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Getting the time right

It’s awful when you get the time wrong. Missing a meeting, a party, a flight. I’ve done all those things at various points and it’s not a nice feeling!  

It’s important to get the time right. There’s no point applying for a position which has already been filled, or waiting for a bus which has already gone. 

But imagine getting the time wrong, not just for little things like that, but for your lifetime: living one’s whole life prioritising one thing, when actually the purpose of that lifetime was something else entirely. It is something which is very possible to do and many, many people have done it. 

In Haggai chapter 1, God sees his people standing on the edge of the rest of their lives and getting the time wrong. They are on the verge of wasting their lives on little dreams and, in love, he intervenes to stop it. This chapter may not have been written directly to us, as it was to them, but it is written for us as Christians. In it, God gives us a window to see what time it is and what our lifetimes are for. 

The time in Haggai

Haggai, as a book, is a bit hung up on time. For each of its four prophecies we are told the date, down to the day. This use of dates is a striking feature of the book. Consider the opening verse: 

Haggai 1:1 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

In our calendar that would be 29 August 520 BC. But this verse tells us more than just the date. It reveals the situation: eighteen years prior, God’s people had returned to Judah after having been exiled to Babylon for their disobedience. As prophesied, God had used the Persian king Cyrus to send them back to the promised land (or what remained of it) to rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:1-4; Jer 29:10). This is why in Haggai 1:1 they have a Jewish governor but a Persian king. Further, having been back for 18 years, surely the temple is well under way! After all, that was what this time back in the promised land was for. Yet verse 2 tells a different story: 

This is what the LORD almighty says: ‘These people say, “the time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house”’. (Hag 1:2)

Is it time to rebuild God’s house? The people’s answer is: ‘not yet’. 

A few months ago, some paint and plaster started peeling from our bedroom ceiling. At first, the need to fix it felt quite urgent. But as time has gone on, and the ceiling hasn’t fallen in and the roof hasn’t leaked … it’s become less urgent. Each day we look up and think ‘It’s on the to-do list. Not today though’. 

It’s as if the temple became a bit like that for the Israelites. At first it was so urgent. After all – it was God’s house, it was why they had come back to the promised land. But as eighteen years passed, it got less and less urgent. One can imagine God’s people walking through the city, looking up at the ruins of the old Temple and thinking ‘It’s on the to-do list! Not today though.’ It’s not that they didn’t think it needed doing. It’s just that they didn’t think it needed doing today. 

To the Israelites’ credit we know from Nehemiah that times were tough. They had faced significant opposition at least early on in the build (Neh 4). The rest of Haggai 1 suggests that times were tough economically as well (e.g., verses 6, 11). But whatever the reason, from the people’s perspective, it was not yet time to rebuild God’s house. 

But then God’s word (as is so often the case) reveals the real situation: ‘Then the word of the LORD came through the prophet Haggai: Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your panelled houses, while this house remains a ruin?’  (Hag 1:3)

According to the people, it is not yet time to build God’s house. However, they have had time to build their own ‘panelled’ houses. 

That term ‘panelled’ is rare in the OT. But interestingly, it can be found clustered in the descriptions of the palace and temple built by king Solomon in 1 Kings 6 and 7 (e.g., 1 Kgs 6:9; 7:3, 7). Eighteen years after returning to the promised land to build the temple, God’s house remains a ruin but the people have managed to built houses for themselves that have a distinct whiff of palace or temple about them. 

When they had first come back to Jerusalem, they knew what the time was for. The names of their families were recorded for posterity in Ezra 2. Surely as they stood on the border of the promised land they would have felt they were standing on the edge of their life’s work: They would get to rebuild God’s very house! And we know from Nehemiah that they made a start. But then the opposition ramped up, the distractions moved in, the difficulties mounted, and they stopped building. Or at least they stopped building God’s house…

As Dick Lucas remarked about this passage: ‘The people felt they didn’t have the time or means to rebuild the Lord’s house, but their actions showed that they did have the time and means to build the things they wanted to.’ Have you heard the line: ‘No one is always busy – it just depends on what number you are on their priority list’. God knew very clearly where he was on theirs.

And so in verses 7-8, God calls for change: ‘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 honoured.”’ 

The importance of God’s house

It’s worth pausing and considering – why is God so concerned about the Israelites rebuilding the temple? Verse 8 helps us with the answer: ‘So that I may take pleasure in it and be honoured’.

When God’s house is built it will be something he takes pleasure in. It is something which will bring him delight and also something that will bring honour to him. This explains why the LORD goes to great lengths to get his house built. After all, he’s raised up this prophet Haggai to get the work going again. But what’s more, he has been using the land itself to highlight to the people their need to build again. We see this in verse 5 of chapter 1, but more explicitly in verse 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. Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. I called for a drought on [or ‘a ruining of’] 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 labour of your hands.

God invites his people to carefully look around at their circumstances and consider: why aren’t the crops growing, the rains coming or the cows breeding? The answer is that God himself, as promised by his covenant at Sinai, has brought ruin upon his people to point out the state of their relationship with him and turn them back to him (see Lev 26; Deut 28). He has brought ruin on the land to show that his people are ruining their relationship with him – as seen by the temple which is a ruin. A word-play drives home the connection: ‘drought’ in verse 11 draws on the same Hebrew root (ch-r-b) as the word translated ‘ruin’ in verses 4 and 9, describing the temple. The state of the promised land is pointing out the state of the people’s attitude to God. 

But rebuilding the temple will bring him pleasure and honour.

On one level, the story of the Bible is a story of God wanting to be with his people in spite of their sin. God wants to be with his people not just spatially (after all, he is everywhere) but relationally. He wanted to be their God even if that meant being in the midst of messy sinful lives. In the Old Testament, the temple was what enabled that to happen. In the middle of the people, and yet with its barriers, priests and sacrifices, the temple was the embodiment of both the closeness and distance of God. It made a way for God to belong to a sin-stained people, but not be stained by their sin. He could be with his people – which brought him such pleasure and delight! They could be with him and bring him worship-filled honour.

The temple showed that God wanted to be with his people and that they wanted to be with him. How the people treated the temple reflected how they were treating God. In Haggai 1, God is saying: ‘I want to be with you. Do you want to be with me? If you do: then you’ll go rebuild my house’. And miracle of miracles … they do. 

In verses 12-15, Zerubbabel, Joshua and all the people obey God. These verses offer a great picture of what repentance looks like from the human perspective and from God’s. Verses 12 and 14 outline what the people did to repent. They heard God’s word, they obeyed, they feared the Lord and they began work on the temple. Sandwiched in the middle, in verse 13, is what God did to enable them to repent: He gave them his word. He (remarkably!) assured his people: ‘I am with you’. And he ‘stirs’ each person’s spirit, each person’s will, to repentance. And in classic Haggai style, in verse 15 we are told the date they started to rebuild. After eighteen years, it takes them just 23 days to share the prophecy with everyone, get their tools and materials together, and kick off again. The Christian life is hard. But it is very simple, too. Hear God’s word: obey it. Hear something in the Bible I don’t agree with: change my mind. Hear something in the Bible I’m not doing: change my life. 

After 18 years, a lot can happen in 23 days. 

The time today 

So what time is it today? 

We stand in a very different time, historically and also theologically. We are no longer under that same Old Covenant. This land we live in is not tied to our relationship with God such that if we disobey there will be droughts and if we obey there will be more money in our pockets. But we face the same risk. It is worth us also giving careful consideration to our ways and our time. What are our panelled houses? What are the things pulling me away from God’s priorities? 

After all, it’s still time for us to pull up our socks and build God’s house! Or is it?

Surprisingly, when we ask the question, ‘What’s the time today? Is it time for us to build God’s house?’ The answer God gives us first may not be what we expect. 

In Christ, God says: ‘I will build my own house. In fact, I already have’.

In John 2, the Lord Jesus Christ is walking through the physical temple, through his ‘Father’s house’ (John 2:16). He sees how even the temple itself has been infected by people’s warped priorities. People are using the temple to extort money from the vulnerable and boost their own sense of pride. And yet amongst those grand stone pillars he makes this extraordinary claim in John 2:19: ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days’. It must have been a real mic-drop moment. 

The first temple, built by Solomon, took seven years to complete. The second temple, from Haggai, took 18 years to really get started! The next temple, the one Jesus was walking through, built by Herod – took 46 years. And each one of them ended up a rubble heap. Jesus says ‘just give me three days’. And John adds: ‘The temple he had spoken of was his body’ (John 2:21).

God has always wanted to be with his people, despite their sin. In the Old Testament, he managed it through his stone house. In the New Testament, he achieved it through his Son, Jesus Christ. 

But when Jesus speaks of himself as the temple in John 2, he’s not talking about his birth (Immanuel though he was). In John 2, he’s talking about his death and resurrection, hence the 3-day time frame. It was not merely his incarnation that made Jesus the temple. It was his death and resurrection. Because it was Christ’s death and resurrection that enabled God to be with us and us to be with him forever. In his death, he took on the full cost of the build. He took the punishment for our self-centred priorities and the mess we make in our lives and others’ lives. In coming back to life three days later, he opened the way for anyone who trusts in him to approach God, find forgiveness, and begin a true and eternal relationship with him. This relationship is secured by God’s own Spirit, who comes and sets up house in us. It is the Spirit who enables us to keep following Jesus, grows in us the character God loves, and equips us for what God wants us to do. 

God has always wanted to be with his people. He walked in a garden, lived in a tent, he dwelt in a temple, he came as a baby, he died our death, rose to give us a new life with him in the middle.

So is it time to build God’s house? 

Jesus says: I’ve already built it.  

But there’s more to the story. We get to build the house that is already built. This is the image Paul gives in Ephesians 2 and 4. By virtue of Christ’s death, ‘In him [Christ], the whole building [of God’s people] is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling by which God lives by his Spirit’ (2:21-22). 

Jesus’ death transforms God’s very people into his temple. In a beautiful act of grace, Jesus is not a one-man-one-pillar temple. Rather we get to be the ‘temple’ with him, bringing delight and honour to God! God is not interested in special buildings anymore. He is building a special people. And we read in Ephesians 4 that he is using us to do it! A bit like running the race that we have already won in Philippians 3, we get to build a building that is already built. God is building a people, using his people to do it and that is what this time is for. 

This is the time to be inviting people in to follow Jesus. This is the time to be strengthening one another so we can keep following Jesus together. We have great tools to do it – not a (physical) sword and tools like in Nehemiah’s day – but God’s word and prayer. This is why times like church and Bible study become so precious. They are worth protecting from division, distractions and competing priorities. 

How God delights over the young woman in my Bible study group who chooses to show up, newborn in arms, toddler in tow, dog tired, baby-vom shirt, but eager to meet with God’s people. She is bringing him such honour! And the woman who prays and encourages as she is able, in her weakness, in chronic illness. God grieves the hardship of suffering in this life but he delights over her heart. These sisters know what their lifetimes are for. 

And since we are building that which is already built by God, we know it will last. It has Christ as the cornerstone (Eph 2:20). We can invite people to learn about Jesus, not out of guilt or suspecting no one will ever say yes, but rather knowing that some will because we are building a building that God has already built. We can encourage one another, pray together, and teach the Word not with the weight on our shoulders of the mindset ‘we’re the ones who’ve got to build God’s people’ but with canned heat in our feet – ‘we get to build God’s people’. God is with us. 

Haggai 1 gives each one of us the chance as we stand on the edge of the rest of our lives, to look out and consider: ‘What will be my life’s work? what is this lifetime for?’ Let it be for rejoicing in being God’s people and striving to build God’s people. 

Eighteen years they waited. They wasted. Then through the prophet Haggai, God’s people heard God’s word and they changed.We serve the Lord Jesus who said ‘just give me three days. I’ll build God’s house’. And we get to build his people, with him, for a lifetime. So let’s get building.

[Based on a talk given at the EQUIP conference 2023].