MESSAGE FOR TODAY
by Doug Ward
Many readers of this publication have experienced-and perhaps are still experiencing-the upheaval that has accompanied the doctrinal changes instituted by the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) in the 1990s. Probably the most devastating aspect of ``the changes'' has been the sudden splintering and dispersion of a once extensive and close-knit spiritual community.
For example, I remember a time in 1993 when our family travelled
to the Ohio State Fairgrounds in
In the wake of a spiritual trauma like the WCG implosion, it is easy to
become discouraged, depressed, and disillusioned. Picking up the pieces and
starting over can be an imposing task. In such situations, we can receive
instruction and comfort from the words of the sixth century B.C. prophet
Haggai, who brought important messages from God to a remnant of the House of
Judah that had returned to
Although the Bible tells us very little about Haggai himself, it does record the exact dates in 520 B.C. upon which he gave his messages. The name Haggai means ``festival'' in Hebrew, and appropriately, two of his prophecies touch upon themes traditionally associated with the biblical fall festival season during which they were delivered. I will point out these themes in the course of our discussion of this short-but very meaningful-book.
Exile and Return
In 586 B.C., the troops of King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed
Jerusalem, burning down the magnificent temple and taking thousands of captives
back to Babylon, eleven hundred miles away (2 Chron.
36:17-21). The Jews languished in captivity during the period of
However, God had not forsaken His people. Through the prophet Jeremiah, He
promised to bring the captives back to the
The exiles returned to the land in time to build an altar in
The task facing the builders of the second temple must have seemed
overwhelming. One difficulty was the shortage of available manpower. By some
estimates, less than twenty per cent of the Jewish population in
A Time to Rethink Priorities
Given the formidable obstacles facing the former exiles, we can understand why they procrastinated, waiting for a more auspicious time in the indefinite future (Haggai 1:2). Haggai made it clear, though, that the people had strayed far from God in their thinking. Forgetting who they were, they had put their own comforts ahead of their covenant with God (verse 3). Their spiritual distance from God is implied in Haggai 1:2, where God refers to them as ``these people'' rather than ``my people.''
To help the inhabitants of
According to the rabbis, the purpose of the month of Elul is reflected in
two scriptural acronyms, Hebrew phrases in which the first letters of four
Hebrew words spell out the word ``Elul.'' The first appears in Deut. 30:6
(``The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your
descendants....''), part of a biblical passage that gives a reminder of man's
need to repent and a promise that God would grant cleansing and forgiveness
. The second is in Song of Songs 6:3 (``I am my lover's and my lover is
mine....''), a beautiful expression of God's covenant relationship with
Haggai's audience, led by Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest, received the message with open hearts (v. 12). God, in turn, then responded by giving the people the inspiration they needed in order to resume the project (vv. 13-14). Work began again just a few weeks later, on the twenty-fourth day of Elul.
Hope for the Future
The festivals of the seventh month arrived shortly after the
resumption of temple construction. As the community gathered in
Haggai assuaged the people's doubts by assuring them of God's abiding presence and protection. Just as God had been present with their ancestors during forty years of wandering in the wilderness-a fact memorialized in the very Feast they were celebrating-so He would continue to faithfully guide them (vv. 4-5). They were still God's treasured possession, the people called to represent Him before the nations (Exodus 19:5-6). And that was what really mattered, much more than the outward appearance of the new temple.
Haggai then looked ahead to a day when God would ``once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land'' (v. 6). Such events had occurred previously during the time of the Exodus from Egypt, especially at Mt. Sinai, where God had proclaimed the Ten Commandments and established His covenant with Israel (Ex. 19:18; Judges 5:4-5; Ps. 68:7-8; 114:7; Hab. 3:6). But this future ``shaking'' would be more universal, an event involving ``all nations'' (v. 7).
There has been controversy among modern translators about the identity of the ``desired of all nations'' (v. 7, NIV). The Hebrew word for ``desired'' can refer either to some person (as in I Sam. ; Dan. ; , 19) or to ``desired things''-i.e., wealth or treasure. 2 Those who translate the word as ``treasure'' or ``wealth'' (as in the NRSV and NASB) connect Haggai 2:7 with Isaiah 60:5-7, which pictures a future time when the wealth of the nations would be brought to Israel, and to God's temple in particular.
On the other hand, there is a long tradition in both Judaism and Christianity that Haggai 2:7 speaks of the ``Desired One'', the Messiah whose coming is what the whole world truly desires, whether or not every person is yet aware of it. We see a hint of this tradition in Heb. 12:26-29, which relates the time of ``shaking'' in Hag. 2:6-7 to the coming of God's unshakable kingdom, an event Christians have always associated with the second coming of Jesus. A messianic interpretation of Haggai 2:7 is supported by the last part of the verse, in which God promises to ``fill this house with glory.'' Other prophecies generally agreed to be messianic refer to the Messiah's coming as a revelation of God's glory (Isa. 40:5; 60:1; cf. Luke ).
Christian scholar Walter C. Kaiser  resolves this controversy by suggesting that the meaning of Haggai 2:7 includes both senses of ``desired,'' since material wealth will accompany the return of Jesus. One biblical passage that connects the coming of the Messiah with a great ingathering of wealth is Isa. 60:1-7, a text to which we have already referred. Kaiser's reading seems to be the one that best brings out the full implications of Haggai's wonderful prophecy.
After directing the thoughts of his audience to God's awesome plans for the future, Haggai related another striking promise from God:
`` `The glory of the present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,' says the LORD Almighty. `And in this place I will grant peace,' declares the LORD Almighty'' (Haggai 2:9, NIV).
These words contribute to the messianic thrust of Haggai's prophecy. From a
material standpoint, the rebuilt temple never matched the original one, even
after the extensive improvements carried out under Herod the Great in the first
century B.C. And in the centuries that followed the rebuilding of the temple,
there was continual conflict among the nations in that region. One event,
however, gave the
Haggai's encouraging message was a very fitting one for the Feast of
Tabernacles. The Feast looks back to the time when
The Feast has also been a time to contrast the temporary dwelling places of
A Call to Holiness
Two months later, Haggai delivered his final recorded prophecies
to the people of
According to Lev. 6:27, holiness could be transferred to a person via direct contact with a holy object (see also Ex. 29:37; Ezek. 44:19; Matt. ), but it could not be transferred by indirect ``second-degree'' contact (Haggai -12). However, second-degree contact with an unclean object-e.g., touching something that had been in contact with a corpse-did spread ritual defilement (Lev. 22:4-6; Haggai ).
Haggai brought out a spiritual analogy from these points. Years before, when the returning exiles initially became involved with the holy project of rebuilding the temple, they may have felt that the breach in their relationship with God was thereby automatically healed. Not so, said Haggai. Instead, repentance was required; holiness is not acquired by osmosis (v. 14). On the other hand, a negative attitude is contagious. Indeed, widespread feelings of doubt and despair had probably played a major role in stopping the rebuilding sixteen years before. This time around, the builders needed to trust in God instead of giving in to discouragement.
After delivering these admonitions, Haggai conveyed God's promise to bless the Israelites from that point on (v. 19). God then gave Haggai an additional message, directed especially to Zerubbabel the governor (vv. 20-23).
This final prophecy looked ahead again to a day when God would ``shake the heavens and the earth'' (v. 21). As we have seen, Haggai had previously connected such a day with the coming of the Messiah. This time, he described a final victory of God over all the kingdoms of the earth, using imagery that gave reminders of God's mighty deeds of the past. The overturning of royal thrones (v. 22) would be like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Deut. 29:23; Isa. 13:19), while the overthrow of chariots and the fall of horses and their riders would be comparable to the defeat of Pharaoh's army at the Red Sea (Ex. 15:1, 4-5). The phrase ``each by the sword of his brother'' recalled the miraculous victory of Gideon's tiny army over the Midianites (Judges ).
The prophecy concluded with a promise to Zerubbabel:
``On that day, I will take you, my servant Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, and I will make you like my signet ring, for I have chosen you'' (v. 23, NIV).
Several things about the wording of this promise suggest that it is another announcement of the coming of the Messiah. First there is the phrase ``I will take you'', which often indicates a special divine calling (Ex. 6:7; Joshua 24:3; 2 Sam. 7:8). The phrase ``I have chosen you'' has a similar connotation. Second, Zerubbabbel is called God's servant, a well-known designation for the Messiah (Isa. 42:1; 52:13; Ezek. 34:23; 37:24).
Finally, the symbolism of the signet ring is significant. Years before, when
King Jehoiachin of
Thus the book of Haggai ends with further assurance of God's faithfulness to
His covenant. God would bring about His purpose for
Lessons for Us
For those who have experienced the breakup of the WCG (or some other faith community), there is much to learn from the book of Haggai. I would like to highlight two lessons in particular:
God works with groups of all sizes. It is discouraging when a congregation shrinks to a fraction of its former size. It is also very difficult, after leaving a dying congregation, to start over again and build a new one. However, it is not the size of a group that matters. Instead, it is God's presence in the group that counts, and God can work through groups of any size (see e.g. Matt. ). Just as God rebuilt the temple through a comparatively small number of returning exiles, so He can do great things with any fellowship that is yielded to Him. His ``power is made perfect in weakness'' (2 Cor. 12:9). As Zechariah, a contemporary of Haggai, told Zerubbabel, " 'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says the LORD Almighty'' (Zech. 4:6).
God is faithful. After the dissolution of a
spiritual community, it is natural to feel lonely and abandoned. But just as
God watched over
The fall festival season is an ideal time to renew our commitment to God. Keeping in mind the lessons of the book of Haggai, we can move forward, trusting in Him. With His guidance, we can leave behind the mistakes and setbacks of the past and work to advance the cause of that great unshakable Kingdom.
1. Robert L. Alden, ``Haggai,'' in Vol. 7 of The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Zondervan,
2. John D. Garr, God's Lamp, Man's Light: Mysteries of
the Menorah, Restoration Foundation,
3. Alex Israel, ``The Concept of Teshuva in the Torah,'' commentary on Parashat Nitzavim available online at http://www.vbm-torah.org/parsha.61/46nitzavim.htm.
4. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The
Communicator's Commentary, Vol. 21: Micah-Malachi, Word Publishing,
5. Dwight A. Pryor, ``I am My Beloved's, and My Beloved is Mine,'' Haverim tape H0009-A, Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, P.O. Box 780815, Dayton, Ohio 45475.
2See the discussions by Walter C. Kaiser in  and in Hard Sayings of the Bible, InterVarsity Press, 1996.
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