Molding God’s Will to Ours – Haggai 1:1-2

  • May 20, 2014
  • Series: President's Bible Study

When our children were young they loved play-dough. My wife, Alison, would make the play-dough,[1] adding coloring to the mix so one part was not the same as another. And our four children cut up that play-dough and molded it into all sorts of strange or wonderful shapes. Maybe they made animals, maybe houses, maybe people, maybe a large round ball they then delighted to squash.

Why so popular? My guess is because they could push and pull the play-dough to be anything they wanted. If they didn’t like the way something turned out, they could just reshape it to whatever they pleased.

God is not play-dough, but sometimes we act as if he is. We shape his nature to be harsh or generous; we flex his standards to be what we want; we change his plans for our lives to fit our new circumstances. “I don’t like this so I’m going to make it that” is what we say, and we could be talking about play-dough or about God’s will.

The Jews who were first to return to Jerusalem from captivity made that mistake, and the Book of Haggai (second shortest after Obadiah in the Old Testament) records God’s prophecies through Haggai to fix that situation.

First, some background.

The Jews were taken captive to Babylon in several stages around 597 BC, 587 BC, and 582 BC, but their Babylonian captors were eventually conquered by Persia. In 538 BC, the Persian King Cyrus issued a ruling that the Jews could return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple.

About 50,000 Jews returned, and within two years they’d laid the temple foundation. But that stirred opposition from neighboring Samaritans who didn’t want a vibrant Jewish life centered round a rebuilt temple. Work stopped, people became discouraged, and gradually they turned their attention to their own interests such as building houses for themselves.[2]

By the time of Haggai there was a new king in Persia, Darius the Great, and in the second year of his reign – 520 BC – and at the end of August that year, Haggai began to preach to the returned people in Jerusalem.

 

Haggai 1:1-2

1 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, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest:

2 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.’”

 

These words are not soft. God does not refer to “My people…” in these verses. Instead verse 2 begins, “These people say….” This is not a message of sympathy but one of disappointment.

People have returned to Jerusalem. It should have been a time for rejoicing. But all was not well. In this study, we will begin to understand why God was not pleased with what had been happening since the people returned from exile.

 

1.A failure of leadership

The first time God speaks through Haggai, the message is addressed to two leaders of the people in Jerusalem. One is Zerubbabel, the governor and the other is Joshua, the high priest. Zerubbabel had political power and Joshua had religious authority.

And God spoke to them through Haggai. The text of verse 1 is very clear that this is not Haggai arguing his personal views: “the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel… and to Joshua.

God has a problem with their leadership. They failed in one of the two ways leaders easily fail.

1) They try to lead absolutely. They try to rule, to impose their wisdom or at least their will on everyone else. The reason for that can be an overblown ego, or an exaggerated sense of personal authority, or (in a religious context) some sense of divine infallibility about themselves.

I have seen that last failing – leaders believing they alone can define right or wrong – even in surprising contexts.

Pastor Simon was happy to lead his congregation in a study on marriage. They needed to agree a new policy on who could be married in the church, and the pastor knew right from the start what that new policy should be. So he preached sermons on the subject, and allowed discussion on various points at church meetings. Simon was unambiguous about his own views. He held a fairly conservative line and wanted considerable restrictions on who was eligible to have their wedding conducted by the church. He was confident the church would back him when, after all the sermons and discussion, the matter finally came to a vote.

But the members didn’t. Instead, by a clear majority, they voted for a more generous policy, and people with past failures seeking to build a new life could be married by the church.

That church came from a tradition that the mind of Christ was discerned by the body of Christ earnestly seeking God’s will. So the matter was settled. Except it wasn’t. Two weeks after the vote, in the main church service the pastor told the congregation that he had to confess he had failed them. That made every member sit up straight and listen. “I have failed you,” the pastor said, “by allowing you to reach an unbiblical view regarding marriage.” Hearts sank among the people. And as long as Simon was the pastor, notwithstanding the congregation’s clear discernment, the policy of that church stayed exactly as he wanted it to be.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of views about marriage, the point of telling that story is only this: leaders go wrong who think they are the sole definers of truth or rightness and all other views can be set aside.

2) They don’t try to lead at all. Not all leaders lead. But, without becoming a despot, leaders must lead. A leader is much more than a manager or a coordinator.

A leader inspires vision for a new and better future. A leader helps people define the direction they must go. A leader coordinates people as they move in that direction. A leader works to find the means to get to the goal. And much more. But not all so-called leaders do.

In my younger years I played on a number of soccer teams, and some of those were (to put it politely) ‘informal’ in their organization. Eleven of us would turn up, and we knew that Bill was the captain. But did Bill gather us together before the game for practice? No. Did Bill get us in a huddle just before kick off to discuss strategy? No. Did Bill even define exactly the positions on the team we were all to play? No. All Bill said before the start was: “Okay lads, have a good game.” That was it. Were we going to win with that kind of captaincy? Never. Were we going to lose every game? Absolutely. It may have been 10-0 or 20-0. All I remember was that our score was always nil. Bill liked the title of ‘captain’ but did nothing to deliver on a leader’s responsibilities.

Leadership is more than a title. It’s a responsibility that requires real action, enabling everyone to work together effectively to achieve a desired goal.

So, if two of the greatest errors of leadership are these:

  • Trying to lead absolutely
  • Not trying to lead at all

Which of them was the failing of Zerubbabel and Joshua?

The answer is something close to the second. Zerubbabel had not led. Joshua had not led. Instead, both of them had followed.

That becomes clear next.

 

2. Excuses of the people

Verse 2: “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘These people say, “The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.”’”

What the people said was very strange, because God’s will had been very clear, and for a time everyone had gone along with it.

  • Ezra chapter 1 explains that Cyrus, who was King of Persia when the return to Jerusalem was first permitted, specifically allowed that the temple should be rebuilt and ordered that the work should be funded.
  • Ezra chapter 2 lists people who returned, including many who served at the temple, and details how heads of households gave freewill offerings towards the rebuilding of the temple.
  • Ezra chapter 3 explains how sacrifices were offered as soon as the foundations of the new altar were built, and how the priests and Levites resumed their temple roles as the foundation of the temple was laid.
  • Ezra chapter 4 describes opposition mounting, and political and physical threats being made to the Jews if they continued to rebuild the temple. And it finishes with these sad words: “Thus the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill” (Ezra 4:24).

At that time, there was no urging from the leaders to stand firm. No restating of the vision to have the temple rebuilt. No counseling the people to obey the command of God and once again have God’s temple at the center of their whole community life. Instead, with foundations down, the work all just “came to a standstill,” and the people said, “The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house” (Haggai 1:2).

Why would they say that? Why might they think the timing was wrong? Scholars have many theories such as these three:

1) Unquestionably they were under threat. It wasn’t the first time and wouldn’t be the last. God’s people had lived with threats to their existence down through every generation. But this time it was very easy to make the threats go away: just stop building the temple. So they did.

2) Some may sincerely have believed it was not yet time to rebuild. Jeremiah had prophesied an exile of seventy years. [3] But only about sixty-six years had passed, so those seventy years of captivity were not yet over. Could they be going against God’s plan by rebuilding the temple early? Would God bless an enterprise that went against his announced timing? Could that be like a child suspended from school for one week who returns after three days saying he is keen to get on with his education, and expects the teachers and administrators to be pleased he had shortened his own punishment? Would God approve if the Jews resumed normal life before the exile period he had prescribed was over?

3) They were struggling just to survive. Harvests were difficult. Raw materials were lacking. They had almost no money, and they were weak and they were tired. More than anything they needed homes for themselves now, and, though they would never have said it this way, they may have thought they needed homes more than God did. He would be fine without one.

Or is there another reason they stopped building? Yes, they were under threat. Yes, some had scholarly arguments about the timing of God’s will. Yes, it was difficult just to live through those days. But all of those were surmountable if they really had the heart for God’s will. The ultimate proof that they could rebuild the temple is that after Haggai’s prophesies, they did!

But they’d lost heart. And – like play-dough in the hands of a child – they’d reshaped God’s will and God’s lordship to fit with what they really wanted to do, and that was to rebuild their own homes. They reshaped God to someone who would bless their whims, their wishes, their will. Their priorities would be his priorities. Their needs would become his plan. And so work stopped on the temple for years before Haggai brought the word of the Lord.

God have mercy on any of us who think we can reshape God or God’s will into how we would like him and his will to be.

So easily we spiritualize our desires and then convert them into God’s will for our lives. “I feel at peace about what I am doing, so that must be God’s plan,” we say. There’s no surprise about that kind of peace because it’s based on what we want. The returnees to Jerusalem probably felt great peace about finally getting their own homes built, but that peace was no proof that they were doing God’s will. They’d redefined God’s priority to coincide with their priority, and by doing so brought great disaster on their personal lives and the nation.

As the story of Haggai’s prophecies unfold, and we see the response of the leaders and people to those prophecies, we’ll find real hope. There was still time for change and change they did.

But how much better it would have been if only their leaders had led and not followed the people, and if only the people had kept God’s priorities at number one for their lives. Get these things wrong, and nothing good follows.

 

[1] If you’re keen to make your own play-dough, there are several recipes here: http://fun.familyeducation.com/sculpting/recipes/37040.html

[2] There is more background to the events of these times in the book of Ezra.

[3] Jer. 25:11-12, 29:10.