“A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God” (Isaiah 10:21). Though Israel had gone into captivity, the Lord promised that He would bring a remnant back to the land. Isaiah prophesied that Cyrus would be the Lord’s instrument (Isaiah 44:28). God was indeed faithful, and a remnant of Israel returned, just as He had promised (Ezra 1). In 538 B.C., the exiles returned to Jerusalem and began the work of rebuilding. In the second year of their return, they began the great undertaking of rebuilding the Temple (Ezra 3:8-13). Who could be anything except thankful for what the Lord had done for His people?
But zeal for this work flagged. What must have been a fire for the Lord had reduced to barely smoldering ashes. The Samaritans opposed the work after Zerubbabel rejected their offer (Ezra 4:1-5). Those who returned began to intermarry with the people of the land, Samaritans and others (Ezra 9:1-2). It seemed like a lot of work that would take a long time to complete. Perhaps things were better this way. Perhaps they would get around to finishing what they started, but they needed to settle in first. Work on the temple ceased for many years.
This was the situation Haggai faced. “These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord” (Haggai 1:2). They were complacent and more interested in secular affairs. Business needed to be done. Families needed to be cared for. The temple could wait. But the Lord declared: “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins” (Haggai 1:4)? You are concerned for the welfare of your own houses, while the welfare of the house of God goes to ruin. Good intentions for the temple weren’t enough.
There is an important warning from Haggai for the Church in the present, especially in the United States. This is an age of materialism, an age which has brought forth a level of prosperity which finds virtually no parallel in history. The great temptation is to be concerned for the things of this world, for the bread which perishes. Wealth has a way of drawing attention to itself.
But Haggai’s warning isn’t simply one of where funding needs to be directed. Money is one consideration, to be sure, but the material welfare of the Temple is not the main point in this passage. After all, David desired to build the first Temple for the Lord, recognizing a disparity between his cedar house and the tent of the Tabernacle (2 Samuel 7:1-3). But the Lord did not command him to do it. “In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar’” (2 Samuel 7:7)?
Rather, Haggai speaks against the smoldering zeal of Israel, the mindset which is more interested in the things of the world than in the things of God. Neglect of God’s house is one way in which this mindset shows itself. By becoming so focused on worldly things, God is pushed out of the picture. Woe to those who forget the Lord who gave them houses and cisterns and vineyards (Deuteronomy 6:10-12)!
But neglect is not the only way this mindset appears, as it happened in the days of Haggai. Christians can also become worldly minded while seeming to serve the Lord. Do we not observe Your feasts, O Lord, and give what we have to Your sanctuary? Have we not raised a mighty house to Your name and sing Your praises with a beautiful worship service? “Did we not prophesy in Your name, and cast out demons in Your name, and do many mighty works in Your name” (Matthew 7:22)?
In the same way that Paul speaks about the value of circumcision in Romans 3:1, a beautiful church has much to commend it. But a beautiful sanctuary can be devoid of the Word. Elaborate vestments can be distracting. Some of the most magnificent liturgies in the world proclaim blatant lies. Nor does a lack of these things mean that our worship is automatically more acceptable to God. As Amos says, ““I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).
Rather, the Lord is worshiped in Spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24). Blessed is the one who hears the Word of God and keeps it (Luke 11:28). As Jesus said to Judas, the son of James, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him” (John 14:23). A living faith, given and sustained by the Holy Spirit, makes our sacrifice pleasing in God’s sight (Hebrews 11:4). Such a faith will not neglect the things of God’s house, nor will it be pleased with merely the externals in themselves. Certainly, the beauty of the Temple and of our churches is of value in every way. It is not by nature bad or useless. But a Christian is one who worships inwardly and not only outwardly.