Haggai is not the plural of haggis. So far as we know the Children of Israel did not indulge in anything like our national delicacy. Nor did they enjoy fish suppers as such, with or without brown or curry sauce. And there were no such things as deep fried Mars bars in the ancient middle east. Haggai’s name means ‘my pilgrimage’ or ‘my Holy Day’. The decree of King Cyrus of Persia allowed the Jews to begin rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem in 536 BC. It is referred to specifically in the opening verses of the Book of Ezra.
“In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfil the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing: “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says:“‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’” Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. All their neighbours assisted them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with valuable gifts, in addition to all the freewill offerings”.
When the building of the Temple in Jerusalem started some of the surrounding peoples including the Samaritans harried the Jews and tried to hinder and stop the building. They succeeded for a time and nothing happened for some years until 520 BC. Even then, after the initial restarting, things fell a way again and the people focused on building their own houses instead. God raised Haggai up and he sought to recall the people to their first obligation to love and serve God. He roused them from their laziness and lack of commitment. He was the first of three post-exile prophets from the Babylonian Exile of the House of Judah (with Zechariah, his contemporary, and Malachi, who lived about one hundred years later), who belonged to the period of Jewish history which began after the return from captivity in Babylon.
Haggai was not ‘agin the government’ and he supported the leaders of his time, specifically Zerubbabel, the governor, and Joshua the High Priest. His ministry was helpful and effective because the rebuilding of the Temple began again. Haggai reports that three weeks after his first prophecy, the rebuilding of the Temple began on September 7 521 BC. "They came and began to work on the house of the LORD Almighty, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month in the second year of Darius the King. (Haggai 1:14–15) and the Book of Ezra indicates that it was finished on February 25 516 BC "The Temple was completed on the third day of the month Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius." (Ezra 6:15)
The Book of Haggai is a short book, consisting of only two chapters and it records Haggai’s criticisms, exhortations and encouragements which were crucial at the time. There is no biographical information given about the prophet himself. Haggai's message is filled with urgency. There had been a drought. Haggai attributed it to God’s judgement on the people's refusal to rebuild the Temple, which he saw as key to Jerusalem’s glory.
“Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. 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.” This, for Haggai, is life without God. It doesn’t work. The whole message of the Providence of God from the first to last pages of the Bible is that God can be trusted. Jesus Himself said, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Haggai made the connection between the drought and the falling away of the people from God. Haggai’s words have come down through the ages of Judaism and Christianity and are still used to rally Christian congregations from slumber and complacency, inertia and lack of commitment. Wonderful words! “You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why? Declares the Lord Almighty. Because of my house which remain a ruin, while each of you is busy with his own house”.
And here – if you can accept it – is a prophetic commentary on contemporary Scotland. We have plenty of food but people are not satisfied. We have better health care than ever but so many are unwell. Young people have freedom but so many are unhappy. We have licence to live as we please but family life has disintegrated. We have wealth and yet so many feel poor. We have political freedom but we have no purpose to our collective living. It is also a commentary on all the closed and empty churches of the land. Imagine what Haggai would say about the curry restaurants, carpet shops and mosques that inhabit redundant church buildings? Modern Scotland represents life without God. Our national identity is no longer associated with God. Christianity is no longer our guiding light. Jesus Christ is not our Lord. “Saviour, if of Zion’s city I through grace a member am, Let the world deride or pity, I will glory in your name. Fading are the worldlings’ pleasures, All their boasted pomp and show; Solid joys and lasting treasures None but Zion’s children know”. Having Jesus Christ at the centre of your life makes sense of it all. Having God at the centre of national life can raise us up out of our miserable self-interest, moaning and complaining into contentment and personal inward happiness.
Let us recognise the pattern of providence which John Calvin called ‘The Sovereignty of God’. The King of Persia Cyrus had a sense of the one living God which was strong enough for him to decide to resettle the Jews taken captive to Babylon back to their homeland. More than that, he felt a compulsion to make possible the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, the architectural symbol of Judaism. He even went further advising on the construction. In the history of the Jews he is highly regarded as a result. The People of God were not so enthusiastic however and preferred to build their own houses. This was contrary to the teaching of their tradition which asked them always to put God first in their lives. They were to give the first fruits and tithes of their produce and income to God. The promise was that if they did so, they would prosper thereafter. Here, in the time of Haggai, the people were not putting God first in their priorities. They were looking after themselves. But the only purpose of the Jews was to be witnesses to God. And so, in neglecting the building of the Temple, they were failing in their essential calling and purpose in the world. ‘The Sovereignty of God’ takes charge again. God calls and raises up a preacher prophet called Haggai to challenge the people by recalling them to their first obligation and by motivating them to put God first in their lives. Without Haggai, the rebuilding of the Temple may never have happened. At least, it might have been many years in the completion.
So - here’s an interesting thought. Will ‘The Sovereignty of God’ bring renewal and revival to Christianity in our land in our time? You could argue that as our nation abandons Christianity, we need the intervention of ‘The Sovereignty of God’. Evangelical Christians pray constantly for revival. Some pray for the return of the Lord Himself. The American Christian writer Philip Yancey thinks that it is futile for Christians to imagine that America can return to the 1950’s idyll of Christian Faith and family life. He sees a hard and difficult road for Christians in America and suggests that social action is the key to regaining respect in America’s post-Christian society. Preaching the Gospel as words alone, he thinks, is not going to be enough. To me, however, this suggests a weakening in the core message of Christianity. If it is not about the resurrection of Jesus, then it is about nothing. There is no other faith or philosophy that compares and no-one else offers this actual, personal, historical connection between our life and living and eternal life and living as Jesus does. But Yancey is seeking to redirect American evangelical Christianity from its worst excesses and exemplars, the television evangelists and damaging associations with the harsh political right wing into more humble humanitarian concerns, practice and service, following the example and teaching of Jesus Himself. After all, is it not true that the large scale humanitarian organisations in western societies were all inspired by Christianity, hospitals, schools, social care, concern for the weak and vulnerable?
“Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your panelled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” This is Haggai’s challenge. It is echoed in the words of the risen Jesus recorded in Revelation chapter two to the Church in Ephesus. “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from its place”. As early as the very first Christians there was a falling away, backsliding, loss of faith and failure in commitment. Some of this may have been caused by persecution but some was clearly due to spiritual weakness and shallowness of character. The warm flame of spiritual love for Christ had cooled and grown cold. Jesus warns the congregation at Ephesus “If you do not repent I will come and remove your lamp stand from its place”. This means that the blessing will be withdrawn and the congregation will fade further and die out. The Church at Ephesus did die out by 200 AD. Its doors were closed. It did not survive. Churches are closing in our time throughout the western world.
It comes back to people willing to persevere in Christian faith and commitment. People willing to put God first in their lives. People willing to be generous in time and money to their Church. It comes back to living confession and witness, to prayer and good works, to worship and praise. Haggai’s prophetic ministry was successful. The people rallied to his call and were motivated and inspired to complete the rebuilding of the Temple. Let us return to our first love, our Lord Jesus Christ. He is worthy of our devotion. He is the Saviour of the world.