The Bible is a realistic book. God knows that his people can often get their priorities wrong, can often concentrate on self, and can often forget about the things of God. Thus there are plenty of warnings found throughout the Bible to encourage us to get back on track when we wander.
Both Testaments speak to this theme, and we need to pay careful attention to such matters. In my daily reading today I came upon another vivid example of this. The very short book by the prophet Haggai (less than 40 verses) is all about getting our priorities right.
The opening verses cut to the quick, and remind the Israelites that it is time they put God first instead of themselves. Verses 2 to 4 put it this way:
This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.’” Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”
Yahweh through his servant Haggai is reminding his people to get their act together, and start concentrating on what is really important. The context of course is the Israelites have returned from captivity, and while they are all nicely looking after themselves, they have neglected the much more important work of God, primarily, the rebuilding of the temple.
They have spent a lot of time and effort on their own houses, while neglecting God’s house. The word “paneled” indicates this lack of godly prioritising. As Mark Boda comments, the Hebrew term is a bit ambiguous, but however we translate it, it makes a strong case against the selfish Israelites:
Haggai contrasts the houses in which the people are living with the house of God. Defining the precise nature of this contrast is difficult because the word translated “paneled” in the NIV can also be rendered “roofed.” If the word is “roofed,” the contrast is between completion and incompletion. If the word is “paneled,” the contrast is between luxury and austerity. Considering that Haggai describes them living in these houses while also referring to financial matters in the following message, the NIV is most appropriate. While the temple lies in ruins, the people are living in nicely decorated homes.
So they were looking after themselves while allowing the work of God to grind to a halt. They had lousy priorities and Yahweh was not very happy about that. Indeed, he goes on to remind them of a few home truths. He asks them why they seem to be spinning their wheels and getting nowhere fast. As we read in verses 5-6:
Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but 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.”
Because of their misplaced priorities, they were living a life of futility – big time. When I was a kid growing up in the US I recall a cigarette ad which said: “Are you smoking more now but enjoying it less? Change to Camels”. That is the situation we find here.
They eat and eat more, but are never filled. They drink and drink more, but are never satisfied. It seems all the effort they put into life is getting them very little in return. There seems to be a futility to life, and they wonder why this is so. Well, Haggai makes it clear why this is happening: their priorities are all wrong.
These prophetic words about futility because of being out of favour with God is common in the Old Testament, especially amongst the minor prophets. We find it elsewhere, as in Hosea 4:10; Amos 5:11-12; Micah 6:13-15; and Zephaniah 1:12-13. It is based on the covenant Yahweh made with Israel as we find in Deuteronomy 28. Disobedience will result in massive futility. Consider these strong warnings:
Deuteronomy 28:30-34 You will be pledged to be married to a woman, but another will take her and rape her. You will build a house, but you will not live in it. You will plant a vineyard, but you will not even begin to enjoy its fruit. Your ox will be slaughtered before your eyes, but you will eat none of it. Your donkey will be forcibly taken from you and will not be returned. Your sheep will be given to your enemies, and no one will rescue them. Your sons and daughters will be given to another nation, and you will wear out your eyes watching for them day after day, powerless to lift a hand. A people that you do not know will eat what your land and labor produce, and you will have nothing but cruel oppression all your days. The sights you see will drive you mad.
Deuteronomy 28:38-42 You will sow much seed in the field but you will harvest little, because locusts will devour it. You will plant vineyards and cultivate them but you will not drink the wine or gather the grapes, because worms will eat them. You will have olive trees throughout your country but you will not use the oil, because the olives will drop off. You will have sons and daughters but you will not keep them, because they will go into captivity. Swarms of locusts will take over all your trees and the crops of your land.
Wow, those are some hardcore words. The application for Christians today is of course not difficult to come by. We too can grossly neglect the work of God and the worship of God. We too can so easily make ourselves number one and ignore the things of God. We too can make an idol out of our life, our comfort, our things, our lifestyle, and treat God as if he does not exist.
Sure, we may give him a half-hearted hour each Sunday morning, but the rest of the week we live as if he was not there. We toil like mad, putting in 80-hour weeks to earn a lot of money to buy a lot of nice things, but seem to be getting nowhere fast, and always frustrated.
We labour and strive after things of this world, only to find they elude our grasp. We do all we can to make ourselves happy, only to find we are never happy, never satisfied, and never really content. That is because we have our priorities all wrong.
The Bible makes it perfectly clear how we can find real happiness and real contentment. And it does not come by putting ourselves first. It only comes by putting God first in every area, and letting him bring the joy, the peace, and the fulfilment. As Jesus said so plainly in Matthew 6:31-33:
So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Or as C. S. Lewis rightly said: “Aim at heaven, and you will get earth thrown in; aim at earth, and you will get neither.”
So let me ask this right now: what are our priorities? What do we put all our time and effort and attention into? Is it God and his work, or is it our self? Do we find ourselves spinning our wheels and feeling like all our toil is in vain? If so, maybe we need to do a major recheck of our priorities. And I would suggest the sooner the better.