On December 18th, 520 B. C. a word came from the Lord to a man named Haggai. He was the chosen messenger who was to bring to the people of Judah a word of rebuke and blessing. This word has significance for us today. And we are now even close to the original date that it was proclaimed!
Haggai 2:10 KJV* In the four and twentieth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, came the word of the LORD by Haggai the prophet, saying,
11 Thus saith the LORD of hosts; Ask now the priests concerning the law, saying,
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? And the priests answered and said, No.
13 Then said Haggai, If one that is unclean by a dead body touch any of these, shall it be unclean? And the priests answered and said, It shall be unclean.
14 Then answered Haggai, and said, So is this people, and so is this nation before me, saith the LORD; and so is every work of their hands; and that which they offer there is unclean.
Haggai asks two questions of the priests who served in the temple of the Lord that was being reconstructed. Both involve aspects of the ceremonial law. Consecrated meat, that is meat from altar sacrifices of bulls, goats, and sheep, had been set apart In the Old Testament by its having been offered to the Lord in sacrifice. Now, Haggai asks the priests of Judah, if someone is holding consecrated meat in his tunic, like a priest bringing home some tasty dinner from the temple, and he bumps into other food like bread, fruit, or wine with his tunic fold, will these things take on some holy significance? The priests give the obvious answer in response: “No.” But if a man who has been in contact with a corpse touches food or wine, will it be unclean, Haggai asks them. Yes, it would, the priests reply, according to the ceremonial law given by God through Moses. “Such is this people to me”, the Lord says.
The outward practice of religion cannot make holy the unholy. There is nothing more detestable to God than the outward form of religion without the heart being close to him. Rather than a pleasing aroma of sacrifice, when the people of God have their hearts full of pride, lust, greed, and sinful oppression of one another instead of being oriented toward him, yet continue to gather to do everything that he has commanded when it comes to externals, like gathering for public worship: prayer, songs, and hearing, it gives a stench to his holy nostrils. The people of Judah to whom this message was first delivered did not have the matters of the heart right. They had been oppressing the poor, lying, stealing, and cheating one another, and were more concerned with their own paneled houses than they were with the things of the Lord. When they gathered to worship according to his commandments, the ceremonies, although adhering to the letter of the commandments, were considered to be an unclean thing by the Lord because they were being performed with tainted hands and estranged hearts. Hypocrisy is a sin which Jesus often preached against, calling the Pharisees “white-washed sepulchers”, who were clean on the outside but inside were full of dead men’s bones.
Imagine that you were on the market for a house. You found one that had great curb appeal. On the outside there was pretty shiny white paint, with turquoise-painted trim around the windows. The lawn was well-manicured, and fenced in the back. But when you opened the door, you gazed into a dwelling that was completely filthy. The dust lay an inch thick on the floor and on the counters. There were spider webs and a foul odor like urine. You would not want to buy that house. That is like the sin of hypocrisy. Instead of having hearts full of selfish pride and self-serving desire, let us be like houses swept clean on the inside, in true and constant faith, in need of God’s mercy, trusting in him, and desiring to please our heavenly Father as his beloved children. Then we will offer pleasant and acceptable sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving to our heavenly Father. When, instead of lying to, oppressing, and using one another, we love as we have been loved by God in Christ, we will show ourselves to be true children of our heavenly Father, those who have experienced his grace indeed.
The second part of Haggai’s oracle reminds the Jews of the material hardships and struggles that they had endured in recent times.
15 And now, I pray you, consider from this day and upward, from before a stone was laid upon a stone in the temple of the LORD:
16 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.
17 I smote you with blasting and with mildew and with hail in all the labours of your hands; yet ye turned not to me, saith the LORD.
18 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.
19 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.
Blasting wind, hail, and mildew had damaged the grain. The vineyard had not yielded much fruit, and neither had the pomegranate, fig, or olive trees. These things were loving instances of discipline from God’s fatherly displeased hand. God will often take away the material blessing of his people, lovingly, in order to draw them back to himself. Christians experience this very thing today. When we are fat and happy, when our wallets are chubby and our material worries few, we tend to forget God. Though we should remember to thank him for all his benefits, and to use them for his glory, how soon we begin to put our confidence in our material possessions instead of in him, who is the source of every good thing. Yet when our bank accounts are slim and we have to wonder what we might eat tomorrow, we have no choice but to have our trust and confidence in him. In this way God’s chastisements bring us back to our knees in prayer to him. But the just chastisements of his fatherly hand do not endure long. Though displeased with our lack of faith and ruthless behavior, God will not let his chosen ones remain chastened forever. His mercy soon lifts what his love hand executed against our material wealth.
God will bless his chosen ones, despite their weakness, when they deserve his displeasure. His favor is not based on our merit or deserving. His sovereign will distinguishes the recipients of his grace from the rest, due to nothing in them, but only on his good pleasure. He chooses one and not another as he wills, and not as we will. In time he works this holy favoritism out in two key ways: in the new birth, and in the gift of perseverance. Jesus said, “if any man wish to enter the kingdom of God, he must be born again.” The new birth is an absolute requirement for salvation. It is a sovereign act of grace upon the heart, from God through the Holy Spirit. It is not something that we can do, choose, or control. It is an act of God, turning hatred into love, disbelief into faith, and lawlessness into obedience. By the new birth God changes our orientation from against to for him, and rather than rebel as much as humanly possible, the reborn soul now desires to do anything to please him. In this way God blesses those who deserve only his displeasure. He is found of those who did not seek him. And in truth, there is no one who is seeking him, apart from this work of grace. It is not enough to be diligent in attending church or to be born into a Christian family. The new birth is absolutely necessary to gain eternal life. Yet there is another grace of God that is equal to this gift of the new birth. It is the gift of perseverance. Just as a sow, if she’s hosed clean, goes right back to playing in the mud, so we would go back to a life of sin and wickedness in a moment if God’s grace did not preserve us. The Holy Spirit works within all those whom God has chosen, to guard and keep their faith in Christ the Savior until the day of his return, or their death, whichever happens first.
God blesses his chosen ones by making himself known to them in Christ, the descendant of Zerubbabel. Zurubbabel, the governor of Judah in Haggai’s day, whose name means “seed of Babylon”, was in the royal line. He would have been a true king of Judah except that he is only noted as a governor because he was still subject to the King of Persia. But God gives a glorious promise through Haggai to him to silence and put down all his enemies and exalt him as his chosen king.
20 And again the word of the LORD came unto Haggai in the four and twentieth day of the month, saying,
21 Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying, I will shake the heavens and the earth;
22 And I will overthrow the throne of kingdoms, and I will destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the heathen; and I will overthrow the chariots, and those that ride in them; and the horses and their riders shall come down, every one by the sword of his brother.
23 In that day, saith the LORD of hosts, will I take thee, O Zerubbabel, my servant, the son of Shealtiel, saith the LORD, and will make thee as a signet: for I have chosen thee, saith the LORD of hosts.
These prophecies never were finally fulfilled in Zerubbabel’s lifetime. Yet Zerubbabel is noted within the ancestry of Christ in Matthew’s genealogy. In this prophecy he stands for Christ, who in a manner of speaking, was still “in his loins.” In ancient times a signet ring was used to stamp a seal on a letter or important document, in order to prove that the source of the letter was who it claimed him to be. In the same way Christ is the stamp of the Father to prove to us the truth of all the blessed gospel promises that we have in him. In Christ we have the forgiveness of sins, a declaration of righteousness, adoption into God’s family, and he proved it to the entire universe when the Father’s stamp of approval was put on everything Christ the Lord had preached and promised, when he rose again on the third day, thereby validating Christ’s ministry to and for us as our Savior. Christ is the signet ring of the Father upon us.
The language of putting down chariots and horsemen is reminiscent of the Exodus. Contrary to the popularized view of the Exodus in a modern movie, where reportedly the Hebrews cross over the Red Sea at low tide, Moses’s account speaks of a wall of water on the right and on the left of the Hebrews as they crossed the sea, which came crashing down upon the high tech (for that time) chariots and horsemen. They were pounded and smashed on the bottom of the sea floor as the walls of water came crashing down on their heads, when they tried to pursue the Hebrews down into the sea. Though we are not today enslaved in Egypt in a literal sense, we live in a world which is hopelessly enslaved to sin and Satan. Christ Jesus is our Exodus, our liberation from enslavement to sin. Once we have been saved by his grace, we cannot go back. When Israel had crossed the sea, they looked back and beheld the dead Egyptian soldiers floating on the sea shore. They knew at that moment, that they would never be slaves in Egypt again. In the same way we who are risen in Christ can never become subject to the shackles of sin and Satan once more, but he will lead us to a place of eternal rest.
The name “Zerubbabel” is a reference to captivity in Babylon, where he was born. From that place of captivity, God had restored his people. They went from a strange land that was not their own, to the land of Canaan, the land of promise, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God is leading us to an eternal rest in Christ our Lord. Let us believe and trust him. We have already experienced the forgiveness of sin. Our guilt is gone. It was nailed to the cross. But we still struggle with daily temptations and sin. And we live in a wicked world, where we must groan everyday, vexed in our souls by the wickedness that surrounds us. But one day all of this struggle will come to an end. The wicked will be destroyed, and our sin will be gone, not only in principle, but in practice, when we are entirely made new in holiness to dwell with God forever. Let these thoughts be a comfort to us as we go through life trusting in our King Jesus Christ.
The outward practice of religion cannot make holy the unholy, but the Lord will bless his chosen ones, to whom he makes himself known in Christ.
*The King James Version is used, it being free of copyright restriction within the United States of America.
The preceding is the synopsis of a sermon preached on December 21, 2014 at the Reformed Fellowship of Bellevue, in Bellevue, Nebraska.