25th Sunday After Pentecost
November 10, 2013
Commentary on the Texts
This is the only Lectionary reading from the book of Haggai in the three year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary. In some ways that is unfortunate, especially since the reading chosen, even though it is part of the sequence of semi-continuous prophetic readings for Kingdomtide, fits more with the approach of Advent than it does with the unfolding of Old Testament theology within the book itself. To be sure, there are historical references within the reading, but the thrust by the choice of reading seems to be on the eschatological dimension of the text, made more pointed by New Testament and early Christian uses of this text (which we will leave for commentaries on those texts). We will not be able to solve the problems of the choice of Lectionary texts here, only to raise a caution that we treat the theological integrity of the Old Testament with care, and not rush to subsume it to later Christian theology (see Hearing Old Testament Advent Texts).
That does not at all suggest that there is no connection of this text with the Christian Faith. But the perspective in these commentaries is that the connection must first run forward theologically and only then work backward historically. That is, the forward connection is not historical and the backward connection theological, so that the Old Testament is just a prediction of historical event that leads to a new theology that then is imposed backward. Rather, it is that the theology developed within the life of Israel and the traditions of the Old Testament based on God's past revelations in history must be allowed to inform God's later revelations in history. And then that later New Testament understanding shaped by those events and theology can be used to work backward historically to understand the flow of God's work in history.
It is this relationship between the Testaments that prevents the development of the idea of supersessionism in which the Old Testament is functionally rejected as inferior to the new revelation. That position has never been held officially by Christianity and was even rejected in the heresy of Marcion, although it sometimes appears in more subtle forms. It is also this understanding of the relationship between the Testaments that allows us to hear how the New Testament writers used the Old Testament texts for their own faith confessions based on the new historical event of the Incarnation.
The book of Haggai has also been criticized from the perspective of particular ideas about the nature of Old Testament religion based on a combination of the negative evaluation of Judaism that emerges from the New Testament combined with Christian theology and apologetic. This has also encouraged us to deal with only parts of the book as pointing to the ends times (eschatologically) or as prediction of the future, and reject the rest as too narrowly focused or even sectarian. While we cannot deal with all those issues for this reading, this only suggests that we refrain from making those negative evaluations or from seeing only the eschatological dimension as important and try to understand the book theologically within its own historical context.
Although there is some debate about the arrangement of the book, as it stands the book of Haggai contains only five short oracles all clearly dated between August 29 and December 18, 520 BC. That means the ministry of Haggai as preserved in the traditions lasted only four months. He is mentioned in the book of Ezra linked with the prophet Zechariah, both as prophets who encouraged the rebuilding of the Temple following the return from Babylon (Ezra 5:1, 6:14). Yet his writing differs considerably from Zechariah, and we know little else about the prophet.
The historical context of this period was a pivotal time for Israel, and the significance of Haggai's work is closely related to this context (see The Persian Period and Return from Exile, especially the section Persian Rule and Return from Exile). With the fall of Babylon to Cyrus the Persian in 539, the Israelites who had been taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar had been allowed to return home to Israel after nearly 70 years of Babylonian exile.
The prophets saw this as the beginning of a new era of God's work in the world. Exilic Isaiah, using the idea of God as Creator, proclaimed the decree of Cyrus in 538 as a day of new things. Jerusalem would be restored and the wealth of the earth would stream to her as all nations came to Israel to learn torah and worship Israel's God (Isa 42-43, 44-45; cf. 2:2-4, 49:22-23). Ezekiel spoke of a glorious new earthly kingdom to be established once the people returned to the land (Ezek 37). Jeremiah had promised a new covenant and anticipated the reunification of the divided kingdoms of Judah and Israel (Jer 30-31). There were even promises that held out hope for a grand restored Israelite nation in which a new Davidic king would rule over a kingdom that was at the center of the world's activity (for example, Isa 55:3-5, Jer 23:5-8, Eze 34:24-30).
And yet the situation following the decree of Cyrus was anything but glorious. Few Israelites had actually returned home. There was hostility and even violence against the returned exiles from surrounding people and even from some of the Israelites who had stayed in the land. The promised Persian funds for rebuilding the Temple had not come. There was no immediate prospect for a new king or kingdom, and the only king they had was Persian who appointed their governors. While there had been a start on rebuilding the Temple, the work had lapsed as the people had grown discouraged. It had been nearly 20 years since the first return, and although the foundation of the rebuilt Temple had been laid nothing else had been accomplished.
At stake was nothing less than the very survival of the people as an identifiable religious community. Without a center of religious life represented by the Temple, there was real danger that the community would simply disappear, absorbed into the shifting scenes of world history.
The first oracles of Haggai encouraged the rebuilding of the Temple. He drove straight to the heart of their apathy and challenged their procrastination (1:2). He also chided them for being more concerned with their own comfort than they were with the religious life of the community. In fact, he hints that they had begun to live more extravagantly than necessary while neglecting spiritual matters (v. 4). Given the hard times that the community had experienced, this may seem a little severe and exaggerated. But it is entirely possible that within the span of time since the exiles had returned to the land that they had managed to secure some economic stability.
Haggai then suggested that their problems with crops and hardships were directly related to the apathy over rebuilding the Temple (1:7-11). Again, this may seem to us as if the prophet is making unwarranted connections. We can track the hardships of the community in terms of various historical factors. Yet, in a manner very similar to the third section of Isaiah, the prophet laid the blame for their difficult times on their own lack of sensitivity to spiritual matters, specifically the matter of rebuilding the Temple.
In any case, the prophet's preaching was effective because Zerubbabel, the Persian appointed governor who had evidently led a second group of returnees home from Babylon, along with the high priest Joshua, again started work in rebuilding the Temple (1:12-14). However, Haggai does not credit himself with this success but rather credits the renewed work to the activity of God in stirring up the spirit of Zerubbabel and Joshua and the remnant of the people (1:14). Like Zechariah, Haggai declared that it was the activity of God among the people that allowed the work to go forward (Zech 4:6).
This may sound like an exercise in modesty, but it was much more a theological confession. Haggai was emphasizing that more was happening than simply the rebuilding of a religious edifice. As would become increasingly evident throughout the book, Haggai, as well as the prophets before him, along with Zechariah and Malachi a little later, all viewed the return from exile as a pivotal event in the establishment of God's reign in the earth. To them, it was a milestone in the unfolding of God's purposes in the world. So the emphasis fell on God's role in enabling the rebuilding of the Temple, just as exilic Isaiah had emphasized God's role in bringing the people home, even though on another level it was the action of Cyrus the Persian King.
There is no question that the people themselves had to put forth the effort if the Temple were to be rebuilt. But Haggai's theological interpretation of their efforts was that God was at work bringing about his purposes it the world through their efforts, as was also evident in Zechariah where the spirit of the God accomplished the work. Yet, at the same time the people must go into the mountains and cut down trees for the building (Hag 1:8), which implies a responsibility on the part of the people in the task (for an elaboration of this theme, see Divine-Human Synergism in the Ministry, especially the section A Biblical and Theological Base).
This reading is the response of the prophet to the renewal of the work on the Temple. It begins with 15b because the text in 1:15a is uncertain. It is generally understood that the text is slightly disarranged, and the date of v. 15a properly goes with 2:11.
The date given corresponds to October 17, 520, a little over a month and a half after the first message. Since it took five years to complete the rebuilding the Temple (it was rededicated in the Spring of 515, Ezra 6:15) this suggests that no tremendous progress had been made in the building other than a renewal of the work. This is no speech to mark a great milestone of the project, but more likely a message to encourage the people to continue the work.
This seems even more likely the case in light of verse three. Given the circumstances in the land following the return and the discouragement at the failure of the anticipated promises to materialize, one can almost hear the complaining, even the outright despair, as the people began to realize that they would not be able to reconstruct Solomon's temple. Since some of them could actually remember Solomon's Temple from their youth they knew how badly this rebuilt structure would compare with the destroyed Temple.
That Temple had truly been a magnificent structure, crafted by imported artisans and ornamented by skilled craftsmen (1 Kg 5). Whether or not they are precisely accurate, the traditions remembered an enormous amount of labor involved in the building: 30,000 Israelites cutting and transporting timber, 80,000 stonecutters, 70,000 laborers, and 3,300 supervisors (1 Kg 5:13-18). Even with all of the skilled labor and the resources and wealth of Solomon, it took seven years to complete the Temple, and another 13 years to finish the palace and surrounding compounds (1 Kg 5-6). It had been the edifice of an Empire at its height. There was no way that this small group of priests and dedicated worshippers, perhaps numbering under 20,000, could duplicate that grandeur. At best, they could only rebuild on a smaller scale what had already been built, restacking stones and rebuilding walls. Ezra records the melancholy mood that came from realizing what they had really lost. He tells us that even when the Temple was finished, those who could remember the old Temple wept (Ezra 3:12), most likely because it was little more than a makeshift structure of second hand stones.
However, the fact that Haggai addressed Zerubbabel, Joshua, and all the people (2:2) suggests that this was an occasion of some sort, perhaps in a liturgical context. The seventh month of the year was the time for the New Year's Festival (by the older agricultural calendar), the Feast of Succoth or Thanksgiving, and the Day of Atonement, the annual festival marked by penitence and anticipation of renewal in the coming year. We do not know the relation of these festivals to Haggai's sermon, but it is likely that there was a renewed interest among the people concerning their religious heritage during this time of the year.
To encourage the people, Haggai used a whole series of images drawn from Israel's history, interestingly enough, all closely associated with important key events. "I am with you" (v. 4) expressed the theological conviction that God actively worked in history with his people to fulfill his purposes in the world. While this particular formulation was used throughout the Old Testament and into the NT as well, one of the most powerful expressions of it is found in Exodus 3. God had heard the cries of oppressed slaves and had called Moses to lead them to freedom. In a series of five questions Moses expressed the range of human doubt at God's work in the world. In various forms the answer came back, "I will be with you" (Exod 3:12, 14, 4:12, 15). It was an assurance that Moses' inadequacy as a human being would be made sufficient for the task by God's presence with him.
Haggai made this connection clear by affirming God's presence with the people "according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt" (v. 5). That is more than rhetoric here; it is a crucial affirmation of faith. The fact that it can be made at all after the exile is itself important. Many of the prophets, and especially Jeremiah, had interpreted the exile as the ending of God's covenant with Israel since they had broken it. Yet, the prophets also held out the possibility and the hope of something beyond exile, even of a new covenant where God would again reveal himself to them and they would respond by being his people (Jer 31:31-34). The fact that Haggai could here use the old covenantal language of promise clearly reveals a conception of these unfolding events as God's new work in the world to renew the covenant relationship with Israel.
"Take courage," addressed here to Zerubbabel, the high priest, and all the people was the same message that God had given to Joshua as he took over leadership of the Israelites from Moses and prepared to lead the people into the land (Josh 1:6, 7, 9, 18; cf. Deut 31:6-7). In the face of inability to accomplish the task, Joshua was called to be strong because of God's presence at work in his leadership. The phrase "do not fear" (v. 5) serves much the same purpose (cf. for example, Josh 10:16, 2 Chron 20:17, Isa 7:4). Again, Haggai's use of this language here was a way to reclaim theologically the old covenant promises. It was not that things were back like they were. But it was a theological insight that understood God to be in the process of recreating his people beyond the exile.
There are other allusions to the older traditions, both directly and indirectly that served much the same purpose. The reference to the concept of the "spirit" of God stirring up the leaders (v. 5; cf. Zech 4:6) recalled the older days of the judges when the "spirit" was a way to refer to God's extraordinary gifts upon leaders (for example, 3:10, 6:34). It also recalled the message of exilic Isaiah who had used "spirit" to express God's presence enabling and guiding Israel as God's servant (Isa 42:1; cf. 61:1). Ezekiel likewise had used the idea of "spirit" to refer to God's work in history to restore the nation (Eze 37, 39:29), and among the people to transform them into his people (36:26-27).
The promise to "fill this house with splendor" in the immediate context seems to refer to riches or wealth (v.8). There may be some of that as a subtle allusion to the exilic promises of all nations coming to the Temple with their wealth (for example, Isa 45:14). But in the context of the older traditions, this would evoke images of the glory of the Lord that filled the Temple at Solomon's dedication (1 Kng 8:11). It would also recall the presence of God that the Israelites envisioned as dwelling in the midst of the people by dwelling in the Temple (Psa 46:5; cf. Num 14:14). All of this language of the religious practices of pre-exilic Israel served to affirm that God was again at work among his people, indeed that they were again his people.
Haggai used this as a basis for the appeal and encouragement. The message was clearly that the people should get to work to reestablish the visible symbols of God's presence in their midst because God had himself chosen once again to be with these people, in effect, to reelect them as his people. Haggai proclaimed that no matter what the external circumstances might be at the present moment, they were still God's people and therefore had some responsibility to act like his people.
At this point, Haggai takes criticism from some today as being too prosaic, too interested with the external trappings of religion like temples and the rituals associated with it. After all, these were the very things that Jeremiah had condemned and had actually named as one reason for the exile itself. (Jer 7). The problem had been an excessive reliance on these trappings of religion and not enough trust in God himself. So why would Haggai try to reinstate the very thing that had caused the people so much trouble in the first place?
Such thinking does not adequately take into account the situation of the returned exiles, and often comes from those with agendas of their own to promote. Haggai's community was teetering on the brink of extinction. They had no cohesion beyond the fervor of a small group of priests. If they were to survive as a community they must have something more tangible than a dream of a new glorious future. In the face of hard reality, that dream was quickly fading. Haggai understood that if they were to survive, they must have some means by which they could preserve the traditions of God's work with this community and a vehicle in concrete terms to pass on those traditions to future generations.
We may fancy the idea of a purely abstract faith that needs no external trappings beyond the loyalty of the worshipper. But that has never been a reality for people of faith. People have always needed the symbols of that faith. Even though Jesus spoke of worship in "spirit and in truth" (John 4:23) that went beyond debates about proper places to worship and proper rituals, yet he still observed the ritual of Passover. He even infused it with a new meaning as he instructed the disciples to continue the practice (Matt 26:26-29; cf. John 6:48-58).
To be sure, there is the danger of allowing ritual and symbol to become idolatrous. But as the elaborate instructions to Moses about the construction of the tabernacle and all the assorted symbols of worship, there is a clear acknowledgment that we human beings need symbols to verbalize our relationship with God. And we need the symbols to remind us that the present reality of our own immediate experience, especially if it is less than ideal, is not the end of the matter! The symbols become a way to enact, not just the grace experienced in the past, but the possibilities of the future arising from God's grace. Jesus' teachings confirm the need for those concrete symbols. As with most things, the problem seems not to be the symbols, but with the human tendency to transform even good things into idols!
Haggai understood that this community needed a center, something that would hold in the face of changing history. And so he encouraged the rebuilding of the Temple as the visible symbol of what God had done for the community. Even beyond that, the rebuilt Temple would be a symbol of God's grace in even allowing this community to survive the exile, and of his grace is again choosing to make his presence known among them.
In the final part of the reading, Haggai moves into a wider eschatological vision in placing the building project into a larger scheme of God's unfolding purposes in history. The key concept that introduces this shift from a focus on the present need for building into a longer-range view of the ultimate purpose for rebuilding is the idea of shaking (v. 6). While the language here is cryptic, its intent is fairly clear. Haggai envisioned the rebuilding of the Temple as the beginning of the new era so long promised by the other prophets. In effect, he is simply repeating the same promises of a new glorious age, only this time it was tied not to the return to the land as was exilic Isaiah's, but to the rebuilding of the Temple.
The shaking would be the work of God in the world that would bring Israel to the attention of other nations. It is not obvious whether this shaking would be the actual rebuilding of the Temple itself, or some other anticipated historical event such as the fall of the Persian Empire. What does seem clear is that Haggai directly connects the rebuilding of the Temple with the elevation of Israel's status in the world.
And the logic seems clear as well. If the new age of God's reign on earth with his people would be marked by all nations streaming to Zion to learn torah and bringing gifts of homage to Yahweh in the Temple, there must be a temple to which the nations would be able to come. This is simply a rearticulation of the old vision that Israel had a role to play in the world among the nations, to be the vehicle of God's revelation to the world. In this way of thinking, not only would the Temple serve the practical purpose of providing a center of unity for the post-exilic community, it would provide the center from which Israel would be able to fulfill its mission in the world. In a slightly different and more liturgical sense, this is the same perspective that exilic Isaiah had expressed in the idea of Israel being a "light to the nations" (Isa 42:6, 49:6).
It is easy to read the references here to gold and silver in a purely material sense, and assume that the anticipation was of Israel becoming wealthy at the expense of other nations (v. 8). Likewise, the promise of prosperity (v. 9) is easily understood in Western culture as a promise of wealth, as many of the so-called "prosperity gospel" proponents assume. However, there are two factors that prevent this from being purely a material perspective in terms of wealth.
First, the idea of wealth associated with the Temple, especially in the context of wealth being brought by the nations, must be seen in the context of the ancient world. In ancient Near Eastern culture, to do proper homage to a king or a ruler required the presentation of gifts. This is seen, for example, in the seemingly lavish gifts brought by the Queen of Sheba when she visited Solomon (1 Kg 10). We are most familiar with the expensive gifts that the Eastern Kings brought to the infant Jesus (Matt 2:11). The same way of thinking, whereby honor and value are described in terms of wealth, is evident in the highly exaggerated price that the Chronicler placed on the Temple Mount (1 Chron 21:25; compare the still high but more realistic price in 2 Sam 24:24). In this sense, the gold and silver are not so much about material reward and wealth as they are a confession by the nations that the God of the Israelites is truly God.
Second, especially in this historical context, wealth was not so much a matter of luxury as it was of physical security and stability. With the tenuous hold that the returnees had on the land, one of the greatest needs was stability. Financial security would provide some of that stability. So the community could envision part of the work of God in renewing the covenant with them as also being to provide that stability by meeting their economic needs.
The concluding statement in verse nine that the "latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former" can also be heard in different ways. It can be seen as a longing for the glory and splendor of the long gone Solomonic Temple. There is no doubt that there is some of that here. Part of this prophecy is the expression of a nationalistic dream of the recovery of lost glory. But it would be a mistake to assume that there is nothing more here than zealous nationalism in the cloak of religion.
Beyond that, this is an expression of a hope for the future. Hope had been a scarce commodity in the returned community of exiles. It was difficult enough to endure and ward off enemies, to survive in the present let alone trying to envision splendid days in the future. And yet in the midst of that gloom, Haggai managed to articulate a vision for these people in terms of God's work in the world that invigorated them with a new purpose. It was not just a nationalistic dream. It was the expression and rekindling of the possibility that God would actually work in active and obvious ways in the world once more.
There is a certain dimension of Haggai's message that becomes a negative message for us. It warns of the dangers of tying God's work too precisely to specific historical events that we think we see unfolding. Haggai even went much further in the final section of the book and proclaimed Zerubbabel as the expected new Davidic king, the new messiah (2:23; on "signet ring" as a royal or messianic reference, see Jer 22:24). The reality of the matter is that Haggai was wrong both about the immanent establishment of a renewed earthly kingdom for Israel, and about the role of Zerubbabel in the restored community. There was no new kingdom, and would not be for another 300 years. And Zerubbabel abruptly disappeared from the pages of history, with not even the memory of what happened to him preserved.
Haggai was not the first nor only prophet to have translated his theology into historical prediction only to have history track a radically different way than predicted (see Ezekiel and the Oracle Against Tyre). Robert Carroll in a provocative book, When Prophecy Failed, suggests that unfulfilled prediction may have contributed to the demise of prophecy in the post exilic era. It may in fact have played its own role in contributing to the sense of despair in this era. It would be only speculation to make the connection, but one cannot help but wonder if this was a factor in the entire community of faith falling virtually silent for over 200 years between 450 BC and around 200 BC. We learn from the biblical traditions themselves from the story of Abraham, from the early church's anticipation of the return of Jesus in the Thessalonian church, from the questions asked in 2 Peter (3:4), that high expectations cannot be sustained indefinitely without some sign that something is happening. So, just as in some other places in Scripture (for example the story of Gideon, Judg 6-8, or Eccles. 1-11) there is a dimension of the Book of Haggai that serves as a negative example, of what not to do.
But that is not really its primary theological purpose, just as the historical prediction of the book was not its main message. The heart of the book, and especially this reading, affirms a strong and dynamic faith in God and his work in the world. It exhibits a willingness to work for a long-range goal that lies beyond what we can see at the moment. It represents a willingness to take the promises of God in hand, along with an ax, and go into the mountains to chop down trees for the Temple.
That is simply a way to say that sometimes it is better to work for something, even if we see no immediate purpose to it, and even if the task is mundane and seems like nothing compared to the grand stories of other victories in the past, than it is to sit around waiting for God to do something marvelous. For example, it is much easier to wait for God to bring revival, or even to pray for God to bring revival, than it is to put out the tedious effort to go out into the highways and byways of life and actually find the people who need revival. It is easier to complain about all the problems of our communities and our churches and wait for God to do work some miracle to solve the problems than it is for us to sit down and begin finding some solutions ourselves. We cannot always make things happen immediately. But it is likely that if the trees never get cut, if the people never do any work, there will never be a temple. And without the temple, there may no longer be a people!
We might envision the marvelous acts of God for us and fancy that we will reap all the rewards that we are due for our labor. Yet, sometimes the rewards for our service in the Kingdom nowhere near match the amount of effort we put forth. It may be that even our motivation for putting out the effort will not lie in what we might expect to see as a result. And even when we expect to see immediate results, they may not be forthcoming.
And yet, while Haggai was wrong about the precise time frame of his vision, and even about the shape it would take, he and Zechariah were instrumental in keeping that community vital, and giving them something to hope for and work toward in the future. Haggai may not have seen the results of his efforts, and could easily have fallen into despair that his understanding of God's work in the world was not what he thought it was. But Haggai was no failure! He played a crucial role in the preservation of that community, and the community acknowledged that fact by preserving his message. He called the people to faithfulness to God in a time when there was no reason to be faithful. Finally, in ways that he could not possibly imagine, in a much longer time frame than he ever knew, that community of faith that he helped preserve would indeed become the focal point for the entire world, just as he had dreamed.
Haggai was willing to dream God's dream. He was willing to look beyond the present circumstances and see what could be, willing to look beyond the present failures and invest in a future based on God's action in the world, and on the fact that God had again chosen a people through which to reveal himself! And Haggai was willing to put out the effort to work as if what ought to be really could be!
Many times the measure of our "success" in the Kingdom is not what we have to show for our efforts, or even in how correct our interpretation of God's dream for us or our church or our community might be in the short run. I suspect more often than not our success lies in being willing to dream, to see God's vision, in the willingness to believe that by God's presence and spirit at work in our midst that what might be or ought to be, actually can be.
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