Haggai: Consider Your Ways
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
“But seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt 6:33). With these words Jesus summarized the acceptable priorities of life for those who would follow him. Such a view on life appears to have been for Jesus’ disciples an entirely new and unexpected concept, one both liberating in its potential but no less intimidating in its demands. His disciples shared a natural inclination to worry about the basic necessities of life. A significant portion of their waking hours was spent providing for such basic family essentials as food, clothing, and shelter. But these concerns, if not balanced by a sense of urgency with regard to the service of God, can easily undermine a proper sense of what is actually most important in life, namely the advancement of the kingdom of God. In fact, preoccupation with such concerns can lead to a type of personal decision making that focuses first on meeting temporal human needs and offers God only what is left over after essential matters of personal security and comfort have first been decided.
This is not, however, the path of authentic discipleship. Jesus instead urged his followers to seek first the eternal priorities of the kingdom of God. In so doing, they could rest assured that their Heavenly Father was not only aware of their temporal needs, but that he would bountifully supply those needs for his people. In order to illustrate this truth, Jesus called attention to the natural order of creation. If God provides in abundance for defenseless birds and for vulnerable flowers (Matt 6:28–30), how can we expect that he will do less for mankind, who is the very pinnacle of his creation? And if God’s common grace is such that provisions for life’s necessities are generally available for all, does not logic suggest that these provisions will be no less available for those who seek to follow the will of God? Equipped with this confidence in divine provision, those who would serve God are free to focus their efforts and attention on what they can contribute to God’s work in their midst. Their Heavenly Father is neither unconcerned over their condition in life nor careless about providing for their day-to-day needs.
It seems that every generation of believers, from ancient times to modern, must learn this lesson anew. It is a truth that was ignored, if in fact it was grasped at all, by the people of God to whom the prophet Haggai ministered in the sixth century B.C. Although they verbally might have articulated a belief to the contrary, their actions clearly disclosed their inverted priorities. In reality they sought first the kingdom of self and its comforts; they would get around to the work of God after those priorities had first been settled. But there was for them an unexpected irony. Due to the withdrawal of God’s blessings upon their efforts, they painfully discovered that none of life’s necessities was added to them to the degree that they would like—in spite of their determined efforts to the contrary. Their hard work was reduced to nothing. Their crops failed because of disease and disaster; their harvests yielded only meager results. Whatever financial profits they gained quickly disappeared, passing as it were through a shabby bag riddled with holes and unable to retain what was deposited in it (Hag 1:6). In spite of their determined efforts, the prosperity that they craved eluded them. Their experience calls to mind a paradox: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it” (Mark 8:35; Matt 16:25; Luke 9:24).
It fell to the prophet Haggai to show why the attitude of the postexilic Israelite community did not honor the God they professed to serve. Haggai’s ministry was one of calling his generation to a renewed commitment to the task of the immediate restoration of Jerusalem’s temple and normalization of the religious life of Israel. In large measure this task that lay before them was a test of whether they would put God first in their lives. It was a test whose momentous significance the prophet drove home in a relentless and uncompromising fashion. The people would have to decide whose interests mattered most to them—their own or the Lord’s.
Haggai’s message to the postexilic community of Israel is one that the church of the twenty-first century needs to reflect on. To “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” is for us—as it was for them—a calling that runs the risk of being eclipsed by self-serving interests. Far too often the affluence of God’s people, rather than encouraging a self-imposed measure of personal sacrifice in order to advance the cause of God’s work in this world, leads instead to a hoarding of resources and to an ugly self-indulgence. The Book of Haggai vividly points out this inconsistency and calls for the people of God to move beyond such worldly ways of thinking. Haggai’s sermons, though first given two-and-a-half millennia ago, have a fresh and vital message for the present generation of believers. In many ways the modern church mirrors the spiritual lethargy and unresponsiveness of Haggai’s original audience. But the fact that his postexilic community eventually responded to the prophetic word and committed themselves to a great task for God’s glory holds out hope that we too may lay aside every quest for personal advantage that detracts from the greater cause of the kingdom of God in our midst.