The Lord intervenes to sanctify his people: Haggai 1-2

In the eschaton, or, the last times, the Lord will gather his people, as we read in Zephaniah, and he will rebuild his temple, as we read in Haggai.  Even though the humble gathered as a people, they could not make themselves holy.  The Lord instituted the temple as the means for the people’s sanctification.  Yet he had to ensure that the people did not become puffed up and ruined as they had done with the previous temple (see Jeremiah 7).  The Lord played an active part in this phase of history as he directed the rebuilding and decoration of the temple and the sanctification of his people.

Haggai hangs events on specific dates, unique to what we have seen so far in the XII.  While previous books, such as Habakkuk, make specific dating difficult, the author of this book explicitly ground its story in external events.  The events Haggai discusses take place over about four months (beginning of month 6 till the end of month 9), during the second year of King Darius of the Persian Empire.  Thus all dates in this book refer to a time in the reign of King Darius.  The dates will link Haggai’s prophesies with Zechariah’s apocalyptic visions in the next book, as well as with the reign of the Persian emperors.

Lack of prosperity came from prioritizing the houses of the leaders

In year 2, month 6, day 1, Haggai spoke to Zerubbabel, the governor, and Joshua, the high priest, to emphasize to them the link between the people’s lack of prosperity and the ruin of the temple. In 1:2-6 the individuals holding power were not interested in rebuilding the temple, but the Lord explained that their problems are the result of their desire for a life of comfort and neglect of the Lord’s house, and that theses problems will continue if the neglect continues.  (Ezra 4 says that construction was stopped because people of the land conspired with Persian authorities to stop the construction.)

In contrast to the ruins the temple found itself in, 1:7-11 depicted the beauty of the houses of the rulers.  The Lord shamed the rulers into focusing on rebuilding his house by contrasting the beauty of their houses and the ruin of his house.  The leaders should focus on building the temple–“the house”–rather than hide in their own houses.  Their incorrect priorities resulted in the the Lord withholding rain and prosperity.

The rulers re-prioritize

The leaders and people jumped quickly to working on the temple–an unusual response (1:12-13). After reading many chapters of obstinate disobedience from the people over the past many chapters, this quick, obedient response comes as a surprise.  (This is one reason I believe that the Book of the XII should be read as a single scroll.  In the context of the other books in the XII, the only other time we saw such obedience was among the Ninevites responding to Jonah.)  The Lord declared that he is with them–another rare response.

Even though the rulers began building the temple, the Lord was the ultimate source for building (1:14-15). About one month after the last word of the Lord from Haggai, in year 2, month 6, day 24, the Lord “roused the spirit” of Zerubbabel and Joshua and the people to work on the temple.  The reader of Haggai knows, therefore, that the Lord initiated building his temple at the hands of Israel at that time.  The Lord played a part in this surprisingly different reaction by the people,   The people did not change; the Lord changed.  He was ushering in the eschaton through the people.

The Lord’s presence is impressive enough

A month after the last word from Haggai, in year 2, month 7, day 21, the Lord declared that his presence in the temple would be its most impressive and important feature (2:1-5).  Since Darius came to power about 65 years after the destruction of the first temple by the Babylonians, someone around 70-80 years old at this time would have remembered the splendor of the first temple.  The new temple evidently did not impress them.  In spite of appearances, the new temple would be more impressive because the Lord’s presence rested in it.  In Ezekiel 11, the Lord removed his presence from the city; in Haggai he reestablished his presence.

Moreover, the Lord recreated the splendor of his house his own way (2:6-9).  In Exodus, the Lord’s people managed to loot the Egyptians and carry away their booty without wielding a single weapon, and in this way he showed his greatness.  In Haggai, he would have the nations return the riches to the temple.  Ezra 6:5 stated that Cyrus declared that the temple gold and silver be returned from Babylon.  Thus the Lord filled the temple with his splendor and continued as the source of the action.  As he motivated Israel to rebuild, he motivated the nations to supply the riches.

Only the Lord can purify

Two months later, on year 2, month 9, day 24, the Lord proved through the notion of purity that he must be the source of change in the people.  The situation described in 2:11-13 demonstrated that holiness cannot spread, but uncleanness can.  A spiral towards more and more uncleanness resulted, displayed by the people’s lack of prosperity.  Practically this meant that without a system for bringing holiness to the people, the offerings they offered were unclean, and the people remained in their unclean state.  Because they were unclean, they did not prosper (2:14).

Up to this point, the Lord cursed what the people did, but now he decided to bless it (2:15-19).  As the people laid the foundation of the temple, blessings would come to the people because the Lord changed his approach to intervene directly.  Why the Lord changed his approach–Haggai did not explain.  The necessary source of holiness, the temple, was established, ending the continuous spiral of uncleanness and poverty.

Later that same day, the Lord further spoke through Haggai to declare that he will defeat all the nations (2:20-23).  The Lord will overturn all the nations with their armies and they will destroy each other.  In addition, he established Zerubbabel as his “signet,” his image and seal.  In the ancient world, the signet ring was used to sign documents and seal goods.  To bear someone’s seal was the ancient equivalent to the modern power of attorney; you could function as someone else legally.  So as Zerubbabel worked in the world, so the Lord did, as well.  Since Zerubbabel was the one who submitted and built the temple according to the Lord’s will, the reflection of the Lord’s came through the humble submission of will.  (Perhaps it is significant that Zerubbabel is not a king–only a governor.)

Submitting to the Lord’s will

The people suffered because they could not make themselves holy.  They did not have enough, and poverty was increasing its hold on them.  Rather than shore up what they had in their panelled houses, they were commanded to rebuild the Lord’s house.  This time, though, the Lord changed his approach, intervening directly and ushering in the eschaton.  Since the Lord would be there, the temple would be a source of holiness for them.

The Lord initiated this new phase of history.  He influenced the rulers to begin building. He would instill it with his presence.  He would decorate it with the nations’ riches.  He would bless the people and sanctify them.  This temple would not arise from humans’ hands except for the Lord’s influence and power.  The governor, Zerubbabel, would be the image of the Lord in the land, as he was the one who submitted to following the Lord’s will to rebuild.  As the humble would constitute the Lord’s people in Zephaniah, so humility would inhabit the temple in the Lord’s presence.

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