Commentary on Haggai 1:15b-2:9
Really. Tell this story of a people trying to rebuild their lives and determine where God is in the midst of it.
Recount this chronicle of two generations, one with memories of a glorious past and one with some hopes for a faithful future. Announce this news about God the same yesterday, today, and forever who is always doing a new thing.
A time of transition
The entire book of Haggai is only two chapters long and covers a span of several months in the year 520 BCE. The setting is Jerusalem, about nine years after King Cyrus of Persia announced that the peoples who had earlier been exiled by the Babylonians could return to their homelands. They could settle in, rebuild, and worship as they wished. Persia would retain ultimate control, but Judea would have some modicum of say in the everyday order.
So, exiled Judeans—though mostly their descendants—returned to Jerusalem and set about the difficult work of rebuilding a city. It was not a wholly peaceful time as the returnees had conflict with those who had remained among the rubble and who had moved in during the interim (for example, Ezra 4-6, 9; Nehemiah 4). One source of conflict was the building of the temple. In the first chapter of Haggai, some of the recently returned people suggest that the temple building was all moving too fast—they can’t afford it yet. Haggai, in a fiery oracle, reminds them that they have homes and are quickly accumulating wealth (Haggai 1:6). Surely they must have something for their God, too. The Temple must be built now, Haggai argues, because it represents their priorities and their allegiance to God who sustains them (Haggai 1:4).
In the pericope assigned for today, Haggai names the concern of some that the new temple was not good enough. There were a few in the community who remembered the former Temple, the one that Solomon had built and that had been destroyed in the 587 BCE siege of Jerusalem. In their minds, this newfangled one didn’t hold a candle to it (Haggai 2:2). In response to this concern, Haggai tells the people to be strong, to act, and to remember what God has previously done.
Remember the past because it points to the future
Haggai’s three-fold imperative to “take courage” (Haggai 2:4) may call to mind Joshua’s refrain to the people to “be strong and courageous” as he gathered the people of Israel to prepare for entrance into the land of Canaan (Joshua 1:6, 7, 9, 18). In Haggai the call to take courage goes out to the political and religious leaders, as well as the people as a whole, as they are rebuilding within that same land.
In a clearer reference to the past, Haggai further reminds the uncertain people about the Exodus and settlement traditions. First, there is the clear naming of God’s great act of salvation in leading the people from slavery to freedom (Haggai 2:5). Secondly, the NRSV phrase, “the promise that I made you” in verse 5 does not quite capture the fullness of the Hebrew word karat, a word that literally means “to cut” but is also the technical language used in making covenants (compare Exodus 34:27; Deuteronomy 31:16; Isaiah 28:15; Zechariah 11:10). The covenant in question, of course, is the Sinai Covenant, made at Mount Sinai after the Exodus from Egypt. The affirmation here is that the future is in line with this past covenant. Thirdly, the second half of verse five affirms that God was present with them at that time, perhaps an allusion to the fire and cloud that led the people from Egypt to Mount Sinai (Exodus 13:21-22; 14:19-24; 19:9, 16) but likely also a reference to the tabernacle, the movable tent sanctuary in which God’s glory resided during Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness (Exodus 40:34-38). This allusion to the tabernacle is particularly apt in the context of Haggai affirming that the temple currently being built is plenty good enough for God. It is as if Haggai is saying, “Remember the tent? God’s glory was able to reside there, too.” The people need not fear the future. Finally, the statement that God will shake heavens, earth, sea, land, and nations is reminiscent of other theophanies in which God shakes nations and lands in a display of power (for example Judges 5:4; 2 Samuel 22:8; Isaiah 13:13; 29:6). God’s glory will fill this house too. In these two verses Haggai affirms that looking to the past has great value, as it affirms the mighty acts of God. At the same time, Haggai suggests that it is these past works that point the people toward a future in which God will continue to act.
This rhetorical device of using language and images from the past to convince a group of nostalgic people that God continues to be at work in ways that on the surface seem unrecognizable both affirms their memory past and challenges them to see God do such things again. The new temple—as much as a sign of God’s presence in their midst as a place to gather for cultic ritual—would be different than the old one, but God’s works would be the same merciful, salvific, and glorious works that God had been doing all along.
In the concerns and fears that Haggai addresses, one can hear the voices of the faithful from many different times and places who react to their own anxieties with memories of halcyon days. Deteriorating buildings with cost prohibitive upkeep, congregations and communities that look different than in years past, and a world that is changes faster than many can comprehend can lead many to look back to times that seem to have been better or easier or more glorious. Haggai’s prophecy calls us to look backward not with wistfulness for what is gone but with hope that God who has been faithful in the past will just as faithfully create a new future.