Time for a U-turn – Haggai 1:7-11
By: Alistair Brown
My wife and my children remember only too well the times when I have been determined I’m right even when the evidence was mounting that I was wrong.
One of those inconvenient memories centers on a time I took them to the circus in another city. “It’s forty miles away,” I said, “and I know the way.” The children were excited; Alison and I were excited. We counted down the miles – twenty to go, ten to go, five to go….
About that time Alison asked: “Shouldn’t we be turning off for the venue about now?” “Not yet,” I said. “Remember, I know the way!”
We got to ‘no miles to go,’ and still I hadn’t seen the turn-off from the main expressway we were on. “Just a little further,” I insisted. Two miles further and there was no sign of my turn. Four miles, six miles, eight miles, ten miles.
By now, of course, there were howls of protest from the back of the car. “But I know the way…” I said lamely. “Maybe you did, but you don’t now?” Alison suggested.
She was right and I knew it, and when the chance I came I did a U-turn. A few miles back the way we’d come and I recognized the roads. There was our turn-off. At last we were going in the right direction, and amazingly we even got to the circus in time.
There is something deeply stubborn in most of us. We get set in our ways, and especially when we think we’re right, we keep doing what we’ve always done. But what if we’re not right? What if our decisions are misguided? What if our lives are going in the wrong direction? Then there’s a deep need to get honest, turn around and start facing the right way.
That’s exactly what God challenged his people to do in ancient times. They’d returned from exile, but prioritized work on building their own homes rather than God’s house. The temple was neglected while they made themselves comfortable. They were going the wrong way, and they needed to start putting things right.
That’s exactly what God says to them.
7 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. 8 Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the Lord. 9 “You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the Lord Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house. 10 Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. 11 I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the olive oil and everything else the ground produces, on people and livestock, and on all the labor of your hands.”
Three things are very clear from this passage.
1. God had brought fruitlessness to their lives because they had neglected him.
The rains had failed and the crops had not grown, and neither people nor animals had been able to thrive (v. 11).
There is no doubt about two things:
1) God had done this.
2) God had done this because of the people’s failure.
Haggai is very specific that God is the author of the shortcomings the people have experienced. Through Haggai God says:
“What you brought home, I blew away” (v. 9).
“I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains…” (v.11).
God did this.
But the cause is the people’s failure to build the temple before anything else. “’What you brought home, I blew away. Why?’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house.Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops’” (vs. 9-10).
There is a cause and effect relationship between the actions – actually, the inactions – of the people. They had failed to honor God, and he had refused to bless them. Their actions were culpably neglectful. His actions were an intentional response.
2. God will never be relegated to second place.
God spoke to his people when he gave them the Law. These words come from Deuteronomy chapter six:
“Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you” (v. 3).
“When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (vs. 10-12).
God had every intention of pouring good gifts and many blessings on his people. But they must never forget him. They must follow him and obey him, and never relegate him to being a bystander while they make their own decisions and live as they please.
The same priority for God over their lives was clear when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Here are words from the first two of those commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me… I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…” (Ex. 20:3-4).
This is not a God to be pushed around. He allows no one and nothing to be greater in the lives of his people. He brooks no rivals, for he alone is the Lord God Almighty. He is our Lord God, but we are also his people and his servants.
I have fallen off bicycles and motorcycles on to soft grass and come to no harm. I have also fallen off bicycles and motorcycles on to hard road and felt the deep pain of that impact. The grass yielded to me, so I was fine. I yielded to the road, and it hurt.
God yields to no one. He is the solid rock and if we hurl ourselves against him the result will only be pain, sadness, and a life of frustration and failure. The returnees from exile to Jerusalem had paid the price for forgetting that.
3. God has no desire that anyone suffer a fruitless life.
It was not too late to put the wrong things right for the people who had forgotten God’s priority.
“This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,’ says the Lord” (Haggai 1:7-8).
It would take effort. There wasn’t enough timber around a neglected Jerusalem. They’d have to travel, climb up into the mountains, cut down trees, and haul the timber back. There would be sweat, probably tears, certainly exhaustion. And even then the work would just be at its beginning. “[Then] build my house” says God.
But it would be worth it, for God promises that if they will:
- Bring in the finest of timbers,
- Build the best temple for God of which they are capable,
…then he will take pleasure in it, and he will be honored by it.
In other words, God says: “Do these things. Put right the work that has been missing for years, and I promise to accept it. More than accept it. I promise to be delighted by it and will receive your worship.”
If they will put right what’s been wrong then the relationship with God will be restored. They could have feared that they’d give their all and it would still not be enough. “I will take pleasure in it and I will be honored,” God says. They will not get to the end of their work and find it’s been for nothing. Their effort will not be in vain. God will be pleased, and their self-induced suffering will end.
God is willing, but they must now give themselves to him and his work and leave in the past their old, neglectful attitudes.
From about the age of eight, I had lessons to play the violin, and the teacher, Mrs. Brown (same last name as me but no relation), formed all the children she taught into an orchestra. As well as an annual concert, we played in village halls and local churches all over our area.
But I was never Mrs. Brown’s best student. I didn’t do a lot of practice so I had more than my share of bad notes. After a few years came the time I rammed the orchestra’s piano into a solid oak door. The door won the contest, and various parts fell off the piano. Mrs. Brown was not amused.
Then a few months after that there was the concert when I had one little but special part playing percussion. The orchestral piece needed the sound of a church bell striking 8 o’clock. I was given a percussion triangle to hit eight times at a steady speed, to sound like a church bell at 8 o’clock.
Unfortunately I thought hitting a triangle eight times had to be so easy I hadn’t practiced that either. The concert hall was full, the violins were sounding beautiful, and then we got to the moment when the clock was to strike 8 o’clock. I had the triangle ready. Mrs. Brown was conducting and waved her baton at me. I struck.
Dong… Dong… Dong… Dong…
And at that moment, I had a sudden panic. I was going far slower than Mrs. Brown’s baton. I had to catch up. So the final four strikes came very fast.
Dong. Dong. Dong. Dong.
That clock struck eight, but had four very slow dongs, and four very fast dongs. It was not my finest moment.
Mrs. Brown said nothing at the end of the concert. When the next tuition session was over, though, she called me aside. Her message was very clear: take the lessons and the orchestra seriously, and there was a place for me. But mess around, treat it all as just a lark, and she didn’t want me in her class or her orchestra. Her words were very plain.
I got my act together. I practiced. I behaved. I performed well. I pleased my teacher. I continued to play the violin and take part in concerts for several more years, and I have many great memories of those events and of Mrs. Brown.
She demanded commitment, and she was right.
God demands commitment. He does not yield to us, and we suffer only harm if we neglect or fight him.
Getting right with God begins by realizing we’ve gone wrong, and the next step is humbly turning around to find a new way. God’s way is the right way and a good way. By God’s grace and forgiveness, we find ourselves back in relationship with our God. Humility and effort lead to wonderful results.
Our tendency is to be stubborn and change nothing. We keep our pride but we’ll also keep frustration and fruitlessness in our lives. We have lived with those too long already. It’s time to turn. God is willing and God gives his strength to help.
He will take pleasure in us and be honored by us. A marvelous new life lies beyond the U-turn we need to make.