One of the most important dates in the history of the people of God: October 17, 520 BC.
To understand why this date is so important we will look at some passages from the book of Haggai , but first we need to look at another book that takes place at the same time, namely the book of Ezra. The early parts of the book of Ezra take place at the same time as the book of Haggai.
In order to understand that date in 520 BC, we need to look briefly at the history of the people of God in the Old Testament. Many of us are familiar that after the reign of Solomon, the kingdom of Israel was divided into two parts, the northern kingdom which we call Israel, and the southern kingdom which we call Judah. That happened in the 900’s BC.
The northern kingdom went very bad, very quickly and never had any king about whom the Bible says, “he did right in the eyes of the LORD.” And as discipline, the northern kingdom was taken captive by the Assyrians, the most feared warriors of the ancient world in the year 722 BC.
But we want to talk about the southern kingdom, about Judah and the people in and around Jerusalem. When the northern kingdom was taken captive, what is going on in the mind of the people of Judah?
“It can’t happen to us. Sure God let Israel be taken captive, but we have Jerusalem, it is not going to happen to us.”
In fact in the year 701 BC, there was a miraculous deliverance of Jerusalem from the Assyrian army and the people all the more said, “see, Jerusalem can never be taken.” But happens when you say, “it can’t happen to us”? You get complacent, you get proud in yourself, you get careless, until it does happen to you, which it did to Judah.
In the year 586 BC, the Babylonians, who were even worse than the Assyrians, took Judah captive and in the process destroyed the city of Jerusalem and leveled the glorious temple that Solomon had built.
Fast forward just a little bit, in 539 BC, the Persians conquered the Babylonians and in 538 the Persians allowed the Jews to go back to Jerusalem. In 536, fifty years after the temple was destroyed, the people begin to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. This is part of the direct background to the book of Haggai.
Let us now look at the book of Ezra chapter 3, verse 8-9,
Now in the second year of their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem in the second month, Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak and the rest of their brothers the priests and the Levites, and all who came from the captivity to Jerusalem, began the work and appointed the Levites from twenty years and older to oversee the work of the house of the LORD. Then Jeshua with his sons and brothers stood united with Kadmiel and his sons, the sons of Judah and the sons of Henadad with their sons and brothers the Levites, to oversee the workmen in the temple of God.
The people are beginning to work on the temple again. Ezra 3:10-11,
Now when the builders had laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD according to the directions of King David of Israel. They sang, praising and giving thanks to the LORD, saying, “For He is good, for His lovingkindness is upon Israel forever.” And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the LORD because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid.
This is a dramatic, spectacular moment of worship as the people who have been restored to the land begin to rebuild the temple. But look what happens next. Ezra 3:12-13,
Yet many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ households, the old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, while many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the shout of joy from the sound of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard far away.
The temple was destroyed in 586 BC, here we are in the year 536, they are laying the foundations again fifty years later. But the people there who are in their 60’s, or 70’s or 80’s, remember the glory of Solomon’s temple. They remember what that temple looked like and they don’t shout with joy, they weep. Because even though all they have done so far is lay the foundation, they can already tell, this temple is not going to measure up, it is not going to be as great, it is not going to be as glorious.
They become so discouraged that chapter four of Ezra tells us they quit, they gave up. They say, “we can’t build a temple that is not going to look like the one we remember.” And for sixteen long years, the foundation lays idle. The people went on with their lives, they built their own houses, they reestablished Jerusalem as a thriving city but the great elephant in the room was, “God told us to build the temple and we can’t bring ourselves to do it.”
Until the year 520 BC, when the LORD sent the prophet Haggai to speak to the people of Judah. Let us turn our attention now to the book of Haggai. Haggai speaks his first message on August 29, 520 BC. Sixteen years have gone by since the people began rebuilding the temple and at the end of August in the year 520, the LORD speaks through Haggai. Haggai 1:7-11,
Thus says the LORD of hosts, “Consider your ways! Go up to the mountains, bring wood and rebuild the temple, that I may be pleased with it and be glorified,” says the LORD. ” You look for much, but behold, it comes to little; when you bring it home, I blow it away. Why?” declares the LORD of hosts, “Because of My house which lies desolate, while each of you runs to his own house. Therefore, because of you the sky has withheld its dew and the earth has withheld its produce. I called for a drought on the land, on the mountains, on the grain, on the new wine, on the oil, on what the ground produces, on men, on cattle, and on all the labor of your hands.
“You have built your houses, and you have paid no attention to my house,” says the LORD. Look now at verses 13-14,
Then Haggai, the messenger of the LORD, spoke by the commission of the LORD, to the people saying, ” ‘I am with you,’ declares the LORD.” So 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.
The LORD speaks tbrough Haggai to the people and then they begin once again, after sixteen years, to rebuild the temple. But as the people begin to build in the end of August and in September and in the beginning of October, once again they become discouraged. So Haggai speaks again on the date that I want us to focus on: October 17, 520 BC.
On the twenty-first of the seventh month, the word of the LORD came by Haggai the prophet saying, “Speak now to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people saying, ‘Who is left among you who saw this temple in its former glory? And how do you see it now? Does it not seem to you like nothing in comparison?
Keep in mind we are sixteen years later then we were before, it is now the 80 and the 90 year olds who can still remember what the former temple looked like, not very many people. But the stories of the glory of that temple must have been floating around and Haggai says, “does not this temple that you are building look to you as nothing in comparison?”
Now let us pay very careful attention to what Haggai does and does not say next. What he does not say next is what we typically say, “it’s not so bad, you’re doing okay, it will be alright, cheer up, you’re doing fine.” That is what we typically say isn’t it? That is not what God says through the prophet.
Because they are not doing fine, and it is not okay The temple that they are building is little and it is ugly, at least in comparison to the glory of the previous temple. And it is not going to get any better as they go along.
One of the hardest things about the Christian life is recognizing– there are times, in fact there may be many times, when the best we can do is still not good enough. And for people to tell us, “you are doing okay,” makes it worse rather than better, when we know we are not doing okay.
What the LORD does not say to the people is, “let me pat you on the back, you are doing fine.” They are not. They are building a temple that is going to be an eyesore in comparison to the one that was there before.
Now look at what the prophet Haggai does say to the people. Haggai 2:4-5,
But now take courage, Zerubbabel,’ declares the LORD, ‘take courage also, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and all you people of the land take courage,’ declares the LORD, ‘and work; for I am with you,’ declares the LORD of hosts. ‘As for the promise which I made you when you came out of Egypt, My Spirit is abiding in your midst; do not fear!’
What the LORD said to his people then and what he says to his people now is, “I am with you, my Spirit remains with you. Do not be afraid, take courage, and work. My people, because I am with you, you need not fear, you need not be discouraged, you need not compare what you are doing to the temple that used to be there, you need simply to work faithfuly in the task that I have given you.”
Why is October 17, 520 BC such an important date in the history of the people of God? Because it is the date when God reminds his people again, “you do not need to compare what you are doing to that previous time, what you need to do is to be faithful, to work, to remember, I am with you.”
But there is more to it than that, isn’t there. There is more to it than just inspiring people to build a temple. Because the great story of the book of Haggai is not this little, ugly temple that the people are building. The great story of the book of Haggai is not even the work that the people are doing, even though that is important and the LORD is calling them to do that work. The great story of the book of Haggai is what God is going to do with the work that he calls his people to do.
However seemingly inadequete our work may be, you never know what God is going to do with it. Let us keep reading. Haggai 2:6-9,
For thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Once more in a little while, I am going to shake the heavens and the earth, the sea also and the dry land. I will shake all the nations; and they will come with the wealth of all nations, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the LORD of hosts. ‘The silver is Mine and the gold is Mine,’ declares the LORD of hosts. ‘The latter glory of this house will be greater than the former,’ says the LORD of hosts, ‘and in this place I will give peace,’ declares the LORD of hosts.
If you were the people of God in the time of Haggai hearing that paragraph, you would probably be thinking something along the lines of, “that’s impossible. How could the glory of this little, ugly temple, possibly be greater than the glory of Solomon’s temple that was destroyed. That’s impossible.”
Glory, in the Bible, doesn’t just refer to magnificence, or greatness, or grandeur, although that is part of what it means. Glory in the Bible refers to presence. It refers to the fact that the God who is great and majestic and magnificent and grand is with us.
The glory of Solomon’s temple was symbolized by the cloud that filled the temple, representing the presence of God. That cloud never returned to this rebuilt temple. How therefore, could the glory of the latter temple be greater than the glory of the former temple?
This temple that the people of God were building in the year 520 BC, five hundred years later in 20 BC, this same temple would begin to be greatly enlarged and expanded by a Roman ruler who thought by doing so would make the Jews happy and less restive and destructive.
His name was Herod. This temple went from being little and ugly to being bigger and grander than the temple of Solomon. But that is not the point, that is not why Haggai says that this temple will be more glorious. It is because this temple will be the place where God’s presence with his people is shown in the most dramatic way possible.
Not just a cloud, all that does is symbolize the presence of God. But this temple will be the temple into which the very Son of God himself will enter, first as an infant when he is dedicated, then as a twelve year old boy, and then repeatedly during his public ministry.
The presence of God through the Son of God, the Word made flesh, glorifies this temple more than Solomon’s temple was ever glorified. And at the end of this passage, the LORD says through Haggai, “this is the place where I will make peace.” What is he talking about here?
This temple, not Solomon’s, will be the one where the veil is torn in two from top to bottom. The veil separates the inner section, the Holy of Holies, from the rest of the temple. The veil separating the inner section is what symbolizes the fact that people do not yet have direct access to God.
But at the moment when Jesus Christ the Son of God is hanging on the cross, to make peace, between God and all the people of God throughout history, this temple that the Jews are building is the one in which the veil is going to be torn. This is the place that God says, “I will make peace.”
This is the place where my presence will really be, not just symbolically, but really. What God was going to do through his Son far surpassed what God ever did with the magnificence of Solomon’s temple.