There are six books of the Old Testament which may be read together most profitably. I refer to Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, of the historical part of the Bible, coupled with the prophetic messages of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. To these a seventh might be added, viz., the book of Daniel, showing the exercises of soul which led up to the restoration.
The book of Ezra opens with the people of the Lord in captivity to the Persian, dwelling in the provinces once controlled by the kings of Babylon. God’s centre, Jerusalem, where He had set His name, was a blackened ruin. The walls of the Holy City had been thrown down, and the very stones buried beneath piles of rubbish. All this may well be looked upon as a picture of the subjection of the Church of God to human systems of error and superstition. For long centuries the truth as to simply gathering to the name of the Lord Jesus had been lost. The place of the name, we may say, was at Jerusalem destroyed by her enemies. The walls, speaking of that godly separation from the world that should have kept the Church as “a garden enclosed,” had been completely demolished, and ecclesiastical rubbish of all descriptions had so buried the truth that it seemed as though it was lost beyond all recovery. Separation from evil, then, is ever God’s principle for His people.
However, God was watching over all, and in His grace raised up a testimony to these precious and important teachings, which had lain dormant, as it were, in His Word for so long. Then the result was a movement very much like that detailed in the record made by Ezra. From the confusion of human theologies and man-made sects and parties, there was a returning on the part of some whose hearts God had touched to the simplicity of early days. In much weakness, yet in much freshness too, and with a deep sense of the ruin of the Church, as a testimony for God in the world, and fully owning their own sad part in it all, a remnant returned to the Lord, finding in His name their centre of gathering, and abjuring everything for which they could not find a “Thus saith the Lord.” This is all foreshadowed, one might say, or at any rate a similar movement is pictured, in the book of Ezra. There is a separation of the clean from the unclean, a taking forth of the precious from the vile, and a setting up of the altar, called by Malachi “The Table of the Lord” (Mal. 1:7), round which gather the recovered remnant—great in nothing but the faith that led them thus to put Jehovah’s claims before all else: for, be it remembered, their circumstances were such under the rule of the Persian that they might well have dwelt more comfortably in the land of their captivity than in the land of Israel.
Nehemiah emphasizes the need of complete separation from all that is contrary to the mind of God. He comes up later than Ezra, but his special work is to restore and build Jerusalem. Led on by this faithful servant, the remnant engage in the building of the wall that was to shut them in to God; and that angered their neighbors by its, in their eyes, sinister exclusiveness. Bit by bit the rubbish of years was cleared away, and one by one the stones of the wall were brought to light and fitted into their appointed places. Surely to all this there has been something analogous among those who at first gathered in feebleness and with little light around the table of the Lord. Gradually, yet in such a manner as to make it manifestly the testimony of the Holy Ghost, the thoughts of men were put to one side, the rubbish of traditionalism was cleared away, and the stones of divine truth were recovered and built up—shall I say?—into a wall of separation, which angered the “societies,” who could not bear to think of a work of God carried on apart from their organized control. But unmoved by mockery, undeterred by threats, and unseduced by proffers of help from those who had neither part nor lot in the matter, the work went on till the wall was finished. The truth as to the individual believer’s standing and state; the unfolding of the great mystery of Christ and the Church; the cluster of precious truths connected with the Coming and Day of the Lord, with their sanctifying effect on heart and life,— one by one, and often at the cost of deepest exercise and soul-travail, coupled with severe conflicts with the enemy within and without, were these stones of the separating wall recovered, and thus God was glorified and His people blessed.
In the book of Esther we have set forth His gracious care over those who, while equally His, yet chose to remain where they were, rather than return to God’s centre: but as I have treated of this at length elsewhere, I need not follow it out here.29
Happy would it have been if what has been traced above from the records of Ezra and Nehemiah were the only things necessary to notice. But, alas, it is far otherwise. It was not long till almost all the evils which had at one time been on the outside, appeared within the wall. Pride, dissension, covetousness, worldliness in its various forms, self-seeking, and kindred unholy things which no walls could shut out (because they dwelt in the heart and were allowed to exist unjudged), soon marred the lovely scene. And oh, who with eyes to see and a heart to understand and mourn, can fail to observe how in all this likewise we have a picture of what has been so sadly true among those whose happy boast it has been that Christ alone is their Centre, and His Name their tower of strength?
But, blessed be the God of all grace, He left not His people without needed conscience-stirring ministry; but among the returned remnant He raised up prophets whose messages led to self-judgment and abasement of soul in His presence. Haggai and Zechariah come in here, as polished shafts from the quiver of the Lord, whose mission it was to recall the hearts of those so privileged to Himself. The province of the latter was especially to unfold the glories to come, that they might be stirred up to live then in the light of that coming day. He is emphatically “the prophet of the glory.” To Haggai it was given, on the other hand, to press home upon the conscience the actual conditions existing, and with trumpet voice to recall them to ways of practical holiness, with signal blessing resultant.
That Malachi follows, in a generation later, bewailing the complete breakdown of the people, is pregnant with warning, and may well cause us to search and try our ways, who today seek to answer to what I have been considering. Truth alone will not preserve if there be not corresponding exercise as to living in its power, and being controlled thereby.
Nothing is more wretched than to see unspiritual, carnal men debating questions involving nice discriminations as to the relative bearing of particular lines of truth, whose unholy ways are a reproach to Him whose truth it is.
It is important to remember that God teaches through the conscience, not merely through the head; therefore the spectacle often presented of brilliant, gifted men floundering where humble, godly men walk securely! Blessed it is when gift and godliness go together; unhappy indeed when they are divorced!
Of Haggai himself little is recorded in Scripture. Even his father’s name is not given, nor his tribe in Israel. He appears suddenly on the page of inspiration in Ezra 5:1, in all the dignity of a heaven-appointed messenger, with no credentials but that the word of the Lord was on his lips and the power of the Lord was manifested in his ways. And these are surely credentials enough. God had fitted him to be, as he himself puts it, “the Lord’s messenger in the Lord’s message.” There is something very fine in this. It brings before us the divine character of prophetic ministry—a ministry much needed in our day, and for which, in measure, we often have cause to give thanks. “He that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort” (1 Cor. 14:3). Such ministry is Spirit-given, and sure to result in blessing; for what God Himself gives shall never return unto Him void. What that ministry was in the special case before us we shall now proceed to notice.
Consider Your Ways
The date given in verse 1 is in harmony with the statement recorded in Ezra 4:24. There we learn that, owing to the opposition of the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin, the work of rebuilding the house of the Lord ceased “unto the second year of Darius, king of Persia.” As the letter which resulted in a prohibition to continue was written in the reign of Artaxerxes, several years had elapsed in which nothing had been accomplished. A period of lethargy had set in, which only came to an end when a God-appointed ministry was given to stir up the consciences of the people.
In the year above referred to, on the first day of the sixth month, Haggai addressed himself to the rulers, Zerubbabel the governor, who was of David’s line, and Joshua the high priest, saying, “Thus speaketh the Lord of hosts, saying, This people say, The time is not come, the time that the Lord’s house should be built” (vers. 1, 2). It is evident from this that they were only too ready to refrain from the work, and that had there been the energy of faith, the decree of Artaxerxes, apparently contradicting that of Cyprus, would have been no real hindrance. The unalterable character of Persian decrees rendered the second one invalid had it really repealed the first. But already self-seeking, and consequent listlessness as to the things of God, had come in. Hence they could build their own houses while neglecting the house of the Lord. But Artaxerxes’ decree, rightly read, contained no direct prohibition against building the temple, but rather was directed against restoring and fortifying the city.
When the conscience is not active people readily interpret circumstances to suit themselves; and at such times it is often amazing the amount of energy that will be expended on that which ministers to one’s own comfort, whereas utter indifference characterizes that which is connected with the Lord’s glory.
Thus saints have time and means for much that does not profit, who find it difficult to get a few hours for a meeting, or to spare of their means for the furtherance of the gospel. Once let the conscience be in exercise, and all will be in place.
“Is it time for you, O ye, to dwell in your ceiled houses, and this house lie waste?” is the Lord’s challenge through His prophet. No Persian decree hindered their providing warm and even expensive houses for themselves; but it was readily made the excuse for indifference to what should have had the first place in their thoughts (vers. 3, 4).
“Now therefore thus saith the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink; ye clothe you, but there is none warm; and he that earneth wages, earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes” (vers. 5, 6). This is all intensely solemn. May reader and writer weigh it well. Undoubtedly it gives the secret of many failures and disappointments among Christians today, as well as among the Jews of old. God cannot bless self-seeking. He calls on each one to “Consider your ways.” The Hebrew reads, “Set your heart on your ways.” It is a summons to self-Judgment; for the ways manifest the state of soul.
We may look at it as entering into every ramification of the life. Consider your ways, ye who have to do with the commercial world in its present conditions. How much is often tolerated among us that would not bear the all-searching eyes of Him who seeth not as man seeth! The covetous spirit of the age is eating the very life out of many companies of the Lord’s people. The grasping avariciousness everywhere prevalent in the world is making dreadful inroads among Christians. Alas, how much is sacrificed for money! Christian fellowship, the joys of gathering at the table of the Lord, gospel work, and privileges of mutual edification and instruction in divine things—all are parted with often simply because the opportunity arises of adding a few paltry dollars to the monthly income and savings. Brethren with families even will leave a town or city where the spiritual support and fellowship of their brethren is found, and where their children have the privileges of the gospel meeting and the Sunday-school, simply because they see, or fancy they see, an opportunity to better their earthly circumstances. Alas, in many instances I they miss all they had hoped for, and lose spiritually what is never regained!
Consider your ways in the home life. What place do you give the things of God there? Is the Bible habitually neglected, and the knee seldom bowed in prayer before the children? What wonder then if they grow up to think lightly of what you seem to place so slight a valuation upon! Do you discuss servants of Christ, and the people of God in a cold, hard, critical manner before these same children? Then do not be surprised if they learn to despise all ministers of the Word, and lightly esteem all those that bear the name of Christ.
Consider your ways in connection with the service of the Lord and the assembling of His people. Do trifles keep you from the assemblies of God’s people for the remembrance of our Lord in His sufferings for us? Or do you neglect the preaching of the Word on the plea that “it is only the gospel?” Are you generally missed at the prayer-meeting, and seldom found at the Bible-reading? Is it months, or years, since you handed out a tract, or spoke to others of Christ? How then can you expect God’s blessing to be on you and your plans while you are so indifferent to Him and His purposes?
“Thus saith the Lord of hosts: CONSIDER YOUR ways. Go up to the mountain, and bring wood, and build the house; and I will take pleasure in it, and I will be glorified, saith the Lord” (vers. 7, 8). Aroused from the deadening effects of self-seeking, judge yourself and your past loose ways in God’s presence; then “Put first things first,” as one has said, and give the Lord the supreme place in heart and life. Because of the lack of this purpose of heart to cleave to Him, He could not bless as He otherwise would; hence “Ye looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when ye brought it home,” God blew upon it, and it fled away. Did you wonder why failure succeeded failure, and plan after plan did not result as you hoped? Because God was not given His place, His house is neglected, “Therefore the heaven over you is stayed from dew, and the earth is stayed from her fruit,” and drought and barrenness prevail in place of blessing and refreshment (vers. 9-11).
The effect of Haggai’s words was at once manifest. Oh that this rehearsal of them may also be used to the arousing of those of us who are sleeping among the dead!
Both leaders and people forthwith “obeyed the voice of the Lord their God,” and the neglected work was at once resumed (ver. 12).
“Then spake Haggai, the Lord’s messenger in the Lord’s message unto the people, saying, I am with you, saith the Lord” (ver. 13). It was a word of cheer and encouragement, and the way it is introduced is very fine—“the Lord’s messenger in the Lord’s message!” It is quite possible to be truly the Lord’s messenger, and yet to miss the Lord’s mind. To give His message, one must be in touch with Himself. Such was Haggai’s happy state.
Aroused by the stirring call to consider their ways, and comforted by the knowledge of the Lord’s presence with them, the remnant went willingly to work, so that the actual labor on the house of God was resumed in twenty-four days (vers. 14, 15). The next chapter gives further ministry as the work proceeded.
The work of building the long-neglected house of the Lord had been going on less than a month when the word of Jehovah came a second time through the prophet Haggai. On this occasion it was a message, not of rebuke, but of cheer and encouragement to both rulers and people alike (vers. 1,2). It is thus that God delights to comfort and sustain the hearts of those who, however poor and feeble, yet seek to honor Him.
Three questions are asked: “Who is left among you that saw this house in her first glory? and how do ye see it now? is it not in your eyes in comparison of it as nothing?” (ver. 3). We know from Ezra 3:12 that there were among the restored remnant “ancient men who had seen the first house,” and who wept bitterly when they contrasted its former glory with the smallness of the present house among the ruins, and that the gladness of the younger ones (who had just been delivered from Babylon, and whose whole past lives had been in the midst of idolatry and oppression) was almost drowned in the noise of the weeping.
Now God assures them that the future has brighter things in store than the past had ever known; and He makes this hope the ground of a word of encouragement. “Yet now be strong,” is His message, “for I am with you… My Spirit remaineth among you: fear ye not” (vers. 4, 5).
Ruin and desolation may have come in; division and scattering may have taken place; but those who are gathered back around Jehovah’s centre have the joy of knowing, on the authority of His own Word, that He is in the midst, and His Spirit remaineth among them. Well may they be strong and fear not.
In like manner is the assurance given to Philadelphia, in the last solemn book of the Bible. The saints may have only “a little strength;” but His Word and His Name abide, and He, the holy and the true, is in their midst. Division and strife cannot alter this; nor can any particular company of believers claim it to the exclusion of others, as though they alone composed “the remnant.” “For where two or three are gathered together in (or unto) My Name, there am I in the midst of them.” By this may every little company of saints be comforted, who morally occupy the ground of the remnant in Haggai’s day.
Not only had they the Lord’s presence, in Spirit, among them, but His coming in person was to be their hope, that thus their hearts might be lifted above their lowly circumstances as they waited for the coming glory. In “a little while” the heavens and earth, the sea and the dry land, together with all the nations, would be shaken by the power of Jehovah, and then “the Desire of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts” (vers. 6, 7). The long-desired One is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ. He came once in grace only to be rejected. He is coming again to bring in the glory long foreseen by the prophets of old. To that house (albeit refurbished and enlarged by the Idumean Herod) He came, only to be unrecognized and cast out. To that house, rebuilt in the last days, He will come again to take the kingdom and reign in righteousness.
The remnant might be too poor to embellish the rebuilt temple, but His are the silver and the gold. Nothing shall hinder the manifestation of the glory when the set time has come. “The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, saith the Lord of hosts: and in this place will I give peace, saith the Lord of hosts” (vers. 8, 9). The rendering of the A. V.—“the glory of this latter house” — is misleading, and has been generally taken by commentators to mean that the rebuilt temple, being hallowed by the personal presence of the Son of God was thus far greater than that of Solomon, despite the grandeur of the one and the paucity of the other. Some have supposed that the architectural beauty of the temple after Herod’s embellishments even surpassed that of the “house, exceeding magnifical,” built by the wise king. But this was by no means the case.
To the first interpretation there could be no real objection. It is beautiful and true in itself, but does not seem to be what is really meant to be conveyed here. “The latter glory of this house” refers undoubtedly to the millennial splendor of the temple depicted prophetically in Ezekiel 40 to 48. Men may speak of temples or houses of God, He speaks but of the temple, or the house. Whether the building erected by Solomon, Zerubbabel, or Herod, be contemplated; or whether that to be rebuilt by unbelieving Judah in the coming tribulation, or the millennial temple succeeding—all are denominated “the house” and “the temple” of God. It is one in His eyes. In that temple of old every whit of it uttered His glory. To that temple He came in grace only to be rejected. In that temple the Man of Sin shall yet sit. Cleansed, that temple shall be the centre of earth’s worship and thanksgiving for the Millennium. At present, in this interval of “the dispensation of the mystery,” God owns no material building as His abode. Believers in the aggregate, through the whole church period, are growing into a holy temple in the Lord. All saints on earth at a given time form the house of God, composed of living stones, who have come to the Living Stone.
Prophecy is not occupied with this spiritual building. It has to do with the earth, and earthly-things.
In verses 10 to 14 another line of truth is brought in. The transition from what we have been considering seems most abrupt, but doubtless the state of the people demanded it. In reply to a question by Haggai, the priests aver that if one “bear holy flesh in the skirt of his garment, and with his skirt do touch” articles of common food, the latter are not sanctified thereby and rendered holy. On the other hand, they bear testimony to the solemn fact that one who is unclean by the dead defiles everything he touches, making it unclean likewise. Such was the condition of the people. They were all defiled, and all they did was unclean before God. But this only gave occasion for grace to act; and so, despite their uncleanness, the Lord had taken them up in blessing. But He would have them remember that all has come from His own heart, apart from their deserts. Though defiled, yet when they turned to God and bowed in subjection to Him, He could manifest Himself strong on their behalf.
So in verses 15 to 19 He contrasts their condition when apathetic in regard to His house, and now, that they are working in accordance with His word. Before, poverty, blasting and mildew were their portion. Now, He has, “from the day the foundation of the Lord’s temple was laid,” given increase and plenty, even as He had declared long before that “they that honor Me, I will honor; and they that despise Me, shall be lightly esteemed.”
We may be sure none will ever be the loser who puts the claims of God first. “From this day will I bless you” is a promise for all who judge what is evil and seek to walk in the truth.
The chapter concludes with another message given the same day. It is addressed alone to Zerubbabel, the uncrowned son of David, who had been appointed governor of Judah. To him the Lord announces the shaking of the heavens and the earth, and the final overthrow of all the kingdoms of the Gentiles, but assures him that he shall abide as a signet before Him, “for I have chosen thee, saith the Lord of hosts.”
From Zerubbabel’s loins shall spring “the prince,” who would seem to be the earthly representative of “great David’s greater Son” (who likewise came in direct descent from this lowly-minded scion of king David), in the day when all nations acclaim the splendors of “the latter glory of this house.”
29 See “Notes on the Book of Esther” (clo.,75c; pa.,30c).