““Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord.” Then the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?”
Haggai 1:2-4 ESV
Through the Bible: Haggai 1-2
The message of Haggai to the returning exiles seems pretty straightforward: God’s house is in shambles, while you’re picking out shiplap (thanks for the chuckle, Tara-Leigh!). Get your priorities straight.
But before we draw universal conclusions, and say that this is going to be true for all people, for all time, in every situation, let’s flash back to what happened when King David compared his living quarters to God’s way back in 2 Samuel:
“Now when the king lived in his house and the Lord had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies, the king said to Nathan the prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent.” And Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you.” But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, “Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’”
2 Samuel 7:1-7 ESV
So, when David wanted to build a temple for the Lord, the Lord said, “I’ve been cool with a tent for about five hundred years now. I don’t need a house.”
A generation later, Solomon, David’s son, does indeed build God a house. It took him seven years to do it, although, don’t miss the fact that Solomon spent thirteen years—nearly twice as long—on his own house (see 1 Kings 7:1).
And yet, throughout Solomon’s prayer of dedication of the Temple in 1 Kings 8, Solomon repeatedly emphasizes that this is a temple for the name of the Lord, and not for the Lord Himself:
““But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built! Yet have regard to the prayer of your servant and to his plea, O Lord my God, listening to the cry and to the prayer that your servant prays before you this day, that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you have said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that you may listen to the prayer that your servant offers toward this place. And listen to the plea of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. And listen in heaven your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.”
1 Kings 8:27-30 ESV
Verse 30 is the first of six times Solomon will remind the people that heaven, not the temple, is God’s dwelling place.
So why is God so concerned with the temple being built after the exile? Why does he use Haggai (and Zechariah, which we will see tomorrow) to call out the returning exiles for their misplaced priorities? Did he change His mind in the five hundred years between Solomon and the return from Babylon?
God didn’t change His mind. It was always about the heart and not the house. David’s heart was right toward God, and so for God, the house didn’t matter. In fact, God used this opportunity to establish His covenant with David, essentially saying, “You want to build me a house? Instead, let ME build YOU a house!”
It was about the heart for Solomon as well. Solomon knew that once there was a visible temple, the people would tend to take God’s presence for granted. So he constantly reminded the people that the purpose of the temple was to worship God, not contain Him.
Finally, for the returning exiles, it was still about the heart. Only now, it wasn’t that the people needed to be reminded that God didn’t actually reside in the temple. It was that they needed to be reminded that God had not left them. Look closely at His message to them in Haggai 2:
“Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, declares the Lord. Be strong, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the Lord. Work, for I am with you, declares the Lord of hosts, according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not.”
Haggai 2:4-5 ESV
For the exiles, the temple would be the visible symbol that God was with them, that His Spirit remained in their midst. God didn’t get left behind when they were deported to Babylon, nor did He stay in Babylon when they returned to Jerusalem.
What was true for David was true for the returning exiles. God wanted their hearts, not a house. The difference for the exiles is that God would encourage their hearts because they were building the house.
God is still interested in our hearts today. If we’ve been forsaking the fellowship of our local church, He’s going to prod us to get off the couch on Sunday morning and get back in church. On the other hand, if we’ve gotten so consumed with being at church every time the doors are open, He is going to remind us of the needs in our community, and that it may be necessary to skip Bible study if it means helping your neighbor one day. Consistently, from David to Solomon to Haggai to Zechariah to you and me, it is always about the heart, not the house.