A trainer at a time-management seminar shared an illustration with the participants. He reached under the table and took out a wide-mouthed gallon jar and set it on the table. Next to the jar were a number of fist-sized rocks. He asked the group, “How many of these rocks do you think we can get inside this jar?” The participants made their guesses. The instructor said, “Let’s find out.” He put a few of fist-sized rocks into the jar which took up much of the space but were level with the top of the jar.
The instructor then asked, “Is the jar full?” All the participants looked at the jar filled with rocks and said it was.
But then he reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar. The gravel filled the spaces between the big rocks. He asked again, “Is the jar full?”
The participants were not about to be fooled a second time. They said that the jar was probably not full.
The instructor nodded and said, “Good. You are catching on.” He next took out a bucket of sand and poured it into the jar. Slowly the sand filled the gaps between the rocks and gravel. After the sand settled, the instructor once again asked, “Now, is the jar full?”
The audience shouted, “No!”
He said, “Good.” He was pleased that they understood an important principle. The instructor poured a pitcher of water into the jar. At this point he stopped and asked the group, “What’s the point of this?”
Somebody said, “You can always fit more into your life.”
But the instructor said, “No, the point is this: If I hadn’t put in those big rocks first, I would never have gotten them in at all.”
What should be your big rocks? For God’s people, our first priority is to be Him.
As Eerdmans’ Handbook to the Bible points out, “Haggai’s little book is one of the gems of the Old Testament. It has permanent relevance because its concern is not with rebuilding the temple, but with priorities.”
The Book of Haggai, the second shortest in the Old Testament, communicates this message of priorities. It was written to people like us, who would say that God must be first. But they had drifted away from this truth. They lived with misplaced priorities. Haggai was sent to help God’s people get their priorities in line with what they knew they should be.
Haggai spoke his message to Jews who had returned to Jerusalem after living in captivity in Babylon. Babylon had destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple some 70 years earlier. When the Jews returned from exile they faced the daunting task of rebuilding. The first returnees made preliminary attempts to clear the debris and lay the foundation for a second temple. This prophecy should be read in connection with the historical books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
As years passed, slowly but surely, Jerusalem came to life again. Homes were built, stores opened, commerce established, fields planted, crops harvested, and life began to resemble normalcy. Israel, however, got used to life without the Temple. The foundations were overgrown with weeds. They stood as a mute reminder of the Jews’ failure to take care of God’s house. Fourteen to 16 years passed, and then Haggai appeared on the scene with one prevailing message: It’s time to finish rebuilding the Temple.
It was a message of priority: Put first things first. The Temple was the center for worshiping God. It represented the heart and soul of the Old Testament religion. Although God is everywhere, the Temple was the place on earth where God dwelled in a special sense. For the Temple to lie in ruins was to neglect the worship of God. It was a testimony of misplaced priorities. It was an embarrassment to God and a blemish on his reputation.
Haggai’s message was blunt. He pulled no punches and wasted no words. Haggai spoke like a foreman on a construction project. With a hardhat and tool belt, walking around the construction site, he bellowed out orders. Found here are a few practical steps about putting first things first.
First, Haggai confronted the people’s reasoning for the Temple lying in ruins. “This is what the LORD Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come for the LORD’s house to be built.’ Haggai 1:2. They intended to build God’s house, but just hadn’t got around to it yet. If you were to ask them about it, they would probably say, “I’m all for building the Temple. It is a great cause. But God wants us to take care of our own families first. Times are hard. Jobs are scarce. We need to pray about it some more. We will eventually build it, but not now.” They made excuses.
It is always easy to make excuses when we don’t want to obey God. We can always find rational justification for not doing what God wants us to do: The time is not right. I’ve got family responsibilities. My kids need me now. When things settle down at work, then I can do something. The first step to putting first things first is to admit our responsibility.
Closely aligned with excuse making is a selfish mindset that permeates everything. Haggai challenged the people’s selfish behavior. 3 Then the word of the LORD came through the prophet Haggai: 4 “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” Haggai 1:3-4. Paneled houses was also translated “luxurious houses” or refers to being finished out with cedar planks giving their house a beautiful and aromatic finish! Their homes were not “in process.” No weeds were growing around their unfinished foundations. Their homes were complete while the Temple remained nonexistent.
Please understand: Nothing is wrong with having a nice home. This statement is not an attack on riches or big houses. What’s wrong is to own a nice home while God’s house lies in ruins. What’s wrong is spend all your money on selfish needs while ignoring the things of God. What’s wrong is to spend one’s time, one’s best hours, and one’s talents on selfish pursuits while the things of God are left undone. It is an indictment of misplaced priorities.
It is easy to drift away from God’s agenda to our own. It is easy to pursue selfish desires while ignoring God’s. In fact, it is the default mode of our lives. If we give no thought to how we are living, we will naturally live for ourselves. The bent of our hearts and is always toward selfishness. This is what happened to the Jews Haggai addressed.
Our Priorities Affect God’s Blessings
As a consequence of their excuse-making and selfish living, the people in Haggai’s day experienced hardship.
He continues: Now this is what the LORD Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. 6 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.” 7 Haggai 1:5-7
They sowed plenty of seed, but there was a drought and the crops didn’t yield as much as they had hoped. They had active lifestyles but were not experiencing satisfaction. They were laboring but showing no profit. No matter how hard they tried, they seemed to be spinning their wheels. No matter how much money they made, they could not keep it. We know how that feels don’t we?
Because of their selfishness the people missed God’s blessings. Haggai points out a sobering reminder: What happens in your heart affects every other part of your life. Because the people had pushed God out of the center, they suffered in every area.
What they did not see was that God caused their predicament. They hadn’t stopped to consider that God was trying to tell them something. Haggai reminded them: “Guys! It’s God who controls the rain and the harvest. He is withholding his blessing because our priorities are not right. Put his house first and he will bless you.” Jesus said the same thing: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you” Matthew 6:33
Blessings come through obedience. If we want to experience God’s blessings we will put him first.
With this strong indictment and devastating predicament, the people realized they had caused their own calamities. The people were ready to evaluate their situation. Twice Haggai instructed the people, “Give careful thought to your ways. “(1:5, 7.) It was time for the people to do some serious self-examination before the Lord. Haggai wanted the people to stop long enough in their busy schedules to evaluate their life in light of God’s Word. He wanted them to measure the consequences of their actions.
Each day we need to evaluate how we spend our time and our money, and how we use our talents. We should examine who we choose as friends, what we set as goals, and where we are going. If God is not first, guess who removed him from his rightful place?
When we stop making excuses, cease being selfish, seek God’s blessings, and take time to evaluate, we can see God work in powerful ways. This is what happens when God is first in our hearts. How will we know that we have put first things first? How will we know that God is first place? Here are three indications.
“Go up into the hills, bring down lumber, and build the house. Then I will be pleased with it and be glorified, says the LORD” Haggai 1:8. In all of life there is a time to talk and a time to act, a time to consider and a time to do. Those who put God first are up and doing the right things: spending time with God daily, serving people, honoring him with their time, talents, and financial resources. For the Jews living in Jerusalem, it meant cutting down trees to build God’s house.
Great things Happen in God’s House
Why should the Temple be built? Why should we honor God by making the place we meet to worship as a church today clean and orderly? That God may be glorified. When God is not first we are indifferent to his glory—his fame and his reputation being spread. But when God is first revealing his glory is first on our minds. In fact, everything we think, say, and do is to honor God and bring credit to him. Whatever your occupation, the chief business of every Christian is to bring glory to God.
When the people obeyed, God sent word: Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the LORD, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the LORD Almighty. Haggai 2:4.
If God seems distant in our lives, perhaps our priorities have gotten mixed up. When we put God first, we experience a new awareness of his presence. That is true blessing!
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Sources: All verses are from The New International Version
Ray Stedman, Adventuring Through the Bible
Lifeway Christian Resources, Religious Goods, Nashville, TN