In today’s world, these questions are answered largely on the basis of individual preference. Spiritual community is only as valuable as its personal benefit. Yet this is really nothing new. The prophets faced similar challenges, even after the years of exile had ended.
END OF EXILE
In Haggai’s day, the exile was effectively over. Now was the time to rebuild the Temple. The story of reconstruction is told in the book of Ezra, but Haggai gives us a glimpse into the “story behind the story”—sort of like those old “pop-up videos” on VH1.
Haggai 1:1-15 In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest: 2 “Thus says the LORD of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD.” 3 Then the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, 4 “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? 5 Now, therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. 6 You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes.
7 “Thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. 8 Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD. 9 You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? declares the LORD of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house. 10 Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. 11 And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the ground brings forth, on man and beast, and on all their labors.” (Haggai 1:1-11)
On October 12, 539 B.C., Babylon fell to the armies of Medo-Persian, ruled by King Cyrus. There’s some irony here: Cyrus, for political reasons, was willing to allow any god into the pantheon as a means of consolidating power. Not only did he send them home, he issued a government bailout to help with the rebuilding of the temple. The job was started by a man named Shesbazzar (Ezra 5:14), but he was quickly succeeded by Zerubbabel—the grandson of one of Israel’s former kings (1 Chronicles 3:17-19).
In 537 B.C., the project was underway. The first thing they rebuilt was the altar—directly over the ruins of the first (Ezra 3:3-4). Reconstruction of the Temple began on April 29, 536 B.C, 430 years to the day that Solomon had built the first temple long ago. When the foundations were laid, the people even sang the same “hymns” they had at the first temple.
But construction quickly stalled out. Israel faced two specific problems:
- The elders remembered the “good old days.” This second temple could never match the traditions of the past. Ezra records that their weeping was so loud the builders couldn’t focus on their work (Ezra 3:12-13). Ed Stetzer, a prominent analyst of the church, says that we face problems when people “value past traditions over present mission.” A focus on preferences would be a barrier to the community’s future.
- The Samaritans had basically become a cult that acknowledged God but also blended Israel’s traditions with the gods of neighboring nations (the very sin that God had punished with the exile to begin with). The Samaritans wanted to join in the rebuilding. The Jews refused. The Samaritans started harassing God’s people, resulting in a 16 year hiatus in the building project.
During this 16-year period, the people had begun to use the government bailout not for the Temple, but for their personal gain. “Paneled houses,” Haggai laments. The people had exchanged the glory of God’s temple for the comfort of the McMansion.
CONSUMERS AND DISCIPLES
Are today’s values really that different? It’s hard to argue that we’re anything other than a tragic generation of consumers, whose religious devotion runs as deep as the latest craze. In 2010, Andrew Cherlin wrote a book called Marriage-go-round, in which he examined the state of marriage in today’s United States. He observed two broad trends:
(1) Marriage is still highly valued in western cultures, resulting in pressure to tie the knot.
(2) Marriage is looked upon as a means of personal fulfillment, resulting in record numbers of divorces.
If Cherlin is correct—and he certainly is persuasive—then the same could be said for the bride of Christ, the church. We want a religious experience that best fulfills our needs, that offers the immediate thrill of happiness.
To put it a bit more harshly, we don’t want the bride of Christ; we want the one-night-stand.
You see, whenever this topic comes up, people are eager to share two things:
(1) Commitment to a local church is a large priority.
(2) There may be times to change churches.
Do you see the resemblance between these points and Cherlin’s points about marriage? I keep hearing the question: When is it time to find another church? You know that’s a first-world problem, right? I can remember when our friends Tsiry and Barbara were here, visiting from France, they remarked that in their culture, if you went to church, you went to the church—in a secular country, they didn’t have the spiritual buffet of churches to choose from like we do.
The tragedy is that today’s religious marketplace caters to the same kinds of consumerist preferences that Haggai railed against. In their book The Churching of America, sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke observe the way this mentality has shaped the religious landscape. “Where religious affiliation is a matter of choice, religious organizations must compete for members…Religious economies are like commercial economies in that they consist of a market made up of a set of current and potential customers and a set of firms seeking to serve that market.”
Cater to preferences, and you cultivate a generation of consumers. Devote oneself to the gospel, and you cultivate a generation of disciples.
Change came later in the form of King Darius. Darius had ascended the throne in 522 B.C. By 520 B.C. he was ready to devote attention to the farther portions of his empire, including Judah and the antagonism between the Jews and Samaritans. The Jews appealed to Cyrus’ earlier decree. Darius searched the archives, finding a copy in the former capital of Ecbatana. Darius therefore allowed the work to continue, as well as provided funding. His decree also silenced the Samaritan opposition as well as threatened them should they continue to oppose the rebuilding.
12 Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, with all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the LORD their God, and the words of Haggai the prophet, as the LORD their God had sent him. And the people feared the LORD. 13 Then Haggai, the messenger of the LORD, spoke to the people with the LORD’s message, “I am with you, declares the LORD.” 14 And the LORD stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people. And they came and worked on the house of the LORD of hosts, their God, 15 on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month, in the second year of Darius the king.
I’m not saying there are never good reasons to leave your church. In fact, I would say the opposite. There will always be good reasons to walk away. But there is one true reason to stay committed. In tomorrow’s post, we’ll examine this reason more deeply, as we consider the Temple’s true value in a world like our own.