Sunday 23 August 2020

Prophet, Priest and Prince - Haggai 2:1-23

I preached this sermon on Sunday 23 August 2020, the second in a series of two on the book of Haggai.

If you were with us last Sunday, you will be familiar with the historical backdrop to the book of Haggai.

Jerusalem – the capital of the Jewish Kingdom - was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC and those Jews who had not been killed were taken into exile in the city of Babylon, in modern day Iraq.

It was about 50 years later in 538 BC that the conqueror of Babylon, Cyrus King of Persia, issued a decree allowing them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple.

Led by the Royal Prince Zerubbabel, about 50,000 Jews journeyed home and within two years completed the foundation of the temple amid great rejoicing.

However, their success aroused the Samaritans and other neighbours who feared the political and religious implications of a rebuilt temple in a thriving Jewish state.

So, they opposed the project vigorously and managed to halt work until Darius the Great became King of Persia 16 years later in 522 BC.

Darius was keen to promote all the religions in his empire, to ensure peace between culturally diverse people, and it was in his second year, 520 BC that this book is set.

The Prophet Haggai, after whom the book is named, gives a series of four messages during a few months encouraging Zerubbabel and the High Priest Joshua to rebuild the temple.

Last week we looked at the first of these messages which was an exhortation to get on with the work of rebuilding the temple.

We also looked at how that might apply to us as God’s living temple today – encouraging us to use our gifts of speaking and service to build each other up as members of the body of Christ.

In this second chapter, Haggai gives three more messages over the space of just a few months – in our time from October to December 520 BC.

The NIV Bible translation helpfully breaks this chapter into three sections, and we will look at each of those in turn. Each one has a clear message to us.

1 Trust God’s promises – 2:1-9

We are told in chapter 2 verse 1 that the word of God came through Haggai to Zerubbabel and Joshua on the 21st day of the seventh month in the Jewish calendar – that is the 17th October 520BC.

He asks them to compare the temple they were building with Solomon’s temple beforehand.

Now, by comparison, Solomon's temple was extraordinarily beautiful, opulent and lavish. This new one was much smaller and less impressive.

In fact, in the eyes of some of the older members who remembered the previous temple before its destruction by the Babylonians, this one seemed a pale shadow.

However, Haggai reminds them that God is true to his promises to bless his people and exhorts them to be strong, to continue the work and not to be afraid.

Their work of temple restoration is something he planned long ago, and he will make sure that they succeed.

Although they must have felt daunted by the strength of the opposition and the power of the nations around them, not least the Persian Empire itself, God reminds them that he is going to shake all nations.

God is much bigger and more powerful than the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians and of course the Greeks and the Romans still to come.

He is in control and his purposes will be fulfilled no matter what.

The phrase, “the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory”, in verse 7 has provoked great debate among theologians and Bible commentators.

Does it refer to the silver and gold that we know, from Ezra 6:8, King Darius gave the Jews to furnish the temple with, or is it a reference to the coming of the Messiah in the future?

Well, I'm going to suggest that it could well be both. The immediate context in verse 8 is silver and gold. But there are also verses in the New Testament that appear to make reference to this phrase in referring to the Messiah.

Regardless, the crucial point is that God enables his people to fulfil the work he prepares for them. He makes sure they succeed.

Does that encourage you? One of my favourite verses in Scripture is Ephesians 2:10 where the Apostle Paul talks about the “good works, which God prepared in advance” for us to do.

Each day God has prepared fruitful labour for each of us to engage in.

How often do we look with disappointment at the small amount of fruit we see in our lives, or in our Christian community, rather than looking forward with confidence and expectation to what God can build from small beginnings when we are faithful in the present? God describes the same scene in Zechariah 4:10:

“Who despises the day of small things? Men will rejoice when they see the plumb-line in the hand of Zerubbabel”, he says.

They are rejoicing not at the finished building – but just at someone holding a plumb-line to measure it up. Because in the hands of God, a small beginning is the guarantee of the completed task.

The whole of Christian history is full of stories of people who were faithful in small things which led later, perhaps not even in their own lifetime, to great fruit that was beyond their wildest imaginings.

What small but significant task are you currently involved in in God’s service – in your family, workplace, community or in the church itself?

Be encouraged to press on. God is faithful to his promises and his purposes, worked out in small steps of obedience by his people, will be fulfilled.   

Trust God’s promises.

2 Prepare for God’s blessing – 2:10-19

Haggai’s second message, we read in 2:10, came on the 24th day of the 9th month the same year - that’s the 18th of December.

Haggai asks the priests two questions.

First, he says “if a person carries consecrated meat in the fold of his garment, and that fold touches some bread or stew, some wine, oil or other food, does it become consecrated?” The priests answer “no”.

He then asks them a second question: “if a person defiled by contact with a dead body touches one of these things does it become defiled?” The priests reply “yes”.

Haggai is referring to regulations in the Old Covenant law of Leviticus. The point is that clean things cannot make dirty things clean, but dirty things can make clean things dirty.

Imagine, for example throwing some clean clothes into a pile of muddy rugby gear. Would the dirty clothes become instantly clean? Of course not. Similarly, dirty rugby gear jammed into a drawer of clean linen will certainly make it dirty.

So, Haggai is saying that the Jewish people are unclean because of their sin and so end up defiling everything they touch, even the temple itself.

if we try to do God’s work of building up God’s people, our efforts will not be blessed if our own lives are not right.

Haggai urges them to “give careful thought” to what is happening.

He points out in verses 15 to 19 the poor harvest of grain and wine and the fact that their crops were destroyed by blight, mildew and hail; that there was little seed left in the barn or fruit on the trees.

This, he says is a direct consequence of their sin.

Note, in verse 17, that it is God himself who “struck all the work of (their) hands”. He did this to catch the people’s attention and draw them back to himself. However, he says “you did not turn to me”.

These words are reminiscent of the words of another Prophet.

Amos chapter 4 follows the same pattern.

God declares through Amos that he struck his people with famine, drought, and their gardens and vineyards with blight and mildew; sent plagues among them and allowed them to be slaughtered by their enemies. These things did not just happen. God made them happen.

Amos ends each declaration with the same words we see here, “yet you have not returned to me”.

So, we see God withdrawing privileges and causing his people pain to save them from the far greater peril of being completely abandoned by him and facing his judgement.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that “God disciplines those whom he loves” (Hebrews 12:5), and that this discipline is “for our good that we might share in his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10). He goes on to say that we should “endure hardship as discipline” because “God is treating us as sons” (Hebrews 12:7).

Now we should not draw from this that all hardship we face is a consequence of our own personal sin. We live in a fallen groaning world and all of us bear its consequences. Jesus did too.

However, the biblical pattern is that often the fate of a community, society, country, or empire is a direct consequence of its corporate sin. God removes his blessing and brings pain to cause us to turn back to him.

Haggai does not identify specific sins in this passage, unlike many of the former prophets. He has of course pointed out the people’s sins of omission in chapter one. They were so consumed with their own affairs and their own private property that they neglected to serve the people of God.

But the call here is one of turning from sin generally and it should perhaps lead each of us to allow God to examine us to help us see what in our lives is not pleasing to him.

Let's leave that as an open question for each one of us. What is it that we personally are doing, or failing to do, that is stopping us serving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength? It is not generally a difficult question to answer.

What is it that we are looking at, thinking about, longing for, engaging in that is robbing our hearts of blessing and instead cursing our steps?

The message of this section is very clear. If we want to be effective in serving the Lord then we need, again in the words of Hebrews, to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” in order to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us ” (Hebrews 12:1).

You cannot run when you are weighed down with lead weights. What sin is sapping your strength?  Identify it and cast it off.

If we wish to be used by God - because that is what real blessing is – then we need to get serious about sin in our lives. And then the words that conclude this section, “from this day on I will bless you” will be true of our lives, families and churches. God will use us more effectively.

Prepare for God’s blessing.

3 Know that God will fulfil his purposes – 2:20-23

Haggai’s third word, we are told, comes on the same day as the second, the 24th day of the ninth month or the 18th of December.

Haggai tells Zerubbabel that God is going “to shake the heavens and the earth”, “overturn royal thrones” and “shatter the power of foreign kingdoms”. He will “overthrow chariots and their drivers; horses and their riders will fall each by the sword of his brother”.

You can see references here to the defeat of the Egyptian Army in the Red Sea but also periods in Israel's history when their enemies turned on each other rather than Israel itself.

God was the architect of all these victories because he is completely sovereign. In the same way he will act in the future.

190 years later in 330 BC Alexander the Great would sweep across the whole of the Middle East with his armies and destroy the great Persian Empire. Then the Romans would crush the Greeks.

Throughout biblical history we see the rise and fall of great kingdoms which ruled over most of the known world: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome.

This progression is beautifully described ahead of time by the Old Testament prophets like Daniel, who reminds us repeatedly that “the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of the world and gives him to anyone he wishes” (Daniel 4:18, 25, 32).

God is sovereign over the rise and fall of nations and empires.

Ever since, many other great empires ruling vast tracts of the world’s surface have followed Rome and many great rulers have come and gone.

The Goths, the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Spanish and Portuguese, the French and British, the Communists, the Nazi and now we see the United States and China battling it out in trade wars for world domination.

God has always “shaken the nations”. He always will.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can look back from 2020 over the 2,500 years between the time this book was written and our own day. We see the life death and resurrection of Christ, the extraordinary growth of the church and the spread of the gospel almost now to every nation on earth.

Haggai wasn’t privy to this much detail about the future but, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he finishes this short book in a most interesting way.

“On that day”, says the Lord, “I will take you my servant Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel and make you like my signet ring for I have chosen you declares the Lord Almighty”.

The signet ring was used by a king to stamp documents with his authority.

When Zerubbabel’s grandfather King Jehoiachin was captured by the Babylonians his signet ring was removed, thereby stripping his authority. There were no kings in the royal line after Jehoiachin.
But Zerubbabel is to be God’s signet ring, carrying God’s stamp or authority.

The expression “Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel” crops up twice in the New Testament, in the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew 1 and Luke 3.

Both genealogies trace Jesus’ family line from Abraham through King David, but the list of names which follows David is different in each. Matthew traces Jesus through David’s royal son Solomon, and Luke through David’s son Nathan.

It is thought that Matthew’s line is that of Joseph, Jesus earthly father, and Luke’s line that of Mary Jesus’ earthly mother.

But interestingly, Zerubbabel, and his father Shealtiel, are the only people to appear in both genealogies.

Is this a strong hint that the Messiah will be a descendant not just of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah and David but also of Zerubbabel?

That the life of this faithful prince is a pointer to the Faithful Prince who is still to come – the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ. Well I’ll leave you to ponder on that.

There are three great characters in this small book, and it is I am sure no mistake that they are a prophet (Haggai), a priest (Joshua) and a Prince (Zerubbabel).  

Together they did a great work, but someone would come just over 500 years later who Moses called the Prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15), who the writer of Hebrews called our great High Priest, and who the angels called the King of Kings. Someone for whom Haggai, Joshua and Zerubbabel are but pointers.

Someone who would speak God’s word like never before, who would usher us into the very presence of God the Father, and who would rule over all of the universe for ever and ever.

Trust God’s promises. Prepare for God’s blessing. Know that God will fulfil his purposes. 

Let us celebrate these wonderful truths as we exalt Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour, our glorious prophet, priest and king in our final hymn, Rock of Ages.

All for sin could not atone; Thou must save, and Thou alone.
When I soar to worlds unknown, See Thee on Thy judgement throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee.

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