow, and our lives begin to change.

I can’t but help see the correlation between God’s command to the ancient Jews and you and me today. God gives the command, “Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house.” The command is expressed in the word, ‘go’. And in the Great Commission we are commanded, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). In Greek, the command is not shown by the word ‘go’ but on the verb, ‘make’. But still, the Jews were told to build a house for the Lord, and we are commanded to make disciples of all nations and to teach them all that Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:19–20).

We see this relationship between the temple and discipling the nations when the prophet Isaiah proclaims, “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it” (Isaiah 2:2). You and I are called to participate even now in our local church and community to disciple the nations and build his church. In part, this is what the Alpha course and our home groups are all about. Secondly, God is not calling us to be extravagant and be professional at everything. Remember, he told the Jews to get timber from the local mountain. And so, with us, he is simply calling us to use the little that we have. Or to put it even more plainly, the Lord is telling you and me, “Local is lakka”.

These ancient Jews who had returned from exile had repressed their faith in God. They expected to get much from their work, but they did not honour God, and put themselves first, resulting in drought and famine (Haggai 1:10–11). If only they had their priorities straight and took care of the house of the Lord first, then they would have received rich blessings from the Lord.

The temple of the Lord was the very centre of Jewish faith and life. It was where heaven and earth met, because this was where God dwelled among his people. God’s presence came to dwell in Moses’ tabernacle, and again in Solomon’s temple. Sadly, we never read in Scripture that his presence came to dwell in this temple, the one that was to be rebuilt. Finally, in Herod’s temple, God himself in the person of Jesus Christ came into the temple to teach and make disciples.

The chain of communication is repeated at the close of the passage; remember the mega burger. It goes like this: God ® Haggai ® Zerubbabel (governor of Judah) ® Joshua (the high priest) ® the people. Everyone is involved in the temple project, and so it is for us in the church today. Like the ancient Jews, all of us, from the ministers to the little ones in Sunday school, we all need to respond in obedience to the Lord. And our response needs to be in the right kind of fear. Not of dread, but in faith and glorious reverence that we serve the Lord of Hosts, our wonderful king, our Prince of Peace.

As we have come out of lockdowns and the church is filling up again. Let us get our priorities straight by asking God to fill our hearts with active faith. As a church, we need to ask him what he is calling us to do, and for each of us, we need to find ways to express this living faith in our church and community. Remember, he calls us to come as we are with the little we have. May Jesus take pleasure in our community of believers and be honored among us. Amen.


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