YEAR C: PENTECOST 24
November 7, 2010
Haggai is one of the last prophets of Israel in the classical tradition. He, along with Zechariah (at least that figure responsible for Zechariah 1-8; cf. Ezra 5:1) speaks to the people not long after the return from exile, as they encourage them in the task of rebuilding their lives and their faith. The date is about 520 BCE and the rise of the Persian empire with its policy of letting captive people return to their homelands, had given the people fresh hope. A group of people had returned from exile earlier (539 BCE) but rebuilding had not progressed much at that time. Now there was a need to refocus their lives. Much was against them. There was apparently a period of poor crops, even drought (Hag 1:5-11); and from some passages we sense there were conflicts within the population of Jerusalem, even over rebuilding the temple (Isaiah 56; 66:1-4; Ezra 4:1-5). There was much that cast doubt on the fulfilment of the grand vision of Second Isaiah, or even that of Jeremiah 31 (see Pentecost 21). New hopes appeared to be dashed again. Return from captivity did not seem to realise restoration.
Haggai and Zechariah are called to encourage this dispirited people. Their religious and social hope had been embodied in great political events. Now other events seem to have overtaken those earlier hopes. How were these people to cope with disappointment? Haggai 2 takes place after the feast of Tabernacles, a feast celebrating the eschatological glory of God’s kingdom. The disappointment would be all the more acute. Now, the Day of Atonement, a day of confession, was approaching (Neh 9:1).
The first thing the prophet tries to do is convince the people of the need for confession in relation to their hope. Their efforts to rebuild the temple at the heart of their community had been delayed, in part, by their focus on restoring their own houses (Hag 1:4). But loss of hope due to self-interest, or other ill-focused activity, is not the whole story. In the passage set for today the prophet does not continue his castigation. Rather, he takes a more positive line. ‘Take courage’ he says three times (v. 4), speaking to each of those involved: Zerubbabel the prince, Joshua the priest and the people of the land. This is not a facile encouragement; ‘pull up your socks’ so to speak. The basis of it is the presence of God with them, God’s spirit dwelling/abiding among them. The prophet cuts to the heart of their faith, and their hope. The people were dispirited because the present effort lacked in comparison to the glories of the former temple (an image which had no doubt grown over the decades since the temple’s destruction). They were confusing the details of temple symbolism, its glorious architecture and cultic apparatus, with what the temple pointed toward. Faithful people are constantly challenged to decide what is at the heart of their faith, and what is ‘peripheral’; what is lasting; and what is passing. And this is even more difficult when the latter is closely associated with matters of substance. The prophet reminds the people of God’s promise when he brought their ancestors out of Egypt (v. 5). That was the event that defined who this people were. He did not just reiterate the old tradition to jolly them along or give them some fleeting comfort. He connects their present situation to their long history, and to the very part of it that was defining in the people’s experience. The present is now seen as part of an ongoing exodus, where existence depends on one thing alone: the presence of God. Genuine piety, as one writer says, weeps at its own inability to do what is worthy of God (cf. 1 Kgs 8:27). It recognises its own sinfulness but is also aware that it can never adequately contain the divine presence; all the while knowing the reality of that presence.
But the prophet goes on to speak of the future glory of ‘this house’ they are building (vv. 6-9). We need to be careful here. It may sound as if the prophet is simply saying to the people: ‘don’t worry; the glory this temple lacks now will (one day) be seen’. In other words, what you hoped for and do not see today, you just have to wait for a little longer. The writer of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament uses this argument. When referring to Hag 2:6, he adds the words ‘yet once more’ (Heb 12:26-28). While this may be of help in some circumstances, where hope seems totally lost, in other contexts it can lead to a rather shallow ‘pie in the sky when you die’ type of faith. However, Haggai’s message need not lead to that. We should note that the subject of most of the verbs in vv. 6-9 is the Lord. The Lord is the one who will establish a glorious future for the temple, even if not yet. The language of these verses is that of theophany recalling the Lord’s presence on Mt Sinai (Exod. 19:16-20). It is also the language of creation and speaks of the Lord’s sovereignty over all things. The shaking of nations fits into this. The prophet encourages the people to see ‘the bigger picture’ in their meagre efforts. The present project may be small, but is enfolds an eschatological reality.
One final point should be noted. What is the point of striving to build the temple? Is it simply for the glory of the building itself? Is it for the power and support of the priests? The passage associates only one thing with the temple – the presence of God – and that leads back to the liturgy that takes place in the temple. It is what is embodied in the temple, what the liturgy of the temple points toward that is of utmost importance. Liturgy focuses on what is at the heart of any faith – the presence God. The stress on the temple is not so much for its own material glory, nor for the privilege and power of the priestly cast, and especially not for any false sense of security (cf. Jeremiah 7). It is really about what goes on in the temple and what that represents.
This is ultimately what Haggai struggles for in encouraging the people in their task. He strives to help them understand the presence that is already there for them; the presence that is not just the end of their hopes, something manifest when the temple is complete, but the very thing that allows the hoping and the building to take place.
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