This morning we come to Haggai’s third sermon to the people of Judah. His main concern, as we’ve seen before, was the rebuilding of the temple. The Jews had begun to rebuild it many years earlier when they were permitted to return to the land under the leadership of Zerubbabel. However, when the people of the land interfered, the project was laid to rest.
According to verse 10, Haggai delivered his third message on the four and twentieth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, or December 18, 520 BC. Approximately two months had passed since his second message (cf. v. 1), and in the interim God raised up another prophet, Zechariah, to assist him and to emphasize the importance of his message (Zech. 1:1). Haggai’s third message also came less than four months after his first message, showing that he was careful to keep the Word of the Lord before the people. He knew all too well how easy it is for a man to look at himself in a mirror and immediately forget what he looks like (Jas. 1:23–25). We hear what the Word summons us to do, but it slips away before we get around to doing it. Haggai was not about to let that happen.
As with his first two messages, Haggai began this sermon by reminding the people that Jehovah their God was speaking to them through him. His message, therefore, carried the full authority of God himself.
The People Had Been Defiled
In one very important way Haggai’s third sermon differed from the previous two. He addressed the first two to the leaders — Zerubbabel and Joshua — and then to the people. But here there is no mention of the leaders at all. Rather, this message went directly to the people, instructing them to ask their priests two questions concerning the laws of ceremonial holiness.
The first question is in verse 12: If one bear holy flesh in the skirt of his garment, and with his skirt do touch bread, or pottage, or wine, or oil, or any meat, shall it be holy? In this question, the meat was holy because it had been set apart for sacrificial use. Apparently, the cloth that it was wrapped in, which may have been a priestly garment, was also holy. What happens then when holy meat wrapped in holy cloth touches common items like bread, soup, wine or some other meat? Does contact with something holy transfer holiness to these ordinary things?
Many of the Jews of Haggai’s day assumed at a practical level that holiness was transferable. The fact that they, out of all the people on the face of the earth, alone had been blessed by God with the tabernacle (and later the temple), the priesthood, the sacrifices and God’s covenant law-word, etc., meant that they were thereby holy and pleasing to the Lord. The same attitude provoked a fierce antagonism of the Pharisees toward John the Baptist, who summoned the Jews to be purified in preparation for the Messiah’s coming. They resented the implication that they — Abraham’s seed — were as filthy as the Gentiles. Because they put their trust in their proximity to holy things, they completely missed the point of the entire sacrificial system, which was to show them that they could be holy and pleasing to the Lord only by blood sacrifice. Its purpose was to direct them to the coming Messiah, not to make them trust the outward things that were mere shadows.
Unfortunately, the temptation to think that outward contact with holy things makes one holy is still a problem even in Presbyterian and Reformed churches. We often assume, because our children, being covenant children, have an outward holiness in the sense that they have constant access to God’s means of grace, that they also possess an inward holiness that makes them acceptable to God. We take it for granted that our children are not only in the covenant but also of the covenant whether or not we obey God’s command to raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. The result of this is that we do not regard our children as in need of salvation and, therefore, do not evangelize them. And when we fail to call them to faith and repentance, they grow up believing that their contact with the church is all they’ll ever need. A veneer of Christianity makes them clean no matter how much they defile themselves in conduct. We need to guard against such ideas as Satan launches his assault against our little ones!
The priests answered the first question correctly: a mere outward contact with the right stuff is never enough.
Verse 13 provides the second question that Haggai instructed the people to ask the priests: If one that is unclean by a dead body touch any of these, shall it be unclean? The point of this question was to demonstrate that, while holiness cannot be transferred by contact, defilement can be (cf. Lev. 22:4–6; Num. 19:11). That’s because uncleanness is like a contagious disease. Think of it this way: a sick person coming into contact with a healthy person will not make the sick person healthy, but can make the healthy person sick.
The law was exceptionally clear on this point. Leviticus 22:4–6, for example, says, Whoso toucheth any thing that is unclean by the dead, or a man whose seed goeth from him; or whosoever toucheth any creeping thing, whereby he may be made unclean, or a man of whom he may take uncleanness, whatsoever uncleanness he hath; the soul which hath touched any such shall be unclean until even, and shall not eat of the holy things, unless he wash his flesh with water.
The priests answered the second question correctly as well. Defilement, unlike holiness, can be spread by contact.
But what was the prophet’s point in asking this question? Very simply, it was his desire to turn the previous scenario on its head. If the holy things of the temple cannot make unclean people holy, is it possible for unholy people to contaminate worship?
Various passages of Scripture speak directly to this point. Many years before this, the prophet Isaiah castigated the people of his day for their cold, heartless and formal worship. He wrote, To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the LORD: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood (Isa. 1:11–15). And in the New Testament, the apostle Paul warns that we eat and drink damnation to ourselves when we come to the Lord’s Table without a careful self-examination.
The Lord takes the worship of his people seriously, but it is only acceptable to him when our hearts are right. Worship in and of itself does not make our hearts right before God, but corrupt hearts always defile our worship.
Application to the Jews
Following the priests’ responses to the two questions, Haggai applied the principles illustrated in them to the people.
In verse 15, the prophet identified the historical context from which these questions arose. The people had started rebuilding the temple once, but they soon stopped because of the opposition of the people of the land. The problem, though, is that they had done just enough to cause problems for themselves. According to Ezra 3, they had laid the foundations of the temple and set up the altar of burnt offering. The fact that they had an altar meant that they could make sacrifices, which they did “religiously.” But none of this was pleasing to the Lord because the hearts of the people were not right: their sacrifices were unclean because they were unclean. They could not offer anything acceptable to the Lord because the impurity of their hearts contaminated their sacrifices.
The question in verse 13 was very much to the point. A man who is unclean because of his contact with a dead body will make any of these unclean. But to what do the words any of these refer? Certainly, this for is would include the bread, pottage, wine and oil mentioned in verse 12, but the contamination of these things would not be that significant since they can be easily replaced. But not so with the sacrificial meat and the priests’ garments. These items were directly used in the service of God. The law required that they be pure and spotless. They were, after all, pictures of Christ who, as our high priest, is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens (Heb 7:26).
This being the case, the perfunctory obedience of the people was nothing but an insult to the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Thankfully, though, his sacrifice, unlike the countless animals slain on Jewish altars, cannot be defiled.
As long as this situation prevailed, the Lord withheld his blessing from the people. Haggai described this in verses 16 and 17. He wrote, Since those days were, when one came to an heap of twenty measures, there were but ten: when one came to the pressfat for to draw out fifty vessels out of the press, there were but twenty. I smote you with blasting and with mildew and with hail in all the labours of your hands. This loss of blessing was pretty severe: a 50 percent decline in the value of grain, a 60 percent reduction in oil and wine, plus at least three kinds of plagues. This would have been comparable to today’s stock markets and home prices losing more than half their value. These kind of things hurt, as we all know. They have to hurt if they’re going to do God’s people any good. The Jews were wandering, trusting in the wrong things, and the Lord withheld his blessing, as if it were a gentle staff, to lead them back to his goodness.
Our catechism reminds us that things like poverty and sickness do not come by chance but by the Fatherly hand of God. Haggai meticulously made sure that the people did not forget this. In verse 17 he quoted God saying, I smote you with blasting and with mildew and with hail. The previous chapter had two similar statements. God said that he blew away their wealth in verse 9, and in verse 11 that he called for a drought that affected all their crops.
Now, if we really believe that God is good and that he works all things together for our good, then we must understand that he has a greater purpose in these so-called calamities or judgments than the mere infliction of pain. Let me remind you of what the book of Hebrews says in chapter 12: And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: for whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? (vv. 5–7); and again, Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby (v. 11).
Haggai identified God’s purpose for the Jews’ present distress at the end of verse 17. He sought their good. He wanted them to return to him. They had turned their backs on rebuilding the temple, which was the reason God brought them back to the land in the first place, and focused instead on making their own homes more luxurious. Their hearts were just not in the Lord’s work. Although the Lord had called them constantly, Haggai says that they had refused to return to him even to that very moment.
What a sad state of affairs it is when God extends kindness to his people and they turn away from him! And yet it’s not uncommon. Isaiah wrote, For thus saith the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel; In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength: and ye would not (Isa. 30:15). Hear also the words of Jeremiah a century later: Because they have not hearkened to my words, saith the LORD, which I sent unto them by my servants the prophets, rising up early and sending them; but ye would not hear, saith the LORD (Jer. 29:19). They even turned their ears away from Jesus, who said to them, O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! (Matt. 23:37).
Each one of us here today must make sure that his ears are not deaf to sweet calls of God’s mercy!
Thankfully, even the Jews did not remain cold toward the things of God. By the sovereign work of the Spirit of God in their hearts, the people heard Haggai’s message. We see this change in the last two verses of today’s text. The prophet wrote, Consider now from this day and upward, from the four and twentieth day of the ninth month, even from the day that the foundation of the LORD’S temple was laid, consider it. Is the seed yet in the barn? yea, as yet the vine, and the fig tree, and the pomegranate, and the olive tree, hath not brought forth: from this day will I bless you (vv. 18–19). Now that the people had begun obeying the Lord again and had resumed their work on the temple, they could expect God’s blessing to be poured upon them. Their barns, once empty, would now be filled to overflowing with all that they had been deprived of and so much more! Such blessings testify to the Lord’s favor toward his people.
But get this: the people would not have to wait for God’s blessing. Verse 19 says that God would bless them from this day, i.e., immediately. It might take a while before the grape and olive crops come in, but in the meanwhile God would make sure that all their needs were more than satisfied. As the Belgic Confession says, God is not only good, but also “the overflowing fountain of all good” (Art. 1).
In his third sermon, the prophet Haggai asked the people to look backward as well as forward.
Their past was dark and dreary. It revealed a people who were callous to the things of God and, therefore, had made themselves subject to God’s anger. Had the people of Haggai’s day continued in their old ways, they would no doubt have experienced a continuation of the same consequences — if not worse.
But they didn’t repeat their past mistakes. To the contrary, when they heard the prophet’s call to rebuild the temple, they immediately obeyed. Their obedience brought God’s blessing upon them. They didn’t earn God’s blessing, but God rewarded them anyway. We should learn from them and obey God out of hearts filled with profound thankfulness for his tremendous mercy toward us. We are, after all, wretched and miserable sinners. In any case, because they obeyed, their future was much brighter than their past. God assured them that he would take care of all their needs.
Yet, their optimism for the future had an even greater foundation than either the building they were constructing or the hopes of their own prosperity. By rebuilding the temple, they were preparing for the coming of the one whose priestly sacrifice of his own flesh would once and for all cleanse them of all their impurities. They kept their eyes focused on the Lord Jesus Christ.
May it always be our prayer to know more and more about Jesus Christ as we labor to advance his kingdom! Amen.