As the best-selling author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and First Things First, Steven Covey knows how to set priorities. He said, “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, unapologetically—to say no to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger yes burning inside. The enemy of the best is often the good.”[i]
Long before Covey introduced his time-tested leadership principles to the world, Jesus said in His famous Sermon on the Mount, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). Even Joshua said to the children of Israel, who had taken possession of the Promised Land, “Choose this day whom you will serve … But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). Without apology, Joshua’s burning yes was to serve the Lord!
What are your priorities in life? If you don’t mind my meddling, I’d like to peek inside your finances to find the answer to my question. Yes, your finances! Nothing exposes our true priorities like the way we spend our money. I know that because misplaced financial priorities lay at the heart of a series of sermonettes delivered by an Old Testament Minor Prophet named Haggai, which is our next stop on the ultimate road trip through the Bible.
In you think Haggai is a real downer because he aimed at people’s financial priorities, remember this: His name means “festive.” The truth is, Haggai probably received his name because he was born on the day of a major Jewish festival. Based on that, I would like to suggest that you can enjoy “festive finances” if you put God first in your money decisions.
Haggai was a post-exilic prophet, along with Zechariah. Haggai was probably much older than his fellow prophet, which provides a beautiful picture of how multiple generations can work together to accomplish God’s work. The many date references in Haggai indicate that the prophet delivered four sermons over a period of four months. This, too, provides an encouraging example. Haggai’s most significant ministry was short in duration and happened during his elderly years.
Haggai 1:1 sets the prophet’s ministry in historical context. “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.”
Darius was a Persian king, which means Haggai’s prophetic ministry happened after Judah’s Babylonian exile. In 538 B.C., Cyrus of Persia issued a decreed allowing the Jewish exiles to return to their land and rebuild their temple (2 Chronicles 36:22-23). Two years later, fewer than fifty thousand people returned to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel’s leadership. They faced many hardships, including poor work conditions.
It took two years to lay the foundation for the new temple, after which they stopped building due to strong opposition from the Samaritans (Ezra 4-6). Additionally, some of the older Jews who had seen Solomon’s temple wept when they learned that Zerubbabel’s rebuilt temple would be smaller (Ezra 3:12). Fourteen years later, the temple project was still unfinished. In the meantime, the people got busy building their own beautiful houses in the hills. Candidly, they grew spiritually lazy, and their personal affairs took priority over God’s. Sixteen years after the building project began and stalled, God sent Haggai with a strong message about their misplaced priorities. It was time to build for God’s glory.
“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? Now, therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. 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. 1:2-6
Not much has changed among God’s people since Haggai’s time. As a pastor, I have heard my fair share of excuses as to why people give sparingly to support the Lord’s work or not at all. For example, a former member of my ministry staff once boasted that she and her husband could not give money to the church because they were saving to buy a second home in Palm Beach, Florida. I am not making this up! Did I say she was a former member of my staff?
More than two thousand years ago, the Jews had convinced themselves that it was not the right time to rebuild the Lord’s house, but it was certainly time to build their own fancy houses in the hills. The Lord’s prophet called them out and told them to “consider your ways.” Their personal economy was failing precisely because the Lord was not first in their money decisions. Make no mistake about it; God cannot be first in your life if He is last in your budget.
May I meddle more? Have you bought a house, traveled on vacation, or purchased a car instead of giving to the Lord? There is nothing wrong with enjoying what money can buy. But which comes first in your finances, the Lord’s work or your personal wants? Proverbs 3:9 says, “Honor the Lord with your wealth, and with the firstfruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.” The opposite is true, too. Dishonor the Lord with your wealth, prioritize other things ahead of Him, and He will put a hole in your pocket! God will make sure that money slips through your hands as quickly as you make it.
Does the Lord mess with our personal economy if we have misplaced financial priorities? Do birds have wings? Do bees buzz? Through Haggai, the Lord said to ancient Israel,
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. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce.” 1:9-10
I am impressed when I read 1:12-15 and learn how the people responded to the Lord’s financial rebuke. To their credit, Zerubbabel, the governor, Joshua, the high priest, and all the remnant of the people swiftly obeyed God and resumed work on the temple.
A few months after the construction of the temple resumed, Haggai delivered his second sermon (2:1-9). According to Ezra 4-6, opposing forces continued to nag the Jews, making matters difficult. For sure, the memory of those who voiced their disappointment in Zerubbabel’s temple, believing Solomon’s was more glorious, did not help. Thus, the Lord spoke an encouraging word through His prophet, Haggai, “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” (2:4-5). The people might have had fewer resources to build, but God was with them and could multiply their efforts.
The Lord went on to declare how He will “shake the nations” in such a way that their treasures will come in and “fill this house with glory.” He goes on to say, “The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the Lord of hosts” (2:8). God never has a money problem. As someone once said, “All money is tainted. ‘Taint yours and it ‘taint mine! It belongs to the Lord, and He has more than enough.” Furthermore, the Lord said, “The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former” (2:9). In other words, the best days for Israel are in the future, not the past. The same is true for us. Are you believing in God for greater things in your life?
The writer of Hebrews had Haggai in mind when he said, “At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’ This phrase, ‘Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain” (Hebrews 12:26-27). Do you need God to shake things up in your life and ministry?
Haggai’s reference to the latter glory also winks at our bodies becoming the temple of the Holy Spirit after Pentecost (Acts 2; 1 Corinthians 6:19). In the Old Testament, God dwelled in a temple built by man’s hands. But in the New Testament, the Spirit of God resides in all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and nothing could be more glorious. Finally, the latter glory points to the glorious Jewish temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., being rebuilt at the end of the age.
Haggai’s third sermon challenges the people to pursue personal purity (2:10-19). He reaches into the law of Moses for a lesson in what defiles a person. “‘If someone who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?’ The priests answered and said, ‘It does become unclean.’ Then Haggai answered and said, ‘So is it with this people, and with this nation before me, declares the Lord, and so with every work of their hands. And what they offer there is unclean’” (2:13-14).
Since the former exiles had returned to Jerusalem sixteen years earlier, they had drifted back into immorality and idolatry, which contributed to their neglect of God’s house. Apparently, they had not learned their lesson after seventy years of Babylonian captivity. Thus, Haggai delivered a reminder from God’s law.
Though God was ready and willing to bless the Jews after they reprioritized their finances and completed the temple, He tells them the olive tree would not yield its fruit if they continued living unholy lives. In essence, Haggai tells them not to put their hands to the Lord’s work and expect His blessing if other areas of their life are unclean. This sermon might seem out of place in the larger context of Haggai. However, if your finances are not right with God, it might be an indication that other areas of your life are not aligned with Him.
The Chosen Signet of God
Haggai concludes with a sermon directed to Zerubbabel, the leader of the returned exiles (2:20-23). God would make Zerubbabel “like a signet ring.” In ancient times, a signet ring was the sign of a king’s authority. Zerubbabel was God’s chosen servant, the representative of the Davidic line, and a picture of the future Christ. God also refers to the day when He will shake the earth with His chosen signet, the Christ, whom Zerubbabel foreshadows.
When Jesus Christ returns to this earth, He will shake the nations. Then, He will rule and reign from David’s throne in Jerusalem with absolute authority over the earth for one thousand years. Until then, what is the bigger yes burning inside of you? Put God first in your finances, obey God speedily, believe God for greater things, and purify yourself. The time is now to do what God tells you to do.
[i] “Steven Covey: 10 Quotes that Can Change Your Life,” Forbes.com, accessed on October 26, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kevinkruse/2012/07/16/the-7-habits/?sh=79281f2539c6