Here’s an edited manuscript of the sermon I delivered at Word of Life Baptist Church on August 30th, 2020. I have removed the introduction and a few other parts that didn’t lend themselves to this blog format.
If you’d rather listen to this sermon than read it, you can find the link to the YouTube recording here on Word of Life Baptist Church’s YouTube channel (here).
The Wish Dream (Haggai 1:1-2:23)
When was the last time you felt disappointed?
Maybe it was because of a small or silly thing. Maybe you went over the local bakery this morning hoping to get your favorite flavor of bagel only to find that there weren’t any left. And the one you got tasted a little bit like saran wrap anyways.
But disappointment isn’t always silly, right? Most of us know that all too well in this particular climate.
Maybe you received the news that your kids football season was postponed, or that their school wasn’t going to be doing a completely in person class for the semester. Maybe you had to cancel your family’s vacation this year, or at least dramatically alter your plans. Maybe you weren’t able to see that family member who lives across the United States or weren’t able to attend your niece or nephews wedding. Maybe you weren’t able to be at the hospital when your grandchild was born. Or maybe you’ve even got something that’s been following you for quite some time, a life-long disappointment that just haunts you to your very core.
Well, whatever it might be for you, whether the disappointment you’ve had to face in life has been big or small, I want you to try to remember how that felt for you as we set the scene for what’s happening in the book of Haggai.
Now, we are only going to look at a small piece of it in just a moment, but the events that led up to Haggai’s prophecy are actually recorded in the book of Ezra chapters 1 through 3. If you’d like to follow along you can turn there, but make sure you keep a thumb in Haggai as well.
But before we read a bit of Ezra chapter 3, picture this scene:
Israel has been in exile for around 70 years.
The people of God saw their former cities burned to the ground and their houses ransacked by the Babylonians and the Edomites. They watched as their entire livelihood was stripped from them as they were forced to leave their homeland and sent to live in towns not their own. More than this though, and something many Israelites probably didn’t even believe to be possible; the people saw their Temple ransacked and destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and his men. The Babylonians first broke down the walls of the city of Jerusalem, lit ablaze the Temple and the royal palace, and took all of the priestly vessels of gold and silver as loot.
But now, God had led his people back home.
The Babylonians were overthrown by Persia. Kings Cyrus and Darius were much more tolerant kings than Nebuchadnezzar. They even returned to the people of Israel their stolen temple vessels as well as enough money to rebuild the destroyed Jerusalem. Israel literally had hands filled with gold and hearts filled with hope.
And as we will see in the book of Ezra, God’s people get right to work.
Bubbling over with excitement and overjoyed to be back in their homeland, the people of God begin to rebuild the Temple starting with the foundation and the alter. And once they have the foundation completely formed, they bring out some priests all dressed up in their holy vestments, along with cymbals and trumpets, and they sing songs of praise to God for delivering them out of exile and allowing them to rebuild. They spared no expense. They brought out all the fanfare. They we so excited!
However, look what Ezra says in 3:11-13.
Can you feel the disappointment in that text?
Some of the younger folks thought that this Temple was great, but those who remembered the glory of the past wept with a loud voice. The spender of the old days was gone. The might of Solomon’s temple was no longer. And the promising future in the land that they dreamed about while in exile was not happening quite like they hoped. In fact, just about nothing was happening quite like they’d dreamed it would.
Enter the prophet Haggai.
And this was a man sent by the Lord to speak words of encouragement. He appeared on the scene about 16 years after the events of Ezra chapter 3, that section of scripture we just read. More than a decade after that event. But it’s clear that the people are still no better off than in Ezra’s day.
Haggai exhorts the disappointed Israelites to rebuild the Temple (Haggai 1:1-6)
Like I mentioned a moment ago, about 16 years has passed since the nation of Israel returned to Jerusalem and began the Temple rebuilding process. 16 years since the fanfare. But it seems like they hadn’t gotten very far in those 16 years. We know from Ezra that a group of Samaritans from the north came and attempted to stop their construction efforts for a bit, but a guy named Nehemiah took care of that issue.
What really seems to be the problem, according to Haggai, is apathy brought forth from the people’s disappointment.
Israel had stopped caring about that which they once thought was important.
They knew that in Torah law, God required of them to have a proper-working Temple system put into place so that they could sacrifice and worship in the appropriate way. The Temple was also a symbol and a reminder of the Lord’s manifest presence among His people. This was a big deal. But discouragement is often a heavy deterrent for doing the right thing. And it seems like the remnant of the nation let that get the best of them.
That is, rather than spending their time and effort on rebuilding the Temple, God’s house, they decided to fix up their own houses instead.
It should probably be mentioned that there wasn’t really anything wrong with the Israelite remnant wanting to rebuild their own homes, in a certain sense. They needed a place to live. They had been living as hostages in a foreign country for 70 years and it was likely nice to finally have a house that was all their own. The problem was they went above and beyond the status quo when it came to remodeling. As Haggai 1:4 points out, some of the Israelites were now living in houses with paneling.
That’s not to say that they went to their local Home Depot and picked up some nicely colored composite panel-siding to put on the outside of their plastered stone walls over a long weekend.
No, we need to remember that much of the land of Israel is covered in desert. There aren’t really any trees there that grow trunks large enough to cut into wood paneling. The people would have had to import some cedar from Lebanon, and that wouldn’t have been cheap at all. It doesn’t say in the text, but I suspect they would have had to use a little bit of that gold and silver given to them to rebuild the Temple to fund such an import. The priorities of the people had become misguided.
The prophet calls them out on this.
And in doing so, he points them to a reality that they seemed to have been overlooking: while they were busy building up their own houses, God was busy foiling their plans. The 6th month was the month of grape, fig, and pomegranate harvest. But even though they sewed greatly, they weren’t bringing in as much fruit as they expected. And the people working to earn a wage were doing so like a man who puts his money in a bag with holes. In other words, despite their best efforts, they just couldn’t get ahead. No matter how much they saved, they didn’t have enough.
But why was this happening?
Well, as Haggai points out in the rest of chapter 1, God was trying to get their attention. He was intentionally hindering their work, their finances, and their well-being so they would get back on track with what He had originally called them to do.
Again, God’s people had misaligned priorities. And Haggai was pointing out that the reason their plans weren’t working was because God was intentionally frustrating them so that they’d get their focus back on Him.
But Haggai’s prophecy didn’t meet deaf ears.
After the prophet’s initial message here, the remnant of Israel listened to God’s words and realized their mistake. They had become blinded by the past and began to operate in a way that ran contrary to what the Lord wanted for them. They were attempting to make their life work on their own terms. But, as 1:12 tells us, some prominent leaders of Israel, including Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest, publicly repent and promise to get back to work rebuilding the Temple of the Lord.
Haggai encourages the people to remain faithful and reminds them of the promise of future blessing (Haggai 2:1-9)
About a month has passed since Haggai’s last message found in chapter 1. Once again, the prophet has received a word from the Lord to give to the remnant of Israel.
And the context of the message seems the same as the last. Even though the people have promised to rebuild the Temple, they are stuck playing a comparison game.
The Israelites that were old enough to remember the glory of Solomon’s temple were frustrated. They knew what it was like in the olden days and this new building just wasn’t living up to what once was.
Solomon’s temple was very elaborate. It was about 20 stories high at the highest point. The building itself was made out of polished stone, but it was also overlaid with gold and large cedar panels. And that was just the outside. Inside, that Temple had the ark of the covenant and contained the sacred fire. It had the ornate table of showbread and original ephod of the high priest as worn by Aaron. It even had the molten sea, that large water basin, which was huge and made completely out of bronze.
But the second Temple? It didn’t look quite as extravagant. Sure, when it was rebuilt completely, after the days of Haggai, it was similar in size to Solomon’s. But it definitely wasn’t as fancy. It didn’t have the gold adorned walls, only stone. It didn’t have the ark of the covenant as that was lost. The second Temple did have some golden candlesticks and stuff like that, but nothing as elegant as the treasures of Solomon and David’s day. It didn’t even come close.
Although, according to Haggai message here, none of that should really matter. The Israelites needed to stop playing their comparison games because God himself was still with them.
In fact, in just a little while, the Lord was going to do something great.
He was going to shake the heavens and the earth. And all the treasures of the nations will fill this new Temple. And in that day, even Solomon’s temple will seem boring in comparison. As promised in Haggai 2:9, the latter days of this Temple will be even greater than the former.
But Haggai’s prophecy doesn’t stop even at that. He goes on to tell the people in 2:10-19 that God will also lift the curse he put on the land brought about because of their misplaced priorities. Their neglect of God’s house had brought about famine and financial trouble. But now that they have gotten back to work, the Lord will bless them like he once did. And the prophet even makes mention in 2:20-23 that God has plans to use Zerubbabel, their current governor, as his divine signet ring. In other words, through Zerubbabel, the Lord will bring about his justice.
Through Zerubbabel, the Lord would destroy chariots, overthrow kingdoms, and usher in Gods’ ultimate rule over creation itself, a rule characterized by grace, love, and peace.
And, you know, as crazy as most of that sounds, Haggai’s prophecy actually came true. Think about it. The famine did stop. The people did regain the ability to save money. They didn’t have to put their earnings in bags with holes any longer.
But it’s more than that, actually. About 50 or so years before Christ, a guy named king Herod the Great came onto the scene. And he decided to make major revisions to the second temple by building it up twice as big and filling it with all kinds of gold and silver. Herod’s Temple was bigger and fancier than even Solomon’s was. It was massive.
But Haggai’s talk about the “glory” and the “earth shaking stuff” didn’t come true exactly as the people likely thought it would. That’s important to note too. It seems as if God was purposefully doing something in this time that would have been almost impossible for the average Israelite to even imagine. They were busy looking to the past, playing comparison games, and consequently missing out on God working in their midst in a new way.
Because Zerubbabel didn’t act as God’s signet ring. A descendant of his did.
Zerubbabel is one of the names mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus recorded for us in Matthew chapter 1. And when Jesus arrived, he declared all of this physical Temple business irrelevant. In John 4, Christ explains that there will be a day when people wouldn’t worship on this mountain or that, but by God’s Spirit all would be able to freely worship the Lord anywhere. And, through Christ’ death on the cross, that reality was made possible. In fact, in the moment of Jesus’ death, the glory of God literally shook the earth. And as Matthew 27:51 tells it, the Temple curtain itself was ripped in two from top to bottom symbolizing that now, though the Spirit, anyone who believes in Jesus as Lord can worship him as Savior. And someday soon, like Hebrews 12:25-29 talks about, this Jesus will return. He will shake the earth once more, bring about his kingdom in its fullness, and begin His everlasting reign of peace and love.
The Israelites in Haggai’s day had misplaced priorities brought about by their disappointment. They were playing comparison games brought forth by discouragement and unmet expectations.
But God’s prophet was calling them to look beyond all of that.
Because, in the future, the Lord was going to do something so great that nothing in their present could ever compare.
But the question is, what, then, does the book of Haggai have to do with us today?
We don’t have a physical Temple, right? And from our perspective, Jesus showed up on the scene about 2000 years in our past, and Zerubbabel died about 500 years before even that. So, how can Haggai ever be helpful to us in our present?
Well, I think that there’s a few different ways it can be. Yes, it is situated within a specific time of history and within a specific land that’s far away from here. But the ethic that Haggai teaches transcends time and location. God can use this prophet to speak to us even now.
And you know what? He’s got a message that I think we really do need to hear.
We need to let go of the demand to make our life work on our own terms
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that German theologian who was a part of the confessing church during WWII, wrote a book called “Life Together” back in 1939.
And it’s a book that explores what it means for Christians to live in community with one another. Because that, obviously, was a very important subject for the German church to wrestle with during Nazi occupation. Hatred and division were rampant in all parts of their society, and Bonhoeffer felt it necessary to remind Christians that they were supposed to be characterized by love and unity instead.
It’s worth a read if you haven’t ever read it before. But I bring it up because there’s one particular portion of it that I think is really appropriate to bring up in relation to Haggai.
Bonhoeffer talks about a concept that he calls a “wish-dream.”
Basically, a wish dream is something you hold onto to so tightly that you then become blinded to the reality that God actually wants to you live in.
Or, to just quote the book directly, Bonhoeffer writes: “Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life should be and try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams… [With that being said,] he who loves his dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter.”
In other words, he or she who loves their own idea of what church should look like more than church itself is in trouble.
And that’s not to say that change shouldn’t happen, or things shouldn’t stay the same from time to time. But again, it is sometimes the case that holding onto an idea of something so tightly can suffocate the reality that God wants us to embrace.
And this was definitely true in Haggai’s day, right?
The Israelites were holding fast to an idea that God was quickly retiring. They wanted a bigger and better Temple than what they had. And they got pretty upset when they didn’t get it, so much so that their priorities went all out of whack and they began fixing up their own homes and left the Lord’s half-built.
And playing those types of comparison games are dangerous even today because we can find ourselves making similar types of mistakes to what the Israelites did. Other churches can have cool programs, slick put-together events, stellar music, and eloquent speaking pastors. We do too, I think. But sometimes when we compare ourselves too much to others not for the sake of learning from them, we can unintentionally harbor jealousy. Great music, good preaching, fun events, put-together programming. All of those things are great, but none of those things are vital to the success of God’s gospel going forth into the world.
But, and in this environment, the same also goes for health guidelines too, right? Other churches are doing this or that, so why aren’t we? Or other churches aren’t doing this or that, so why are we still? And questions like these are valid questions. They are worth the time to talk about.
But remember, he or she who loves their own idea of what church should look like more than church itself is in trouble.
Playing comparison games isn’t great. That’s clear from both Haggai’s message and in our time now. But what about nostalgia? God’s prophet talked about that, too.
Think about this: Haggai didn’t argue with the Israelites when they claimed that Solomon’s temple was a lot better than Zerubbabel’s. It was a lot better. When they pointed out how much smaller the Second Temple’s foundation was, or when they lamented about how disappointed they felt, the prophet did not discredit that. Those were legitimate things. Haggai didn’t argue about any of that.
But God’s prophet did point out that the glory of God was still in their midst regardless. And God’s prophet pointed out that the Lord still had a mission for them to accomplish.
So, let’s translate that into our time now.
Nostalgia is not always a bad thing. But it can invite us to revel in past accomplishments and make us condemn the seeming monotony of the present. Said in a different way, all of our lives and work for the Lord cannot be bold new adventures or daring conquests. And they surely won’t always be comfortable or play out in the way we’ve dreamed them to. They can be, however, lived to the glory of God even when things seem stunted or stagnant. Because that might be when living for the kingdom is the most important.
God may still be doing something in our present that He doesn’t want us to miss. Holding too tight to the glory days of last year might blind us to the working of the Spirit this year. And when we demand our life to work on our own terms, we’re subtly denying the true Lord of our life the access to do the work He wants to do in us and through us.
God knows best. His timing is the best. And He’s calling us to follow where He is leading.
Even if we are discouraged with our present circumstances, we can still be confident in our future with the Lord
The reality is, even when we let go of the demand to make our life work on our own terms, we still might face disappointment. Israel did.
They got their priorities straightened up, but their discouragement still remained.
Sometime between chapter 1 and chapter 2 of Haggai, the remnant of the nation began to rebuild the Temple. Their leaders made that public declaration to the Lord, and they chose to work on God’s house instead of their own. But Haggai still felt the need to come back and give them words of encouragement even after they did all this. And he encouraged them in a very specific way, remember?
He first pointed out that, again, even within this time of discouragement, God was still in their midst. He hadn’t left them. He was right there. And secondly, he reminded then that God still had a future for them. The Lord was truly going to shake the heavens and the earth and one day bring about his peace through the coming Messiah. He was going to fill that space with riches and one day make His glory manifest in their midst.
And I think that there’s a lesson in all of this for us, too.
Because first, as Haggai points out, disappointment or discouragement in our life is not a sign that God has abandoned us. Often, it’s the opposite. It might be God attempting to remind us that nothing else but Him will truly satisfy. Everything in this life will ultimately disappoint in one way or another except Jesus.
And secondly, even in the midst of serious letdown, we can still press on confidently because of the promise of eternal life with our Lord.
Everyone who claims Jesus as their Savior will one day live in His kingdom of love and peace because of Christ’s atoning work on the cross. His death made a way for us to be justified before God the Father. And His resurrection marked the beginning of the end. It shows us that He truly is working all things for the good of those who are called according to his purpose.
God made it possible for us to have a better future, no matter our circumstance in the present.
Our disappointment, discouragement, and defeat in this life might be serious, but it won’t even compare to the glory of what’s to come for those of us who believe.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian in Community, (San Francisco, CA: Harper One Publishing, 2009), 26-27.