CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Getting Our Priorities Right

Nov 24, 2008

When believers put God first, he is quite able to take care of the rest. As C.S. Lewis once said, “Aim at heaven, and you will get earth thrown in; aim at earth, and you will get neither.” This of course is basic Christian thinking. As Jesus reminded us in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these other things will be added unto you”. It is all about priorities, in other words.

But when we do not put God first, bad things start to happen. Thus the current financial crisis may well be part of a bigger shake-up that is going on – a shake-up instigated by God himself. Given how prone we believers are to settle for second – or third, or fourth – best, God constantly needs to get our attention. And shaking the money markets is certainly one way of doing that.

The book of Haggai offers a very good picture of all this. When we put our own priorities ahead of God’s, we are asking for – and get – trouble. This short book (a mere 38 verses total) tells us of how important priorities are – or should be – for God’s people. In the two chapters we read about how the recently returned Hebrew exiles were quick to rebuild their own houses in Jerusalem, but were very slow to rebuild God’s house.

More specifically, after 70 years in Babylonian exile, the Jews who returned home did start the project of rebuilding the temple with some relish (as we read in Ezra 1-3). But after the foundations were laid, they gave up altogether. That is why, 16 years later, Haggai the prophet – along with Zechariah – was raised up by God to prod the Jewish people back into completing the project. In the meantime they had made their own houses, and very nicely, complete with panelled walls (1:4), and so on.

This need for a prophetic shake up was not based on some magical view of the temple, as if its presence automatically guaranteed God’s presence. Jeremiah had warned just the opposite in Jeremiah 7:1-8. Back then the Israelites thought that having the temple of God meant he would never judge his people, but Jeremiah said that they must change their ways and their actions, or judgment would indeed come. And it did – thus the exile.

But by allowing the temple to lie in ruins, the returned Hebrews were showing that they cared little about God’s presence, and cared more about their own material wellbeing. And the proof was in the pudding, said Haggai. They were busy doing all sorts of work, but getting very little results (1:6). As Walter Kaiser says, “Put in modern parlance, Haggai’s questions from the Lord ask: Are you sowing more and harvesting less? Are you eating and drinking more and enjoying it less? Are you wearing more and feeling less warmth? Are you earning more and able to buy less? No one cheats God without cheating himself.”

When we put self ahead of God, there will be noticeable consequences. And God was certainly getting his people’s attention by making their productivity slow down. Of course Deuteronomy 28 had already warned God’s people about such things.

All this lack of proper priorities stands in stark contrast with the building of the first temple (built by King Solomon in 967). After David had been made king and had enjoyed rest from all his enemies, he himself had a nice house to live in, as we read in 2 Samuel 7. But he was greatly concerned that God did not have a house for himself. The ark of God remained in a tent while David was in a nice cedar house.

So he tells Nathan the prophet that he wants to build a house for God. Unlike the Hebrews some 450 years later, David had the right priorities. His heart was not on himself and self-aggrandisement, but on the Lord and his glory. But God spoke to David through Nathan and made a counter-offer – a mind boggling, amazing reversal of David’s intentions.

God told David that instead of David building him a house (he would let his son Solomon do that), God was going to build a house for David. That is, he was going to build an everlasting dynasty in and through David. Through David’s posterity, a true king would arise who comes as the real temple of God – Jesus Christ.

As God says through Nathan in this incredible word, “The LORD declares to you that the LORD himself will establish a house for you: When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. . . . Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever. (7:11-16).

This is certainly mind-boggling stuff. David humbly wants to build a house for God, and God turns around and says, “Hey, I will build a house for you and all future generations. And through your house (posterity) the King of the universe will come.” Because David had his priorities right, God did above and beyond all that he thought or imagined (as Paul says we experience in Christ – Ephesians 3:20).

The differences between David and the Hebrews just back from exile could not be more marked. David wanted to glorify and honour God. But they just wanted to live the good life, and did not care at all about the things of God. They were quite happy to put themselves ahead of anything and anyone else.

Of course it goes without saying that the Christian church today is not all that different. Regrettably, most believers today are far more like the Hebrews fresh back from exile than King David. We are so very much into our material possessions, our lifestyles, our leisure and our wants. It is all about me, me, me.

But as Kaiser comments, “God calls us to make a radical break with all of that type of thinking and planning and to place His ways, His cause, His goals in first place, ahead of every other earthly desire. Doing anything less is simply a modern form of ancient idolatry. We may as well name our earthly distractions Baal, Anat, Asherah or any other of the gods or goddesses of Canaan. For our idols are no better than those of ancient Israel.”

Indeed, Rick Warren reminds us in the opening line of his best-seller, The Purpose-Driven Life, that it is not about us. It is about God, and God alone. And until he becomes our number one priority, that sinking feeling of working more and earning less will only continue.

And getting our priorities right really does make good sense. As martyred missionary Jim Elliot once said before his early death, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep, to gain that which he cannot lose.”

I encourage all believers to go back and read that short book of Haggai. It has some powerful words that we need to hear again. Unfortunately, as Kaiser quips, usually the only time we turn to that book is when the church is engaged in a building project and fundraiser. But the timeless truths contained in it need to be heeded by each new generation of believers. Otherwise we will simply continue to repeat the mistakes of Israel of old.

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3 Responses to Getting Our Priorities Right

  • Good content Bill, I agree …. when we put back Jesus Christ as our focus ….. to be like Him in humility and purpose in pleasing the Father, then we also experience His power. Jesus said, “without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5) and again “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matt 11:29, 30) The reason many Christians are doing it tough is because they have not learned this principle. Blessings … keep up the good work.

    David Owen

  • Leviticus is rarely mentioned these days, except by the obamination, Obama, who would ridicule it. Sadly we Christians would tacitly do the same. Refering the return of Jews, Nehemiah chapter 8 describes, Ezra reading the law and how the people responded positively to a call for repentence and holiness.

    David Skinner, UK

  • I am trying to read Leviticus at the moment; it is a book that, apart from Numbers, would be one that I would normally hasten through or even past. Indeed when was the last time anyone heard a service with this book being taught?

    I am only just beginning to feel like King Josiah when the law of Moses was found and was read to him by Hilkiah, the priest.

    In 2 Kings 22 it says: “Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the LORD.” He gave it to Shaphan, who read it. Then Shaphan the secretary went to the king and reported to him: “Your officials have paid out the money that was in the temple of the LORD and have entrusted it to the workers and supervisors at the temple.” Then Shaphan the secretary informed the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read from it in the presence of the king. When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes. He gave these orders to Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Acbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary and Asaiah the king’s attendant: “Go and inquire of the LORD for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the LORD’s anger that burns against us because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us.”

    It is only by looking into Leviticus and the moral law that we start to become dimly aware of our sinfulness and the need for a saviour. If this is neurosis on my part well then let me have more, because “balanced” Christianity is leading to a hell on earth.

    David Skinner, UK

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