Good Actions Don’t Compensate for Bad Actions – Haggai 2:10-19
By: Alistair Brown
There’s a humorous story about someone who was told by his physician to start on a diet. He was a big man and needed to lose a lot of weight. He took it seriously, and all his work colleagues saw how little he ate each lunchtime. Soon the weight would be falling off him. Except it didn’t. Week after week passed and he was the same size.
Then his friend challenged him: “You eat so little but you never lose any weight. Why is that?”
“I don’t know,” the man replied. “I eat the diet every lunch time and my normal burger and fries every evening, but it doesn’t seem to work.”
There is a lesson in the humor. A good action does not compensate for a bad action. Or, put that another way, a bad action negates a good action. There was no benefit from a lettuce leaf lunch when dinner was a calorific catastrophe.
On December 18, 520 BC, Haggai preaches to the people again. It’s two months since his last message, and they have begun to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. But there are still lessons to learn.
10 On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Haggai: 11 “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Ask the priests what the law says: 12 If someone carries consecrated meat in the fold of their garment, and that fold touches some bread or stew, some wine, olive oil or other food, does it become consecrated?’”
The priests answered, “No.”
13 Then Haggai said, “If a person defiled by contact with a dead body touches one of these things, does it become defiled?”
“Yes,” the priests replied, “it becomes defiled.”
14 Then Haggai said, “‘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.
15 “‘Now give careful thought to this from this day on—consider how things were before one stone was laid on another in the Lord’s temple. 16 When anyone came to a heap of twenty measures, there were only ten. When anyone went to a wine vat to draw fifty measures, there were only twenty. 17 I struck all the work of your hands with blight, mildew and hail, yet you did not return to me,’ declares the Lord. 18 ‘From this day on, from this twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, give careful thought to the day when the foundation of the Lord’s temple was laid. Give careful thought: 19 Is there yet any seed left in the barn? Until now, the vine and the fig tree, the pomegranate and the olive tree have not borne fruit.
“‘From this day on I will bless you.’”
Haggai uses a common way of getting his point over. He gives a sermon illustration, and then he applies a truth from that illustration to his hearers.
First, the illustration.
Between verses 10 and 14 Haggai talks about things which are clean and unclean. He describes two scenarios.
- The first involves consecrated meat from a temple sacrifice. Holy food had to be kept apart from everything else. We have our version still today. When I buy meat in a supermarket, the checkout operator wraps it separately and keeps the meat apart from any other food I’m buying. That’s done for hygiene reasons. The Jews of Haggai’s day kept consecrated meat apart for purity reasons. It was holy and could not be put alongside unholy food. So, in Haggai’s illustration, the consecrated meat was carried in the fold of someone’s garment. Then, Haggai asks, what if – later on – that part of the garment touches any other kind of food? Does that mean the bread or stew in the garment that once carried sacred meat is now consecrated? Go and ask the priests, Haggai says. They do, and the answer is ‘No’ (v. 12).
- Haggai then moves to his second scenario. Jewish law prescribed that someone who had contact with a dead body was ritually unclean, and anything that person touched also became unclean (Lev. 22:4-6; Num. 19:11-16).
So, Haggai asks, if that person touches bread or stew, does the food become defiled? The priests answer ‘Yes’ (v. 13).
Here is what Haggai has shown. Close contact with consecrated food does not make other food consecrated. But close contact with a defiled person makes the food defiled.
Haggai’s point is this: good things do not automatically make other things good, but bad things do make other things bad. Because one thing is pure, it doesn’t make other things pure. But when one thing is impure, it makes other things impure.
Here are two modern ways to make that point.
- First scenario. You forget to put your jug of milk back in the fridge, and later you find the milk has gone sour. “Never mind,” you say, “I’ll just add some fresh milk to it and it’ll be fine.” It will not be fine. The fresh milk does not change the sour milk, but the sour milk changes the fresh milk, and now all the milk is sour.
- Second scenario. You’re doing 50 mph when the limit is just 30, and you’re pulled over by a police officer. “You were exceeding the speed limit,” he says. “Yes, but that’s not a problem, officer, because twenty minutes ago I was driving at just 30 when the speed limit was 50. It all evens out.” Is that police officer going to agree that it all evens out? No. You’re supposed to keep inside the speed limit at all times, and being good at one time doesn’t excuse or erase being bad the next time.
The general principle is: good things are no remedy for bad things.
Haggai’s application of his illustration to the people comes in verse 14:
“Then Haggai said, ‘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.’”
It is not that the people had never done anything good. They had begun to build the temple. They were bringing some sacrifices before God. But, no matter how worthy these things were, they never cancelled out the bad:
- Postponing work on the temple.
- Prioritizing their own comforts.
- Putting their needs above God’s needs.
- Pushing God’s work back to any time they felt like doing it.
Perhaps, in this message, God is reminding them of how it had been for sixteen years. Perhaps God knows many of the people are still not devoted to him. And very forcibly God brings home the truth that a few worthy acts will never obliterate their neglect of him, but their refusal to honor God and put him front and center in their lives contaminates everything else they do. As long as their impurity remains, nothing will ever be right.
Then, having given the illustration, Haggai brings home the application.
That is in verses 15-19.
Haggai’s words here can be grouped under four headings: diagnosis, prognosis, prescription, and healing.
Haggai calls on the people to recognize just how bad life was when they neglected God: “…consider how things were before one stone was laid on another in the Lord’s temple.When anyone came to a heap of twenty measures, there were only ten” (vs. 15-16). And Haggai continues with other examples of how their harvest store constantly fell short of what they expected.
And, through Haggai, God makes it clear this was not an accidental succession of bad harvests. It’s not misfortune. God says: “I struck all the work of your hands with blight, mildew and hail…”(v. 17). God was disciplining his people. From that experience, they should have realized how much they failed to honor God and put it right. But they hadn’t. “…yet you did not return to me,’ declares the Lord” (v. 17).
Look at your recent history and diagnose the problem, Haggai says. The answer? Every year your supplies ran short because you neglected God.
A prognosis involves forecasting the likely outcome of a disease, and especially the chances of recovery.
What’s the prognosis for these people? God sends a strong message that nothing will be better unless there is real change.
“From this day on, from this twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, give careful thought to the day when the foundation of the Lord’s temple was laid. Give careful thought: Is there yet any seed left in the barn? Until now, the vine and the fig tree, the pomegranate and the olive tree have not borne fruit.” (vs. 18-19)
Twice in one verse God says “Give careful thought….” Look at the facts. Face reality. Don’t you see God’s discipline? And don’t you realize that (to use a modern saying) if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got? After all, “Is there yet any seed left in the barn?” These are early days after they began this new phase of building, but they are still hungry. There is still a long way to go. The warning? There will be a better future only if you are truly repentant and put God above all else in your lives.
The prescription is simple. God says: “return to me” (v. 17).
Housing authorities can have a “one strike, you’re out” policy with tenants. One offense, and you lose your home.
Schools can have the same tough policy with their students. One act of aggression, and you’ll never get back.
Some business contracts have zero tolerance for any breach of terms. Get even one thing wrong, and the contract is over.
These may very well be right policies. But there are people who have ignored or rejected God who believe they’re permanently ‘out’ with God. They cannot believe God still wants them. They would say: “I failed God. Why would he want to have anything to do now with someone like me?”
The answer is because “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Judah did not have a business contract with God but a covenant. They had broken that covenant, and they’d suffered because of that. But God had not given up. Even after failing again and again, God still loved his people and the prescription for a new relationship was simple: “return to me.”
The last words from God through Haggai in this sermon are wonderful: “From this day on I will bless you” (v. 19).
- These are people who have experienced exile in another land.
- They are now home, but nothing has prospered.
Throughout their lives, all they’ve known is God’s judgment and God’s discipline.
But now God promises healing.
Their harvests will prosper. There will be enough food to eat. The temple will be rebuilt, and they will once again know joy and blessing in their relationship with God.
God spoke special words to Solomon when he finished building the first temple. They would be as appropriate for Haggai’s people as they got to work on the second temple:
“…if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14).
Our loving God does not hold back. He does not appoint people on a trial basis. When they return to him, he embraces them, forgives their sins, and fills their lives with good things. God is good, and pours that goodness on his people. “I will bless you,” he tells Haggai’s people. And he meant it.
There are two final lessons to be taken from this passage.
First, the good in our lives can’t be used to balance the bad in our lives. Fresh milk doesn’t improve sour milk, because what’s sour will stay sour.
George tended to be outspoken with his opinions on how to live the Christian life. “Everything is all right in moderation!” he said loudly one day.
“Everything?” I asked. “Even some sin?”
“Everything!” he proclaimed, a big smile on his face.
I didn’t agree with him, so I pushed the argument. “So, fornication in moderation? That’s okay too?”
George’s smile disappeared, but only for a moment. Then, beaming again, he said, “Yes, in moderation of course….”
I didn’t know if George was being serious or not. I hope he was joking, but perhaps not.
Many times I’ve heard someone say, “My life is not too bad. I’ve never committed any of the really big sins, and I’ve always been kind to people, given money to charity and tried to be a good neighbor. I’m a lot better than some people. I think I’m all right with God.”
The thinking of these people is of old-fashioned weighing scales. They make their own judgments about what belongs on one side and what goes on the other, and then conclude that the good things in their lives outweigh the bad things, so God will accept them.
The message here is that God does not judge that way. Good things don’t obliterate bad things. God seeks a life which is pure through and through, and that will never be achieved by hoping the good in our lives outweighs the bad. It comes through God’s healing, ultimately and only through the gift of new life from Jesus Christ.
Second, God truly takes us back, purifies us from all wrongdoing, restores us to a wonderful relationship with him, and gives us a future worth having.
This is much better than a second chance. A ‘mulligan’ in golf is a ‘do-over’ stroke. It has no place in the official rules of golf, but it’s common in casual rounds between friends. Ed hits his drive and it’s an enormous slice and goes right over the fence. He’s ‘out of bounds.’ “Don’t worry Ed,” says his friends. “Take a mulligan,” and that means Ed can hit his drive again without penalty.
The problem with a mulligan is that Ed can now make exactly the same mistake as last time. His grip, his stance, his swing is just as bad, and off that second ball sails like the first one over the fence. A second chance is often just another opportunity to be as bad as we were before.
God does not hand out mulligans, second chances. God gives a new life. He comes to his people with healing, help, wholeness and by his Spirit gives power to live a completely new life. We will still make mistakes, but a life with God at the center recognizes when it’s gone wrong, seeks forgiveness, and readjusts back to God’s will. This is a good life, a rich life, a life with promise, a life under God’s blessing.
As Haggai’s people had to learn: good actions don’t compensate for bad actions. Thankfully, a merciful and gracious God doesn’t require us to earn salvation by goodness. He gifts new life to those who will return to him and let him be front and center of their whole lives.