The next book in what we call the “Minor Prophets” (so called due to size, not importance) is Haggai. He’s post-exilic, meaning he lived and prophesied after King Darius allowed the exiles from Judah and Israel to return to their homeland. For obvious reasons, the returnees had a really hard time when they returned. The infrastructure was completely shot, Jerusalem still lay in ruins, and the wall surrounding the city was broken down, leaving all its citizens vulnerable. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story.
But if you read the book of Ezra, you might notice something rather striking. When the exiles returned, the first thing on their agenda was the temple. The once-great structure that was meant to be the envy of the nations and to draw them from the four corners of the earth into worshiping the Lord was completely torn apart by the Babylonians. Partly to discourage the Israelites and partly to plunder any valuable artifacts, they tore it apart piece by piece.
And when the exiles returned, rebuilding and resanctifying the temple and getting it back into operation was priority one. But over time, the hands of the workers grew tired. They encountered severe opposition from their neighbors and were accused of plotting rebellion against King Darius. So the work stopped.
That’s where Haggai—called by the Lord—stepped in.
Please keep in mind that the original Hebrew didn’t have punctuation like we think of it. There was no exclamation mark or italics or bold font to express emphasis. So the main way God’s word emphasizes something we need to pay attention to is by use of repetition. Let me reiterate: If the Bible repeats a word or phrase, then that’s something we need to pay extra attention to.
Here the Lord twice tells the exiles “Give careful thought to your ways.” If they were paying attention, they might have noticed that the Lord didn’t seem to be blessing their efforts at rebuilding their nation. Let’s say they planted a crop and reasonably expected a return of X amount in their harvest. And they got half that. They never really got enough to eat or drink and be satisfied. They never had enough clothes to keep warm. They earned money, only to see it lost.
If they listened to Haggai, then they wouldn’t have to wonder about the cause. Mystery solved: They were doing something that seriously offended the Lord. Specifically they were going back to rebuilding their own houses while neglecting his.
Now, we need to think this through using the whole of Scripture. Why was the Lord so adamant about this? Did he really “live” in the temple like a person lives in a house? Of course not. Solomon, the builder of the original temple, knew better than this (see the link above). God is omnipresent. He fills heaven and earth to overflowing. Technically speaking, you’re no more in his presence in a temple or church building than anywhere else. And we no longer have a building as a temple; every believer is a temple of the Holy Spirit.
But the temple was the official meeting place for worshipers of the God of Israel. It was there that sacrifices were made. But it wasn’t for the Lord’s sake but for the peoples’ sake that he wanted them to finish the project. And by neglecting the rebuilding the temple, that showed something disturbing about their priorities.
So how can we apply this, since we don’t have a physical temple anymore? I think we need to move past the immediate problem of building a temple to the attitude which the Lord was condemning here. Where do his values fit into my priorities? Do I neglect what he considers important in favor of my own selfish interests? Do I neglect my personal or corporate time with him in favor of my own convenience and gratification? Which “house” gets more of my attention?
If you’ll excuse me, I think I need some Spirit-examination here.
Father God, I hear you saying to me: “Give careful thought to your ways.” You deserve the best worship and the best worshipers. Inside and out, please cleanse me and remove anything that distracts me from you.