Summary: Lessons from the priests, from God’s Providence and from God’s plans

Limavady Reformed Presbyterian Church

Rev Robert Robb

Studies in The Book of Haggai

Study 7


We come this morning to the last of our studies in the book of Haggai. Last week we considered the message that Haggai brought to the people on the 21st day of the seventh month, just four weeks or so after the people had recommenced their work of rebuilding the temple. It was a word that was intended to bring encouragement a somewhat discouraged people. This morning we move on a further two months to the 24th day of the ninth month when God gave his last two messages to the people through the prophet Haggai. In the first of these two closing messages God takes the people back over their experiences of the previous 16 years with a view to impressing upon them some important spiritual lessons and in the last message, directed particularly but not exclusively to Zerubabel the political head of the people God brings a message of comfort and assurance for the future.

Lets look then at these closing two messages. We begin by looking at verses 11-14 where we find

1) A Question For God’s Priests:

One of the major errors into which many of the Jews had fallen throughout their history was that of ascribing an inherent efficacy to the performance of religious ordinances. That is of thinking that as long as they observed the various outward rituals of religious worship everything was alright between them and God and that God would bless them. God wanted to correct such erroneous ideas and with that in mind he told the people to go and ask the Priests to give a ruling on two proposed scenarios relating to the Law. This of course was one of the responsibilities of the priests, to teach the people the law of Moses and to interpret how that law applied to specific situations. The specific situations that God wanted them to consider are set out clearly in v12 and 13. In the first instance the priests are to be asked “if a person carries consecrated meat in the fold of his garment and that fold touches some bread or stew, some wine or oil or other food, does it become consecrated.” Or to put the question into much simpler language – “Can something that is Holy make something that is unholy, holy? And to this question the priests answered NO. The second question the priests were to be asked was “if a person defiled by contact with a dead body touches one of these things (that is something that has been consecrated, something that is ceremonially holy) does it become defiled?” Or once again to put it in simpler language – “can something that is unholy defile something that is Holy” And the answer the priests gave to that question was ‘YES, it becomes defiled.”

And the point that God was making here and the thing that he wanted his people to grasp was that Holiness is not communicable, whilst defilement is. A Holy ordinance cannot make an unholy person who is performing that ordinance holy. But an unholy person can and does transmit his defilement to all that he touches. Moral cleanness cannot be transmitted but moral pollution can.

This of course is a principle that we see working out in the realm of nature. You take a box full of rotten apples and put a good apple into the centre of it. What will happen? Will that good apple make the bad apples good, no of course it wont. But if you take a bad apple and put it in a basket of good apples that bad apple will cause those good apples to become rotten.

Or to use another example, a healthy person going into a room where someone is suffering from say the measles or from typhoid, cannot communicate his health to the person who is ill. But the person who is ill can communicate his disease to those who are healthy.

So this is the principle that God clearly establishes and the lesson that he wanted his people to learn.

So having established this principle God then goes on to apply the principle and that bring us to consider secondly

2) An Application To God’s People:

In v 14 drives home the point he is wanting to make. “Then Haggai said ‘so is this people in my sight, declares the Lord, whatever they do and whatever they offer there is defiled.” God’s purpose in getting the people to go t the priests and ask them these two questions was not a mere academic exercise aimed at improving their understanding of the law, it was to challenge them with regards to the empty, defiled, unacceptable nature of their worship in those days when their hearts were not right with God; when they were self-centred and worldliminded and so on; when they were pursuing their own interests and neglecting God’s work; when they were more concerned about temporal things than about spiritual things. During that time the people were still bringing their sacrifices to the altar. They were still going through the outward forms of their religion. Public worship was still maintained. But although the people drew near to God with their lips their hearts were in fact far removed from him. Their relationship with God was not what it should have been. Now all the while the people were observing their religious duties, all the while they were going through the routine, the mechanics of worshipping God, they thought that God was pleased with them, that he accepted their worship and that such religious observance would secure his protection and his favour. God wants them to know that such was not the case. According to the first principle he wanted them to understand that the mechanics of worship, the actual ritual of worship has no inherent power in and of itself to make the person performing it holy. The elements of worship may have been holy things in and of themselves in that they were ordained and established by God to be part of worship but although they were holy things they could not impart holiness to those who used them. On the contrary, according to the second principle – namely that defilement can be communicated and can make that which is holy, unholy, these people being at that time unholy in themselves because of their sin were polluting the holy ordinances of God. And although they were bringing their sacrifices to God and engaging in worship God did not accept their sacrifices or their worship because it did not proceed from a pure heart.

Of course this, as I say, was not something peculiar to this particular generation of God’s people. This same thing was happening in Isaiah’s day and God through the prophet makes clear how he felt about people going through the outward forms of worship when their heart was not right with him. Isaiah 1:11 “The multitude of your sacrifices what are they to me? says the Lord. I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and of lambs and of goats. When you come to meet with me who asked this of you, this tramping of my courts. Stop bringing meaningless offerings. Your incense is detestable to me. New moon and Sabbaths and convocations - I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New moon festivals, and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer I will hide my eyes from you, even if you offer many prayers I will not listen.” Why is God talking like this. Where these not forms of worship that he himself had ordained. Did he not require the people to pray to him; to observe New Moon and Sabbath and various other festivals? Did he not institute the sacrificial system and command the offering of the blood of bulls, goats and lambs? Well yes he did. But the holy ordinances that he had instituted and ordained for worship had been profaned, had been defiled by the people because the people were inherently sinful, living sinful lives day and daily and simply going the motions of worship at the appointed times. They not right with God in their heart. Listen to what God goes on to say to them here in Isaiah 1 “wash and make yourselves clean, stop doing wrong learn to do right, seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless plead the case of the widow. Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord, though your sins are like scarlet they shall be as white as snow though they are red like crimson they shall be like wool.”

You find the same thing in Jeremiah’s day 6:20 “What do I care about incense from Sheba or sweet calamus from distant lands. Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, your sacrifices do not please me.”

It was the same in Haggai’s day. In spite of their sinful condition they were still bringing their sacrifices to the Lord. They were going through the motions of external religion. But that’s all it was an external ritual. God says “So is this people and this nation in my sight.” Their worship is defiled because they are polluted, their worship does not make them holy and acceptable in my sight.

You know friends this is a lesson that God wants us to take note of this morning. There are many people in churches up and down this land, perhaps there are some here this morning who think that as long as you come to church and sing Praise to God and join in prayer and read the scriptures and put in your offering, or take communion that such things in and of themselves will make you holy, will make you acceptable to God. Well this passage tells us in no uncertain terms that whilst the elements of worship are holy in the sense that they have been established and ordained of God as a means to worship Him, nevertheless those elements do not impart any holiness to the person by the mere use of and participation in them. There is no inherent efficacy in the ordinances of religion. This is one area where Roman Catholicism errs greatly. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that grace is automatically imparted to the individual when the individual partakes of the ordinances and particularly the sacraments of the Church. That when a person partakes of the mass that person advances in holiness as a result of doing so. Sadly the same mentality is to be found among many who worship in Protestant, evangelical Churches. Some Christians think that it does them some spiritual good and enhances their relationship with God to come to and participate in worship, even though they are knowingly living in disobedience to God, even though they are unwilling to repent of some known sin. The fact of the matter is the spiritual pollution of their heart which has not been cleansed is transmitted to the very worship in which they are engaging and causes that worship to be unacceptable to God. The same is true of those who are not Christians – people who are very religious but who have never trusted Jesus Christ as their saviour. They think that God is in some way pleased with them because they go to worship each week. They think that participating in worship is bound to count for something when it comes to their relationship with God. The reality is the holy exercises in which they are engaged are defiled by the pollution of their sinful and uncleansed hearts. John Calvin sums up what God is saying here through Haggai when he states “nothing can flow from an impure and polluted fountain but what is impure and polluted.”

Friends I wonder as God looks round this meeting house this morning observing our worship in the light of the condition of our hearts of how many of us is he saying “so it is with this person my sight…what he is offering what she is offering is defiled."” Is he saying that of you? Maybe you’re a Christian who has backslidden and as you sit here in church this morning you know only too well that your heart is polluted with some sin or some sins that you havent forsaken, Or maybe as you sit in Church this morning you know only too well that you are someone who has never become a Christian and your heart likewise is polluted by sin. Friend the only solution to your condition is to have that defilement cleansed by the blood of Christ. The scriptures tell us “the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin” You dear backslider and you my unsaved friend need in brokenness and humility of heart to go to the cross and cry our for forgiveness looking to Christ alone for the cleansing that God alone can give and will give to all who seek it from him. Jesus said “him that cometh to me I will never turn away.”

The Psalmist David said “you do not delight in sacrifice or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings” That is religious ritualism is worthless it does not and cannot make us right with God. David goes on “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart O God you will not despise.” A heart that is broken and contrite on account of its sin that is what God is looking for. Such a heart will cry out to god as David did “cleanse me...wash me and I shall be whiter than the snow…create in me a pure heart O God…blot out my transgression, wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”

Oh that such might be the prayer of the heart of some here this morning.

Well we have considered The Question to God’s Priests and The Application to God’s People. Let’s look thirdly at

3) The Message of God’s Providence.

In vs 15-17 God through the prophet returns to a theme that he had already taken up in his first message, (ch 1v5,6; 9-11) namely His dealings with his people in his works of providence, particularly His chastening providences that were intended to get the people to take stock of their lives and consider the folly of their sinful ways. “now give careful thought to this from this day on – consider how things were before one stone was led on another in the Lord’s temple. When anyone came to a heap of twenty measures there were only ten. When anyone went to a wine-vat to draw fifty measures there were only twenty. I struck all the work of your hands with blight, mildew and hail, yet you did not turn to me, declares the Lord.”

God here reminds them that throughout that period when they were in a state of spiritual apathy, when they were not putting God first in their lives, when their relationship with God was not what it should have been because of their sin, that He punished them by bringing them into circumstances of adversity. The specific nature of the adversity they experienced was economic hardship. God touched them where they would undoubtedly feel it, in their pockets. One year after another the two staple crops of the land failed to produce anything like their normal and expected yield. There was a 50% reduction in the yield of the wheat crop and a 60% reduction in that of the wine. Where in the wheat they expected 20 measures they ended up with only 10. And with regards to the wine when they expected 50 measures there was only 20. By means of blight, mildew and heavy hailstorms God destroyed much of their crop. He was doing this to get their attention. To get them to waken up spiritually. But it seems that the people at that time looked upon it as just bad luck. The external hardships were not considered as God’s call to repentance, until they were later explained to be such by the prophet. God was speaking to them in the circumstances of life in which they found themselves, but the people didn’t hear Him. Those are very sad words “yet you did not turn unto me.”

And what God is doing here is he is teaching the people to be sensitive to His voice as it speaks to them in daily circumstances and situations in life. This is what I was doing in the past and I not only want you to understand this but I want you to be sensitive to my voice in providence in the future. V18 – “From this day on, from this 24th day of the ninth month, give careful thought to the day when the foundation of the Lord’s temple was laid. Give careful thought.” That is look back on that whole period from the day the foundation of the temple was built over sixteen years ago to the present day. Think about all that happened and learn lessons from it.

Its very easy for us to forget that God speaks to us not only through His Word, the Bible, but also through His Works, through His providential dealings with us in our daily lives. When we as Christians go astray spiritually God, with a view to drawing us back to himself speaks to us through His Word and if we don’t give heed to his Word he then resorts to using supplementary means to get our attention and those means are his providential chastenings. He will bring us into adversity in one form or another and of one degree or another.

That hardship that you are facing at the moment, could it be that God has brought that upon you in order to get your attention. Could it be that you are not living the Christian life as you should be? That you are not living in obedience to God. That you are not as committed to serving God as He would expect and want you to be? And so with a view to getting you to consider your ways he has had to use His rod of correction on you?

David in psalm 119:67 says “before I was afflicted I went astray, but now (that is ‘now having experienced the affliction you sent and learned from it) now I obey your word.” Four verses later he says “it was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.”

The Godly minister from Scotland Robert Murray McCheyne once prayed “If nothing else will sever me from my sins, Lord send me such sore and trying calamities as shall awake me from earthly slumber.”

Thomas Brooks – “The grand design of God in all the afflictions that befall his people is t bring them nearer and closer to himself.”

Oh may God help us to discern his voice when he speaks to us by means of his providence, and may it not be said of us as it was said of Haggai’s contemporaries response to God’s dealings with them during those sixteen years of Spiritual apathy – “yet you did not return unto me.”

The fourth thing that we want to notice from this penultimate message that Haggai brought to the people is

4) The Promise of God’s Blessing:

We see that in v19. “Is there yet any seed left in the barn? Until now the vine and the fig-tree, the pomegranate and the olive tree have not born fruit. ‘From this day on I will bless thee.’”

As a result of the preaching of Haggai and the work of God’s Spirit the people as we have seen had turned from their spiritual apathy and had given themselves once again t the work of God, making it a priority in their lives. Their relationship with the Lord had been restored. God had just reminded them of how they had suffered as a result of disobedience now he wants to encourage them by promising to bless them now that they have returned to Him. This message came to the people in the ninth month, that is equivalent t our November. The seed from the previous harvest had been planted in the ground but the harvest of the past year had been so meagre that once the seed had been planted there was nothing left over. That is what God is pointing to when he says ‘is there any seed yet in the barn?’ The answer was no. It’s all in the ground. For the past number of years the vine and the fig tree and the pomegranate and the olive tree had not born any fruit or at least hadn’t born anything like enough to satisfy the needs of the people. So on this 24th day of November the people didn’t know what to expect in the months ahead. Would the seed they had planted wither and die? Would it be blasted with wind or destroyed by mildew or by hail? At that point in time they couldn’t see any signs of growth. They couldn’t see how the seed in the ground was faring, whether it was beginning to sprout or not. All they could do was wait. God comes along and says “From this day on I will bless you” He gives them a wonderful promise to encourage them. His chastening hand was being removed and his hand of blessing was being laid upon them now that they had turned from their sin and returned to Him.

And brethren I believe that when a child of God, or when a family or when a church is brought to the point where they recognise their sin, turn from it and return to God with all their heart, God will bless them. The blessing that had been withheld throughout the period of disobedience, will be bestowed when they walk in the ways of obedience.

Oh that there might be such a turning again unto God where such a turning is needed that God might say to us “From this day on I will bless thee”. It’s a wonderful promise to take with us is it not as we seek to reach out to this community. ‘From this day on I will bless thee’ But let us not forget that it only took one Achan in the camp of God’s people for the blessing of God to be withheld. Don’t you be the Achan in this Church. If your walk with God isn’t what it should be, then get it sorted out, for your own sake and for the sake of the future well-being and prosperity of this congregation so that God will say of us “from this day on I will bless you.”

The last thing that we want to consider this morning is found in the final message of Haggai which is recorded in v20-23 and that is

5) An Assurance of Preservation:

The message was delivered later that same day to Zerubabel the political leader of the people. Israel was a small nation surrounded by nations that were much stronger than his and nations that were keen to enlarge their territorial boundaries by invading and taking over smaller states. Zerubabel quite naturally would have felt threatened by these powers each of which could so easily have invaded overthrown his people. Would the nation survive? God in this last message comforts and encourages Zerubabel and the people by assuring them that they would be preserved. They were not only under the protective hand of God they were also as we saw last week part of his glorious redemptive purposes for the world and as such precious to him. God here describes Zerubabel as his “signet ring” and as one whom he has “chosen”. The signet ring was very important and precious to ancient kings. It was used for sealing official documents and never left the body of the person of the ruler. It was carefully guarded since it was a representation of its owner. God was saying Zerubabel that is how precious you as the leader of my people are to me, you have nothing to worry about. The foreign powers that are around you are going to be destroyed. There is going to be international war between the nations and civil war within the nations but it is God who is sovereignly at work in all this – notice – “I will shake…I will overturn…I will shatter…I will overthrow…” God working to bring abut his plans and purposes. And in the midst of all this upheaval my covenant people over whom you are ruling will be preserved because you are precious to me. You are my representatives on the earth and integral to may plans. The reason for this was because from that nation, and indeed from the tribe of Judah of which Zerubabel himself was a member God would raise up the ultimate leader of his people, of whom Zerubabel was an O.T. Type, the Lord Jesus Christ. And just as God promised to preserve his people through all the political upheavals back in the 5th C B.C. so that his eternal purposes would be fulfilled, so too he will preserve his covenant people throughout all ages until his kingdom is finally and fully consummated. Amidst all the national and international upheavals that have taken place and no doubt will yet take place in this world, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Covenant people of God, will be preserved. Jesus said I will build my church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.

The Church is the safest institution in the world. It is the only thing that will ultimately be preserved when God makes that final shaking of the heavens and the earth at the end of time, a shaking that will destroy forever everything else that is not built upon the rock Christ Jesus. What a privilege and a joy it is to be a member of that glorious blood bought institution.

May God write the lessons of this book upon our hearts and work them into our lives.

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