The return from exile
(New Revised Standard Version)
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, 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. 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. 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: 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.
The word of the Lord came a second time to Haggai on the twenty-fourth day of the month: Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying, I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, 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. 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.
The book of Haggai is very short – it is only two chapters long – so you might like to read all of it. It is the tenth part of the Book of Twelve, the twelve minor prophets that we find near the end of the Old Testament in our Bibles. You can find it between Zechariah and Zephaniah.
It dates from the post-exilic period when God’s people had returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. Although the people had returned in 539BC, and had rebuilt the altar and laid the foundations of the temple, they had then downed tools and gone away to rebuild their homes and work on their farms.
Their priorities had changed and nineteen years on they had still not done any further work on rebuilding the temple. In the intervening years there had been frequent periods of drought and poor harvests.
In 520 BC Haggai gives four words of prophecy. The central message is about the rebuilding of the temple. The temple was so important because, in the life of Israel, it was both the place of God’s special presence, where he dwelt with his people, and the place of proper worship. So, the theme of all four words of prophecy was encouragement to return to the important task of rebuilding the temple.
We are focusing on the last two prophecies for our reading, but it is helpful to know about the first two. Haggai begins by telling the people that the recent droughts and failures of crops have happened because they have disobeyed the covenant by being so concerned with their own houses and farms that they have ignored their covenant duty to rebuild God’s house.
The people accept Haggai’s word straight away and get started. A few weeks later, he brings them a second word. This time it is encouragement to keep going:
“the latter splendour 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.”Haggai 2.9
Haggai begins the third word of prophecy, that’s our reading today, by reminding the people of how things were before they recommitted themselves to rebuilding God’s house:
- the harvests were only half what they expected,
- the wine production was even less,
- and they experienced blight and mildew and hail.
Now, from this day on, as a result of their obedience, there will be blessing.
There are some key phrases that Haggai uses that stand out for me.
He asks the people questions, to encourage them to reflect more deeply about what is happening. Several times he tells them to “consider”. Some translations say “give careful thought”. It’s a good question for us to ask ourselves as well: what is going on around us? In our lives and in our community? Where is God at work? What are God’s priorities?
He also brings words of affirmation and promise to Zerubbabel, who is a descendant of King David, but only a vassal governor to the Persian Empire. Earthly empires and kingdoms will be torn down, but God has chosen him. God sees his kingly qualities of leadership:
“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.”Haggai 2.23
Zerubbabel shows the sorts of qualities that a leader needs to have. He is open to allow the Lord to lead him. He sets an example of obedience and faithfulness. Together with the high priest and the rest of the people he is open to allow the Lord to stir up his spirit to obey him in the task that he has given them, to rebuild the temple.
This is why the Lord says he will make him “like a signet ring”. The signet ring is a symbol of kingship, so he will be like a king in God’s eyes.
Haggai reminds us of the fundamental message of promise:
- beyond judgement there is grace,
- and God’s commitment to be with his people is unlimited.
We need to trust God in the dark and difficult times. We need to be faithful and obedient and to put his priorities first in our lives as a community.
The temple was the visible sign in Haggai’s time that God dwelt with his people. We see the fulfilment of that promise that God dwells with us in the coming of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit.
Lord thank you that you are God with us, Emmanuel.
Thank you for the outpouring of your grace.
Help us to give careful thought to what is going on today.
What are our priorities?
What are your priorities?
May we be open to the guidance of your Holy Spirit
and may we respond in faith and obedience today.
May we share in the work of building your kingdom here,
in the communities where we belong.