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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 Columbus for a special worship service. WCG Pastor General Joseph W. Tkach was the visiting speaker, and church members from around Ohio, over eight thousand all together, were in attendance. Among them were many people whom we had met over the years, and we stayed for a long time after the service to catch up with old acquaintances. In contrast, when new Pastor General Joseph W. Tkach Jr. came to Anderson, Indiana, in 1997, the attendance was perhaps three hundred. During the intervening years, the people we knew in Columbus in 1993 had scattered in many directions. Further scattering of the WCG community has continued to this day.

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 Jerusalem from Babylonian exile. The Jewish people had endured an enormous national tragedy, and Haggai's prophecies provided them with much-needed direction, motivation, and hope. Strengthened by Haggai's words, they were able to rebuild the temple of God. In this article I will examine the book of Haggai, paying attention both to its meaning for its original audience and to its implications for us today.

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 Babylon's dominance.

However, God had not forsaken His people. Through the prophet Jeremiah, He promised to bring the captives back to the land of Israel (Jer. 29:10-14). In 539 B.C., the Medes and Persians, led by King Cyrus, overthrew Babylon. Shortly thereafter, Cyrus issued a proclamation calling upon the people of Judah to return to Jerusalem and build a new temple (Ezra 1:1-4). The fifty thousand people who answered the call (Ezra 2:64) were provided with gold and silver articles that had been taken by the Babylonians from Solomon's temple (Ezra 1:7-11).

The exiles returned to the land in time to build an altar in Jerusalem and celebrate the fall festivals in 537 B.C. (Ezra 3:1-6). Then they gathered materials and prepared to start the building of the new temple. The laying of the foundation was accompanied by great fanfare, but those in attendance experienced a bittersweet mixture of emotions. While the younger generation rejoiced, the older people who had seen the first temple wept, realizing that the new building would be nothing compared to the original one (Ezra 3:7-13).

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 Babylon had chosen to return to Israel [2, p. 114]. Another problem was lack of resources. In comparison to the tons of gold and silver that David had collected for the first temple, the supplies on hand for the rebuilding were meager indeed. 1 And while the original temple had been constructed in a time of peace, the returning exiles faced harassment from their neighbors, the Samaritans (Ezra 4:1-5). Considering these handicaps, it is not surprising that construction of the new temple soon came to a standstill. Sixteen years later, when God raised up Haggai with a message for the people of Jerusalem, the project remained in limbo (v. 24).

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 Jerusalem reconsider their priorities, God had sent drought and famine as a ``wake-up call'' (vv. 6-11). Haggai reminded the people of their current plight, repeating the admonition, ``Give careful thought to your ways'' (vv. 5,7). This phrase, which in Hebrew literally means ``keep your heart on your roads'' [1], is especially apt for the season of the year in which it was spoken. Haggai gave this prophecy on the first day of Elul, the sixth month of the Hebrew calendar (v. 1). For Jews, the first day of Elul has traditionally marked the beginning of a forty-day period of self-examination and repentance, culminating in the Day of Atonement on the tenth day of Tishri, the seventh month. According to this tradition, each Jew must appear annually before God's heavenly throne and give an account of his deeds, with judgment and the promise of God's continuing mercy to be given on the Day of Atonement.

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 [3]. 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 Israel [5]. Through Haggai, God reached out to His people, affirming His continuing love for them and calling upon them to repent and renew their commitment to Him.

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 Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles, Haggai provided further exhortation and encouragement. In his next recorded prophecy, delivered on the seventh day of the Feast (2:1), he met head-on a question that still burdened the Israelites: Despite all of their efforts, wouldn't this new temple be nothing compared to the previous one?

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. 9:20; Dan. 9:23; 10:11, 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 2:32).

Christian scholar Walter C. Kaiser [4] 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 Second Temple a greater glory than the first: the coming of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah and Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6).

Haggai's encouraging message was a very fitting one for the Feast of Tabernacles. The Feast looks back to the time when Israel ``camped out'' with God during a forty-year sojourn in the wilderness. During that time, God remained present with His people. Haggai assured the Israelites of his generation that God's faithful guidance would continue. In fact, the Messiah would one day come and ``pitch his tent'' with their descendants (see John 1:14), bringing glory to the new temple.

The Feast has also been a time to contrast the temporary dwelling places of Israel's wilderness wanderings, and our temporary human bodies, with a permanent future reality-the coming of the unmovable Messianic kingdom (see Zech. 14). That kingdom will remain after God ``shakes'' the nations of this present world. In the midst of day-to-day difficulties, Haggai's contemporaries could look ahead to the time of the Messiah's reign.

A Call to Holiness

Two months later, Haggai delivered his final recorded prophecies to the people of Jerusalem. In one of them, he drew some important lessons from God's Torah.

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. 23:19), but it could not be transferred by indirect ``second-degree'' contact (Haggai 2:11-12). 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 2:13).

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 7:22).

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 Judah was told that none of his descendants would occupy David's throne (Jer. 22:24-30), the rejection of Jehoiachin's line was compared to the removal of a signet ring from God's right hand (Jer. 22:24). In light of Jer. 22:24, the comparison of Zerubbabel to God's signet ring can be viewed as a statement that the messianic line would continue through Zerubbabel. Indeed, Christians view the presence of Zerubbabel's name in the genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:12-13) as a fulfillment of Haggai 2:23.

Thus the book of Haggai ends with further assurance of God's faithfulness to His covenant. God would bring about His purpose for Israel-and for all of mankind-through the coming Messiah. In the meantime, the people of Judah carried out one step toward the accomplishment of that purpose. Bolstered by Haggai's preaching, they finished the temple project in 516 B.C. amidst great celebration (Ezra 6:14-18).

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. 18:20). 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 Israel, even in exile, so He remains committed to all of His people today. He will see through to completion the work He has begun in us (Phil. 1:6). God continues to carry out faithfully His promise and plan for mankind. As He proclaimed through Haggai, God sent Jesus the Messiah during the time of the second temple. Today, we are His temple (John 14:23; I Cor. 3:16). And in the future, Jesus will return to rule over an unshakable Kingdom, fulfilling the rest of Haggai's prophecy.

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, Grand Rapids, 1985.

2. John D. Garr, God's Lamp, Man's Light: Mysteries of the Menorah, Restoration Foundation, Atlanta, 2001.

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, Dallas, 1992.

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.


1For a discussion of David's great wealth, see the article ``Is There Buried Treasure in King David's Tomb?'' in Issue 11 of Grace and Knowledge.

2See the discussions by Walter C. Kaiser in [4] and in Hard Sayings of the Bible, InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Issue 13


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