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Building for God in Difficult Days (1)

I Lewis, Aberdeen


There are few more thrilling stories in the Bible than the return of nearly 50,000 of God’s people from Babylonian exile (Ezra 2.64-65). Compared to the much greater number that went into Babylon, only a remnant responded to the opportunity to return to the land of promise and build for God. Their names are recorded in Ezra 2 (the kind of passage you may be tempted to skip over in daily Bible reading) as a divine stamp of approval on people who moved for Him when so many of the nation were marked by lethargy and indifference. They were clearly stirred by devotion to the Lord and enthusiasm for His work. They were a new generation that wanted to move on from the failures of the past and build for God again, and they started well. The altar was set upon its base, the Temple foundation was laid and building proceeded apace. Then, when all seemed so positive, the work ceased (Ezra 4.5,24). Opposition from the surrounding nations was the catalyst for the work stopping, but we know from the divine record that during the 15 years (535-520 BC) when tools were down and progress was limited the people lost their passion for the Lord, His work and His House.

How would God restore His people to build for Him again? He did not make the task easier or remove the opposition. Instead, He sent His word by the mouth of Haggai and Zechariah (Ezra 5.1). In 6 messages, 8 visions, 4 answers and 2 burdens these prophets brought a message that changed the behaviour of a nation and was directly responsible for the completion of the work of God’s House (Ezra 6.14). The people remained weak numerically and opposed, but God worked through His people for His glory.

We have a Biblically based expectation that the church age will be marked by "difficult times" (2 Tim 3.1, JND). In the sovereign purposes of God we are placed in this generation, with its own peculiar circumstances and opposition. However, numerical weakness and past failure cannot be used as an excuse for a lack of zeal for God and His work. The local assembly is characteristically God’s house (1 Tim 3.15), and a lack of devotion to God is still revealed in the neglect of what belongs to Him.

We want to learn outline lessons of how God deals with a discouraged and disobedient people who once were so devoted. Through His word He 1) challenges the conscience, 2) warms the heart, and 3) informs the mind. The underlying truths of Haggai and Zechariah still speak loudly to the people of God as we seek to build for Him in difficult days.

God Challenges Their Conscience

1) Haggai 1.1-12: A Call to Reconsider

It would have been good diplomacy and sound worldly psychology for God to have left the conscience challenging ministry until hearts had been warmed and minds informed. However, the Lord does not work that way, and from the opening words of Haggai the conscience is confronted. The challenge of 1.5 and 1.7 is, "Consider your ways":

"Thus speaketh the Lord of hosts, saying, This people say, The time is not come, the time that the Lord’s house should be built. Then came the word of the Lord by Haggai the prophet, saying, Is it time for you, O ye, to dwell in your ceiled houses, and this house lie waste? Now therefore thus saith the Lord of hosts; Consider your ways" (Hag 1.2-5).

Man is always good at explaining away failures, so God deals directly with their excuses for inactivity. They are addressed as, "This people" (1.2), almost as if their actions were a living denial of their relationship with the Lord. In effect they said, "It is not the right time to build the Lord’s house" (1.2), and similar excuses abound today. We have talked ourselves into substandard Christianity and blame circumstances and fellow saints for our own lethargy. What began as a temporary cessation of work due to opposition had become a lifestyle of bad habits. If the Lord and His assembly are not at the centre of our lives then no excuse can be entertained and it is time we felt again our responsibilities.

Without pausing, God then deals with their energies because those that do not work for God invariably pour their lives into other things. Their panelled houses (1.4) were evidence of energy diverted from God to self and stand as a salutary lesson to us all. A cursory glance at many lives today would likewise indicate that priority is placed on the physical (houses, cars and clothes) and the temporal (careers and worldly status). As a result God’s assembly is left to "lie waste". Even activities that are right in themselves, such as raising a family for God, can become a self promoting idol if priorities are not maintained with God first in everything.

God next turns to their exasperation (1.7,9-11). Their failure in service and devotion was resulting in personal dissatisfaction and frustration because in Old Testament Israel material blessing was linked to spiritual faithfulness (Deut 28). Whilst the same simple correlation does not exist in our relationship with God today, the principle remains. The link between godliness (God pleasing, God centred, God focused living) and contentment (satisfaction with what we have) is so close that the latter is the natural accompaniment of the former (1 Tim 6.6). Conversely, a life lacking in godliness will always be lacking in contentment.

The challenge of the Lord then turns into a charge as He calls on the people to "Go…and build" (1.8). He calls for exertion in the work as it will require going up to the mountain for raw materials, but He lays before them an expectation to encourage their activity. Despite past failure, they still could bring pleasure and glory to the Lord (1.8). The start of it all would be the reconsideration of their life in the light of their responsibilities. The challenge remains today: "Consider your ways".

2) Zechariah 1.1-6: A Call to Return

Two months after the initial message from Haggai, the opening words of Zechariah strike a similar conscience-challenging note. The emphasis now is not on the need to be involved in spiritual activity but to be in a spiritual condition. They are reminded in 1.2 that their forefathers’ failure to turn to the Lord had incurred His displeasure and this leads to a call for the people to repent (1.3, JND). The people were in the right place physically but had to ensure they were in the right condition spiritually.

It was not enough for the people just to put bricks upon bricks in the Temple. Activity had to be accompanied by living in the good of a relationship with God. The fathers had failed in this, offering many sacrifices, carrying out many activities, and saying many good words but with a heart that was far away (Is 29.13). Likewise today it is sadly possible to be in the right place ecclesiastically (the New Testament local assembly) and yet be in the wrong state of heart before God.

3) Zechariah 7.5: A Call to Reflect

In the middle of the book of Zechariah there is a section which contrasts with the prophetic nature of the rest of the book. Chapters 7 and 8 present a historic narrative relating to a question raised by the remnant. Religious fasting days, above and beyond those laid down in God’s word, had grown up into part of the national calendar. The question is asked whether such fasting should now be stopped (7.3). Since the people were now back in the land, need they continue fasts which had been introduced to commemorate events surrounding their original exile by the Babylonians?

From 7.4 to the end of ch.8 the Lord answers the question in four distinct sections. The first answer (7.4-7), however, is a clear challenge to the conscience of the people and a call to reflect on the driving forces in their religious life:

"Speak unto all the people of the land, and to the priests, saying, When ye fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh month, even those seventy years, did ye at all fast unto me, even to me? And when ye did eat, and when ye did drink, did not ye eat for yourselves, and drink for yourselves? Should ye not hear the words which the Lord hath cried by the former prophets, when Jerusalem was inhabited and in prosperity, and the cities thereof round about her, when men inhabited the south and the plain?" (Zech 7.5-7).

The four fasts referred to in chs.7 and 8 commemorated the siege of Jerusalem, the break up of the city, the burning of the Temple and the assassination of Gedaliah (2 Kings 25.1-26). Instead of answering their query directly, the Lord asks them searching questions. Was their activity ever really for Him: "did ye at all fast unto me, even to me?" (7.5). They are called to reflect on what was motivating their actions. The whole ceremonial fasting business was self-indulgent pity when they should rather have been exercised about the failure to obey the Lord that resulted in His judgment. They should have mourned because they had refused to "hear the words which the Lord hath cried" (7.7).

As we build into the local assembly by attending and participating in gatherings, helping the saints, ministering to needs and witnessing to others, we must always reflect on this question: "Is our service primarily for the Lord?".

To be continued.


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