Imagine the scene: it’s 520-ish BCE and you’re in Jerusalem. It’s amazing that you’re there at all. Seventy-odd years earlier, the Babylonian Empire had swept through Jerusalem, forced the people of Israel into exile, and torn down the Lord’s house, the temple. But now, you’re back. The Babylonian Empire has been defeated, and the Persian Empire which usurped them is relatively peaceful – and weakening under King Darius. Now is a great time to rebuild a broken nation, to rebuild your lives. You can build your homes, harvest your crops, live life how you want to live it.
And then, here comes Haggai.
We don’t know a huge amount about Haggai himself. Aside from a few brief mentions in the book of Ezra, there aren’t a wealth of biographical details to go on. But Haggai is a prophet, so well-known that he needed no other identification. He’s like a divine mouthpiece. Prophets are people God ordains and uses to send a message to his people, and with Haggai here before us, it’s time to listen up: God’s got something to say to us and Haggai’s not going until he’s delivered it.
God commands them to rebuild the temple. This can seem like a strange command from God, perhaps a bit pedantic, maybe even a bit pointless. But there are three reasons why God commands them to rebuild the temple first: obedience, trust, and intimacy.
Our choices matter; the obedience of God’s people is part of how God works in the world. When we disobey or ignore his commands, we don’t stop God working in the world or undermine his power, but we do cast God to one side. We render him a supporting player in our lives, if we even let him make it onto the cast list of our lives at all. Obedience and disobedience to God reveal the priorities of our hearts and lives. For those listening to Haggai, God had brought them out of exile, and they thank him by leaving his house in ruins. God commands them to rebuild the temple because he wants to be their priority. It’s not because he’s vain, it’s not because he needs attention, it’s not because he’s a millennial who’s just done the love languages test and has maxed out on acts on service, it’s because he wants our obedience, because he can do the best for his children when we put him first and obey his commands.
God commands them to rebuild the temple because he wants their obedience, but also because he wants them to trust him, to trust that he knows what he is doing. The children of Israel start rebuilding their lives themselves, possibly to reclaim the power and agency they lost through the exile. But in trusting themselves over God, their foundations for rebuilding a broken nation are flawed. Any building and rebuilding without God as the foundation are doomed to fail. The Israelites have tried to rebuild their post-exile lives, and as Haggai made clear earlier, it’s not worked out that well for them. Building and rebuilding require firm foundations. Think of Psalm 127, ‘Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labour in vain.’ Or Matthew 7, ‘But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.’
Rebuilding a broken nation, rebuilding a broken world, is pointless without God. Because it won’t work without God. By ourselves, we are cowboy builders with defective tools when in God, we have the master builder, the architect of creation and life itself. The Israelites had built themselves houses, they sewed harvests, they clothed themselves, they thought they could do it in their own strength, and they laboured in vain. They didn’t trust God that he would provide for them if they began rebuilding with his temple rather than their own houses. God commands them to rebuild the temple to show them that they can trust him, that joining in with God’s work is far more fruitful than labouring in vain. Broken people can’t rebuild a broken nation by themselves; but broken people under God’s instruction, can.
Through obedience to God we learn to trust God and the more we trust him, the more we grow in intimacy with him. God wants them to rebuild the temple because the temple is where the people of Israel are promised they will find him. This can sound strange to us as Christians, but it cannot be overstated how essential the temple was to the Israelites. Consider Exodus 25 when it says, ‘Have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them.’ The temple is where God meets his children. Rebuilding the temple is about rebuilding their relationship with God, drawing closer to him, and deepening their intimacy with him. Obedience requires trust, trust builds intimacy, intimacy facilitates rebuilding. God doesn’t lose out when we don’t draw near to him, when we don’t seek intimacy with him, but we do.
Intimacy through obedience is not just so that we can play our part in rebuilding a broken nation. Intimacy is how God continually rekindles our hope when God works differently to how we expect, and the world’s brokenness overwhelms us. Why is Zerubbabel part of the faithful remnant who returns, who Haggai seeks out, and who thus convicted, begins rebuilding the temple? It’s because of his family tree: Zerubbabel’s father was Selathiel, whose father was Jechoniah, whose father was Josiah, before him Amos, Manasseh, Hezekiah, Ahaz, Jotham, Uzziah, Joram, Jehoshaphat, Asaph, Abijah, Rehoboam, whose father was Solomon, whose father was David. Zerubbabel is from the house of David. Why does this matter? Because in 2 Samuel 7, God promises David that the Davidic line will endure. ‘The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you… He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son… My love will never be taken away from him.’
God commands the temple be rebuilt because he wants his children’s obedience, so that they might trust him, and in trusting him, know him better, because the more they know him, the more they know and live as people to whom God continually keeps his promises, even when they can’t see how he is working and rebuilding. Zerubbabel is from the house of David. Why does this matter? Because Zerubbabel is the father of Abiud, who’s the father of Eliakim, who’s the father of Azor; Azor of Zadok, Zadok of Achim, Achim of Eliud, Eliud of Eleazar, Eleazar of Matthan, Matthan of Jacob, and Jaco b the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah. Jesus, at whose name every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that he is the Lord; Jesus, who will arise to rule over the nations; Jesus, the son of David whose line God promised would be on the throne, who God brought through the exile, to whom God kept his covenant. Jesus, the cornerstone, who will one day return, and the leaves of the trees will be for healing, the final rebuilding of the nations. Jesus, the living hope, the hope for nations, the only hope for a broken nation to be rebuilt
Obedience, trust, intimacy, rebuilding.
Before David, his genealogy goes all the way back to Abraham. It’s a Who’s Who of imperfect people being obedient, trusting, and intimate – and doing the opposite of all those things. Abraham lied, treated his servant badly, but was obedient and intimate with God; David lied, treated women badly, but was obedient and intimate with God; Zerubbabel built his own house before God’s, but was obedient and intimate with God; Joseph planned to divorce Mary, but was obedient and intimate with God and through them all, came rebuilding of a broken nation. Imperfect people will never perfectly obey, won’t perfectly trust, won’t be perfectly intimate, but we certainly won’t perfectly rebuild in our own strength. And imperfect people snub intimacy with God at their peril, but God never ever ever pushes imperfect people away from his love when he has made a covenant to them as he has with us.
When I was praying and preparing for this sermon, I reached this point and thought, great, do I just end this here? We should be obedient to God so that he is the priority of our lives, trust him and his commands even when it doesn’t make sense to us and even scares us, because the more we grow in intimacy with him, the more we realise that he is for us so that we can trust him and therefore become more obedient to him. And then I sensed God saying that, for all of us here, he wants our obedience in every decision. Every decision – the micro actions made in obedience to God revealed through intimacy with him stretch and grow our decision-making actions for the macro moment that God uses to keep his saving covenantal promises through the person and power of Jesus Christ.
And then God gave me two words for how we might apply obedience, trust, and intimacy today when it comes to our broken nation: general election.
- I was 18 when I first voted in a general election, I am now two weeks away from turning 28 and the novelty has worn off
- We have a broken nation
- I don’t know who to vote for. Out of the big three, there’s one I’m definitely not voting for, but voting for either of the other two makes me complicit in things which compromise my Christian values
- I know I have to vote, and I know I need to ask God who to vote for. There are people here who can’t vote, so our vote isn’t just for ourselves
- It’s not easy – divine command theory – clinging to my own power like building a house before a temple
- This isn’t blind or foolish trust when it’s made in obedience to a God who we know is in control, it’s adding our thread to the tapestry of God’s salvation history
- So, ask God who to vote for next month. Earnestly seek his voice through time spent with him, trust his answer even when it’s hard, and vote in obedience to how he has called.
There is really only one lesson in rebuilding a broken nation, and it is to turn to God in obedience and to continually turn to him so that through his commands and growing intimacy, we can hear his voice and follow his call in the imperfect ways that wants to use us to rebuild that he will one day make perfect through the salvation of this broken world through the broken body of Jesus Christ which makes rebuilding, not an ideal, but a promise.