Previous article in this series: December 15, 2018, p. 135.

“This people say, The time is not come, the time that the Lord’s house should be built” (Hag. 1:2). The Jews knew exactly what the prophet was referring to. This had been their argument. “The time is not come. Sometime in the future, maybe, we can build the house of God. But not now. There is the decree of the king, you know. And times are tough. There are economic issues that make it inadvisable to carry on with so ambitious a project as building the house of the Lord now. Maybe later, when the economy is more favorable.”

(The Jews’ priorities needed correcting—as do also, so often, our own. Forgetful of the fact that all of ‘our’ resources are really His, and that we are merely stewards, we easily rationalize the satisfying of our own ‘needs’—at the expense of causes of the kingdom.)

God’s answer? “Is it time for you, O ye, to dwell in your ceiled houses, and this house lie waste?” (Hag. 1:4). Yes, time and money there was aplenty to provide expensive cedar for the walls and ceilings of their own dwellings—while a bare altar was considered by them to suffice for their worship of God.

“Who is left among you that saw the house in her first glory?” asked Haggai the prophet. “And how do ye see it now? Is it not in your eyes in comparison of it as nothing?” Ah, yes, that was the complaint of the old folks. “We don’t have the resources!” God’s answer? “Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, and be strong, O Joshua, and be strong all ye people of the land, for I am with you, saith the Lord of hosts” (Hag. 2:1-5). No need, in other words, to depend on your own resources—when you can depend on…Me! (See also 2:8, where God reminds them that all the world’s gold and silver belong to Him, and He could easily have given it to them—if He thought they needed it for this house!)

What made all this especially ironic was that, in their attempt to escape poverty by not using their wealth for the temple, they brought upon themselves the displeasure of God, which was manifest in…poverty. This reality was brought home to them forcefully by the prophet Haggai. “Ye have sown much,” he said, “and bring in little…and he that earneth wages earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes” (Hag. 1:6). Try as they might, in other words, they were unable to accumulate for themselves any wealth. “Ye looked for much,” the prophet continued, “and, lo, it came to little; and when ye brought it home, I did blow upon it. Why? saith the Lord of hosts. Because of mine house that is waste, and ye run every man unto his own house. Therefore the heaven over you is stayed from dew, and the earth is stayed from her fruit. And I called for a drought upon the land…and upon all the labor of the hands” (Hag. 1:9-11).

Mark the contrast between the attitude of these Jews and that of David with respect to the building of God’s house. “See now,” David reasoned with Nathan, “I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwelleth within curtains” (II Sam. 7:2). The Jews of Zerubbabel’s day did not share that spirit.

The admonition of the Lord through the prophets bore fruit. Work on the rebuilding of the temple was renewed. The prophecy of Zechariah was that Zerubbabel, who had laid the foundation of the house, would also finish it (Zech. 4:9). And so it was. Four years later (Ezra 4:24 and 6:15) the house was finished (516 B.C.). The completion of the work was marked by dedication ceremonies that were held with great joy (6:16-18). And, shortly thereafter, the Jews celebrated the Passover Feast, the first to be held in the newly erected temple. This was likewise done with great joy, for, as the Lord had “turned the heart of the king of Assyria unto them” (6:22) so that they were allowed to finish the work, so also had the Spirit of the Lord worked in them the desire to finish the work (Hag. 1:14). “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit….”

Which applies all the more to the building of the real temple (the church of Christ), of which spiritual reality the structure in Jerusalem was but an imperfect type.

Yes, an imperfect type. The renewal of the sacrifices on the great altar of burnt offering that stood before the rebuilt temple pointed to something better, to a deliverance of a different sort. Ezra discovered the need for that when, some eighty years after the return under Zerubbabel, he was authorized by Artaxerses to lead another band of exiles to Palestine.

On his arrival at Jerusalem, Ezra attended first to the delivery of the treasures he had been given for the service of God in the temple. Then he turned to the affairs of the colony. It seems that Ezra was not at first aware of any real problems in the colony. But there were God-fearing princes in Judea who knew that something surely was amiss. And, recognizing in Ezra a strong leader who would be able to do something to correct the evil and to avert the sure punishment of God, they brought the matter to his attention. They reported that some of the Jews had broken what was a clear commandment of God (Deut. 7:3, 4) forbidding intermarriage with their heathen neighbors. Ezra could hardly believe his ears. It had been the experience of the Jews in the past that this association with the heathen led inevitably to the introduction of idolatry into Israel— the very sin for which they had spent seventy years in captivity in Babylon. Now they were returning to that grievous error. And not only were the common people guilty of this sin, but the priests and Levites too (Ezra 9:1), and “the hand of the princes and rulers hath been chief in this trespass” (9:2).

So overcome with grief and amazement and indignation was Ezra that he rent his clothes, plucked off his hair, and sat speechless, as one stunned, till the evening sacrifices (9:3, 4). Word of this soon spread, and serious-minded people began to gather around him. At the time of the evening sacrifice he arose and, in the hearing of the people, he prayed earnestly to the Lord (9:5-15). “O my God, I am ashamed…for our iniquities are increased over our head, and our trespass is grown up unto the heavens….After all that is come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great trespass, seeing that thou…hast given us such deliverance as this; should we again break thy commandments, and join in affinity with the people of these abominations?”

Ezra’s amazement is understandable of course. It does seem almost unbelievable that the Jewish people could fall so soon into their old ways. Two things, however, must be borne in mind. First, that though only a remnant had returned, we can be sure that even of that small remnant it could be said that “they are not all Israel that are of Israel” (Rom. 9:6). Second, and more importantly, that we are no different. Do we not see ourselves in the waywardness of Israel? We, too, have by the grace of God been granted a great deliverance…and then fail to live a life of gratitude for so great a salvation. We see again the truth of what the apostle Paul wrote of the history of Old Testament Israel in I Corinthians 10:11: “Now all those things happened unto them for examples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.”

Next time: Jerusalem’s walls.