Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

The common good was neglected

Psalm 17:5 - Hikers walking on rocky trail
Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

November 6, 2022

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Commentary on Haggai 1:15b-2:9

The prophet Haggai is a familiar figure from Sacred Scripture. He is mentioned in our passage under consideration as well as repeatedly in the Book of Haggai and twice in the Book of Ezra. He concerns himself with the remnant, the group of Israelites who were left behind during the Babylonian Exile when the leadership and highly skilled laborers of Jerusalem and Judah were deported to Mesopotamia. He uses that term in 2:2 and twice in Chapter 1. His language is reminiscent of the Prophet Jeremiah in particular. 

The Book of Haggai marks a clear departure from the Book of Joel and Habakkuk that have preceded this material in the last two weeks. Haggai’s concerns are much more closely related to the cult. The previous prophets could be seen as anti-priestly, but this material lacks that bias. The word “house” is used three times in reference to the Temple of Jerusalem in this passage, a reference that we never see in Habakkuk or Joel.

While all the prophets have a concern for the common good, we are more accustomed to them coming at it from an exploration of injustice such as the treatment of widows and orphans. This is what makes the prophet Haggai so abnormal. He comes at the common good through the lens of the Temple. This can be quite jarring for the contemporary preacher, but I believe we have to see the Temple as an institution at the center of Israelite life. Although we are accustomed to hearing the prophets criticize the excesses of cultic practice, we find ourselves in the opposite situation here. Many have returned to Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Book of Haggai, we hear how a small minority of them are prospering. While some enjoyed prosperity in their “paneled homes,” (1:3) the great majority suffered and the common good was neglected as symbolized by the Temple, “which lies in ruins” (1:9). I believe we can see in the Book of Haggai that the poor state of the Temple represents the poor state of the people.

The Book of Haggai is particularly apt for the society that those of us living in the USA encounter. We can think of the paneled homes in which those competing to journey to Mars live and compare it to the inexorable decline of the common good in our society. Renowned sociologist Robert Putnam has shown how we are living in a new Gilded Age with inequality increasing since 1980 to levels not seen since 1900. This has led to a deterioration of compromise in the public square, a fraying social fabric, and a descent into cultural narcissism. We can imagine that post-exilic Israel was dealing with similar challenges as the Temple, that symbol of solidarity, a strong social fabric, and cooperation lay in ruins.

Haggai 1:15b-2:9 lies at the chiastic heart of the Book of Haggai. In contrast to the scarcity and punishing climactic scenario described in Haggai 1, this passage offers hope for the future. Haggai can offer encouraging words by looking to the past as a sign of things to come. When Israel ordered its life in accordance with God’s wishes, God altered the balance of power and riches among the nations to the advantage of Israel. The oracle of Haggai highlights “the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt” (2:5a). The Hebrew here, especially by using the verb krth, brings to mind the covenant. In Leviticus 23:43, we also find allusion to bringing the people out of Egypt. As Israel was dependent on God in the wilderness for forty years and did not suffer, that same promise is being held out to the people in Haggai.

This promise starts in 2:4 when the civil and religious leaders, Zerubbabel and Joshua, are told to “take courage” and reminded by God that “I am with you.” This recalls the commitment of the LORD to their ancestors in Egypt (2:5). As the LORD provided for them in former times, the LORD will alter the balance of power and riches among the nations to the advantage of Israel once again. We are also reminded of the covenant loyalty that Israel has shown to God in the past and how prosperity will only follow if this becomes part of their future. The oracle of Haggai holds out restoration of former glories, but the individualism and independence that has left the Temple in ruins must be overcome by mutuality, solidarity, and compromise. The remnant of the people (2:2) and the elite who do not want to rebuild the house of the Lord (1:2) must compromise and work together.

Another essential presence in this passage is that of the “Spirit” (2:5). I believe we can connect this to the same spirit that led Israel through the wilderness. The Hebrew name for the Book of Numbers is In the Wilderness. We see the Spirit mentioned over ten times in this book primarily influenced by the priestly writer. The same spirit is called upon to help Israel restore its former glory. The promise rooted in the wilderness must be renewed in post-exilic Israel. If one looks at Psalms 51 and 104, we see even more explicit reference to the Spirit as instrumental in renewal. 

We find prominent discussion at the end of the oracle of treasure, prosperity, gold, and silver. In the proto-apocalyptic language of Haggai 2:6, a mighty act of God will violently transform the current world. This promise must be seen as connected to the common good rather than any sense of the Gospel of Prosperity. Haggai’s oracle is very clear that the gold and the silver belong to God rather than as rewards for covenant living. If Israel can live by the covenant as in former days, prosperity will follow. It would seem to be the prosperity of strong and stable institutions rather than the few who seem to be doing so well as the prophet writes.