An evangelical preacher whose sermons I enjoy often quotes Haggai, a prophet who doesn’t always get top billing among heavy hitters like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel.
That lack of recognition is somewhat understandable. Haggai had short ministry — just the last five months of 520 B.C. — that only fills a brief, two-chapter book bearing his name. He’s also mentioned in a few lines of Ezra, alongside fellow postexilic prophet Zechariah (Ezr 5:1, 6:14). It’s quite easy to flip through Scripture and miss Haggai altogether.
Yet he’s well worth reading, especially in these days of (in COVID slang) “doomscrolling,” or relentlessly surfing through bad news. Haggai knew all about demoralizing disasters, and he also knew that among the ruins, hope not only existed, but it was in fact snapping its fingers for God’s people to get to work and make it a reality.
At the time, the Jewish community in Judah found itself deeply discouraged. Some 70 years earlier, they had been conquered by the Babylonians, who destroyed the First Temple. Returning from exile in 541 B.C., they remained under Persian rule, which allowed them to practice their religion, but prevented them from reestablishing the monarchy. The result was an identity crisis: without a king or a Temple, they foundered.
Haggai didn’t mince words in sizing up the situation. “Reflect on your experience!” he exhorted the people. “You have sown much, but have brought in little; you have eaten, but have not been satisfied. … You expected much, but it came to little” (Hg 1:5,6,9).
Confusion and a lack of faith had inverted Judah’s priorities. The former Temple was left in ruins while the people focused on the short-term, building their own “paneled houses” — and the Lord made known his displeasure at such ingratitude: “Therefore, the heavens withheld the dew, and the earth its yield. And I have proclaimed a devastating heat upon the land and upon the mountains” (Hg 1:10-11).
Once Judah heeded the message, the Lord was equally swift to reassure them, declaring, “I am with you!” and “(stirring) up the spirit” of the people “so that they came to do the work in the house of the Lord of hosts, their God” (Hg 1:13, 14).
Reconstruction projects, though, can kick up the dust of regrets and wounds, tempting us to drop our tools and rub our eyes in despair. As Judah traced the outlines of the wasted Temple, God voiced what the people were already thinking: “Who saw this house in its former glory? And how do you see it now? Does it not seem like nothing in your eyes?” (Hg 2:3)
In response to what surely was a collective “yes,” the Lord consoled them: “My spirit remains in your midst; do not fear!” (Hg 2:5).
In fact, God would not only sustain Judah’s efforts, he would exceed them, transforming tragedy into a joy they could not begin to comprehend: “Greater will be the glory of this house, the latter more than the former, says the Lord of hosts” (Hg 2:9).
Those words are meant for us today, and more than ever as we face a resurgence of the pandemic, economic decline and a contentious presidential election. Lamenting the frayed fabric of our nation and our world, we may throw up our hands and long for a yesterday that really wasn’t as perfect or as desirable as we may think. Or we may entrench ourselves and labor, in fleshly effort, for a tomorrow that is not ours to build alone. Neither course will serve the kingdom of God.
Before he fashioned creation, the divine architect already knew that our first parents would cause structural damage through sin. And as the cracks spread rapidly moments after their disobedience, the Lord revealed a plan of redemption that would ensure for us something even better — an eternal home built by Christ, who would “strike at (the) head” of the enemy (Gen 3:15).
In him, we find a dwelling place whose beauty “eye has not seen” (1 Cor 2:9; cf. Is 64:4) — the heart of the Lord himself, unchanged and unchanging, and waiting to welcome all in love.
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