Prophet says: Get to work!
June 1 — Haggai 1:1-11; June 8 — Haggai 1:12, 2:1-9
To readers of this column: time for a short quiz.
1: Who’s Haggai? If in the distant past you memorized the books of the Bible, you might vaguely remember he was an Old Testament prophet.
2: Have you read his book? No. Not unless you made a commitment to read through the Bible in a year and actually stuck to it.
3: When did Haggai prophesy? No clue — except it must have been B.C., since he’s in the Old Testament.
4: What was Haggai’s main concern? You got me there. He probably wrote, “Thus saith the Lord.” Maybe something like, “Behave yourselves and worship me, or you’re in big trouble!”
Full disclosure: Until I sat down to study these lessons, I had never read Haggai. In eighth grade, I decided to read through the Bible — starting, of course, with those racy stories in Genesis. My Bible-reading father discouraged me. “The Bible doesn’t always read like a story,” he said. “You’ll get to Leviticus and quit.” At the time, I never even made it through Exodus.
Many years later, as a new college professor assigned to teach Introduction to the Bible, our textbook said something similar. Don’t read the prophetic books without a good commentary, it warned. They are often collections of “thus says the Lord” oracles strung together. You must first understand the historical and political situations, or they won’t make sense.
So here’s the skinny on Haggai: Unlike the biblical authors who never date their writings, this prophet is very precise. The word of the Lord came to Haggai at four different times during the second year of the reign of the Persian king Darius I. These visitations are dated to the day and month of the year 520 B.C., from mid-August to mid-December. Otherwise, we know nothing about Haggai personally; English translations do not even clarify “his” gender.
Two hugely important events have already happened to the people living in Judea (now southern Israel). In 586 B.C. the Babylonians smashed their tiny kingdom, destroyed Solomon’s glorious temple in Jerusalem, and marched the top brass off to Babylon (now Iraq). Later, Persia (now Iran) conquered the Babylonians. By 539 B.C., the enlightened Persian king Cyrus allowed Jews to return home. Read about this in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
The problem that concerns Haggai is that, after 19 years back home, the wealthier Jews are living in “paneled houses” while the temple still lies in ruins. At the same time, food is scarce for the returning refugees. Yahweh owns up to having caused the drought — all because the people have not rebuilt the temple. This is the message Haggai brings to Judea’s governor, Zerubbabel, and to the high priest, Joshua.
Note Yahweh’s colorful language: “You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages . . . put the wages into a bag with holes” (1:6). “You have looked for much, and lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away” (1:9).
The warning is effective. By 1:12-15, Zerubbabel and Joshua rouse themselves and their people, and “they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts” (1:14). One month later, Haggai again receives a word from on high, encouraging everyone to keep on building because “my spirit abides among you” (2:5). God even promises, “I will shake the nations so that the treasure of all the nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor” (2:7).
Questions for discussion:
1. Does God still cause bad weather when people are neglectful or disobedient?
2. Why was this temple so important to Yahweh when, later in Acts 7:48, Stephen insists that the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands?
After retiring from teaching Bible at Messiah College, Reta Halteman Finger of Harrisonburg, Va., teaches part time at Eastern Mennonite University. She is co-author of Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation.
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