Haggai 1:9 - A Wondrous House
You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? declares the Lord of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house.Haggai 1:9
God will not accept that people do nothing for his house, while going to great lengths for their own. Is he perhaps jealous, like a child hard done by? Why is his house, the temple, so important to him? Does he want us to build a splendid church building for him, before we invest in houses of our own?
With the permission of the Persian king, a number of Israelites had returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. They had rebuilt an altar on the site of the ruined temple. Next, they had begun to lay foundations for the temple complex as a whole (Ezra 3). But that’s as far as they got. They let themselves be intimidated by the opposition of the other inhabitants of Canaan. Up until the second year of the reign of Darius, the temple was left lying in ruins (Ezra 4:1-5, 24).
They didn’t have the heart to take up the rebuilding of the temple again. And if anyone mentioned it, he was told that the time was not yet ripe for it (Haggai 1:2). The miserable state of the local economy simply left them with no room for such costly projects. The land yielded precious little. Time after time, drought dashed the hopes of a good harvest. What little money they had just slipped through their fingers (Haggai 1:6, 10-11; 2:15-17).
The temple could not be rebuilt, because the economy was in such bad shape. That was how the returned exiles saw it. But the Lord turned things completely around: your economy is in such poor shape because you have neglected the rebuilding of the temple! Why are your expectations of a decent harvest continually disappointed? Why is there so little left of what you brought home? Because the Lord Himself has placed the land under a curse. He has blown it all away. He has closed the heavens, keeping the dew from falling onto parched ground. He did this because of the choices the people had made: they all worked hard to build and adorn their own houses, but indifferently passed by the ruins of the house of God.
Was God not being a little childish? Is that really what he is like? Does he keep a close eye on you, to see whether you do just as much for him as you do for yourself? And when he thinks that you aren’t doing enough, does he retaliate by striking you with adversity?
Why was it actually so important to the Lord that the returning Israelites should rebuild his temple, in spite of their difficult economic circumstances? That can only be understood when we have a clear eye for the significance of the temple. And for that, we need to know the history of the temple in Jerusalem.
A Name as Foundation
The temple in Jerusalem was the continuation of the tabernacle, the tent that God had instructed the Israelites to build for him in the Sinai wilderness. Before Israel was to enter the promised land of Canaan, God wanted to give his people a splendid gift. That gift was the tabernacle, the spot on earth where God was to make his home.
Ever since Adam and his wife had refused to obey God, heaven and earth had been torn apart. Once in a while, God still came down, but he no longer just walked in the garden where mankind lived (Genesis 3:8). The tabernacle was intended to bring back something of the way it had been in Paradise: the Lord God in the midst of his people.
But before that marvellous plan could be carried out, things had already gone wrong. So soon after God had proclaimed his will to his people, Israel had its own fall into sin. The people of God no longer relied on him for his help. Flying in the face of God’s command, Israel improvised its own manner of having his presence at their disposal: they fashioned a golden bull calf. And they bowed down before it as if that was their God!
This would have spelled the end of God’s plan with Israel, had Moses not interceded. In response to Moses’ plea, the Lord had relented, and did not destroy Israel. At the urging of Moses, he had even agreed to continue travelling with them, in person, to the Promised Land. After that, God’s original plan could as yet be carried out: the tabernacle was built. At its dedication, the Lord showed that he really did want to live among his people. The glory of the Lord had filled the tabernacle. Now it was clear to everyone: this is where God Himself lives, in his royal glory (Exodus 40:34)1.
Already at Mount Sinai, the presence of the tabernacle was an astonishing miracle. God himself revealed to Moses the secret that made this possible. This secret lay in God’s own Name. This name – the Lord – meant that he has mercy on whom he will have mercy, and compassion on whom he will have compassion (Exodus 33:19). This name also meant that he is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, one who maintains his love to a thousand generations, one who forgives wickedness, rebellion and sin (Exodus 34:6,7a). The tabernacle was built on the foundation of the endlessly forgiving love of God.
At the same time, the Lord was and always would be a God who most certainly does not condone sin (Exodus 34:7b). That is why a safety cordon of priests and Levites was placed around the tabernacle, between the sanctuary and the other tribes of Israel (Numbers 2 and 3). Sin and guilt offerings, and the yearly great Day of Atonement helped ensure that the wonder could continue: Holy God, living in the midst of his people. People who, while called to be holy, often behaved in most unholy ways.
Sadly, this safeguard proved to be inadequate: once in Canaan, the tabernacle was turned into a mockery by the shocking misbehaviour of the priests Hophni and Phinehas. Things even came to the point that the ark of God’s Covenant, the symbol of his throne, was taken out of the sanctuary at Shiloh, as though never to return. It seemed as if God’s plan to live in the midst of his people was at the point of failure. But again, God took action, in a most unexpected way. The judges and priests had been unable to keep Israel on the right path, or to safeguard the wonder of his presence. So God took action Himself, in two ways: he gave David to his people as their king. Later, he caused David’s son Solomon to build a temple in Jerusalem, on Mount Zion, to take the place of the tabernacle.
These two actions were closely connected. There could be no sanctuary without a king, who kept watch over the service of the priest. There could be no king without a sanctuary, where his own sins could be atoned for. The interdependence of David’s royal house and of the house of God on Mount Zion was clearly shown in the words of Solomon at the dedication of the temple. The first thing for which Solomon praised the Lord was that he had fulfilled his promise to David (I Kings 8:15). The first thing for which he asked in his prayer was that God would continue to uphold his promise to David: that he would always have a son to sit on his throne after him (I Kings 8:25-26).
A House for a Family
King Solomon understood only too well, of course, that God could not live in a house made of wood and stone. “Heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you” (I Kings 8:27). Still, God showed again that he himself wanted to be present in this building, the temple. Just as with the dedication of the tabernacle, so here too the glory of the Lord filled the whole temple (I Kings 8:11). Here too, everything had to do with the Name of God: the temple on Mount Zion was the place where God caused his Name to dwell (I Kings 8:19,29; 9:3).
It was because of the presence of God’s Name in the temple that contact between heaven and earth was possible. In what follows in his prayer of dedication, Solomon repeatedly refers to the temple as the place where people can call on God in prayer. It is also the place to which they can direct their prayers when they are far from Jerusalem. Those prayers revolve around two things: forgiveness of sins and deliverance from specific troubles (I Kings 8:33-50).
That, then, was the temple in Solomon’s prayer: the place where God would listen to prayers for forgiveness and deliverance. The flourishing of life in Israel had its starting point in the temple. That was where God gave the good things of his house: justice, security, food and drink (Psalms 65 and 132). The temple was proof that Israel was allowed to be a holy people, a kingdom of priests, people who were children at home with their heavenly Father (Exodus 19:6).
No Eye for the Wonder
During Solomon’s reign, the two actions that God took (establishing the royal house of David, and the temple) appeared to be effective. It was a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity. That, however, did not last long. These two safeguards also proved to be inadequate. It all ended in failure and ruin.
The king was carried off into captivity. Israel had to leave the Promised Land. The prophet Ezekiel witnessed how God’s glorious majesty departed from the temple (Ezekiel 11:22-23). The temple itself was razed to the ground. The wonder of God’s presence among his people appeared to have gone for good. And then, permission was granted to return to Jerusalem. The king of the Persian Empire even lent his own support to the rebuilding of the temple. But for God’s own people, such an undertaking was too much to ask.
Why was this so offensive to God? Because in this way the returning exiles showed that they had no eye for the wonder. A wonder that was even greater than it had once been at Mount Sinai. A wonder that was greater than it had been in the days of Solomon. The wonder that God wanted to be in the midst of his people again, in person, in spite of all their unfaithfulness, all their idolatry, all those other sins of past centuries. God provided the means to restore the place where everyone could see that he had chosen Israel for himself. The house, the place where he was pleased to listen to the prayers of his children, the place from where he wanted to grant forgiveness, deliverance and prosperity, could be rebuilt. But the returning exiles said that this would have to wait for a while. First, they had to get their own houses completely in order.
The temple in Jerusalem has no function any more. It attained its purpose in the Man who was both king on the throne of David, and the temple of God in person: Jesus Christ. In him, God has come closer than ever. Thanks to him, God remains close, even though Jesus has returned to heaven. The fellowship of all those who belong to Christ is now the temple of God. That is where he wants to be present, with his forgiving love, his deliverance, his blessing.
What God will absolutely not accept is that we begin to take his desire to be with us, to live among us, for granted. Such an attitude could be expressed in so many ways. It could be expressed by keeping an anxious hand on your wallet when money is needed for a meeting place for the church of Christ. It could be expressed in your lack of involvement in the preaching of the gospel. It could be expressed in a lack of love for others who, just as you do, may share in the wonder of God’s presence.
If that should happen now, in New Testament times, God will not always intervene by bringing on crop failures or economic crises. But the lesson from Haggai’s time still stands: the wonder of God’s presence among us asks for a sense of wonder in us. Where that is so, we set to work, freely and generously. And the promise still stands that the LORD will receive such effort with joy. He will let us see that his presence, in all its splendour, is pleased to dwell among us (Haggai 1:8).