Hag_2:11-14. Thus saith the Lord of Hosts; Ask now the priests concerning the law, saying, If one bear holy flesh in the skirt of his garment, and with his skirt do touch bread, or pottage, or wine, or oil, or any meat, shall it be holy? And the priests answered and said, No. Then said Haggai, If one that is unclean by a dead body touch any of these, shall it be unclean? And the priests answered and said, It shall be unclean. Then answered Haggai, and said, So is this people, and so is this nation before me, saith the Lord; and so is every work of their hands: and that which they offer there is unclean.
THE one great rule of life which was given to Moses, and which is of universal and unchangeable obligation, is the moral law—the law of the ten commandments. But the ceremonial law also, which, in its primary use, was to shadow forth the Gospel of Christ, was of a moral tendency, and very instructive in that view. Take the most insignificant of its rites, such as the not wearing a garment of mixed materials, or sowing a field with different kinds of corn, or seething a kid in its mother’s milk; they were all intended to teach us some practical lessons of great importance. The same we may say of the law mentioned in my text. Jehovah intended to reprove the supineness of his people in neglecting to rebuild the temple. For this end, he directed the Prophet Haggai to consult the priests as to the demands of the law; and from their answers, to deduce the truth, which he was instructed to enforce. They acknowledged, that the meat which belonged to the priests, as their share of the sin-offerings, could not, though holy in itself, make any thing else holy which it might come in contact with; though a person, who by the touch of a dead body was unclean, would, according to the law, render any thing else unclean which he might chance to touch [Note: Whatever touched the altar was thereby rendered holy, as was also any thing which touched the flesh of the sacrifice (Lev. 29:37 and Lev_6:27.); but the cloth, in which such flesh was contained, conveyed no sanctity: but the clothes of one unclean communicated a ceremonial uncleanness. Num_19:22.]. From thence he took occasion to shew them, that the sacrifices which they offered, so far from cancelling their sins, were themselves vitiated, and rendered worthless by their supineness.
Now here was a valuable lesson for them: and it is no less valuable to us; since it is of use,
For the forming of our judgment as to the theory of religion—
To enter into this, consider the precise state of things at that time. The foundations of the temple had been laid several years before. The people having been obstructed in the work, became indifferent to it; and thought, that, by offering their sacrifices with regularity, they should supersede the necessity of incurring the expense and trouble of rebuilding the temple. ‘Now,’ says the prophet, ‘your sacrifices themselves, instead of being accepted of God, are detestable in his sight, on account of the hypocrisy which yet reigns in your hearts’ In other words, we may consider him as determining two most important points:
That practice is of no avail without principle—
[The Jews supposed that their offering of sacrifices would be accepted, though they were wholly inattentive to the principles by which they were actuated. And a most common error this is. Men abound in duties, public, social, personal; and add to these the offices of kindness and liberality to their fellow-creatures; and then ask with confidence, “What lack I yet?” Such were the Pharisees of old; who even went beyond the law in their observances, whilst they “neglected many of the weightier matters of the law—justice, mercy, and truth.” But I must declare, that these people labour under a most fatal error: for if St. Paul himself, who was, “touching the righteousness which was of the law, blameless,” and who was therefore “alive, in his own estimation, without the law,” but, when he saw the defectiveness of his obedience, saw and acknowledged himself to be a dead condemned sinner; if St. Paul himself, I say, so failed in establishing any righteousness of his own, much more must we lay aside such an erroneous conceit, and confess, that without a principle of faith and love we can never find acceptance with our God. We may attend the house of God every Sabbath; we may go to the table of the Lord; we may offer some stated prayers also in secret; and yet, if impenitent and unbelieving, be consigned over to everlasting perdition. We may have the tongues of men and angels, and have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and have faith so that we can remove mountains, and bestow all our goods to feed the poor, and even give our bodies to be burned; and yet be destitute of a principle, without which we are no better than “sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal [Note: 1Co_13:1-3.].” We may see clearly, that without a principle of real, vital, universal holiness in the soul, no external services, however good, can find acceptance before God.]
That principle is of no avail without practice—
[As men of a Pharisaic cast maintain the error which I have just mentioned; so men of an Antinomian complexion are prone to indulge this of which I am now to speak. They have embraced the Gospel; they believe in Christ: they see in him a perfect righteousness: they have that righteousness imputed to them: they stand, as they suppose, perfect and complete before God, and are in his sight “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing; yea, holy and without blemish [Note: Eph_5:27.].” But are they necessarily in the state which this profession seems to imply? The persons reproved in my text offered their sacrifices, and professed to look to that great Sacrifice which those offerings prefigured: but were they therefore accepted of their God? No: they were essentially defective as to practical religion: under the influence of covetousness and self-indulgence, they neglected to rebuild the temple of the Lord: and therefore all their professions of faith were vain. Thus it is with thousands who rely on the Gospel of Christ for salvation, but neglect to adorn it by a suitable conversation. Their faith does not “overcome the world,” and “work by love,” and “purify the heart;” and therefore “their faith, being without works, is dead; and is in reality no better than the faith of devils [Note: Jam_2:19-20.].”
Nor let any one imagine that it is only a course of open sin that will thus invalidate the efficacy of his faith. No: if there be in him any secret lust, such as covetousness, or pride, or envy, or impurity, or any other, it will “so defile him [Note: Mar_7:21-23.],” as to make all his professions of religion vain [Note: Jam_1:26.].” “A right eye or a right hand, which offends” against the principles of vital godliness, must be parted with, or “it will destroy him, both body and soul, in hell for ever [Note: Mar_9:43-48. with Jam_2:10.].”]
But the reproof here given is yet further useful,
For the regulating of our conduct, as to the practice of it—
You will observe in the text the figure, and the truth contained in it. Now both of these are instructive, in reference to practical religion:
From the figure we may learn to take heed to our communications—
[It is a far easier thing to convey defilement to the souls of men, than holiness. One man that is diseased may impart infection: but ten men that are in health cannot impart health. Now, it is common for persons professing godliness to associate with the world, under an idea of doing them good; forgetting how much more likely they themselves are to contract evil from such society, than to impart to them any substantial benefit. A heathen could say, “Evil communications corrupt good manners [Note: 1Co_15:33. from the poet Menander.].” And experience proves the truth of it: for there is scarcely a person who associates much, and without necessity, with the world, but he imbibes the spirit of the world; and if not outwardly, yet in heart, declines from God. I mean not to say, that all connexion with ungodly men should be avoided; for “then must we needs go out of the world:” our duties in civil and social life require some measure of intercourse with them: but I mean, that we should be aware of the danger of infection from the ungodly; and that we should mix with them as a physican mixes with his patients in a hospital; having in our minds a desire to do them good, and exerting our influence for that end; and withdrawing, when we have fulfilled our duty, happy to breathe a purer atmosphere, and to associate with those whose state and habit are in accordance with our own. And this is the rule prescribed for us in the Gospel: “We are not to be conformed to this world [Note: Rom_12:2.]:” we are to “come out from it, and be separate [Note: 2Co_6:17.]:” we are “not to be of the world, any more than Jesus Christ was of the world [Note: Joh_17:14-16.]:” we are “not to affect its friendship [Note: Jam_4:4.];” or to “love any of its ensnaring vanities [Note: 1Jn_2:15-16.].” Our affections must be “set rather on things above [Note: Col_3:2.];” and “our conversation is to be in heaven [Note: Php_3:20.]:” and we must be ever on our guard to keep our garments clean [Note: Rev_3:4; Rev_16:15.]: since it is almost impossible to come in contact with the ungodly, without contracting some defilement from them.]
From the truth itself we may learn to look well to our hearts—
[Solomon’s advice is good: “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life [Note: Pro_4:23.].” It is lamentable to think how much there may be amiss within us, whilst the external conduct is correct; yea, and whilst religion appears to have the chief ascendent over us. Truly, it becomes us to“search and try our ways [Note: Lam_3:40.];” yes, and to beg of God also to “search and try our hearts, to see whether there be any wicked way or principle in us, and to lead us in the way everlasting [Note: Psa_139:23-24.].” When we reflect, that one evil propensity, if indulged, will vitiate all our moral and religious acts; and that it will make “our very prayers an abomination in the sight of God [Note: Pro_15:8; Pro_28:9.];” we cannot but tremble for the great mass even of religious professors, who will be tried by the heart-searching God, and have their final doom fixed according to their real character, as it stands before him. Indeed, brethren, I wish you to examine yourselves well, whether ye be sound in principle, and upright in practice also. And be careful not to “deceive your own souls;” nor to rest, till you have an evidence in your own bosoms, and the witness of God’s Spirit also, that ye are “Israelites indeed, in whom there is no guile:” for whatever ye may imagine, it is “the pure in heart, and they only, that shall sec God” with comfort in the day of judgment [Note: Mat_5:8.].