Misplaced Priorities – Haggai 1:3-6
By: Alistair Brown
Getting someone to take charge of buildings maintenance was always a challenge in churches where I was pastor. But then I found Cameron. He was a volunteer because we couldn’t afford to pay anyone for jobs like that. Cameron should have been a great volunteer:
- He had the time.
- He was willing.
- He had the skills.
- He could give leadership.
There was just one problem. Cameron had all the right ideas and Cameron had all the right skills, but he just didn’t do the work. He never made time to do maintenance himself or delegate tasks to others.
People like that are always a dilemma for a pastor. Cameron was a volunteer; I couldn’t command him. He was well-liked in the church; I couldn’t be hard on him. He was a key person in other ministries we had; I couldn’t lose him. I was very tempted to just let Cameron’s failings with our facilities slide, to do nothing about it, and find some way to muddle through the problems which would follow.
But I decided I had to deal with this. I took one of our other senior leaders with me, and we visited Cameron. I explained what the expectations were for the person in charge of buildings maintenance – all things Cameron already knew – and then said: “Cameron, you don’t seem to be able to do this….”
“You’re right,” he said. “Would you like me to resign from that role?” For a fraction of a second I thought of saying “No, I don’t mean that…,” but, after only a short pause, I said: “Cameron, I think that would be for the best.” He resigned, and found great fulfillment and success in the days ahead with other roles to which he could commit himself.
Christians are kind people, and our instinct is to let people off when they don’t fulfill their promises. We choose not to see or deal with their shortcomings. We don’t like to hold people to account, so we tolerate lack of commitment or neglect.
We didn’t learn that from God. It’s not what God did in the days of Haggai:
- When those who returned from captivity had laid the foundations of the temple,
- But then become discouraged or distracted, and turned their attention to building their own homes, leaving the temple unfinished.
- And then argued that “The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house” (Hag. 1:2).
God was not buying the argument that it was not time to build the temple. A fully built and fully functioning temple was the sign that God was among his people, at the heart of their life together, and Lord over everything they did. The temple came first. There could never be a right time to delay building the temple.
The people said it was not yet time. God had an answer for them.
3 Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: 4 “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”
5 Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. 6 You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.”
Two key issues are raised here. One is about misplaced priorities, and the other about God’s discipline.
1. Misplaced priorities.
God is very direct about the problem. “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” (v. 4).
God might be speaking only about the leaders, Zerubbabel and Joshua, or about all of the people, or about some of the people. Their homes are described as “paneled,” and no one is one hundred per cent sure what that means in this instance, but if a realtor had written it everyone would know these houses were highly desirable. And God’s point is: ‘You have finished homes. You have comfortable homes. You can do all that while my house is still a ruin? How can anyone say the time is not right to finish the house of God?’
God had brought these people back from captivity. And in their first flush of enthusiasm at being back in Jerusalem they had begun to rebuild the temple but never got beyond laying the foundations. Then their gratitude to God, their interest in his priorities, and their devotion to the Lord wore off. Self-interest surfaced, and their attention switched to their wants.
They could say it wasn’t time to rebuild the temple, but it wasn’t true. It was simply an inconvenient time because they had another agenda, and that agenda had their wishes and their needs at the top of the list.
“Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” God would not settle for their misplaced priorities.
2. God’s discipline.
The way Haggai prophecies his next words is very strong: “Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Give careful thought to your ways’” (v. 5).
Haggai is not speaking for a puny or powerless God but for the “Lord Almighty.” The great God over all the earth, the God who sent his people into captivity and has now brought them out, tells them to think carefully about what has been happening.
And the following words catalog the fruitlessness and failure that has surrounded them because of their wrong priorities. In just one verse Haggai lists five disasters that have happened repeatedly: “You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it” (v. 6).
They have seed, but no matter how much they plant their crops are small.
They have food, but constantly they feel hungry.
They have wine, but it lacks potency.
They wrap themselves in clothes, but still they shiver.
They earn money, but never enough to buy what they need.
It was bad, very bad. Their economic situation was like a bucket riddled with holes lowered into a well, always empty of water before it can be drawn back to the surface. Nothing was working like it should. No matter how many hours they put in or care they gave to their farming, they had only enough to keep themselves alive.
Their priorities were not God’s priorities. They had thought that didn’t matter. God’s plans could be left until a time they found convenient. Surely God would understand…?
God certainly understood. He understood that he was being relegated in their lives and he would not bless their endeavors as long as things stayed that way.
This passage is ancient history, but the issues or challenges it puts before us are contemporary.
1) How right or wrong are our priorities?
When my job was to head up a missionary society, I remember hoping that as people became more and more affluent, more funds would be made available to help the poor of the world – to bring them the gospel and to alleviate their dreadful suffering.
A colleague called Simon put me right. He said: “There will never be more money given, because the more things we have the more we’ll feel entitled to these things…” And he listed examples like cell phones, cable TV, a home security system, furniture and carpeting changed often, another car every two or three years, not just one but perhaps two vacations a year, and so the list went on. I realized he was detailing things that either no one or very few people had just a decade before, but now most people I knew thought of them as a right-to-have. And if I’d challenged them to give up these things for the sake of people who had nothing, they’d have said they ‘needed’ them; they were important just to get by in modern society.
Those ancient Hebrews would have argued just as strongly they needed their paneled homes. Life was tough, they needed the comfort and security of somewhere nice to live.
It is dangerously easy for any of us to legitimize the things we long to have. We ask God to bless our good plans. But no plans are good unless they are God’s plans, God’s will, God’s priorities.
I spent years raising funds for the poor of the world, and those who gave sacrificially were almost always those who had very little. They knew that anything they had belonged to the Lord, and if the Lord had a plan for that money somewhere else they willingly gave it.
Those who had lots of money? Some gave nothing. And those who gave something? As a proportion of all they kept it wasn’t a lot. But there were always a few who were different. They were the people who knew they had no money. It all belonged to the Lord. And with prayer and great thought they used that money strategically to change the world.
I can judge no one, but the warning of Haggai chapter 1 is that God Almighty sees and knows whether our priorities mesh with his priorities.
2) Can we see how God is disciplining us?
I am sure those who returned from exile to Jerusalem knew they were having a hard time. But I am not sure they knew why. God was disciplining them. Their priorities were all wrong. God was no longer first in their lives. They were chasing their own dreams, and not God’s plans.
He would not ignore that. He would not let them off. The hardships had to happen if they were ever to change, and that is exactly the teaching on God’s discipline throughout the scriptures:
“Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you.” (Deut. 8:5)
“Blessed is the one whom God corrects;
so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.” (Job 5:17)
“Blessed is the one you discipline, Lord,
the one you teach from your law.” (Ps. 94:12)
“My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline,
and do not resent his rebuke,
because the Lord disciplines those he loves,
as a father the son he delights in.” (Prov. 3:11-12)
“When we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.” (1 Cor. 11:32)
“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?” (Heb. 12:7)
There are dozens more scripture references like these. God disciplines his people so their priorities become right, and therefore so nothing worse comes to them.
There are many ways teaching on God’s discipline and his blessing can go wrong:
- We can forget God’s grace.
- We can forget Jesus died for every sin.
- We can forget God’s love is never earned.
God save us from forgetfulness about things like that. But may God also let us never forget that he is to be honored as Lord in every detail and every goal of our lives, and if we imagine we can set his priorities aside and pursue our own selfish ambitions, then we are headed for lots of trouble. Misplaced priorities – living for ourselves and not for God and his kingdom – is a way that leads only to difficulty and ultimately to disaster.
Some years ago I was in Kathmandu, Nepal, and due to preach in a church on the outskirts of the city. I arrived at the building, walked into the worship area and looked up and there was the sky! The building was meant to have a roof but there wasn’t one.
I asked the pastor, “Have you no money to put on a roof?” He smiled. “We had money to build everything about our church building, but around the time we got the walls up and were ready to put on the roof, someone told us there was a marvelous opportunity to plant a new church in an unreached area of the city, so we gave the money for the roof to that new work. Then our people gave money again for our roof, and then we found another exciting evangelistic project nearby, and they needed the money to win people to Jesus more than we needed a roof. Maybe one day we’ll have a roof.”
Listening to that pastor I was deeply humbled. Here, in Nepal, were people wholly committed to God’s priorities above all else. When I give “careful thought to my ways,” may that be true about me, too.