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Haggai: A Short History of Work

Haggai: Priorities Make a Difference  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented
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There is a story from Greece in the 4th century BC about a young artist named Timanthes, who studied under a respected tutor. Under his teacher’s guidance, talented young Timanthes grew more skilled in his art year by year.
All their work finally seemed to have come together when Timanthes produced a painting so exquisitely beautiful that even he could not take his eyes off it. He spent an increasing amount of his instructional time simply gazing at his creation, and when he left home each day for the studio where he painted, it was with the glad knowledge that he was going to see his painting.
One morning, upon arriving at the studio, he found his painting all blotched out with bright and angry paint that had been splashed all over it.
Timanthes confronted his tutor, who readily admitted that he had destroyed the work of art.
“I did it for your own good,” the teacher said. That painting was retarding your progress. Start again and see if you can do better.”
So that’s what Timanthes did, and he soon had painted Sacrifice of Iphigenia, considered today to be one of the finest paintings of ancient Greece.
Sometimes it’s necessary to start over.
Sometimes that’s your own choice. Think of the people who reinvent themselves in second careers. This is common enough in America — and at the same time unusual enough — that we’ve given this sort of thing a name: The second act.
These are people like Richard Turner. Turner had a legal career that spanned more than 40 years, including time as a high-powered trial lawyer and a stint as then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan’s personal counsel.
At the age of 60, Turner took a month-long sabbatical and, while wandering around the western U.S., decided to pick up a camera. His second act was as a widely respected nature photographer with prints and commissioned exhibits in homes, hospitals and businesses around the nation.
Then there are those who are forced to start over because of some life-changing event or situation. These are the redemption stories that warm our hearts and give us hope for humanity.
These are the stories of Saul on his way to murder Christians, meeting the very Christ whom he was persecuting and then being transformed into the greatest discipler of Christians since Jesus had walked on earth.
These are the stories of people like Cedric Hornbuckle, who spent eight years in a Texas prison for dealing drugs. Upon his release, he got help from an organization called the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, and in 2008, he started his own moving company in Houston, naming the company Moved By Love.
We like to think of these kinds of second-act success stories as quintessentially American stories.
But there really isn’t anything inherently American about fresh starts and second chances.
In fact, as we work through the next four weeks of messages in the book of Haggai, we’re going to be dropping right into the thick of Israel’s fresh start, a sort of second chance the people had been given to display the heart of the God who had preserved them even through the chastening of exile.
So our goal is to work through this shortest book of the Old Testament by July 21, and I think I’ve got a pretty solid plan to make it happen.
But we can’t really get into this book of prophecy without understanding something about the pertinent historical situation for Israel at the time of Haggai or without understanding some important things about the Old Testament prophets.
So today’s message on the prophecy of Haggai will primarily come from the historical book of Ezra. While you are turning to Ezra, chapter 6, let me bring you up to date on what’s going on at this point in the story of Israel.
You will recall that in 586 B.C., Jerusalem had been conquered by Nebuchadnezzar, and the people of the southern kingdom of Judah had been taken into exile in Babylon.
Their brothers and sisters in the Northern Kingdom, known as Israel, had been conquered and taken into exile by the Assyrians almost 140 years earlier.
So by now, the nation that God had created no longer existed. The people whom He had rescued from slavery and then planted in the Promised Land had turned from Him and pursued the desires of their own hearts.
He had warned them not to marry or make covenants with the Gentiles of this new land, but they chose to pursue those forbidden relationships, and so God eventually "gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity.
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If they wanted to be entangled with the Gentiles, and if they wanted to represent the image of that world, rather than the image of God, He would allow them to come under Gentile rule.
That’s what was happening when Nebuchadnezzar took them away in chains. The people had cast off God’s easy yoke and had taken on the heavy and painful yoke of Gentile rule.
Way back at Mount Sinai, when He had given Moses the 10 Commandments, God had made a covenant with the people of Israel. He would be their God, and they would be His people.
If they followed Him in faith — the same way that Moses had done and that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had done — then they would be blessed. If they turned from God, they would be cursed.
Famine, impoverishment, oppression, childlessness and hunger were among the curses God promised He would bring for their disobedience. And ultimately, if they did not turn back to Him, they would be taken out of the land of promise.
That’s exactly what had happened. And they had remained in Babylon until the Persians conquered that nation and King Cyrus II issued a decree allowing the people of Israel to return to Jerusalem and begin to rebuild it.
About 50,000 Jews had returned to what was now a province of Persia. They still were under God’s curse, signified by the fact that they were still under Gentile rule, but at lest they were back in the land.
And under a man named Zerubabbel, they began to rebuild, starting with the altar in the temple and then continuing with the foundations of the temple itself.
But before they could do much of the temple work, adversaries from the land the people of Judah had left behind when they were taken to Babylon rose up and began a campaign of slander against the Jews.
They wrote to the new Persian king, Ahasuerus (the king during Esther’s time), and warned him that the Jews would rise up in rebellion against Persia if they were allowed to continue rebuilding.
Ahasuerus believed them and commanded that the work be stopped, and then when the next king of Persia took over, they did the same thing,
It was not until the second year of the reign of King Darius of Persia that the work began again, and that happened because of the prophecy of a man named Haggai.
Now the role of prophets in Israel was to make God’s word known to His people.
If things were going well in the nation, if they were going the way they should be going and people were putting their faith in the God who had delivered them from Egypt and who had provided for them and protected them for so many years, there would be no need for prophets.
The kings would be ruling in ways that honored God, and the priests would be leading the people to worship the one true God, and Him alone.
The prophets came along to mediate enforcement of the covenant the people had with God.
It’s like police officers; if everyone is obeying the law, there is no need for police officers. But when there are people breaking the law — or in the case of Israel at the time, breaking the covenant with God — then police officers and prophets become necessary.
So the fact that a prophet shows up on the scene in Jerusalem as this ragtag group of Jews is settling back in to life there is a bad sign already.
And starting next week, we’ll see what kind of trouble was stirring there.
And starting next week, we’ll see what kind of trouble was stirring there.
But today, we’re going to jump to the end of the story. Today, we’re going to learn the history of work in Jerusalem during the late 6th century B.C.
We’ll pick up briefly in chapter 5 before moving to our focus passage for the day.
Ezra 5:1
Ezra 5:1 NASB95
1 When the prophets, Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them,
Ezra 5:2 NASB95
2 then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak arose and began to rebuild the house of God which is in Jerusalem; and the prophets of God were with them supporting them.
Now the adversaries of Israel were still at work, and they were unhappy to see the people, who had been discouraged from their work by earlier letters to the Persian kings, starting to pick up their hammers and saws and other construction equipment again.
So they sent another letter, this one to King Darius of Persia, and suggested that he search his archives for their past correspondence and warnings.
It was their fatal mistake, because Darius made an exhaustive search of the archives, and he also came across the original proclamation from Cyrus in which that king had decreed that the work commence and be unhindered.
When he found that decree, Darius sent his own letter back to Tattenai, the governor of the Persian province that included the former land of Judah, and he told the adversaries to cease their rabble-rousing.
Ezra 6:6 NASB95
6 “Now therefore, Tattenai, governor of the province beyond the River, Shethar-bozenai and your colleagues, the officials of the provinces beyond the River, keep away from there.
Ezra 6:7 NASB95
7 “Leave this work on the house of God alone; let the governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews rebuild this house of God on its site.
And then he doubled down on the insult.
Ezra 6:8 NASB95
8 “Moreover, I issue a decree concerning what you are to do for these elders of Judah in the rebuilding of this house of God: the full cost is to be paid to these people from the royal treasury out of the taxes of the provinces beyond the River, and that without delay.
Not only were the adversaries of the Jews to leave them alone and let them do their work, they were now going to be forced to pay for all the work that they did not want to see taking place.
Let me ask you something: Do you think God is unable to raise up the resources necessary for the work that He gives you?
Do you think there is anything He cannot accomplish if it is His will? Do you think that any adversary can thwart His plans?
If God has given you a job to do, He will give you the resources to ensure that you can do it. If God has given this church a mission, there is only one thing that can stand in the way of us accomplishing it.
The funny thing about this situation with the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem is that they had become used to blaming their adversaries from around Jerusalem for the work on the temple having been stalled for so long.
But then, along came a man named Haggai, and he gave them God’s word that those very adversaries would, in fact, pay for the work.
Here’s a great line from the end of King Darius’ letter:
Ezra 6:11 NASB95
11 “And I issued a decree that any man who violates this edict, a timber shall be drawn from his house and he shall be impaled on it and his house shall be made a refuse heap on account of this.
Darius almost seems more committed to the work on the temple than the returned Jewish people had been.
So what kind of effect do you think Darius’ letter had on the opposition?
Ezra 6:13 NASB95
13 Then Tattenai, the governor of the province beyond the River, Shethar-bozenai and their colleagues carried out the decree with all diligence, just as King Darius had sent.
I suspect that something about being impaled on a timber from your own house tends to tamp down any ideas of going against the king’s wishes.
And what kind of effect do you think all this had on the resolve of the Jewish people?
Ezra 6:14 NASB95
14 And the elders of the Jews were successful in building through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. And they finished building according to the command of the God of Israel and the decree of Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia.
Ezra 6:15 NASB95
15 This temple was completed on the third day of the month Adar; it was the sixth year of the reign of King Darius.
Now, calculating dates from Old Testament Scripture can be tricky, but Ezra’s statement here gives scholars all they need to work it out. Using a variety of resources, they have determined that this corresponds to March 12, 515 B.C. under our modern dating system.
This was four and a half years after the returned remnant had restarted the work under the decree of King Darius and 20 years after the foundation had been laid under the decree of King Cyrus II.
What’s even more interesting is that it was 70 and a half years after the temple had been destroyed by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who had ransacked Jerusalem and taken its people into exile.
Does that number, 70, sound familiar?
Writing to the first exiles taken out of Jerusalem before the city was destroyed, the prophet Jeremiah had warned the Jewish people in Babylon not to listen to the false prophets who were telling them to keep their bags packed because they would be going home again soon.
Jeremiah 29:4–5 NASB95
4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, 5 ‘Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce.
Jeremiah 29:6 NASB95
6 ‘Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease.
Jeremiah 29:7 NASB95
7 ‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.’
This is Jeremiah’s message from God. Settle in and pray for the welfare of the nation where I have sent you.
Jeremiah 29:8 NASB95
8 “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘Do not let your prophets who are in your midst and your diviners deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams which they dream.
Don’t believe the lies of those who would lead you astray by telling you the things you want to hear. It’s going to be a hard time, but you will prosper if you pray for your captors to prosper.
Jeremiah 29:9 NASB95
9 ‘For they prophesy falsely to you in My name; I have not sent them,’ declares the Lord.
Don’t believe the lies of those who would lead you astray by telling you the things you want to hear. It’s going to be a hard time, but you will prosper if you pray for your captors to prosper.
Jeremiah 29:10 NASB95
10 “For thus says the Lord, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place.
Jeremiah 29:11 NASB95
11 ‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.
Now, we all know that last verse, and some of you may even have claimed it as your life verse.
And it’s true that God has a plan for you and that His plan is ultimately for your welfare and to give you a hope in Jesus Christ.
That’s the very message of the cross: We who were without hope, slaves to our sins, now have hope for salvation through the blood that Jesus shed on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins. We who follow Jesus in faith have a future.
But look back at verse 10.
Jeremiah 29:10 NASB95
10 “For thus says the Lord, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place.
There are no coincidences in God’s world or in God’s Word.
The 70 years of captivity that Jeremiah had prophesied came to an end 70 years later, when the temple in Jerusalem was finally rebuilt.
The Jewish people were still under Gentile rule, but now that the temple had been rebuilt, they were able to be back in obedience to God. They were able to worship Him in the way that He had commanded and in the place that He had chosen.
Let me tell you this, brothers and sisters: God DOES have a plan for you, and He DOES have a plan for Liberty Spring Christian Church.
And the only ones who can stand in the way of His plan are we who sit here today.
Will we allow adversaries to come in and discourage us from doing what God has called us to do? Will we sit here like the Jewish people did and say, “The time is not right”? Will we listen to the naysayers and the gossip-mongers who seek to destroy that which God is building?
God will accomplish His work, with or without us. His plans will not be thwarted. The question is this: Will we be a part of that plan and receive the blessings that come from trusting Him, or will He accomplish His plans without us?
The choice is yours.
Liberty Spring Christian Church can have its second act, but it will only come to whatever extent we act in faith that the God who knew it would take 70 years for the temple in Jerusalem to be rebuilt — that the God who provided funds for that temple from the very enemies of the Jews — that this God knows His plans for us and will provide the resources for us to accomplish the work He has given us to do.
Our lesson from the history of work here in the book of Ezra and the prophecy of Haggai is this:
Do the work. Have faith. God will handle the details.
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