Responding in Repentance

April 05, 2018

by Iain Duguid

“Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord.’ Then the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, ‘Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?'” Haggai 1:2–4

The result of Haggai’s preaching was immediate. Zerubbabel, Joshua, and all the remnant of the people recognized the voice of the Lord as it came to them through Haggai, his prophet (Hag. 1:12). They were convicted of their sin of unfaithfulness to the Lord with respect to the temple, and they recognized God’s justice in judging them. This is the effect that hearing God’s Word should always have on us. As we listen carefully to the Scriptures and consider our ways, we will always find areas of our lives that are not in line with God’s perfect standard. Which of us could truly say that we have always sought first God’s kingdom and pursued his righteousness with our whole hearts? It is always amusing (and not a little sad) to meet people who claim to keep the Ten Commandments. They are so out of touch with reality! Even keeping the first commandment, which requires consistently putting the Lord as the top priority in our lives ahead of everything else, is far beyond anyone’s ability. Instead, we are all guilty of building our own houses with great passion, while neglecting God’s house.

The immediate effect of the conviction of sin on the exiles was to move them to fear (Hag. 1:12). This was exactly the right response. After all, the Lord had earlier sent his people into exile in Babylon because of their persistent unfaithfulness to their covenant obligations. What would happen to those who had returned if they too were blatantly unfaithful? It is not coincidental that the text calls them “the remnant of the people” (Hag. 1:12, 14), the small group that had survived God’s fearsome judgment at the hands of the Babylonians. Fearing the consequences of our sins is not an irrational reaction for us either. On the contrary, if God is holy and pure, and we are sinfully self-centered, it is the most rational response in the world to be deeply afraid.

God is sovereign over our sanctification as well as our justification.

Yet as the returned exiles turned their hearts toward the Lord, they found that the Lord was also turning toward them. He announced through Haggai the comforting good news, “I am with you” (Hag. 1:13). In spite of their sin, when they came to God and repented, there was immediate restoration of the relationship. This good news is true for us as well. The Lord is not a harsh taskmaster, waiting for us to step out of line so that he can punish us severely for the slightest infraction. On the contrary, he confronts us with our sin so that he can forgive us and show us his mercy and grace when we repent. He is a loving Father who waits with arms outstretched all day long to welcome home the returning prodigal (see Luke 15:20).

After the people’s repentance and restoration to the Lord’s favor, they demonstrated the reality of their renewed commitment to the Lord with prompt action: “The Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel . . . , and the spirit of Joshua . . . , 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” (Hag. 1:14). Godly sorrow over our sin is good and right, but it is never an end in itself; it is always supposed to issue in an appropriate response of renewed obedience. The people’s response was almost immediate: they began work on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month in the second year of King Darius, a mere twenty-three days after the first word of the Lord to his people through Haggai.

Yet at the same time it is worth noting that the people’s response was not something they worked up in themselves: it was the working out of something God was doing in them by his Spirit. Whenever we obey the Lord, even for a moment, it is because God has given us the desire and the strength to do so. God is sovereign over our sanctification as well as our justification. As the Westminster Confession of Faith explains:

Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ. And that they may be enabled thereunto, beside the graces they have already received, there is required an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit, to work in them to will, and to do, of his good pleasure: yet are they not hereupon to grow negligent, as if they were not bound to perform any duty unless upon a special motion of the Spirit; but they ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them.

This piece is adapted from Iain Duguid, Zephaniah, Haggai, Malachi (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2018), 54–55. Used with permission of the publisher.

Iain Duguid

Dr. Duguid (PhD, Cambridge) is professor of Old Testament at WTS.

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