Haggai had one of the briefest yet most successful ministries of any prophet recorded in scripture. We know that his initial message produced tangible fruit within twenty three days and yet his entire recorded ministry lasted less than four months. Significantly he preached a very similar message to a number of his forbears, notably Joel, Amos, Micah, Hosea and Isaiah and yet the latter strived for far longer without success. I believe that the difference in the efficacy of these messages derives not from a difference in aptitude of the messengers but from there hearers willingness or otherwise to accept a fundamental tenet of divine revelation. God chastens those whom He loves.
Of course today we feel able to ignore such warnings as we are now under a new covenant of grace. The old dispensation of disobedience producing punishment has now passed away. The lessons learnt by the people of Haggai's time are no longer applicable to us today. This argument may have been acceptable or even correct except for one fatal flaw: the verse I gave doesn't come from Haggai or even the Old Testament. It comes from the twelfth chapter of Hebrews!
In fact whilst Hebrews 12:5 was undoubtedly applicable at the time it was written is also prophetic of the situation in which we find ourselves today. It asks if they had forgotten the word of old that addresses them as sons and states: "My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him;" The point that passage is making is vital but easily overlooked. We often consider, as did the Jews before us, that we are close intimates of God. As the chosen of God we assume special favors and that our relationship will cause God to 'cut us some slack'. The position of scripture is diametrically opposed to this view. It is our position of special favor that causes us to be subject to divine chastening. In fact a lack of divine chastening is indicative of a lack of divine favor.
This principle is eloquently spelled out at length by Amos. His opening chapters deal with the surrounding nations and spell out a list of crimes and atrocities that parallel the worst the world has to offer today. Then using exactly the same formula He attacks Judah; but this time there are no war crimes or atrocities. There is a disregard for the Law, for God and for their fellow human beings tied in with some idolatry and fornication. These are sins before a Holy God but nothing that would contravene the Geneva Convention. But Judah is deemed as guilty as the heathen because more is expected from those that have been given more.
In fact in Amos 3:2 the principle is restated in a much more concise form. "You only have I known of all the families of the earth; Therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities" The first part of this is an illusion to some wondrous statements where God shows His delight in choosing the people of Israel. The second part however is the point most choose to miss; it is precisely this divine favor that causes God to chastise His people.
Hebrews that assures us that the same is true of us today. In fact the situation is arguably worse with regard to the possibility of chastisement. Heb 10:29 uses the fact that we have a better covenant to suggest that we are even more culpable for transgressing the Word of God than the Jew had been. It is certainly interesting that whereas in the Old Testament God tended to intervene in the affairs of man through the movement of natural causes in the New He has been known to resort to direct action. In fact it is a sobering thought that in the first recorded death in the church was not the martyr Stephen at the hand of the Jews but the liar Ananias at the hand of God.
Of course there are some that will discount Hebrews as theological and not practical and discount Acts as being in the earlier days of the church and therefore not doctrinal. However the same principle also appears in Corinthians. 1 Co 11:29-31 blatantly states that weakness, sickness and death were occurring within the Corinthian assembly because people were taking part in communion without having first soberly judged their own behavior. The inescapable conclusion is that the chastisement of God is both an Old and New Testament principle that is as applicable today as it was in the time of Haggai. Further the tendency to avoid this conclusion is as prevalent today as it has always been.
The last defense of those who refuse to accept that God brings bad things upon His people is the notion of permissive will. The argument is all the more convincing because it is at least partially true. For example, in the case of Joseph we know that his brothers were allowed to sell him into slavery. They intended to do it for bad reasons but God allowed it so that good would come. It could be argued that Job suffered because God permitted Satan to tempt him. We certainly know that the error of Job's friends was to assume that the evil that befell him was punishment, when it actually had not been. So it certainly is true that God will sometimes allow bad things to happen and He promises that He will work them for the ultimate good.
However, the language of Hag 1: 11 does not allow any such interpretation of divine permissiveness. There is no suggestion whatsoever that some angel in charge of the weather felt like mischief which the Lord tolerated. There is no opposing earthly force that was allowed to wreak havoc. The Lord states very clearly that he called for a drought. The language is much as you would expect if one of our chief of staffs called for an air strike on some antagonistic nation. Further Hag 1:9-10 essentially shows that this may be viewed as a responsive and retributive measure. God's house was being allowed to lie in ruins and therefore He was going to bring a degree of ruin to the climate in which the people were operating.
Amos actually takes the language of Haggai a little further. In Am 3:6 he flatly states that evil cannot come upon a city unless God has done it. This is really a logical outworking of omnipotence and omniscience; God takes full responsibility for everything that happens. However Amos 3:7 also places an important bound upon the discipline of God. He doesn't do anything beyond what He has previously informed us of. Therefore discipline or chastisement is not going to be arbitrary or capricious; it is going to be fully in line with scripture that has been given to us.
Notwithstanding the above there is one extra point that needs to be made clear. The purpose of discipline in the New Testament is correction. Whilst it may be unpleasant while it occur; the end result is fruit. We have slightly muddied this distinction in the US because we have 'correctional facilities' although their primary purpose is punitive. Under the New Covenant we cannot be condemned, we have been saved from the wrath of God although God may still use His ministers to punish law breakers. We also, should not consider that the chastening implies that we are out of God's favor. Scripture states that even as we are being chastened God looks down upon us with delight.
To conclude: we have seen that the Jews were often guilty of believing that their relationship with God rendered them immune to an outworking of divine correction. There are many in the Christian church today who have similar beliefs. However the clear and firm teaching of scripture is that in all dispensations God will correct those whom He loves and punish wrongdoing. Haggai was successful largely because his audience had recent hard evidence that God could and would move against His people. They had the fear of God and acted upon it. May we act today from love; before fear becomes necessary.