by Doug Smith
You’ve probably heard about or seen the object lesson where someone takes a jar and fills it with big rocks, gravel, sand, and then water. The point of the lesson is that if you don’t get the big rocks in first, you won’t get them in at all. In other words, if you neglect the important things in life, other things will press in and crowd them out. We need to make sure we have our priorities right.
The book of Haggai chronicles God’s message to people who had let their creature comforts crowd out their priority of fully restoring the public worship of God. The Jewish audience was composed of those who had returned to the land under the auspices of rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians who carried the Jews into captivity in 586 B.C. They began the project, laying the foundation, but soon quit due to opposition (Ezra 3:8-6:18). They would go on to complete the work (Ezra 6:14), but first they needed some serious reminders from God. By the time Haggai the prophet (a contemporary of the prophet Zechariah) brought them God’s message in 520 B.C., sixteen years had passed. The people were living in nice, paneled houses while God’s house still lay in ruins (1:4). God had sent agricultural and economic hardship to get their attention (1:6, 9-11). Haggai’s message was this: consider your ways and get to work rebuilding the temple (1:5, 7-8). The people got the message and got to work (1:12).
God is not calling us to travel to Jerusalem and begin working on a construction project on the ruined temple there now. The application for us is to build our spiritual lives, as individuals and corporately. Christ Himself is the fulfillment of the temple – it is through Him that we have access to God (Jn. 2:19-22; Heb. 10:19-22). If you are not a follower of Jesus Christ, the first priority is that you come to God through Him. You must repent of your rebellion and place your trust in Him who died as a sacrifice in the place of sinners so that God’s wrath against them could be removed and that they could have eternal life in knowing Him.
Now that Christ has ascended and given His Spirit, we who are Christians are the temple. This is true for us as individuals (1 Cor. 6:19) and as His church (1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16). God dwells with us and in us. The Jews needed to restore the public worship of the temple as a testimony to the living God who was worthy of worship. We need to live for God’s pleasure to display His glory (1:8). Therefore, we need to make sure we have the right priorities.
There are several ways to discover what are priorities truly are. How we use our time and money are chief indicators. Our goals, or lack of them, and how we pursue or don’t pursue them may show where our treasure is. Our prayer life, including the content of our prayers (and indeed if we pray at all), reveals much about us. Our commitment to hearing God’s Word through reading the Bible and diligently listening to preaching is likely to be quite telling as well. The presence or absence of family worship in our homes and the quality and consistency of our relationships with others in the local church may also help us assess our priorities. Do we think of others? Are we living lives that show joy in God, denial of self, and loving service to others? We need to consider our ways. What and who are we living for? What do we hope for ourselves and our children to accomplish and why? Let us see that, as individuals and as God’s people, we are evidencing a heart of worship through obedient lives ordered by God’s priorities.
Getting our priorities right is important, but it is not enough. It is insufficient to simply be committed to an idea or vision on paper. One must implement these priorities and be committed to persevering in them, despite difficulties. Haggai encouraged the Jews, and reminds us, to do just this.
Haggai reminds us of God’s help. The people became discouraged by memories of the previous temple and its glory (2:3). Haggai encourages them to look for their help in the LORD, who brought them out of Egypt, who will shake heaven and earth, and who has all resources (2:5-8). The encouragement to be strong and the reminder that God is with them may echo David’s words to Solomon, who first built the temple (1 Chron. 28:20). These words are addressed to the leaders, Joshua the high priest and Zerubbabel the governor, as well as the people (2:2, 4).
Church leaders and congregations may become discouraged at their lives or ministries when they compare them with how things used to be or with others that seem to be blooming. But we must remember that God has not called us to live in the past, to reconstruct the “glory days,” or to imitate the latest church growth fad in order to get the appearance of success. He has called us to faithful obedience to His Word. He is our strength and help. And what He chooses to accomplish through us should not be despised as something worthless.
Haggai reminds the people that holiness is not contagious, but uncleanness is (2:10-14). Yet from their time of obedience, God would bless them (2:15ff.). This may refer to the contaminating nature of their previous disobedience among one another, or perhaps to sinful attitudes and behaviors that remained even after they began rebuilding. Either way, they are instructed in the importance of holiness. We too should persevere in holiness, valuing God’s blessing and desiring to encourage God’s people, knowing that our sinful attitudes and disobedience can easily infect others (cf. the warning about the root of bitterness in Heb. 12:14-15).
Finally, Haggai would have us hope in the sovereign power and plan of God. God has the final word in history. He promises to overthrow thrones and kingdoms and to make Zerubbabel his signet ring, a symbol of authority and blessing (2:21-23). Ultimately this promise is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who is of Zerubbabel’s line (Matt. 1:12-13; Lk. 3:27). Though we may face opposition, we must remember that God keeps His word. The coming of Christ, His perfect life and death for sinners, His resurrection and ascension give us hope in the One who overthrows thrones and kingdoms and gives salvation to all who repent of their rebellion against Him and trust in Him alone. It is this hope that enables us to persevere in our priorities and glorify God.