Why Do You Focus on the Past?
This series explores questions that God asks people in the Bible. One reason God asks questions is to help people recognize the reason(s) for their discouragement. That’s what God’s questions surface in Hag. 2.
The date is around 520 BC. God has freed exiled Israelites to return to Jerusalem, and he has called on them to rebuild his temple. They laid the foundation—but then quit because of opposition and became distracted by other priorities (like home remodeling). So God sent Haggai to call them back to their mission—and they have started to build.
But God sees that many of them have a mental focus that will discourage them—so through Haggai he asks them three questions to expose this (read 2:1-3).
Don’t focus nostalgically on the past
Notice the three-fold question: “Who... among you saw this temple in its former glory? How do you see it now? Does it not seem to you like nothing in comparison?” God is trying to get them to see that their spiritual discouragement is because of their misuse of their memory. Namely, they are focusing nostalgically on the past.
Specifically, they are comparing what God is doing in the present to something that God did in the past. The Temple of Solomon was one of the ancient wonders of the world (SIZE; PRECIOUS METALS & GEMS; ARTWORK). But all of the temple furnishings had been plundered by the Babylonians, and they had far less money for building materials. The more they thought about the disparity between these two temples, the more discouraged they became. This started years earlier when they laid the foundation (Ezra3:12)—and it was breaking out again as they began to build on the foundation: “What’s the point? Why put all the time and money and effort into something that won’t even be close to what we had before?”
What is the difference is between right and wrong remembering?
The Bible calls on us to remember many thing: remembering our conversion (Eph.2:11,12) cultivates gratitude; remembering role-models (Heb. 13:7) develops wisdom; remembering God’s faithful provision and protection builds trust in him (Mk.8:18-21); remembering earlier spiritual vitality (Rev.2:5) can motivate repentance. BUT NOTE: The value of this kind of remembering is that it fortifies us to trust and obey God in the present.
But a nostalgic focus on the past is not only personally harmful—it is also idolatrous.
In general, the older people get the more vulnerable to nostalgia they become. This is not only because they have more memories, but also because they are often facing more difficulties. Those who have declining health or physical vigor may become nostalgic about youthful health and vigor. Those who are struggling in marriage may become nostalgic about single romantic encounters. Those who are struggling with the constraints of career and parenting may become nostalgic about freedom of time and schedule in a previous stage of life. Older Christians who are undergoing “spiritual surgery” may become nostalgic about earlier times of spiritual “sunshine.” Those who are struggling with a difficult ministry may become nostalgic about earlier periods of dramatic church growth, etc. What is this nostalgia really saying? “It wasn’t you that was so good back then—it was the things you gave me.” This is idolatry—seeking identity, security and acceptance from God’s good gifts instead from God alone.
Younger people rightfully criticize older people for their nostalgia. But do you realize that immersion in to entertainment (EXAMPLES) is very similar to this unhealthy, nostalgic focus on the past? When you immerse yourself in movies, reality TV shows, whole TV series, etc., this amounts to escapism and vicarious living. When this becomes the object of your affections and takes up huge blocks of time, it is saying: “It isn’t knowing and following you that makes life full and meaningful. There is another person and place and time and situation that are far more real and important and fulfilling than my present life.” This also is idolatry.
Furthermore, nostalgia is always selective and distorted. These folks would have been small kids when they saw Solomon’s temple—and everything looks bigger and more impressive when you’re little. Plus, they (like the Israelites during the Exodus) filtered out the negative aspects of this period of time (e.g., CONQUEST BECAUSE OF APOSTASY; SLAVERY UNDER PHARAOH). How easily we fall into this trap (e.g., RELATIONAL “GREENER GRASS”)!
But regardless, the former temple was in the past—frozen in time, and unalterable. What God is doing today is the most important thing because it is the only thing (including the future) you can trust and obey God in. That’s why, after exposing their nostalgia in 2:3, God urges them to focus on the present...
Focus on trusting & obeying God in the present
Read 2:4,5. Notice the three-fold exhortation to “Take courage” and the reminder “Do not fear.” Their wrongful focus on the past had created discouragement and fear. The more they thought about how great Solomon’s Temple was, the smaller God got and the larger their current obstacles, opposition, and limitations grew. That’s how it works.
So God encourages them by reminding them of his reality in the present: “I am with you” (2:4) and “My Spirit is abiding in your midst” (2:5). This is the only thing that matters! If God is with me, then I have all of the provision and protection that I need! God plus one is a majority! And whatever he wants me to do today is super-significant!
This is why the Psalmist says (read Ps.118:24). Today is the day that the Lord has made. Today God gives me unique opportunities to experience his love, to learn truth from him, and to advance his kingdom. I will never have this day again. Therefore, we should follow Eph.5:15-17 (read).
So what? So they should “work” (2:4)—take action and concentrate on what they know God wants them to do—rebuild the temple. It may be less glamorous or more difficult in some ways than the past—but it is partnership with the living God!
What does God want you to do today? Maybe he wants you to receive Christ (2Cor.6:2). Maybe he wants you forgive an offender and be reconciled (Matt.5:23,24). Maybe he wants you to encourage a brother or sister (Heb.3:13). Maybe he wants you to respond to something he is correcting you about (Heb.3:7,8). Maybe he wants you to take on a new role in ministry. Maybe he wants you to show and or share his love to a specific individual in a specific way. I don’t know what he wants you to do—but he knows what he wants you to do, and he knows how to communicate this to you! If you don’t know, ask him, agreeing in advance to do what he says (Jn.7:17)! If you do know, go to work! There is nothing better than going to bed tired but fulfilled because you “worked” this way!
Do you need added incentive to do this? God is glad to give it! He promises a glorious future to those who forsake nostalgically focusing on the past and trust and obey him in the present...
Look forward in faith to the future God is preparing
Read 2:6-9. In 2:7,9, God promises that the glory of this (smaller) temple will exceed the glory of the former temple. Why? Not because of its size or material splendor—but because of Who will one day visit it. “The desire of the nations” refers to the Messiah. Jesus—God-incarnate, the true temple of God’s glory (Jn.1:14)—came to this temple 500 years later. And he died on the hill nearby this temple to pay for our sins so we can have peace with God. And he will return at the end of the age to this very site to establish the shalom of God’s kingdom. So they were to rebuild God’s house, looking forward in faith to how it would pave the way for a glorious future through the Messiah.
Christianity is not like atheism or pantheism with regard to the future. We are not doomed to personal annihilation so that we forget that we ever were. We are not cycling through endless lives until we merge with the impersonal oneness of the universe. Atheism and pantheism both render our personal decisions ultimately meaningless. But Jesus is the Lord of history; the future is headed to the establishment of his kingdom. If you belong to Jesus, you are building your life on a Rock that will remain forever (Matt.7:24-27), and everything you do to serve him has eternal personal significance (1Cor.15:58).
So God calls us to work for him today, looking forward in faith to the future he is preparing. Jesus is building a new “temple” today—he is gathering people to himself until people from every people-group receive his forgiveness and know him and worship him. When this “temple” is completed, Jesus will return to establish God’s kingdom on the earth (Matt.24:14). How crazy this prediction must have sounded when he made it—yet today we see that his word is being fulfilled (INDIA; CHINA; S. KOREA; SUB-SAHARA AFRICA). Every present step we take to make him known (through direct witness, character development, service, helping other Christians grow, etc.) “hastens” his coming kingdom (2Pet.3:12)!
“We must remember throughout our lives that in God’s sight there are no little people and no little places. Only one thing is important: to be consecrated persons in God’s place for us, at each moment. Those who think of themselves as little people in little places, if committed to Christ and living under his Lordship... may, by God’s grace, change the flow of our generation.” Though we are small and have many limitations, God will cause a ripple effect through us that changes the landscape of eternity!
DISCUSS (IF TIME):
How are you tempted to escape from living in the present?
What does God want you to do today? What hinders you from doing it? What will help you to do it?
If you really believed that Jesus is the Lord of history, how would this change the way you view your present and future?
PRAYER: Without Christ, the older people get, the more they focus on regrets about the past and fears about the future. But with Christ, we can trust God’s forgiveness about past sins, we can look forward confidently to his future kingdom—and we can keep living with and for him in the present!
“...the forfeited right of people not to know, not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life has no need for this excessive and burdening flow of information...hastiness and superficiality (are the) psychic diseases of the twentieth century.” Aleksandr I. Solzhensitsyn, A World Split Apart, trans. Irina Ilovayskaya Alberti (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), pp.25,27.
“Those who had seen the former temple would remember it through their eyes as children. Childhood memories of older adults are often fuzzy and sometimes exaggerated. These people might have remembered the former temple as greater and more splendid than it really was. This could have added to their dejection when they saw the smallness of the new temple.” Smith, R. L. (2002). Vol. 32: Word Biblical Commentary : Micah-Malachi. Word Biblical Commentary (157). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
“From the earliest times the majority of Christian interpreters have referred this passage to the coming of Christ. Jewish tradition also referred it to the Messiah. Without being dogmatic we should like to point out that ‘the desire of the nations’ can only refer to the longing of all nations for the Deliverer, whether they realize it or not.” (Feinberg, p. 244 – GET FULL DOCUMENTATION).