Category Archives: Haggai

The Return Home: A Sermon on the Return of the Remnant to Judah

James Tissot, The Prophet Haggai

James Tissot, The Prophet Haggai

We have been on a journey with God’s people, it is a story where God has continued to be faithful, but the people often have not. We went through a series of times where the kings and the people “did evil in the eyes of the Lord” and finally the Lord used first Assyria and then Babylon to take the people into exile. While in exile we heard the stories of Daniel and Mesach, Shadrach and Abendigo and how they were faithful in serving God while in Babylon, even though it put them at extremely high personal risk: being thrown into the fiery furnace for Mesach, Shadrach and Abendigo and into the lions den for Daniel but in the midst of these episodes God was faithful, and just like in the story of Joseph their faithfulness both gave witness to God as well as continuing to allow them to be placed in positions of greater authority. The Babylonian exile is a difficult time in the people’s story, but it is also the time when the really begin to intentionally gather together there stories, the law and the prophets so they can preserve who they are as strangers in a foreign land, but God has not abandoned them, and the time has come to return home.

Ezra begins the report of the return home like this:

In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, the Lord fulfilled the prophecy he had given through Jeremiah. He stirred the heart of Cyrus to put this proclamation in writing and to send it throughout his kingdom:“This is what King Cyrus of Persia says: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has appointed me to build him a temple at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Any of you who are his people may go to Jerusalem in Judah to rebuild this temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, who lives in Jerusalem. And may your God be with you! Ezra 1: 1-3

So the journey  begins, and everything seems great, but of all the people who went into exile, only 42,360 people decide to go back. Now in the midst of a massive empire that spreads from North Africa, through the Middle East and into Greece, roughly 2/3 the size of the United States, we are talking about an area the size of Rhode Island with a population density roughly that of Cass County. What is left, the remnant of Israel and Judah are no longer major players on the world stage, and yet what they do is important to the God who is not just behind them but also in charge of the whole world. And so we have this tiny remnant of the people returning home, farms and households are destroyed, Jerusalem is in shambles, the temple is gone and they have come home to begin to rebuild. There is a lot of work ahead for this faithful remnant who decides to make the journey home. Everything starts out great, they set up an alter, they begin to reconstruct the temple and lay the foundation and then they run into challenges. They start to receive resistance from the people around them, they encounter sabotage and political pressure to stop construction and they do. The foundation is laid, an altar is out but there is no temple and this is not a short delay, it is 18 years that the people go off and they take care of their own farms and houses and so the Lord sends the prophets Haggai and Zechariah who both minister at the same time and call the people and leaders back to the task of completing the temple. This is from the prophet Haggai:

On August 29 of the second year of King Darius’s reign, the LORD gave a message through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Jeshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest.2 “This is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies says: The people are saying, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD.'” 3 Then the LORD sent this message through the prophet Haggai: 4 “Why are you living in luxurious houses while my house lies in ruins? 5 This is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies says: Look at what’s happening to you! 6 You have planted much but harvest little. You eat but are not satisfied. You drink but are still thirsty. You put on clothes but cannot keep warm. Your wages disappear as though you were putting them in pockets filled with holes! Haggai 1: 1-6

                 The people have focused on their own concerns, but God through the prophets is calling them again to be God’s people, to trust God and to recommit to the building of the temple. Now earlier in the story the prophets would speak and the people would ignore them, but not so this time. Haggai and Zechariah speak and the people and the leaders respond. On August 29th the prophet speaks and on September 21st the construction begins in earnest, and the voice of the God coming through the prophets becomes one of encouraging the people for the task they have ahead of them. You see, rebuilding the temple is not an easy process, they couldn’t go to Lowe’s or Home Depot and pick up pretreated lumber, buy pre-fabricated doors and curtains, they had to go and bring the materials and craft them to be used for the building of God’s temple. Yet the people did, they heard, they listened and the Lord was with them in the midst of the process.

So if God can use this small remnant  of a conquered people to be his people, and to be a part of God’s story, if God can take their gifts and use them –what gifts might God be calling us to bring? Ultimately what I bring might seem so small, and yet what I do matters to God. You see God’s desire is to dwell among us, God wants to come down to be there with God’s people, God wants to bring God’s upper story down to merge with the lower story that we see every day. God wants God’s love and will for the world to take on flesh and be enacted and lived and that involves moving beyond what seems to be in our own best interest. Sometimes it seems impossible, but God works through both the ordinary and the amazing. Hear some of the words of the prophet Zechariah who ministered at the same time as Haggai:

6 “This is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies says: All this may seem impossible to you now, a small remnant of God’s people. But is it impossible for me? says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies. 7 “This is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies says: You can be sure that I will rescue my people from the east and from the west. 8 I will bring them home again to live safely in Jerusalem. They will be my people, and I will be faithful and just toward them as their God.  9 “This is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies says: Be strong and finish the task! Ever since the laying of the foundation of the Temple of the LORD of Heaven’s Armies, you have heard what the prophets have been saying about completing the building. 10 Before the work on the Temple began, there were no jobs and no money to hire people or animals. No traveler was safe from the enemy, for there were enemies on all sides. I had turned everyone against each other.  11 “But now I will not treat the remnant of my people as I treated them before, says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies. 12 For I am planting seeds of peace and prosperity among you. The grapevines will be heavy with fruit. The earth will produce its crops, and the heavens will release the dew. Once more I will cause the remnant in Judah and Israel to inherit these blessings. 13 Among the other nations, Judah and Israel became symbols of a cursed nation. But no longer! Now I will rescue you and make you both a symbol and a source of blessing. So don’t be afraid. Be strong, and get on with rebuilding the Temple!

Zechariah 8: 6-13

It may be God’s work, it may be God’s story, but our lives, our work, our gifts, our hands have a part in that story. For the last several years the Nebraska synod has used the motto “God’s work, our hands” to talk about our work together in God’s mission to the world. Like the people of Judah returning home, bringing together their gifts to build the temple ultimately to give glory to God in their lives and among the nations, as baptized children of God we remember that Jesus told us to, “let our lives shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” God wants our lives to be a part of God’s work in the world. We may think we aren’t good enough, or don’t have enough to bring, but remember this story from Jesus life:

3 Meanwhile, Jesus was in Bethany at the home of Simon, a man who had previously had leprosy. While he was eating, a woman came in with a beautiful alabaster jar of expensive perfume made from essence of nard. She broke open the jar and poured the perfume over his head. 4 Some of those at the table were indignant. “Why waste such expensive perfume?” they asked. 5 “It could have been sold for a year’s wages and the money given to the poor!” So they scolded her harshly.  6 But Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. Why criticize her for doing such a good thing to me? 7 You will always have the poor among you, and you can help them whenever you want to. But you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could and has anointed my body for burial ahead of time. 9 I tell you the truth, wherever the Good News is preached throughout the world, this woman’s deed will be remembered and discussed.” Mark 14: 3-9

I’ll speak for myself here, I know there are many times I am conflicted because there are so many things that could and should be done, so many needs of the world, and I can be quick to criticize my own actions and occasionally the actions of others, but the reality is that here is a woman who out of love for Jesus comes and makes this extraordinary waste of perfume and resources from the world’s perspective…think of what I could have done with the money from that…it could better have been spent on…I could have done this for me if I didn’t give to church, etc. But one of the things I am coming to believe more and more is that I am trying to lead the life that I think I am called to lead, and sometimes that means fighting against my own instincts for self-preservation. It is so easy to get trapped into putting all my efforts into building my own paneled house, or making sure that I have enough set aside to deal with emergencies, to invest in my retirement, to buy a nice car, or to have new clothes, to go out to eat whenever I want, or even to be completely debt free—but if I wait to give to God until everything I want is paid for and all the stars line up and I have the perfect job and I make more than enough and I can give out of my abundance, then I’ll never give. It’s like the conversation I had several years ago with a friend of mine from the army about having kids, if you wait to have kids until you feel like you are ready financially, career wise, etc… to have kids then you will never have kids. Sometimes in life to be the people we want to be and the people God calls us to be we have to do things that to others may not make sense, we have to turn away from our own self interest and give back to God, and make the effort to put God’s desires and activities as a part of our lives.

Martin Luther talked frequently about sin as ‘being turned inward on oneself’ and ultimately all commandments come from the first commandment of placing God in God’s proper place and in Luther’s words “to fear, love and trust God above all things.” And I’ve had several of those conversations with God, the type of conversations where the thought comes up “are you sure God” and the sense I get back is “will you trust me” Will you trust that if you work with me, that I will give you the things you need? Will you trust me to bring you beyond this moment to where things may be difficult to the time to a time where you can look back and see the way I sustained you and used your gifts and your hands as a part of my story? Will you trust me?

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Trusting a Dream: Haggai 2

Bust of the Prophet Haggai by GIovanni Pisano, last quarter of the 13th Century

Bust of the Prophet Haggai by Giovanni Pisano, last quarter of the 13th Century

Haggai 2

In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the prophet Haggai, saying: 2 Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, 3 Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? 4 Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the LORD; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the LORD; work, for I am with you, says the LORD of hosts, 5 according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. 6 For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; 7 and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the LORD of hosts. 8 The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the LORD of hosts. 9 The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the LORD of hosts.

 10 On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came by the prophet Haggai, saying: 11 Thus says the LORD of hosts: Ask the priests for a ruling: 12 If one carries consecrated meat in the fold of one’s garment, and with the fold touches bread, or stew, or wine, or oil, or any kind of food, does it become holy? The priests answered, “No.” 13 Then Haggai said, “If one who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?” The priests answered, “Yes, it becomes unclean.”

 14 Haggai then said, So is it with this people, and with this nation before me, says the LORD; and so with every work of their hands; and what they offer there is unclean. 15 But now, consider what will come to pass from this day on. Before a stone was placed upon a stone in the LORD’s temple, 16 how did you fare? When one came to a heap of twenty measures, there were but ten; when one came to the wine vat to draw fifty measures, there were but twenty. 17 I struck you and all the products of your toil with blight and mildew and hail; yet you did not return to me, says the LORD. 18 Consider from this day on, from the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month. Since the day that the foundation of the LORD’s temple was laid, consider: 19 Is there any seed left in the barn? Do the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree still yield nothing? From this day on I will bless you.

 20 The word of the LORD came a second time to Haggai on the twenty-fourth day of the month: 21 Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying, I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, 22 and to overthrow the throne of kingdoms; I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders; and the horses and their riders shall fall, every one by the sword of a comrade. 23 On that day, says the LORD of hosts, I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, son of Shealtiel, says the LORD, and make you like a signet ring; for I have chosen you, says the LORD of hosts.


It is easy to start a project, but when something is going to take a while it may be harder to bring it to completion. For example, many people make New Years Resolutions, few manage to keep them throughout the year. Weight loss either through exercise or diet works really well on the front end, but most people quit and never make the changes that are necessary to prevent the weight from returning. A long building project may start out great, but if it takes more than a couple weekends it may begin occupying space in the garage. I have started a project of going through the book of Jeremiah, all 52 chapters and I’m reluctant to publish anything until I get far enough in to be confident I might actually finish it (or my place of authority work which is currently in a season of writers block because I really am not at the point where I feel confident in my own position to write about what should logically come next, the Rise of Islam). Well in Haggai, the people and the leaders in Judah are re-embarking on a long term construction project with the temple. It is not going to go together overnight or even in a year, but they have begun. God here is encouraging them that he will be with them through this project, that they will be blessed in this project and that ultimately the silver and gold of the nations will come to fill the house with splendor.

This is a people who has dealt with drought and they are having to learn to think in a new way. In a drought you go into survival mode, you hoard what you have, but God is trying to take them into a way of living with enough, or maybe even abundance. A way of living where they can focus on something that can be used by everyone. It is a much more civic and theologically minded approach to living. There is some benefit to the temple for everyone, and the people will be blessed in and through its construction.

A couple thoughts: Haggai definitely works from what is sometimes called a Deuteronomic theology “If you do good you will be blessed, if you do evil you will be cursed” this is not the New Testament’s predominant theology, but I do think we do need to consider it. In what ways do our actions and the ways in which we live effect our wealth, status, happiness, etc… There is obviously not a one to one correlation, and often those who live the most righteous appearing lives seem to suffer the most, but God appears to believe that our actions are important for God’s plans and that God will add his work to the work the people are doing.

One of the dynamics that may be functioning is the dynamic of memory. Some of the older people may remember the temple torn down by the Babylonians, and the temple being built is ‘as nothing’ and this happens in churches as well. “I remember the way it was when I grew up” and while the memories may be good they can also be dangerous. Any time our memory of the past is greater than our hope for the future we are approaching the point of despair. I know people who grasp for a past that is no longer present and fear the present and future, but there are no time machines and we are a people who are future oriented not past oriented.

As W. Eugene March correctly states, “Although the main concern of Haggai the prophet was the rebuilding and rededication of a relatively insignificant temple in a small district in the backwaters of the Persian Empire (at least as far as the world would have judged it), the real issue is worldwide domination of the Lord of hosts.” (Achtemeier, Elizabeth et. al 1999, 7:731) The larger church I am a part of for the last couple of years has used the slogan, “God’s work, our hands” and this is one of those times where the work of our hands may seem insignificant but we trust that the  impact may be larger than what we know.  Just as it may not seem like Zerubbabel is not very significant, but in God’s eyes he is chosen, a signet ring. Maybe it is only a dream, and that is always the risk of trusting and faith, but it is a dream worth having.

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Build the House: Haggai 1

Russian Icon of the Holy Prophet Haggai

Russian Icon of the Holy Prophet Haggai

Haggai 1

                 In the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest: 2 Thus says the LORD of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the LORD’s house. 3 Then the word of the LORD came by the prophet Haggai, saying: 4 Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? 5 Now therefore thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider how you have fared. 6 You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.

               7 Thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider how you have fared. 8 Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored, says the LORD. 9 You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the LORD of hosts. Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses. 10 Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. 11 And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the soil produces, on human beings and animals, and on all their labors.

                12 Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, and Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, with all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the LORD their God, and the words of the prophet Haggai, as the LORD their God had sent him; and the people feared the LORD. 13 Then Haggai, the messenger of the LORD, spoke to the people with the LORD’s message, saying, I am with you, says the LORD. 14 And the LORD stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and worked on the house of the LORD of hosts, their God, 15 on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month.

One of the shorter books in the bible, one of the 12 Minor Prophets[i] Haggai speaks to the people of God with the voice of the Lord and unlike many of the other prophets the people listen. To set the scene this entire short book takes place in the span of about 3 ½ months roughly 18 years after the return of the exiles from Babylon (I deal briefly with this in The Place of Authority:  A Brief History Part 4:Re-establishment, Disillusionment and Germination) This is the period covered in the book of Ezra, and it is also the time of the prophet Zechariah.[ii]When the people who returned from the exile in Babylon came back the land was not vacant, many of the poorer people had been left behind to farm the land and so when the people came back there was some period of time where people were “re-claiming” their family lands (or dispossessing others already working the land), hence a focus on individuals rebuilding their houses.  To put this all in context, the land of Judah is a small territory within the larger Persian empire at this point (roughly the size of Rhode Island) which is sparsely populated (this is an agrarian society) with land that is not producing well. Haggai’s message is one predominantly of hope coming from the difficult situation of coming together as a post-exilic[iii] people. (Haggai fixes the time of each oracle precisely, unlike most prophets and most scholars seem to agree that the record we have comes from shortly after this point. By our reckoning the first date mentioned in verse 1 is August 29, 520 BCE, and work begins on September 21, 520 BCE. (Actemeier, Elizabeth et. al 1999, 7:711) The re-settlement of Judah has stalled, the people have become focused on their own problems and the temple begun at the beginning of the resettlement remains a great unfinished project, a daily reminder of their weakness in the midst of the nations that surround them. The people have settled into a communal depression where they have settled in and are doing what they feel they need to do, and yet it takes something new to bring them out of this. Haggai, Zechariah, Zerubbabel, and Joshua are all used by the Lord to turn this situation around.

Haggai is a person with no known heritage, unlike Zerubbabel and Joshua we don’t know his family or where he comes from, all we have is the message. The message we have here is like splashing your face with ice water, it is designed to wake up the people, to shake them out of their slumber. It, like all the prophets, is more poetry than dissertation. Haggai is not interested in a debate about when God causes hardship and famines; rather he is focused on the behavior God desires from the people. God desires to dwell among them; God would take pleasure in the temple.  Relatively quickly the people do come together, work resumes, and the Spirit of the Lord stirs up the leadership. In this post-exilic period the prophet is actually heard and the prophet-king-priest triumvirate work together and the work begins.

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[i] I follow the delineation of minor verses major prophets where Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel are Major Prophets by the size of their respective works (Isaiah 65 chapters, Jeremiah 52 +5 in Lamentations, and Ezekiel 48) where the Minor Prophets recorded works are significantly shorter. This is not a value judgment on the importance of their words. Daniel is typically classed by Hebrew scholars as a part of the writings rather than being place with either the major or minor prophets.

[ii] Zechariah and Haggai are explicitly mentioned in Ezra 5:1 as prophets working at the same time for the re-establishment of the temple.

[iii] Post-exilic in this context refers to the time after the Babylonian exile which took place beginning in 597BCE, with a more substantial portion of the population taken in 587BCE, post-exilic begins in 538 BCE with the rise of the Persian empire)