Neglecting the house of God
Then, as soon as the copy of the letter from King Artaxerxes was read in the presence of Rehum, Shimshai the scribe, and their colleagues, they proceeded promptly to the Jews in Jerusalem and stopped them with the threat of armed force. Ezra 4.23
This is what the Lord of Armies has said: “These people have said, ‘The time for rebuilding the Lord’s temple has not yet come.’” The Lord’s message came through the prophet Haggai as follows: “Is it right for you to live in richly paneled houses while my temple is in ruins?” Haggai 1.2-4
The chronology of Ezra 4 is difficult. However, we can acknowledge this much: before Darius’ reign, there was a hiatus in building the temple, and it was because of the governmental powers both in Judea and in the capitals of Persia. They would not permit any building of the temple. So what did the Judeans do? They ceased their work after they had established the foundation. If we were to reflect on the situation, you would probably have followed suit. Imagine their time. The Israelites had only recently returned from exile in Babylon, and they felt less like a nation and more like a small group of people herding together for protection. They had lived in exile, and they did not want to return, and it seems like continuing to build this temple would have put their already precarious position in Judea into an extremely dangerous situation.
Now for a time, this status quo seemed like a fine solution. They were probably still able to worship on the temple mount where they had put the foundation, they just didn’t have a building or structure it seems that matched God’s instructions in the book of Exodus. At a later point in history though they were still living this status quo. People publicly must have said, ‘The time for rebuilding the Lord’s temple has not yet come.’ Haggai is quoting them. You can imagine these people. Of course the time hasn’t come, there has been no change in government. It is possible they were even thinking that the Messiah needed to come before the temple was rebuilt. They needed a new Solomon.
But Haggai has another word and it is from the Lord, ‘Is it right for you to live in richly paneled houses while my temple is in ruins?’ The people probably had a pretty good response to this. Uh, Haggai, look around, we CAN’T do anything else. The problem is that instead of investing in the temple and the nation, they were gorging themselves and building better houses with expensive ornaments. Their tithe was being directed to their own pleasures instead of supporting the Levitical priesthood and the like. The point, it seems to me, is that they did not see what God wanted to do and so were living like cows grazing from one green patch of grass to the next rather than living by faith in God’s plan for Israel (which coincidentally required a tabernacle). They were living careless lives, and ultimately they were living self-centered lives not devoted to Yahweh who had brought them out of the land of Babylon.
We can live in a similar way. We let things that might happen to us define our lives. This often means that we avoid doing what is good, right, and commendable out of fear of upending the status quo. One of the fruits of this sort of living is that we can, like the Israelites, focus more on our material enrichment instead of using our wealth in service of God, his church, and his plans for us. Instead we become maxed out financially, in our time commitments and have no room to open ourselves to those in need of physical or spiritual nourishment.
What is the answer? At the very least it is that we remember the gospel: Jesus served and made time for God’s purposes in his life which led to his own crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension. He did this to redeem mankind from their pending sickness to death. Jesus lived with space to minister. Now we who are in the church live repentant lives of faith. Although we are not Jesus and will redeem no one, we are called to follow in his footsteps. Instead of living our lives to enrich ourselves and fill our homes with luxurious paneling, we live by faith. Thus we live with a certain gospel openness to serving others and giving what physical and spiritual nourishment we can. May it be said of us that we are defined by lives lived by faith, trusting in the provision of the Lord and looking for how we can be intentional in our walk.