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A Prophetic Idyl
"Then came the word of the Lord by Haggai the prophet saying" ( Hag 1:3 ).
How did the word of the Lord come to Haggai and through Haggai? The prophet himself tells us in his brief epistle, for an epistle it may be called, seeing that it was delivered so swiftly and directly and overpoweringly to the parties who were addressed by it. Haggai came into the prophetic office late in life. How wonderful is the development of human power! Sometimes there are boy preachers, whom we must always look upon with a kind of gracious distrust. I do not know what the world wants with boy-preachers, but if the Lord chooses to call them and honour them, who are we that we should criticise the way of God? Some are not called to the ministry or the prophetic office until they are well on in life. God has not been rebuking the men, he has been educating them, chastening and training them, so that although their office be but temporary, of a short duration, yet sympathetically and suggestively it stretches over the whole space of unborn time. You do not know what you may be yet. You are a long time in beginning, but when you do begin who knows how wise will be your ministry, how rich your experience, how tender your spirit? Do not give up all hope, do not count your years; remember the reign and dominion of him who is master and Lord, and constantly say to him, Lord, at thy time, not at mine: if thou dost want me to preach I am ready when thou art ready; if it be better for me not to preach until I am an old man, mighty as Haggai was in grey hairs, so be it: thy will, not mine, be done.
Haggai was only a minister for four months. We are very critical about the duration of ministries now; unless a man has been in his place five years or ten, or two tens, we have unkind remarks to make about the possibility of his not lasting much longer. There are always plenty of malign critics: the world has never been poor in downright wickedness; if wickedness had been wealth all the other stars would have been paupers compared with this earth-millionaire. Four months: what can be done in a little space of time when the whole man works head, heart, hand, every power, faculty, element of his being, all consecrated with tremendous intensity towards the prosecution and culmination of one sublime and beneficent object! Some men say more in a sentence than others can say in a lifetime. Haggai may have done more in four months than some other man would have done in four centuries. Yet criticism is very foolish, vain, self-magnifying; for the later criticism, sometimes called the "higher criticism," has found out that the prophecy of Haggai is very tamely written. Criticism cannot come home at night after a whole day's work and bring nothing with it, it would be ashamed to come back again. There be bold fishermen who go out in the morning with nothing but rod and creel, and come back at night just as empty-handed; but they have had fresh air, enjoyment, and they are ready for refreshment and rest; there is bloom upon the cheek, there is music in the tone. But criticism must bring something back, and criticism has brought back the report that Haggai has lost much of the old prophetic inspiration, that Haggai, because he began as an old man, has shown an old man's senility in all the writing which he wrote. It is a blessed thing that the prophecy itself is actually before us, so that we can test for ourselves the base insinuation that in Haggai the prophetic torch was almost extinct.
The prophecy of Haggai extends only over some forty verses; it might be committed to memory. In those forty verses you have little poems that could be elaborated into marvellous epics and idyls. We shall find words in Haggai we can find nowhere else. Every prophet brings his own special offering. Haggai has flowers that no other hand culled, fairer than any that the noblest prophets ever discovered in the garden of God; but criticism pale-faced, blear-eyed criticism, with only two sharp teeth in its empty gums has appeared to tell us that Haggai has lost inspiration, and has nothing to say unique and distinctive. Some witnesses are liars.
"Thus speaketh the Lord of hosts, saying, This people " ( Hag 1:2 ).
That is not like the Lord of hosts. "This people" as if the speaker were pointing, with at least suggestion of contempt, to some motley, nameless, reputeless crowd. In other prophets he has said, even when he was about to rebuke the Church, "My people." Oh, this contempt of God! "This people" not a personal pronoun, but a demonstrative adjective pronoun, an indicative impersonal: "This people," this crowd, this herd of ingrates. Language ought to be moral. The Lord's language is always deeply steeped in morality. The Lord does not speak anything by way of mere eulogy or panegyric; the Lord is critical in his judgment: behold the goodness and the severity of God. What do these people say? "The time is not come." They might have lived to-day. We have not advanced one inch from this position. It is a position of excuse, evasion, self-protection. Here is no denial of the divine right, not one word is spoken against the house of the Lord, but it is not "time" to repair the roof, to clean the window, and let the morning light come in; it is not time to throng into God's sanctuary, and to make it thrill and throb with the music of thankfulness: as who should say under the sluggard's blankets, By-and-by we will come: tomorrow, or the day following, you will hear our voices; in a short space we will arise and repair the house, or rebuild the house, or do anything that the house may require to have done to it: in the meantime a little more sleep, a little more slumber, and a folding of the arms and hands together. When is the time coming for you to be a man? When is the time coming for you to do your first noble deed? Do not dream that you are going to do something in a few summers' time: when all the children are off your hands, when business anxieties have abated a little, when the rush and competition of life have somewhat subsided, then the Church shall hear your music in song and prayer, and see your sacrifice in labour and in gift. The devil is deceitful; he does not say to a man, Deny God, pronounce his name as if you hated it. Sometimes he says, There is no need for you positively to deny the existence of God, nor is there any need for you to sneer or show contempt when religious ordinances are referred to; but you can take up a very strong position if you will say, "The time is not come": that will be decent, that will be civil; it will be impossible for the keenest criticism to fasten upon an assertion of that kind, and under cover of that base protestation you can serve hell. Why spend time in metaphysical reasoning with people about these excuses? Such excuses are not to be metaphysically destroyed; they are to be burnt out of a man with the fire of heaven.
Is the Lord content with the speech? Does he say, This is carefully considered: here are prudent persons, they are watching for opportunities, and when opportunities occur they will be faithful; their activity may be relied upon; they have not denied the obligation, nor have they wantonly postponed its payment; they are simply waiting for the right time? Does the Lord speak so?
"Then came the word of the Lord by Haggai the prophet, saying, Is it time for you, O ye, to dwell in your cieled houses, and this house lie waste" ( Hag 1:3-4 ).
When did man say, It is not time to make money, it is not time to look after my own interests. It is not time for me to pay the slightest attention to personal wants, or personal comforts: all these things can wait? Never do we house ourselves under gilded roofs without the Lord knowing where we are Has he not counted every inch of decoration? Has he not read the estimate of every luxury with which our home is adorned? Does he not read the garden-bill, the larder-bill, the artist's account? And do we tell him who has just laid the invoices down that it is not time to attend to the greater house, the larger love, the wider, nobler sacrifice? Tell it to men who are blind, and deaf, and dumb, and dead, but do not tell it to him who searches the heart, and tries the reins of the children of men. He knows the exact condition of his house. Is this unreasonable? Is it unreasonable for the husbandman to come to his own field, or garden, or vineyard, and ask concerning the fruit thereof? Is it unreasonable for the householder to look into the condition of his house? And the Church is God's house, the temple is the dwelling-place of the Most High; and if we will not attend to his house, how can he attend to our house? And will he not presently, after giving us time enough to feel our security, blow the roof off our dwelling-place, and send upon us the storms of an angry heaven? This is the argument of this prophet this prophet who is supposed to have lost the prophetic fire.
"Now therefore thus saith the Lord of hosts; Consider your ways" ( Hag 1:5 ).
Set your heart upon your ways; go into a private position up the mountain, and take the case with you, and turn it over page by page, and let your heart read it. What is the case to which he calls their attention? It is a case that can be understood by all; these are the terms:
"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 into a bag with holes" ( Hag 1:6 ).
How is this? What fools you are! Here you have a process going on under your very eyes: you ought to look into it, and inquire about it, and settle the moral principles of the case: how is it? This might be a report of our own life to-day. We sow much, we take out whole bags filled with seed, and throw the seed right and left, from morning till night, and lo, in the harvest what is there but disappointment? Men should ask themselves questions about these things. Of course, there is a high and haughty and noble science that says, These things have nothing whatever to do with Providence. Who says so? Who are these men that talk thus? What have they done for the world? Where are their sacrifices, where are their heroisms, where are their convictions? Where are those elements of life that can compare for one moment with the heroic history of a man like the Apostle Paul? You cannot at the same time have the Bible and deny it Christians, make your minds upon this point. If you could get rid of the Bible you would have a much freer hand in all controversies it is the Bible that binds you. For God's sake do not wriggle out of it: shut it up and throw it into the river, then we can understand your action; but do not propose to yourselves both to have the Bible and to disbelieve it; to honour it, and disobey it; and do not pretend to get over the rugged, hard parts evasively, shirkingly: face these parts, for in them is the very test of discipline. The Bible contends that the actions of men are followed by consequences; and it does not scruple to lay down the solemn doctrine that if we dishonour God he will make us feel the result of that dishonour. We cannot scorn his spirit, and steal his harvests. Ye cannot serve God and Mammon. Notwithstanding incidental circumstances that appear to go against this doctrine, this is the teaching of God regarding the great trend of history, regarding the marvellous development and purpose of providence. Thus God calls our attention to physical circumstances, that we may awaken our minds to moral considerations.
"Ye have sown much, and bring in little" ( Hag 1:6 ).
What is the meaning of that empty hand? What? "Ye eat, but ye have not enough." How comes it that what you eat goes to nothingness, instead of repeating itself in purer blood, firmer flesh, and thus rising up and flaming into poetry, and thought, and philosophy? How comes it that you stuff the skin that withers under the burden you impose upon it? Why? "Ye clothe you, but there is none warm." Clothing cannot get near your skin; it is so stiff, so hard, it does but create passages for cruel draughts. How is this? You have weight, but no warmth; an abundance of things to cover you with, and yet the flesh shivers in the cold. All the Lord asks of us is to think about it, consider it, test this matter in regard to conscience and behaviour. Yet this is the prophet who was supposed to have lost the prophetic fire!
What will the Lord have done? He will create a space for repentance:
"Go up to the mountain, and bring wood, and build the house" ( Hag 1:8 ).
Get the work done, then the blessing will come. There are some of us who want the blessing without the work, and we cannot have it. You cannot have the harvest without having first the seedtime, and that seedtime may be very cold and harsh, and you may have to face many a morning that is all keenness and coldness. But there is a law a law of service, a law of action, a law of sequence. The Lord will not allow us to live an irregular life, inventing philosophies for ourselves; we may blow bubbles from the pipe of invention from morning until night, but the earth will not allow one of these bubbles, sun-gilded and beautiful for a moment, to influence its solemn, regular, inexorable, and irresistible action. You must sow the seed when the earth tells you, when the sun tells you; not when you please, but when Nature says, "Now is the accepted time." And shall we be barriered and caged by law in all these matters, and yet be allowed to lead a fool's life in relation to things that lay hold upon eternity, and are of the nature of the quality of God?
What will the Lord do when we build the house?
"I will take pleasure in it, and I will be glorified, saith the Lord. Ye looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when ye brought it home, I did blow upon it [Literally: I did blow it away.] Why? saith the Lord of hosts. Because of mine house that is waste" ( Hag 1:8-9 ).
"Them that honour me I will honour, and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed." The Saviour said, "Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's house?" In the Authorised Version it is, "about my Father's business"; but literally it should be, "about my Father's house." There must be some test of obedience, some test of loyalty, and worship, and character; and if the Lord has appointed this test, it is not for us to vary the scale by which our moral action shall be measured, or the standard by which our moral work shall be estimated. Why was the heaven stayed from, and the earth stayed from her fruit? Why was there a drought upon the mountains, and upon the corn, and upon the new wine, and upon the oil, and upon that which the earth bringeth forth, and upon men, and upon cattle, and upon all the labour of the hands? Why? The answer is given in plain words: "Because of mine house that is waste." There are those who tell us that potato disease, cattle plague, bad harvest, all natural disappointments have nothing to do with moral spirit, moral discipline, moral behaviour; the only thing we can reply is this, that we have given ourselves a book called the Bible, which distinctly declares the contrary, and we cannot keep both the book and the doctrine that opposes it. Without saying which is right, here is the eternal verity; ye cannot have a Bible and no Bible, a God and no God, a Cross and no sacrifice.
"In his first message to the people the prophet denounced the listlessness of the Jews, who dwelt in their 'panelled houses,' while the temple of the Lord was roofless and desolate. The displeasure of God was manifest in the failure of all their efforts for their own gratification. The heavens were 'stayed from dew,' and the earth was 'stayed from her fruit.' They had neglected that which should have been their first care, and reaped the due wages of their selfishness (i. 4-11). The words of the prophet sank deep into the hearts of the people and their leaders. They acknowledged the voice of God speaking by his servant, and obeyed the command. Their obedience was rewarded with the assurance of God's presence (i. 13), and twenty-four days after the building was resumed. A month had scarcely elapsed when the work seems to have slackened, and the enthusiasm of the people abated. The prophet, ever ready to rekindle their zeal, encouraged the flagging spirits of the chiefs with the renewed assurance of God's presence, and the fresh promise that, stately and magnificent as was the temple of their wisest king, the glory of the latter house should be greater than the glory of the former (ii. 3-91). Yet the people were still inactive, and two months afterwards we find him again censuring their sluggishness, which rendered worthless all their ceremonial observances. But the rebuke was accompanied by a repetition of the promise (ii. 10-19)." Smith's Dictionary of the Bible.
Almighty God, as thou hast made us to pray, so do thou teach us how to pray. We know not how to pray as we ought, but thou wilt teach us, if we bring before thee a meek and obedient heart, a waiting and expectant spirit. We know not what we need; we feel our hunger, but we cannot put it into words: answer thou the hunger that is felt, and not the words that are uttered. We need thy presence every moment, for thou art the Light; we need to feel thee near, for thou art the soul's security; we need to feel the touch of thine hand, for in the hand of the Lord is almightiness and all gentleness. Thou knowest the littleness of our life, yet thou canst fill it with sunlight; thou knowest how poor are our faculties in their outlines and beginnings; yet thou canst employ them all in useful and holy service. We, therefore, put ourselves into thine hands, O Lord, Maker, Redeemer, Sanctifier of us all. We come to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, whom we adore as one God. Help us to live and move and have our being in that ineffable unity. May all our thoughts be elevated; may our expectations be fixed in the heavens; may we have a holy discontent with everything that is on the earth and that is therefore perishable; may we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen, for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. Thou hast made us for eternity. Thou hast set within us a great light, thou hast called us by name into all these relations of grace: may we accept the call of God, may we rise in loving and loyal obedience to our Father's voice, and do all the law, and remember all the statutes gratefully and lovingly, and may we obey because of the inspiration of the Cross. For the Cross we bless thee, as for all gifts in one. It is a holy Cross; it is the way to pardon, to purity, to peace; it is the creation of God, and the crown of God's creation. We bow down before it, we have no other plea; we rest in the Son of God. Amen,
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Haggai 1". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25