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Haggai - A Lesson in Obedience


by Dennis Pollock

I think it would be fair to say that most Christians have never read the tiny book of Haggai, nestled obscurely among the Old Testament “minor prophets.” With its two short chapters it is second only to the book of Obadiah in its brevity among the books of the Old Testament. And yet within this brief collection of four sermonettes and a few explanatory verses, a powerful point is made, and a truth is revealed that is just as relevant today as it was in the days when these messages were first delivered.

While most of the prophetic books deal with the time just before or during the Babylonian captivity, in Haggai this time has passed. The Medes and Persians have conquered mighty Babylon and God has moved on the heart of King Cyrus to allow the captive Jews to return to their homeland. Many of them elected to stay where they were. Still many Jews did make the return and were urged on by men like Ezra and Nehemiah to rebuild both the city of Jerusalem and the temple of God.

The Dream Dies

Things went well for a while, but the neighboring peoples, especially the Samaritans, were not at all happy about the restoration of Israel, and within a few years their stiff opposition and resistance caused all plans of building and restoration to be put on hold. By the time of the Book of Haggai, sixteen years had passed since the Jews laid aside the idea of a rebuilt temple, and contented themselves to build new houses and new lives for themselves. As the years passed, the image of a new temple faded from the consciousness of the people of Israel.

The people of God had spiritually fallen asleep and it would take the loud, jarring sound of a blunt, prophetic alarm clock to wake them from their slumber. Enter the prophet Haggai. The book that bears his name begins with the prophet going to the two most influential Jews in the land, the governor Zerubbabel and the High Priest, Joshua. No trifling with middlemen here. Haggai went straight to the top and indignantly declared, “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, and this temple to lie in ruins?” Somehow God’s servant had never read the manual about being a seeker-sensitive, soft-spoken, smile-all-the-time preacher whose number one goal is never to offend anyone at any time.

It got worse. Haggai had the audacity to tell these two dignitaries that the current, miserable drought in Israel was due to their disobedience in this one area. He forcefully declared:

“You have sown much, and bring in little;
You eat, but do not have enough;
You drink, but you are not filled with drink;
You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm;
And he who earns wages,
Earns wages to put into a bag with holes.”

Speaking for YHWY, the God of Israel, Haggai instructed Israel’s leaders, “Go up to the mountains and bring wood and build the temple, that I may take pleasure in it and be glorified, says the LORD.” It would seem that God had patiently waited sixteen years for Israel to resume her temple building project, but rather than moving forward they had moved so far backward that the idea of the restoration of the temple had become “out of sight and out of mind.”

Real Repentance

One of the most unique and astonishing things about this situation is that Israel’s leaders and her people actually took the prophetic exhortation to heart. Joshua and Zerubbabel did not make excuses; they did not argue; they did not delay. The Scriptures tell us that they obeyed God’s voice and “feared His presence.” Within a very short time temple construction was resumed. As with Nineveh under the preaching of Jonah, the people believed the prophet’s word, repented, and made the necessary changes called for by God. Within weeks you could see builders with shovels, hammers, and pickaxes out at the temple site doing the work that had for so many years been neglected.

There were far fewer workers than Solomon had used in the building of the temple in his day, and this replacement temple was much more simple and far less dazzling than the original. Still God was pleased. His people had gone from a place of disobedience to obedience, from rebellion to compliance, from selfish pursuits to godly ones, and that is always a good thing. Through His servant He promised the Jews: “As yet the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree have not yielded fruit. But from this day I will bless you” (Haggai 2:19).

I have always found that to be an amazing verse and an incredible promise. Sometimes the seasons of our lives open and close in such gentle, subtle phases that it is hard to determine where one ends and the other begins. But here God promises that the Israelites will be able to look back at this precise day and recognize that the blessings of God were released upon their nation exactly then. And why that day? Because that was the day that the foundation of the Lord’s house was laid. Obedience to God’s word had broken the logjam, demolished every blockage, and smashed open the dam for the refreshing waters of heaven’s blessings to overflow onto God’s people. No more drought, no more hail and blight and mildew, no more fruitless orchards. Obedience to an unseen God had resulted in very tangible blessings that all would see and enjoy.

Is it Relevant?

Some may protest that this Old Testament story, buried so deep among the little-read prophets, has no relevance for Christians today. After all, are we not forgiven and justified through the blood of Jesus? And does not that forgiveness and justification apply to us past, present, and future, so that God blesses us entirely on the basis of Jesus and doesn’t really care whether we sin a little, a lot, or in mega-doses? So why should we worry about whether we have some kind of sin in our lives? Even if we do, surely it will never stop the blessings of God from falling upon us continually and continuously!

There is some truth to all of that, but there is a lot of error. It is true that our justification through Christ does not come and go. We are not saved on our good days and lost on our bad ones. We are God’s forgiven children every hour of every day, because of the substitutionary death of Jesus on the Cross and the power of His resurrection.

But this by no means suggests that God gives us a “sin-all-you-can, as-heartily-as-you-can, with-all-the-strength-you-have” license. The Bible tells us plainly, “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity” (2 Timothy 2:19). John writes, “He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4). Although in Christ we live in a continual state of justification, God can still be upset with us when we engage in continual, defiant disobedience of His word. And He can still discipline His erring children.

Loved and Disciplined

In Hebrews we read:

My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the LORD loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives. If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten?

To chasten means to discipline and the implication here is that this discipline will involve pain. It will sting, it will hurt, indeed it may very well bring us to tears. You may ask, “How could a loving God do such a thing to His children?” But the writer of Hebrews has already anticipated your argument, and declared that it is precisely because He loves us, and because we are His children that He administers such painful discipline. We sometimes feel that compared to ungodly people, we cannot get away with much. After all, the ungodly seem to be doing so well and living so blissfully, even though their lives seem far more selfish and sinful than ours. But perhaps one of the reasons things seem this way is because God leaves the ungodly alone. They are not His children. He will deal with them at that awesome Day of Judgment, but for now He leaves them to slowly perish in their pleasures, successes, and carnal desires. We Christians, however, will face discipline in this life, and sometimes that discipline may result in blessings being withheld, prayers going unanswered, and painful situations that never seem to improve. When we find ourselves in such situations perhaps, at least in some cases, we need to consider that there is a blockage in our lives which must be removed.

Jonathan Goforth

Jonathan GoforthOne of the more unknown revivalists whose life has touched me deeply was a missionary to China by the name of Jonathan Goforth. This man had relatively small results in his ministry until he began a Biblical study of the Holy Spirit. Somehow as he studied the Third Person of the Trinity, he was changed. The Holy Spirit began to fall upon people, churches, and groups wherever he ministered. Multitudes were saved, and churches that had been laboring on for decades with almost no growth suddenly found new life and doubled and tripled in size.

Wherever Goforth went, he gave simple but convicting messages aimed toward the personal lives of the believers. He encouraged Christians who lived with guilt, broken relationships, and bad habits to repent and make things right with God and their brothers. He believed that then, and only then, would the Holy Spirit fall upon their churches and their community and bring the ungodly to Christ. Often the anointing of the Spirit would be so strong that Christians who had been regarded as pillars of their church would be on their faces on the floor, crying out bitterly to God for forgiveness. Others would rush to another believer with whom they had had a conflict, and eagerly ask their forgiveness. Often there would be times of confession where Christians would stand up one after another and confess their pride, or theft, or any number of other things.

At some point the climate of the meetings would change. The emphasis would shift to the sinners and Goforth would preach the simple gospel of Jesus Christ to them. Although he was not as dynamic as many of the more well-known preachers like Charles Spurgeon or D. L. Moody, still, sinners would be saved wholesale during his meetings. At the heart of Goforth’s revival theology was the belief that the Holy Spirit was more than eager to bring spiritual awakening to the people of God, but the obstacle of unconfessed and unrepentant sin must first be removed. Where there was prayer among the people of God, and repentance where it was needed, revival was sure to follow. In essence it was the book of Haggai all over again: turn from your disobedience and “from this day forth I will bless you.”

Individually

But this principle is not only significant to the corporate people of God; it is just as relevant in our individual lives. Shortly after the Day of Pentecost the apostle Peter was preaching Jesus to a group of Jews in Jerusalem. After a brief impromptu sermon, he told his audience: “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19). He placed an unbreakable link between repentance and “times of refreshing.” Of course in that context he meant the refreshing waters of salvation that follow repentance and faith in Jesus, but the principle holds true throughout our lives, even after we have been born again. Often when we are tired and weary, and our lives feel as dry and lifeless as the Sahara Desert, what may be needed is repentance. Perhaps it is time to ask the Holy Spirit, “Is there anything in my life that I am either doing or not doing, that may be blocking the refreshing, life-giving waters of heaven from being poured out on me?”

The Bible tells us that “obedience is better than sacrifice.” In Haggai’s day, Israel could have had prayer meetings every day for decades, but until they repented of their unconcern and began to build the temple of God, there would have been no blessings. Sometimes it is the same with us. And after dealing with that area of offense, it may well be that we will hear God’s voice assuring us, “From this day forth I will bless you!”


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