The end began in 605 B.C., as the military might of Babylon challenged that of Egypt and Judah, the remnant of the people of God, was squeezed in the middle. Many of her nobility were carted off – prisoners of Nebuchadnezzar – hostages to peace. Babylon exerted her might again in 597 B.C., and finally in 586. In the end, Jerusalem lay in ruins, an empty, ghastly shell of her former self. Her wall lay on its side and her temple, the dream of David, was looted and burned. The once glorious Zion of God had been both witness and victim of some of the worst atrocities of human history.
God was responsible, but Judah was to blame. Even then, in the eyes of God, she’d received far less than her due.
But God’s grace abounded. In 539 B.C., Cyrus, King of the Persians gave permission for the exiles to return to Jerusalem to rebuild. It was in fulfillment of the specific promises of God through Isaiah (300 years before) and Jeremiah (nearly 100 years before). And if that were not evidence enough of His grace, Ezra tells us they returned as they had left Egypt – unexpectedly prosperous. Some fifty thousand returned in the first wave and within a year they set about rebuilding the house of God.
It was an exciting time.
But after a while, the new wore off. They encountered opposition from the people around them. The squatters didn’t like Judah returning to reclaim what they had appropriated for themselves. They’d rejoiced in the Jews’ misfortune, and they weren’t about to let them rebuild a nation they had so delightedly seen destroyed.
The people of God gave in and gave up. The temple foundation was as far as they got. After all, they had themselves to think about. When they had re-established themselves in the land, then they would see about rebuilding God’s house.
Nearly twenty years passed. Twenty years without the worship of God at the temple. Twenty years of trying to be the people of God without the proper worship of God. The important gave way to the tyranny of the urgent and success eluded them all. In 520 B.C., God sent two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, to demand He be given His proper place in their lives.
In Haggai, God tells the people that their ‘never being able to get ahead’ was their own fault. They had not put God first. “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but have harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it. . . You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?’ declares the LORD Almighty. ‘Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with his own house.’”
In a series of four speeches, all dated and providing an outline for Haggai, the prophet called Judah to repentance. The real surprise was that she really did repent. Construction was restarted and within four years, the temple was finished.
Haggai also makes it plain that building the temple was not Judah’s only problem. The lifestyle of her people fell far below any threshold for holiness. Continuing in that path would result in more frustration as God refused to allow them to succeed materially.
God’s temple today is not a building of stone and mortar, but a building of living stones – the Church. When we get to wondering why we work so hard and never seem to be able to ‘pull ahead,’ it’s worth asking whether our lives are demonstrating that God is our first priority. The answer won’t always be “no.” But if it is, repentance is on order. Our task is to ‘build up the Church,’ by being involved in the community of faith to strengthen one another, and draw outsiders in. Failing to give God the priority He deserves by giving attention to His Church follows in the footsteps of the returning exiles. Success will be elusive. God will be responsible, but the fault will be our own.