When the people of Judah were released from their captivity in Babylon, they returned to a nation in ruins. Jerusalem, the capital city, was a wreck. Years earlier (in 586 B.C.) the invading armies had leveled the beautiful Temple that Solomon had built, leaving a sad, gaping hole in the Jerusalem cityscape. As the visible symbol of God’s presence among His people, the Temple was the most important project in their reconstruction effort.
They immediately held a ceremony in which they laid the foundation for the “house of the Lord” (Ezra 3:8-13). They had a good beginning and good intentions, but the moment the project met with some resistance they quit. Other priorities, like building luxurious homes for themselves, became their main concern, and fifteen years passed with no progress on the Temple. They rationalized their procrastination, saying, “The time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord” (v.2). In other words, “We will finish it someday; we just don’t feel led right now”. Meanwhile, the Temple’s bare foundation in the center of the city lay forgotten — just like their relationship with God. In neglecting the Temple, they were neglecting the Lord.
During that time God raised up a straight-talking prophet named Haggai to motivate the people to “consider their ways” (v.5, 7; see also Ezra 5:1-2). Haggai confronted their misplaced priorities (v.4): “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses while this house lies in ruins?” His question revealed the selfishness of the people and their vain pursuit of satisfaction apart from God. Because their lives were self-centered instead of God-centered, their inner sense of dissatisfaction grew larger and larger. Their abundant food and wine, their fancy clothes, and their pocketsful of money could not touch the deepest need of their souls: the life-giving presence of God (v.6).
Haggai was a practical preacher. He gave the people a simple, straightforward plan, a kick in the seat to get them going (v.8): “Don’t just sit there, go get some wood and start building!” The response was immediate and the people “obeyed the voice of the Lord their God” (v.12). Haggai encouraged the people by ensuring them of the Lord’s presence (v.13). (Note: whenever you obey, God shows up!)
This chapter really backs me into a corner, forcing me to consider my priorities. Is Jesus really first in my life? Have I allowed other things to crowd Him out? Is my obedience to His will evident to those closest to me? Am I actively involved in His work, or am I “busying myself” (v.9) with my own little interests? True satisfaction is found in the presence of the Lord — and the surest way to know the presence of the Lord is to join Him in His work.