Obey the Lord (June 1, 2014)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: Haggai 1:1-11

Having spent several lessons considering what the Synoptic Gospels tell us about the mission and teachings of Jesus, we now turn to one of the least known and appreciated books of the Bible. Even many faithful Bible-reading Christians have trouble finding the little book of Haggai in the Old Testament. Preachers seldom base their sermons on verses from the two brief chapters of this sixth century BCE minor prophet. When they do, it is often because a building campaign is about to begin.

Haggai 1:1-2 — The temple in Jerusalem needs to be rebuilt. 

A special feature of this prophetic book is that contains precise dates. Haggai delivered his first prophetic words on August 29, 520 BCE. It was the beginning of a new era in the history of Israel. The Persian King Darius I had recently succeeded to the throne following Cyrus the Great, who had permitted Jewish exiles to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem in 539 BCE (Ezra 1:2-4; 6:3-5). Many Jews had high hopes that their future as a people looked bright. Although they were still under the dominance of a new super power, Persia, the return to their homeland meant that they could rebuild their towns and their homes.

However, one important part of their homeland had not been rebuilt, and that was Haggai’s primary concern. No real progress had been made on rebuilding the temple, the house of God, 19 years after exiles had returned to Jerusalem. So Haggai directed the prophetic message he had received from God to Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah, and to Joshua, the high priest.

Speaking in God’s name, Haggai says, “These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.” Unfortunately, Haggai does not identify explicitly who “these people” are. The Jewish community in Jerusalem was divided. Descendants of the exiled ruling elite had recently returned from exile and were focused on rebuilding their own lives and their upper class prerogatives in Jerusalem. Other dwellers in Jerusalem, descendants of less prominent families who had not been carried off to Babylon, retained memories of earlier prophets like Jeremiah and were hoping to restore the worship of Yahweh.

Haggai 1:3-6 — Haggai confronts the comfortable with hard questions. 

Haggai bluntly challenges the wealthier inhabitants of Jerusalem by asking if the time is right for them to live in fancy houses when God’s house is still in ruins. Haggai exhorts the people to take a hard look at their situation. They will see that their own needs are not being met. The yield of their crops is insufficient. They are short of water and lack adequate clothing. Moreover, if they earn any money, their wages slip through their grasp as if their money bags were riddled with holes. Certainly such seemingly needy people would have difficulty finding time to work on what God wants. Haggai asks what the reason for their frustrations could be.

Haggai 1:7-11 — God is punishing the inhabitants of Jerusalem for failing to rebuild the temple

Again Haggai is very blunt and direct. God has withheld the life-giving rain and rendered the earth barren. God has sent a severe drought. Why? Because no progress has been made on reconstructing God’s own house, the temple in Jerusalem, Haggai concludes. What little the inhabitants of Jerusalem had accomplished for themselves, God had rejected and negated. God’s judgment on their activities extended to the land and what it normally produced. And that was not all. Even the efforts of the people and their animals had been affected by the drought.

Haggai’s message for the leaders in Jerusalem is very straightforward: Start rebuilding the house of God. Get lumber from the hillsides to erect a building that would please and honor God, he demanded. In his emphasis on rebuilding the temple, Haggai departs from the tradition of earlier prophets in Israel. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah and Amos often were critical of the temple and its leaders. Instead, Haggai urges the people to build a temple that will please and honor God.

For discussion 

  • Does God send natural disasters like a drought to punish people for their sins?
  • The situation of some of the residents of Jerusalem described in Haggai 1:6 could easily mirror the struggles of many people who struggle to pay their bills today. Do you agree with Haggai that there is something wrong when some people in the community live in richly furnished houses while others lack the basic necessities of life?