For centuries God had sent prophets to Israel and to Judah to warn them about their sin. The warning was clear: refusal to return to the Lord—and only the Lord—would result in their being removed from the land. Israel was taken into exile by Assyria and then several decades later Judah was taken into exile by Babylon. Then God was silent. No prophets spoke for quite some time. God eventually moved to end the exile. Shortly after this work on a new temple began. And then halted. This is point at which God chose to send another prophet to speak for him to the people. Here is what God said through Haggai:
In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest: “Thus says the LORD of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD.” Then the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now, therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes.Haggai 1:1–8 ESV
“Thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD”.
As the exiles began to return to the land, they and the people who had remained behind began work on the temple in Jerusalem and on rebuilding the wall of the city. Then they stopped. The Lord explains why they stopped. They were saying that it wasn’t the right time to build a new temple. Such a task was costly—very costly. It was time-consuming, back-breaking effort. They had no machines or power tools—stones were heavy and would not lift themselves! Someone had to pay for the priests’ clothing and the tools and implements used in the temple and the expensive fabrics for the veil. It wasn’t time, they said. God identifies their true motivation with a direct question: “It is a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?”
In the Ancient Near East houses were often made of stone or brick. As the people of Judah began to experience economic prosperity, they were able to purchase paneling for their homes—wood paneling. Don’t think 1980s paneling, the kind you can’t wait to get rid of. Paneling inside a home was a sign of great wealth. When God asks this question he’s pointing out that they were more concerned with living in luxury and enjoying their new-found prosperity than they were with worshiping the Lord. “It wasn’t time” for the temple, but it was time to upgrade their own homes.
God knows that a selfish pursuit of luxury is a vain pursuit. It is earning wages only to put the coins into a bag full of holes. He reminds them that a never-ending pursuit of wealth and prosperity can never satisfy because it can never be enough. He’s saying that there is one thing that can satisfy them fully and completely: the Lord.
We don’t have a physical temple today, and while there may be some application for those with carpentry and electrical and mechanical skills to offer to help with needed repairs in our building, there is a far greater application here. A life spent pursuing things, whether money or pleasure or popularity or social media “Likes” is a life spent pursuing emptiness and vanity. How many likes on your post are enough? You’re only hoping for more on your next one. How much do you need in your retirement fund? A little more. Whether a new(er) car (or bike; gulp) or new clothes or a new house or another house or just that never-ending need for stuff, God knows these things can never satisfy us.
We don’t need paneled houses. We need the Lord Jesus, who offers himself freely to us. Let’s pursue him today. Let’s worship him and spend time with him today, for he alone can satisfy our heart’s every desire. It’s time.