Some reflections from my read through the Book of Haggai this morning
This tiny, two chapter book packs a punch. Even more worthwhile is considering what it has to say to us during Covid as we experience our own collective, virus bred exile.
EXILE IN CONTEXT: THE POWER OF A NAME
The context of the book is the return from a long period of exile and the rebuilding of the temple that had been destroyed which ushers in what is known as the Second Temple period, the world into which Jesus was born, ministered, died and rose again.
The name Haggai is a poetic rendering of the word “festival” (festal), which accomplishes two things in this narrative:
- It positions Haggai’s relevance as a prophet given that he does not arrive with a genealogy. By associating him with a context (an important festival), it gives his prophetic voice a necessary weight.
- It gives Haggai’s message a broader context within the larger narrative of Israel’s story. We don’t exactly know what festival Haggai is being associated with, but given the references to Egypt and the Exodus it seems clear and fair to me that this would be calling back to the related festival of both bondage and liberation of that story. As will become clear, the present-future context of this book’s prophetic word can also then locate that same Exodus context in Jesus’ own story. This is both a call to present action and a word of anticipation and hope for the future. The restoration of the temple will bring about the expected return of God’s presence to Israel.
So to restate the context: Israel has been given to exile and the temple destroyed. Babylon has changed hands and the new rulers have allowed the people to return to Jerusalem. Some of them stay in Babylon, some of them return. This is in the 6th century (Cyrus, the Persian ruler captured Babylon in 539, which when Cyrus’s son Cambyses died was replaced by Darius, once a general). This is also during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah and during the second year of Darius (520). Ezra 3:1-4:5 tells of how the work of rebuilding the temple stalled when opposition arose. Darius’ support was necessary for the temple rebuilding (Ezra 5 and 6)
In this sense, King/Ruler and Temple are two themes that are intimately linked, with Zerubbabel promised the heir of David’s throne, who the prophet’s word goes out to and from, along with Joshua, the high priest. (1:1), along with the question of oppressive empires in the immediate sight and application of the prophetic word.
This consideration of two Kingdoms, two empires is then filtered backwards into Israel’s story (Exodus and Exile), and forwards into the expectation of a future temple, with the temple providing an image of continuity, both in the shared experience and in the faithfulness of God. The problem we are told is that the people are complaining about the current state of the rebuilding project, and the Lord says in verse 3, “is it a time for you to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruin.?” (1:3-4). They know this temple being rebuilt is smaller than the former (Ezra 3:12). Into this response comes the word of the Lord through the prophet Haggai.
THE WORD OF THE LORD
The book of Haggai is written around four messages from “the Lord”, each with its own specific date and context and concern. And here is the important trajectory or pull of these messages- they are addressed to the prophet, which extends to ruler and priest, which extends to the “remnant”, which extends to all. This frames the large picture of a future restoration as a message of hope to the nations.
Again, the context is exile, return from exile, and the prospect of rebuilding a temple that no longer looks the same. It is a shell of what it once was, which could easily lead to frustration and apathy.
For my own reflections, I was considering this in light of Covid. As we look on the Church during Covid, it appears to be a shell of what it once was. In fact, as we look out at all of society, this is what we find. This has been a kind of collective exile, one that is able to remind us of our shared humanity, an exile that we are still only imagining our eventual return from. If we can imagine a future day when we can return, the words in Haggai to the people, “Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory?” arrives with a biting force. It strikes me that I never figured a virus could be as divisive as politics and religion, and yet this has been precisely the temptation on a global front. A people divided. If we see the Church in with Israel’s story then, the call is for the Church to demonstrate a picture of an undivided people, with Israel the means of a message of hope being sent out into all the world, bringing and ushering the world into a greater picture of an undivided Kingdom.
THE CALL TO BE STRONG, GET TO WORK, AND NOT TO FEAR
So in the first message from the Lord through the prophet for the ruler and the priest and the remnant (some had returned to Jerusalem, some remained scattered in Babylon) and thus the world, we get the call to “consider your ways” (1:5), for you have sown much and harvested little.
To restate this in other words, I hear this in this way. All the years of having Church (the temple) as normal, and all the struggle that comes with it’s loss, what has all this experience been for if not for this rebuilding time, this time of harvesting the faith that has been sown through the life of the Church? Will we be like the people Haggai’s word is speaking to, hunkering down in anxiety, feeling like the current state of being, things being less than ideal, the Church looking like a shell of what it once was should lead us to retreat inward into our houses? The bubbles or our isolated worlds and lives that exile has demanded and created?
The natural consequence of retreating instead of building is a lack of the blessings of the harvest. The fruit of the faithful witness in terms of healing and liberation of the oppressed, the hurting, the marginalized, the sick. Hear the word of the Lord here. If the word, “Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? carries weight, so does the following word from the Lord, which is “how do you see it (the state of the Temple) now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes?” Out of which we get the call to “be strong” and to “work”. Now is the time to do the work of the Church.
Calling them back to Egypt as the guiding narrative and the exile as their most recent reality, God reminds them that “my Spirit remains in your midst”, so “fear not.” For God will shake the heavens and all the treasures of the nations will come in. “I will fill this house with glory.” This rebuilding will lead to an even greater temple and the restoration of the heavens and the earth. This might not look like it once did, but I am with you, and thus you can trust that this temple, which is a shell of what it once was, is not the end of the story.
SHAKING AND RESTORATION
A word on this notion of “shaking” that can help us bring this call into our own context:
This restorative message has a future and present context. The spirit is encouraging people to get to work in rebuilding, and thus this shaking happens in the contextualized marriage of both God’s work and our work. Shaking has a couple contexts in scripture. One is the fall of Kingdoms, of which the Prophet would have had oppressive empires in his sight in line with the Exodus story of liberation. Another is the trembling and shaking that comes from trials and suffering. A third is the natural shaking of the earth given an interpretive and divine force.
The shaking in Haggai 2 is rooted in the past of “once more” this will happen, which takes us back to the pivotal event in Israel’s history, the original covenant-broken covenant (read: fall) narrative. (Hebrews 12; Exodus 32-34) When it says in Hebrews, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens” (Hebrews 12:25-29), it has this Haggai passage in mind. This is the image of bringing together heaven and earth, or the prayer “on earth as it is in Heaven” being made real, so that what cannot be shaken may remain.
When we pair this with Haggai 2:7, where is says that this shaking will lead to “the treasures of all the nations” coming in to the future Temple, we get an even heightened sense of this “shaking’s” present-future context. Treasures translates to “desire”, which in its plural form gets translated to the desired or collective “whole”. What this has in mind then is once again the Exodus story (Exodus 11:2-3; 12:35-36) where literal treasure (materials) from the Egyptians are used to rebuild the temple. Think of the wise men coming from the East as this imagery then gets applied to Jesus who is declared as the full restoration of the Temple, God with us.
As this remnant of people gazes on the present state of things and is tempted to shrink back into their state of exiled anxiety, this word pierces through their experience to point them to a greater reality not simply rooted in their present, but in a past-present-future reality. This is where they are to find the strength to see this as a time to come out of our houses and “get to work”. And the amazing picture that we have here is that important trajectory that moves from the word of the Lord all the way to the nations. The work of the Church is for the world, especially in times of exile and rebuilding.
And the thing about this promise is that the physical Temple, the picture of God’s dwelling place is now Jesus, and Jesus dwells in us, in the world, in creation. The liberating message of the Exodus story flows out into a new image of Christ with us in our own exile, this time of Covid. As we gaze upon the destruction this virus has caused, this prophetic word calls us to be awakened to a greater sense of purpose and faith and grace. Christ with us, Christ for the world. It moves us from our state of anxiety and exile to see what this act of rebuilding entails in the world. This is the Christian mission.
As we continue to tread through this time of exile, may this word arrive as a message of comfort, peace and charge. God with us. The same message that we will be declaring in a couple months from now as we enter the season of Advent and Christmas. Therefore do not fear. Be strong in the hope and reality of the spirit and get to work rebuilding God’s Kingdom in our midst, that promised new creation, the new heavens and the new earth that looks to usher in the true treasure of the nations as a greater vision of hope and renewal.