Have you ever started a project with high hopes of achieving something SPECTACULAR? Maybe you planned to knit a warm woolly jumper? Or build a piece of fine furniture? Or plant a vegetable garden? Or learn a foreign language? For a while, you work towards it ENTHUSIASTICALLY. But then you stop and take stock. You look at what you’ve ACHIEVED, and you compare it with what you’d HOPED FOR. And the gap between them seems HUGE. And you feel like giving up. Because they’re nothing alike. And it’s SO DISCOURAGING.
The jumper you’re knitting has one arm longer than the other. Or there’s gaps between the boards of your dining table, and there’s so much more sanding to do. Or the snails have eaten the lettuces. Or you never got past the first lesson in the foreign language course.
Or maybe it’s something MUCH more important. Perhaps you dreamed of a marriage that didn’t turn out like your parents. But now there’s so much unresolved conflict, and resentment, that you barely talk. Or you wanted to raise kids who were independent and well-adjusted and who loved Jesus. But they’re making one bad decision after another, and you wonder how much more you can help them. Or maybe it’s A MINISTRY YOU DO. You imagined your Sunday School class would be perfect angels. They’d always behave, learn every memory verse, and show their appreciation for all your preparation by giving spellbound attention to your every word. But instead, your class is more like the chimpanzee enclosure at the zoo.
The problem is the gap between EXPECTATION and REALITY. It’s just SO BIG. And the bigger the GAP is, the bigger the DISAPPOINTMENT.
If that’s how you’re feeling, then listen up, because God’s got some ENCOURAGEMENT for you. Because that’s just the situation the Jews are in, here in Haggai Ch 2. We finished chapter 1 with all the people resolving to re-build the temple. And they start work. (Cleaning up, and assembling raw materials.)
Jump forward A MONTH, and God gives Haggai a message for them. Because it seems it hasn’t taken long for them to realise the huge gap between EXPECTATION and REALITY. God says, v3, Ask everyone ‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its FORMER glory? How does it look to you NOW? Does it not seem to you like NOTHING?
It seems there were a few old-timers – they’d have to be around 80 – who remembered Solomon’s temple. Back before Babylon had destroyed it, and they’d all been marched into exile. And they remembered how GLORIOUS it was. With intricate workmanship by the finest foreign craftsman, and everything covered in gold. (that’s the EXPECTATION) And they can’t help comparing it to the plain, unadorned, half-built sad-excuse-for-a-temple they see SLOWLY beginning to rise from the ashes. (That’s the REALITY). They look at the task in front of them. And they look at the resources they’ve got to complete it. And they feel like giving up.
God loves to use small things (1-5)
It seems like they thought THINGS WOULD BE DIFFERENT. That instead of SMALL things, they’d expected them to be BIG and IMPRESSIVE.
And yet, those of us who know much about the Bible will see a pattern here that’s played out again and again. Of how God loves to use small, insignificant, unimpressive things and people. And how he works IN them and THROUGH them. And builds something big and powerful and wonderful.
God didn’t choose Israel because they were big and powerful. Or even because they had UNREALISED POTENTIAL. He chose them because they were the LEAST LIKELY to develop. In Deuteronomy 7:7 Moses says to them,
7 The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the FEWEST of all peoples. 8 But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers,
Later, God chose Gideon while he was hiding from Midianite raiders in the bottom of a winepress. And the angel said, “The LORD is WITH you, MIGHTY WARRIOR!” And then God, again and again, reduced the size of Gideon’s army. So that when they won, they wouldn’t boast in their own strength. But would give the glory to GOD.
God does it with EVERYONE he chooses. Paul’s opponents in Corinth valued human wisdom and power. But he knew (1 Corinthians 1) that God chose the FOOLISH things of the world to SHAME the wise; God chose the WEAK things of the world to shame the strong. 28 He chose the LOWLY things of this world and the DESPISED things-and the things that are NOT-to nullify the things that ARE, 29 SO THAT NO ONE MAY BOAST before him. That’s just the way God works. He’s ALWAYS starting with small and insignificant things.
Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds, that grows into the largest of garden plants. Or it’s like yeast – a tiny amount grows to influence the whole batch of flour.
Jesus himself was born as a helpless baby in a stable to a teenaged mother. And powerful authorities combined to nail him, beaten and bruised, to a shameful cross. And yet what looked like a weak defeat was actually God’s earth-shattering, death-conquering, never-to-be-repeated VICTORY. Again and again, God takes LITTLE things, and grows them into BIG things. In fact, his kingdom is BUILT on little things.
And it’s the same with you, and YOUR life. God will do his work IN you, and THROUGH you, in the LITTLE THINGS. In your small acts of obedience. In your random acts of kindness. In consistent perseverance. In tireless patience. In tough love. In hidden servanthood for others. In irrational forgiveness.
Look for God’s hand in the LITTLE things. The one-off opportunities. In the passing conversation on the bus. In praying at meals with your family. A teachable moment with your child. A walk along the beach with your spouse. The conversation with the work colleague in the lift.
Don’t worry about the BIG STUFF. In how many people notice, or praise you. Or in the RESULTS. Leave that up to God. Rejoice in the little things God calls you to each day.
So what about the Jews? What message has God got for THEM? V4 of Haggai ch 2.
4 But now be STRONG, O Zerubbabel,’ declares the LORD. ‘Be STRONG, O Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be STRONG, all you people of the land,’ declares the LORD, ‘and WORK. For I AM WITH YOU,’ declares the LORD Almighty.
“Sure, the temple’s unimpressive. And there’s a long way to go. But be STRONG, and WORK. Bridge the gap between expectation and reality – one block at a time, one timber at a time. On day at a time.” “Zerubbabel, be strong. Be a strong LEADER. Do what’s RIGHT, rather than what’s POPULAR. Don’t let the URGENT distract you from the IMPORTANT. And lead from the FRONT, not the BACK.” “And Joshua, be strong. Be a strong CHIEF PRIEST. TEACH the people what’s TRUE, without fear or favour. Represent the people FAITHFULLY. Bear their prayers and their sins before God faithfully.” “ALL the people, be strong. Be strong and WORK. Everyone pitch in and help. Don’t leave MOST of the work to THE FEW. That’s the way it NORMALLY works. Decide what you can do, and do it serving GOD. Don’t worry about what your neighbour’s doing, and how you compare. That’s between him and God.”
And where do they get the strength from? We saw it last week in Chapter 1. “For I am WITH you,” declares the LORD Almighty. I don’t need a TEMPLE to dwell among you! I was WITH YOU, v5, when you came out of Egypt. There was no temple THEN. And I’ll strengthen and guide you NOW. My Spirit remains among you. So DON’T FEAR. Don’t fear INADEQUACY. Or FAILURE. Or OPPOSITION. Why? Because I’m WITH you, and I’m bigger than them ALL.
And just in case they doubt that God’s up to the task, did you notice the TITLE for God that Haggai uses? Again and again, it’s the LORD ALMIGHTY, or the Lord of HOSTS. Or the Lord of ARMIES. This is the commander of the heavenly armies who’s strengthening you, and WITH you! Why would you worry about a lack of skilled tradesmen, or expensive building materials?
God owns the silver and the gold (6-9)
And it’s BUILDING MATERIALS he moves on to in v6. “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. 7 I will shake all nations, and the desired (things) of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the LORD Almighty. 8 ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the LORD Almighty.
There’s been a bit of disagreement about what these verses are referring to. But I think it’s fairly clear. The people feel discouraged because their piggy bank’s empty. But God says, “My piggy bank’s FULL. It’s the WHOLE WORLD. And I’m going to shake it out. The silver and the gold belong TO ME. The heavens and earth, even the NATIONS will be shaken. And all their treasures will come and fill my house. And it will be GLORIOUS.”
In fact, v9, says, “You thought SOLOMON’S temple was special! ‘The glory of this PRESENT house will be greater than the glory of the FORMER house!
And we read in Ezra chapter 6 about how that promise was FULFILLED. Instead of foreign opponents STOPPING the building work, King Darius finds the original decree from Cyrus, commanding that all the gold and silver temple articles that were confiscated are to be RETURNED. (Brought back from Babylon to the temple.) And what’s more, Darius commands that all the construction costs for the temple are to be met from his royal treasury. And that’s what HAPPENS. It’s EXTRAORDINARY! But God’s PROMISED it, so we shouldn’t be surprised.
And then the best part of all. At the end of v9. Better than silver and gold. And in this place I will grant PEACE,’ declares the LORD Almighty.” The temple will be the place God uses to grant PEACE between him and his people. (A promise we’ll come back to later.)
God uses unholy instruments (10-19)
And it seems like those encouragements are enough of a boost for the people to keep working for a while. Jump forward two months, and Haggai’s got ANOTHER prophecy. This time it’s based on an object lesson of the temple sacrifices. The basic way things worked around the temple (v10-13) was that IMpure things influenced PURE things. Not the other way around. UNCLEANNESS is contagious, not PURITY. Consecrated bread or meat doesn’t make an unclean person CLEAN. Instead the PERSON defiles the FOOD. It’s much harder to make something CLEAN, than it is to DEFILE it.
And then, v14, Haggai draws the comparison. “‘So it is with this people and this nation in my sight,’ declares the LORD. ‘Whatever they do and whatever they offer there is defiled. In other words, just because the people were back in the Promised Land, that didn’t make them clean. And just because they were offering consecrated sacrifices, it didn’t make them PURE. And just because they’d now re-started BUILDING THE TEMPLE, that didn’t make them RIGHT WITH GOD. He wanted something MORE.
And we often fall into the same mistake. We focus on the work we DO for God, instead of THE GOD WE DO IT FOR. We focus on building OUR kingdom, rather than HIS kingdom. We turn GOOD things, into the MAIN things. We get distracted from the CREATOR/ by CREATED THINGS. We focus on WORK or MINISTRY or FAMILY so much/ they become IDOLS. We focus on our legacy, or our influence, or our fame, rather than God’s fame. We focus on being liked, and accepted, and approved of. We focus on to-do lists, and programs, and buildings, and numbers and budgets. But they won’t make us right with God.
And we look for our identity and meaning and vindication in THEM, rather than THE GOD WE DO THEM FOR. Rather than relying on his mercy and his cleansing and his power and his approval and his purposes and his priorities.
Yes, God says to the people. Re-build the temple. But the temple’s not enough to make you pure. Your WORK won’t do it.
And verses 15-19 hammer that message home. Verse 15. “GIVE CAREFUL THOUGHT to the drought and famine and poor harvests. It was all evidence that things weren’t RIGHT between us,” says the Lord. And even now, v19, you’ve planted, but there’s no harvest YET. You’re STILL WAITING ON ME. I’VE got to do it.
But here’s good news (end of v19). From this day on, I will BLESS YOU. Bless the land, and you, and the land. I’LL do it. Because YOU CAN’T.
God’s signet ring (20-23)
And from v20, we see HOW God’s going to bless them. Not just at the TEMPLE, but in the PALACE. Haggai’s FINAL prophecy is a word for Zerubbabel. Who’s the KEY TO IT ALL. V21.
21 “Tell Zerubbabel governor of Judah that I will shake the heavens and the earth. 22 I will overturn royal thrones and shatter the power of the foreign kingdoms. I will overthrow chariots and their drivers; horses and their riders will fall, each by the sword of his brother.
23 “‘On that day,’ declares the LORD Almighty, ‘I will take you, my servant Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will make you like my signet ring, for I have chosen you,’ declares the LORD Almighty.”
Zerubbabel won’t just supervise a BUILDING PROJECT. By God’s power, he’ll CONQUER NATIONS. And he won’t just have delegated authority as governor from King DARIUS. He’ll be the signet ring of God HIMSELF, the LORD ALMIGHTY.
You see, the king’s signet ring was a sign of his authority. To have the king’s signet ring was to act on behalf of the king. Whatever THE SIGNET RING said, that’s what the KING said. And that’s the sort of authority and power God’s going to give Zerubbabel. To speak and act as God.
Back when Jerusalem was being conquered, Zerubbabel’s grandfather, Jehoiachin, was king of Judah. Descended from King David himself. And as part of God’s judgment, he announced, in Jeremiah 22:24, that even though Jehoichin was the signet ring on God’s right hand, he’d tear him off his finger, and hand him over to Nebuchadnezzar. In other words, there’d be no more sons of King David on the throne. The exile in Babylon was the finish. But now, God promises his grandson that he’ll RESTORE a son of David to the throne. And, once again, he’ll rule in God’s place.
They’re big promises, aren’t they? A glorious new temple, where God will grant PEACE. God will BLESS the people, and his Spirit will remain among them. And he’ll restore David’s son to the throne, and he’ll act as God himself, ruling his people. And God will use him to shake the nation and shatter kingdoms. And that’s where the book ends.
Give careful thought
We started today thinking about the disappointment when REALITY doesn’t measure up to EXPECTATION. And I reckon a Jew, reading Haggai 50 or 500 or 2500 years later, would find it THE MOST DISAPPOINTING BOOK IN THE BIBLE. Because God makes ALL OF THESE PROMISES, and they DON’T COME TRUE. Not ONE of them.
Look through the pages of history. The temple was finished, and it lasted A WHILE. In fact, King Herod spent 40 years EXTENDING and IMPROVING it. But it was finally destroyed again in AD70 by the Romans. And now, there’s an Islamic mosque on the site, much to the despair of Jews everywhere.
And King Zerubbabel? Well, he never amounted to anything more than Darius’ governor. And as for him shaking the nations? And God blessing his people with peace and prosperity? It never happened! Israel never achieved independence from the domination of foreigners. Persia ruled. And then Alexander the Great ruled. And then Rome ruled. With Israel just a feather blown around by the winds of international politics.
You’d be DISAPPOINTED, unless you didn’t just read the pages of HISTORY, but kept reading past the end of the Old Testament. Into the NEW Testament. You’d be disappointed. Unless you read in Matthew about ANOTHER king descended from David. Who the angel announces to Joseph will be called Immanuel, or GOD WITH US. And that his name is to be JESUS, because he’ll SAVE HIS PEOPLE FROM THEIR SINS. And who John the Baptist announces will BAPTISE PEOPLE WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT.
And in LUKE’S gospel you’d read about the angel choir who, on the night of Jesus’ birth, sing to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth PEACE TO MEN on whom his favour rests.
It’s JESUS who answers all God’s plans and promises in Haggai. Far better than even Haggai could imagine. It’s Jesus who’s David’s son on the throne of God’s kingdom, ruling as God himself. God’s signet ring. Jesus who brings peace and blessing from God. Jesus who brings the cleansing of forgiven sin for impure people. Jesus who’s shaking the nations and bringing them, and their riches, to himself.
And if you’re disappointed with life, then Jesus is the answer for YOU TOO. He may not help you knit that jumper, or build that table. But he’ll give you something FAR GREATER. He’ll pour his Spirit into you. He’ll give you the blessing of peace with God. He’ll cleanse you of your sin. And give you the power to defeat it. There’s no disappointment in him. Because there’s no gap between the expectation of God’s plans and their fulfilment. Because Jesus fills the gap. So COME to JESUS.