“In the second year of King Darius, on the first day of the sixth month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, the governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest:” (CSB – Read the chapter)
A new book and a new theme today. And this is yet another minor prophet book, written some 2,500 years ago to a people entirely different than us on almost every count, yet whose central message is remarkably relevant to our lives today. Perhaps that’s why God preserved it for us. What is this message? It all centers on this question: What comes first in your life?
Haggai was the first prophet sent to the people after they had returned from exile in Babylon. The Babylonian empire had fallen to the Persians, and the Persian emperor, Darius took a different approach to his vassal states than his predecessors did. While the Babylonians wanted to centralize all the power and intellectual might in the kingdom, the Persians tended to spread it out. They didn’t believe their gods were the only ones who should be honored either. They wanted all their bases covered so they let conquered peoples rebuild their religious infrastructure as well.
The result of all of this was that a sizable group of Israelites were headed back to Jerusalem to begin to pick up the pieces. And oh how many pieces there were to reassemble! The city was in ruins and the temple had been completely obliterated. Babylon had been thorough in their destruction. Very thorough.
The only thing to do when everything is in ruins is to start rebuilding one piece at a time. So they did. The first wave of returnees rebuilt the foundation for the temple before anything else, but that was as far as they got. They celebrated that small victory (which felt pretty big at the time), but then didn’t go any further with it. They turned their attention on rebuilding their own lives.
And this makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, if we don’t have ourselves all put together, how can we give the necessary attention to the things of God that they deserve? So they set to work rebuilding their lives. They rebuilt the economy. They rebuilt the culture. They rebuilt their houses. And then…they started living again.
In all of this they didn’t totally forget about God. They were certainly not worshiping other gods. They had at least learned their lesson on that front. The exile had changed them.
But in another sense, they hadn’t changed nearly as much as they thought they had. The same was true of humanity after the Flood as well. We became so sinful that God brought judgment to the whole world in order to start fresh with one righteous man and his family. And what happened? We started sinning again out of the gate. The Flood was a reset, not a transformation.
In the same way, the Babylonian exile was a reset, not a transformation. The people didn’t necessarily make the same mistakes again. They never again dabbled or just straight immersed themselves in idolatry as their forebears had done. But that doesn’t mean they left idolatry behind entirely. They simply changed their idols so the problem wasn’t so externally visible. Now, instead of idols of wood and stone, the people bowed before idols of thought and action. By the time Jesus came along a few hundred years later, the people had even made an idol out of the Law itself.
The way all of this was playing itself out at the time God called Haggai to give the people and their leaders a little nudge, was that they were rebuilding their lives without rebuilding their religion. Specifically, they kept making excuses for not rebuilding the temple. It was time, God said. They had put themselves and the things that mattered to them first long enough. It was time they started putting Him first once again.
And this is where things connect for us. This, I think, is why God preserved this little collection of prophecy for us over the centuries. You see, we are at risk and in fact fall into the same trap the Israelites were facing.
All lives have a rhythm. Yours does. Mine does. We have a set of things we tend to do day in and day out. At our best, this rhythm is in sweet harmony with the melody of grace that is the life of Christ. Things fall right into the pocket with Him and everything grooves along beautifully. If we are not constantly vigilant, though, over time, because of sin, the natural tendency is for our rhythm to begin to slip out of beat with God’s melody of grace. We gradually fall into a rhythm that may give Him a bit of credit, but otherwise is focused entirely on things that concern us. This out-of-beat life often becomes what in music is known as a vamp—a little refrain that repeats itself endlessly as a kind of musical placeholder until it’s time to get to the next part of the piece.
Occasionally things happen that shake us naturally back into rhythm—like, say, the season we are in right now—and we start grooving again. I’ll bet you have been more tuned in to God lately than you’ve been for a while. But, how were you doing before all this started? You may have had some church as a part of your rhythm, but was it at a level of exemplary devotion or personal convenience?
As we have had what is normal taken away, many of us have leaned into the various digital alternatives churches have made available with gusto. We’ve found ourselves drawing nearer to God than we’ve been in some time. We’ve even drawn nearer to people in the church in our efforts to stay connected while we are apart.
But after six or seven weeks of this, have you noticed anything? As much as this isn’t normal, we’re starting to slowly settle into a new rhythm. And this new rhythm, kind of like the old one, is starting to treat our relationship with God as a convenience, not as the most central and essential feature of our lives. Or then again, maybe not…but rest assured, the tendency is still there. And at some point things are going to go back to something that resembles the normal we knew before. What then?
So, what do we do? We stay vigilant. We keep our eyes pealed for places where we are starting to veer off course. We keep our ears attuned to where our rhythm is falling out of beat. We don’t forget about the little things that keep our lives in tune—prayer, engaging with the Scriptures, practicing sacrificial generosity, serving others, regular worship alongside the body of Christ (even digitally so), and the like.
This season has been a wake up call in many ways. Let’s make sure we do what it takes to stay alert. Sin doesn’t rest as its time is short. We can’t either. Let us stay charged up by keeping our connection to Christ and run the race set before us with endurance.