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hang in there

One of my favorite books of the Bible is the prophet Haggai. In two brief chapters he records God’s words to the leaders of Judah and to the people of Judah, and I often find his words comforting.

Haggai offers very precise dates for his oracles. The book begins with a word from the Lord in the “second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month”. This word from the Lord marks the first prophetic word from him since the exile to Babylon. Many Jews had returned to Jerusalem and had begun the work of rebuilding the temple that Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed several decades earlier. To hear God speak once again would have been a huge morale boost—were it not for the nature of the words.

This first oracle was directed to Zerubbabel, who was appointed as governor over Judah, and to Joshua the high priest. The Lord is very pointed in his words:

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?”

Haggai 1:3–4 ESV

Paneled houses were expensive. The idea is that they—the leaders of the people as well as those with more than modest means—not only lived in homes they owned, they had upgraded them so that they were living luxuriously. Meanwhile, the temple was still unfinished and in ruins. Because of the precise dating, we know this was in August, 520BC—right before the harvest. The people in general were struggling. God tells them in verse 6 of that chapter that they sow a lot of seed, yet harvest very little, and they eat, but are never satisfied. They drink, but never until they’re full. The truth is that God has withheld blessings from them.

God tells them to consider their ways in verse 7, to think about the incongruence of the lifestyles of those with means and those with little, all in view of the current state of the temple. He instructs them to go and get wood and build the temple, which seems a bit odd as the temple would be constructed of cut stone. The wood wasn’t for the temple itself, but for the scaffolding and other tools necessary for the temple to be built. He’s telling them to prepare to build the temple, indicating how little actual work had been done since they had returned from exile. Not only is the temple not built, they don’t even have the tools to build it! God then repeats his withholding of blessings in verses 10–11, and tells them a drought is coming—a drought he himself has ordered.

In verse 12 he says Zerubbabel and all the people obeyed the voice of the Lord through Haggai and got to work “on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month, in the second year of Darius the king”—just a few weeks after the first word from the Lord. It took them a few weeks as they had to harvest their crops, meager though they were. Now they are ready to work on the temple.

Then, nearly a month later, “in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month”, the Lord spoke again. This is October 17, 520BC. The people are tired and exhausted. They are discouraged. Just clearing away the rubble of the previous temple was difficult work, with no progress made at all on the actual temple they were to build. All they could see was broken stones and rubble. God’s word to them at this time is to be strong, and to work. They must not fear. They must not allow the enormity of the task to cause them to quit. The book of Ezra tells us the altar was built and being used at this time, even though nothing else was finished. The people are in the busiest month in the Jewish liturgical calendar. They had the Feast of Trumpets, and the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles, all of which involved sacrifices. Thus the new altar was being used a great deal, all in the midst of debris and rubble. It’s not hard to see why they were discouraged.

Part of the problem was a lack of resources. Harvests had been poor. There was little to sell, and therefore little to fund the building of the temple. God then made this promise:

“For thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the LORD of hosts. The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the LORD of hosts.’”

Haggai 2:6–9 ESV

There had been quite a bit of chaos when the previous king had died and Darius was crowned. It took him some time to establish order in his vast empire, yet God promises to provide. Notice how many times he calls himself “the LORD of hosts” in just these four verses: five times, in case you didn’t count. That expression, “LORD of hosts”, is a reference to the vast power at God’s disposal. This is what the song “God of Angel Armies” is referring to. God commands armies—he’s the Lord of hosts. The power at his disposal is unimaginable, and without end. With this power he will shake all of creation and the result of this shaking is the treasures of the nations will come in. He means they will come to Jerusalem. As Darius consolidates his power, tax revenues from all these nations will begin pouring in, and God will direct some of those revenues toward the rebuilding of his temple. God isn’t limited to providing for his people from some local billionaire; he literally moves—shakes—entire nations to provide for them. This is how he can declare that all the silver and gold belongs to him.

A few months later, “On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius”, God spoke again, asking some obscure questions about unclean things (2:10–19). The point of that exchange in chapter 2 of Haggai is that ritual uncleanness is more contagious than holiness is. A person could become accidentally unclean, but no one becomes accidentally holy. Holiness must be intentional. They must choose to offer their lives and their work to the Lord as a gift of holiness. They must choose to continue the work. Then God offers them this incredible promise of hope:

Consider from this day onward, from the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month. Since the day that the foundation of the LORD’S temple was laid, consider: Is the seed yet in the barn? Indeed, the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree have yielded nothing. But from this day on I will bless you.

Haggai 2:18–19 ESV

The foundation of the temple was now laid, yet God reminds them that they had done this without his overflowing blessing. If they could accomplish this much in their poverty, how much could they do with plenty? God has given them everything necessary to accomplish his will. They must choose to accomplish it. They must not be content with what he has already done. Yes, the altar is built and the sacrifices have restarted, but the temple is not finished. God is not satisfied with incomplete work. They must press on. For centuries the people of Judah had been receiving the covenant curses. Now God promises them blessings, and so they must use his blessings to do his work.

The tiny book of Haggai ends a paragraph later after a promise about Zerubbabel, the appointed governor of Judah. That’s it. Why is this tiny little prophetic book included in the Bible? The truth is that when we look around at our world, we see a whole lot of unfinished work. It’s never finished, and oftentimes life feels a lot like first clearing away the rubble and debris of prior destruction. When we look at our own individual lives we see this unfinished work. I’m clearly not where I want to be; I’m still clearing away rubble and debris. I suspect you’d say the same about your life. When we look at this world and we see its brokenness, we see that God’s work of cosmic transformation is still a work in progress.

As Christmas nears we are reminded that Jesus came into the world to bring about that cosmic restoration that is promised. He lived and died and rose again, yet the work is still largely unfinished. Oh, it is completed! There is nothing more that Jesus must accomplish for our salvation, yet our salvation is not fully here. It’s…unfinished. We are still a work in progress. This world is still a work in progress. It is very easy to see all that needs to be done and to be discouraged. There’s too much work. There’s too little progress. There’s too much opposition to the work. People don’t respond to the truth of Jesus the way we want them to. We don’t respond to the truth of Jesus the way we want to.

Whether you’re dealing with your own mess, or your family’s mess, or you’re actively engaged in the mess of others, hang in there. Whether you’re facing illness personally or with someone close to you, hang in there. If you’re wrestling with the flesh and struggling to overcome sin in your life, hang in there. If you feel weighed down by the news or you’re full of fear of viruses or whatever it is, hang in there. The time is coming when the Lord Jesus will finish his work.