Haggai 1 – God’s Presence is What Separates His People From All Others

The historical background for the little “book” of Haggai is post-exile Jerusalem. A remnant has returned to Jerusalem, and Persian King Cyrus (who destroyed the Babylonians) allowed the Jews to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. All the details are in Ezra and Nehemiah. There are four prophecies, and they are all given on specific dates in 520 BC. Of Haggai:

He began his ministry about sixteen years after the return of the Jews to Judah (ca. 520 BC). The work of rebuilding the temple had been put to a stop through the intrigues of the Samaritans. After having been suspended for eighteen years, the work was resumed through the efforts of Haggai and Zechariah. They exhorted the people, which roused them from their lethargy, and induced them to take advantage of a change in the policy of the Persian government under Darius I.

Near the beginning of the first chapter the Lord rebukes the people for living in their “paneled houses,” while his house “remains a ruin.” Twice (verses 5 & 7) we read that “this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Give careful thought to your ways.'” Then he proceeds to tell them that they’ve done all kinds of other work, but have nothing to show for it. The Lord has not blessed them, or more accurately, withheld his blessing from them.

When I underlined those words my “ways” as a young Christian no doubt I thought of them in terms of morality. As many Christians do, I tended to see the Christian life in moralistic terms rather than a life lived in the reality of God’s presence through what Christ accomplished for me in the gospel. Big difference! This is what I’ve come to call the radical relational reversal. In theological terms it’s called justification. Christ took the wrath of God against me for my sin, and endured the punishment I deserved. He took the wages of sin, death, for me! As a result, once I believed Christ’s righteousness was then given to me, and I went from God’s enemy to his child. Now instead of wanting to hide from God, or trying to gain his favor through obedience to the law (morality), I want to please him as I would a daddy, or Abba Father.

I think the temple in a sense functioned in the same way in the historical context of God’s people. They had been judged for this sin, and he now brought them back to the land. After the exile, he wants them to know that the only thing that separates them from every other people on earth is his presence. And the temple is the symbol and reality of that presence. It is God’s mercy and grace revealed in their midst.

This has definite historical meaning, and eventually eschatological meaning, but it’s instructive for our own lives. When we prosper in a thing, it is a direct result of the Lord’s blessing. All good things come from his hand. Another way to look at giving careful thought to our ways is the Lord’s exhortation to understand who exactly it is that is God (not us!), and that we are contingent, dependent beings that rely on the Lord, as Paul says, for life, breath, and everything else. Or as Solomon said in Psalm 127:1: “Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain.”

Haggai is a unique voice among the prophets because the people did something they never did before: they obeyed! They realized that unless the Lord’s presence was with them, they were nothing, not even a people. Reflecting on 18 years of fruitlessness will do that to you. Obviously what we’re doing isn’t working, so let’s give God a try! And there is no indication that the Lord had sent other prophets prior to Haggai. But when he did they were ready. They are lead by two men, Zerubbabel (who is significant in the lineage of the Davidic King to come), and Joshua. Haggai told the people that that Lord is with them, and

They came and began to work on the house of the Lord Almighty, their God, 15 on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month.

 

 

 

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Zephaniah 3 – The Glorious Future of the Children God Born of his Favor

Amidst all the horrific images and promises of judgment and destruction in this little book, chapter 3 is filled with hope. Yes there is still some promise of judgment to come, but we get some beautiful descriptions of the telos of it all, the end or purpose for which all of the judgment is happening. As we’ve seen over and over again in the prophets, judgment and salvation are inextricably wound together as if in a very fine thread. You don’t know where one ends and the other begins, and such is this chapter. This melding of judgment and salvation finds it’s ultimate fulfillment in Christ. Could this bloody mess of a human being hanging on a Roman cross cursed of God actually be our salvation? Knowing the Old Testament, and prophets like Zephaniah, turns this into a rhetorical question.

The chapter starts with a typical recitation of the sins of “the city of oppressors, rebellious and defiled!” Her officials, prophets, and priests are completely corrupt, but the recitation ends with a declaration of the perfection of God’s character:

The Lord within her is righteous;
    he does no wrong.
Morning by morning he dispenses his justice,
    and every new day he does not fail,
    yet the unrighteous know no shame.

This is truly the heart of the matter: God is perfect, and we are wretched sinners. How could Zephaniah say “every new day he does not fail” when the world is more or less a hell hole? Isn’t this why so many people want nothing to do with him? God has obviously failed, they logically conclude, if he couldn’t keep the world from being this way. But we must understand this one thing: The Bible, God’s revelation and communication to man, was not written to justify God to us, but us to God. We believe Zephaniah because God’s definition of things is the true nature of things. His is the ultimate big picture of which we are a very small part, and our time on earth a very small piece. We declare he cannot fail because he knows the beginning from the end, and this chapter gives us a glorious picture of that end.

Then we see another recitation and judgment promised to the nations, and that “The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger.” But the very next verse is a promise of the mercy and grace and salvation to come:

“Then I will purify the lips of the peoples,
    that all of them may call on the name of the Lord
    and serve him shoulder to shoulder.

Like I said, a very fine thread. How is it that the “whole world” will be consumed, and yet he will purify them so they may all call on his name? Maybe the consuming fire is one of judgment and purification at the same time? More importantly, we notice that this salvation is completely of the Lord. We don’t and can’t purify ourselves! We also know that the “all” cannot refer to each and every person, but to all nations, which the Lord promised would be blessed through Abram’s seed, that is Christ! One more thing. All the religious striving of every human being is fruitless apart from the supernatural work of God in the soul. People spout about God (lips) all the time, but idolatry and self-justification are the only result without God’s transforming work by his Spirit. Here is what will characterize these people:

12 But I will leave within you
    the meek and humble.
The remnant of Israel
    will trust in the name of the Lord.

What a contrast! The haughty pride and vanity and violence of the wicked versus the meek and the humble who know and trust their Lord. This of course refers to the historical remnant of Israel and Judah, but ultimately refers to us! All the last verses of the chapter and book speak of the great and glorious future the “remnant of Israel,” and the “Daughter of Zion” and “Jerusalem.” There is an historical restoration, but what it points to is an ultimate restoration where “The Lord has taken away your punishment.” The Lord, “The King of Israel” will do this. Because here is the bottom line of all of redemptive history:

17 The Lord your God is with you,
    the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
    in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
    but will rejoice over you with singing.”

As hard as this is to believe sometimes (always?), it is we, his people, in whom he takes great delight! Let us rest in that. As the great 19th century theologian Charles Hodge put it perfectly, “According to the Bible the favor of God is the life of the soul.”

Zephaniah 2 – God’s People and God’s Judgment

Chapter 2 begins with Zephaniah, or the Lord through Zephaniah, imploring his people to repent and seek the Lord that they might be sheltered from God’s wrath. Or as it’s called, “the day of the Lord’s anger.” The chapter is several prophecies about Judah’s neighbors who have not treated them well, and when a nation mistreats God’s people, they will pay the price. And in the midst of all this destruction we are told that “the remnant of the house of Judah” will inherit the land. Even though his people sin and will be judged, they will ultimately be treated differently, a notion modern people are loathe to ascribe to God. How dare he make distinctions! That’s so unfair! But the whole purpose of the Old Testament is to point us to the ultimate salvation of God’s people. Not all people, not just any people willy nilly. No, God’s specific people. As I’ve mentioned here before, the name given Jesus was given so that he could save “his people” from their sins.

And for those who don’t treat “his people” well, it ain’t gonna be pretty. But notice that in this prophecy of doom, there is promise of a universal salvation to come as promised long ago to Abraham (“All the nations of the earth will be blessed through you.”):

10 This is what they will get in return for their pride,

    for insulting and mocking
    the people of the Lord Almighty.
11 The Lord will be awesome to them
    when he destroys all the gods of the earth.
Distant nations will bow down to him,
    all of them in their own lands.

There is always this thread running through the prophets, the bad news of judgment with the good news of salvation to come. It’s almost like the two cannot be separated. “The Lord will be awesome” shows itself in both salvation and judgment; in fact salvation must come through judgment. Which, of course, only makes sense in Christ. By taking the judgment due us, he became our salvation. As Paul says, Jesus is now “our righteousness, holiness and redemption.”

As for those who will experience only judgment, the destruction will be total. One of the nations that is prophesied against here is Assyria, and specifically the great city of Nineveh. From the perspective of Zephaniah and the people of his time, that such a city could become “utterly desolate and dry as the desert” would have seemed impossible. As we learned in Jonah, the city had more than 120,000 people, which for the time was huge. For us it would be like New York City disappearing. I also learned that it had massive walls surrounding it that to any who saw them appeared impregnable. But here is what is predicted to happen, and what in fact happened:

15 This is the city of revelry
    that lived in safety.
She said to herself,
    “I am the one! And there is none besides me.”
What a ruin she has become,
    a lair for wild beasts!
All who pass by her scoff
    and shake their fists.

It’s destruction was so great that it completely disappeared from history (sometime after 606 BC), covered in dust and dirt until archaeologists discovered that it really did exist in the 19th century. All that’s left are two large mounds. God’s judgments are true and sure, which is why the call to humble ourselves before him at the beginning of the chapter is a very good idea.

Zephaniah 1 – God’s Wrath: The Wages of Sin Must be Paid

Can it be, another prophet preaching doom and destruction? I guess that was the prophet’s job description. And Zephaniah starts out, and ends this first chapter with, an especially scary doomsday scenario:

“I will sweep away everything
    from the face of the earth,”
declares the Lord.
“I will sweep away both man and beast;
    I will sweep away the birds in the sky
    and the fish in the sea—
    and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble.”[

“When I destroy all mankind
    on the face of the earth,”
declares the Lord,

and

In the fire of his jealousy
    the whole earth will be consumed,
for he will make a sudden end
    of all who live on the earth.

Yikes! And in between he’s going to do something similar to Judah and Jerusalem. This sin stuff is serious business, and God’s judgment is fierce. Which makes it all the more astounding that you rarely hear about it in so many Evangelical churches. I went to a large Evangelical church for almost 10 years, and not once did I hear the word “wrath” from the pulpit. Oh, I take that back. The pastor did use it once, but that was in reference to Herod and the slaughtering the babies in Bethlehem. Every Sunday they did a confession of sin, and proclaimed forgiveness, but never once was it explain what exactly we were forgiven from! Well, we’re forgiven from what we read about here, God’s wrath and judgment against sin. And this judgment carried out against the whole human race is yet to come. Either God’s wrath is satisfied against us in Christ, or against us. The wages must be paid.

But like most human beings, Judah and Jerusalem didn’t believe judgment would actually come. They mistook God’s forbearance and patience for acceptance, or at least lack of interest. God, they think, doesn’t actually care what we do. Look how long, they further think, we’ve been doing these things and nothing! It will always be thus. But it will not:

12 At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps
    and punish those who are complacent,
    who are like wine left on its dregs,
who think, ‘The Lord will do nothing,
    either good or bad.’

We tend to think that Bible times were so much different than our times, that the Lord made himself so obvious that people were compelled to believe. He didn’t. Prophets were really no different than any preacher in our day: both proclaimed the word of a God their hearers couldn’t see, or directly hear. And when dozens or hundreds (or our case, thousands) of years go by, people tend to think, nothing is ever going to happen, that things will always go on as they have, and they can live as if they are not going to be accountable for their lives.

But the great and dreadful day of the Lord will come, and it will not be pretty. And Zephaniah reminds us that:

18 Neither their silver nor their gold
    will be able to save them
    on the day of the Lord’s wrath.”

Only God himself in Christ can save us from God himself! From his wrath. I love the phrase, God’s wrath has been fully satisfied in Christ. Therein lies our only hope.

Habakkuk 3 – Our Hope in Life’s Quandary: The Lord Our Savior and Strength

Chapter 3 is a prayer by Habakkuk, a very human prayer. He starts by acknowledging what every human prayer should, that God is God:

Lord, I have heard of your fame;
    I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord.
Repeat them in our day,
    in our time make them known;
    in wrath remember mercy.

The next several verses continue this theme. Then he says something that must be continually affirmed by us, but which we tend to miss in our time-bound, temporal existence:

His ways are eternal.

I think the point is a simple one: God has ultimate perspective. He can see the beginning from the end, the important from the not so important. And worst of all for us: he’s never in a hurry! Heck, he’s got forever! We don’t! And the freight train known as time gets louder and louder as it bears down on us. “Lord, we don’t have forever!” Ah, he replies, but you do! If we really bought into forever, the light and momentary afflictions, as Paul calls them, would be light indeed. Let us as Paul says in that passage, “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” This is what Habakkuk is trying to do, but it’s hard, as we all know.

The middle verses of the chapter acknowledge God’s judgment, and yet again God’s wrath is something that we are not allowed to ignore. God has spent an entire Old Testament making a simple point: He must judge, and punish, sin. Yet wrath and judgment is not the end of the story, at least for his people:

13 You came out to deliver your people,
    to save your anointed one.
You crushed the leader of the land of wickedness,
    you stripped him from head to foot.

Practically from day one God has distinguished his people from everyone else. The Lord never gives the impression that his purposes pertain to an undifferentiated mass of humanity called, “The World.” The offer of salvation to come is indeed available to the whole human race, as we learn throughout the Old Testament (as the Lord promises Abram that all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him), but that this salvation will only become actual for his people. When Jesus’ birth is foretold by the angel in Matthew 1 we read this:

She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

Yeshua (or Joshua), his name which from Greek we get Jesus, means “The Lord saves.” The Lord’s people are always specific and acknowledged ahead of time. The “people” the angel speaks of were already known by God the Father. Jesus came to save those people. Nothing is as offensive to me in the Arminian and Pelagian notion as that the Lord only came to make salvation possible for all, but actual for none until they choose it. As if God’s plan of salvation were dependent on human volition! As John says of God’s children, that they are “born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” Ours is from first to last a supernatural salvation!

The reference above to the anointed one can certainly be a reference to this Yeshua to come, as it can mean Israel itself. Israel is often referred to as a singular collective. The point being that salvation is the purpose and accomplishment of God himself.

Slowly throughout these three chapters Habakkuk is coming to trust the Lord, his judgments, and timing. He finally believes God that Israel’s enemies will eventually get what’s coming to them. He finally doesn’t care what the circumstances look like to him, no matter how bad the situation appears (the crops and livestock are barren), he is determined to trust in the Lord:

18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.

19 The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
    he enables me to tread on the heights.

The older I get and the more I experience of life, this is the bottom line of the bottom line: will we trust God? Even in the midst of the most horrific circumstances, Habakkuk (and we) can rejoice and have true joy in the Lord. We can just refuse to care about the circumstances, and leave it all in the hands of our Savior, our strength.

 

Habakkuk 2 – The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord

Chapter 2 starts with Habakkuk looking for an answer to his complaints, and he seems to know he’s going to be rebuked. Yet the Lord never looks to silence his people’s complaints, or they wouldn’t be so commonly found in the Bible. The Lord expects our complaints because we are finite, pathetic, sinful little creatures who naturally think our perspective on the nature of things is justified and true. They aren’t, but only so when they are in agreement with the Living God. And if we trust in the goodness of his character and the power of his might, that won’t be a problem. We also find it difficult to see life with an eternal perspective. We so latch on to our present and its circumstances as if they were eternal. They are not. We should strive every day to capture Paul’s perspective on this life:

16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

The Lord then tells Habakkuk to “Write down the revelation (i.e., his answer) and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it.” God’s words will surely come to pass, and he wants everyone to know. This is not some hidden, Gnostic oracle available only to the few, but something made known to all of humanity, as we now know. Then we read these words of contrast that have become famous  in the history of Christianity:

“See, the enemy is puffed up;
    his desires are not upright—
    but the righteous person will live by his faith—

Three times we read references to such righteousness in the New Testament, twice in Paul and once in Hebrews. And it was Paul’s words to this effect in Romans 1 that Luther latched on to, “The righteous will live by faith,” and that precipitated the Reformation. Since I’ve come to define faith as, “trust based on adequate evidence,” I take this thought to be trust in the character and person of the living God. If we put our hope and trust in anything else, we are like the enemy here, puffed up and with distorted desires. And remember a very important point, this is being said in the context of God’s righteous judgment against sin, both against Israel and her enemies, with Christ and the gospel always as it’s backdrop.

In the midst of the Lord’s rebuke to the enemy, the Lord says these beautiful and comforting words:

13 Has not the Lord Almighty determined
    that the people’s labor is only fuel for the fire,
    that the nations exhaust themselves for nothing?
14 For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

Keep in mind these words were written over 2600 years ago! Every nation that has come and gone since then thought it was eternal, that its presence and what it did carried significance for all of time and beyond. They are all dust now. Their labors are literally nothing. But look at the Lord’s prediction about his glory. Since 2600 BC when the knowledge of the Lord was limited to a small kingdom in the middle of nowhere, now the knowledge of the glory of the Lord has indeed spread throughout the earth. Billions of people all over the globe now call upon the name of the Lord. One day, though, this prophecy will be literally filled when every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the father.

The chapter ends with yet another recitation of the futility of idols. Human beings create these idols, then put their hope and trust in these created things as if they can fulfill and save them. The idols of our time, though more sophisticated, are no different. They are just as worthless. The contrast that ends the chapter is stark:

20 But the Lord is in his holy temple;
    let all the earth be silent before him.

His holy temple is where the Lord dwells, and his presence before Christ was behind an impenetrable curtain. One day his holy temple will be the entire earth, and all humanity will recognize it. Oh come Lord Jesus!

Habakkuk 1 – Habakkuk’s Complaint: God is God!

Habakkuk is another small book, only three chapters. This prophet, of whom little is known, likely lived in the latter part of the 7th century BC. In this first chapter we read that the Lord has appointed the Babylonians to bring judgement and “sweep across the whole earth.” The name Judah doesn’t appear anywhere in the book, but from all the other prophets we know it was Babylon that laid siege to Jerusalem and destroyed it in 587 BC. But Habakkuk is not happy about this. His first words are a common theme in Scripture, a complaint:

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
    but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
    but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
    Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    there is strife, and conflict abounds.

I have to say yet again as it seems I’ve said a thousand times, I love that the Bible reads like a real story, and not a made up one. It has verisimilitude (the appearance of being true or real) in spades. If you’re writing a made-up story, why make God so distant, or so impervious to the demands of his creatures. He never seems to act like we would want or expect him too. If the God of the Bible we’re a made-up God, he would act like a figment of the desires of human nature. What we find is that he does exactly the opposite of these desires! I repeat this powerful apologetic point: Human beings would not make up this God!

And who hasn’t felt like Habakkuk? Lord, how long must I call for help and you do not listen? This doesn’t make God look very good. No wonder many people get to the point of thinking, well, then you just must not be there after all. But the Bible is never afraid of the atheists winning because God does what he does in his own good time because . . . . he’s God!

The Lord’s answer to Habakkuk is that he will be bringing Babylon in judgment against his people, and it will be horrific. It may take God a while before he acts, because he is merciful and gracious, but when he does, he does.

Then Habakkuk has a second complaint. First it’s, why don’t you judge sin, Lord, then it’s, how could you use a horrible nation like Babylon to execute your judgment? He knows this is all ordained of God, but how can it be? He also knows the Lord’s character is perfect and beyond reproach:

13 Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
    you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.
Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?
    Why are you silent while the wicked
    swallow up those more righteous than themselves?

In Habakkuk’s mind these two just don’t go together. In the rest of the chapter he wonders if this will ever stop. In all of history it has always been true that those with the might have made right, that the will to power has appeared sovereign and unstoppable. But we know that every nation that has made claims to such power in blood and destruction has come to ruin. Hitler’s thousand year Reich lasted 11 years. Soviet totalitarian communism lasted 70. Even the Roman Empire finally crumbled at 800 years. As we learned in Daniel, God is providentially sovereign over all human affairs, and he even uses sinful human beings deserving of judgment to execute his judgments. We, like Habakkuk, may not like it, but that is why he is God and we are not!