The story that the book of Haggai tells is the story of a second beginning of reconstruction. The first effort, under the edict of Cyrus had fizzled. Sanballet was correct in his assessment of the challenge, lack of resources and skills. The conditions faced by the returning ex-patriots in what was supposed to be a land flowing with milk and honey was disheartening at best. Their early good intentions were undermined by misfortune, bitterness, demoralization and, ultimately, resignation. What more would you expect of a people in survival mode?
Primarily it was the religious leaders and the wealthy who among the Jews were carried off into Babylonian exile in 607 BCE. The less skilled and less affluent Jews and the Samaritans were left on the land. The Samaritans claimed that their worship was the true religion of Ancient Israel. They staunchly held to their belief that Mt. Gerizim was the place God chose for the temple and preferred a much more agrarian and simpler way of life. They saw themselves as the truly conservative. Their very name, Samaritan, meant “keepers” meaning keepers of the Law of Moses. The Jews, on the other hand, had gone up scale, they had modernized, choosing to have kings like everyone else, build a temple and consolidate their government and their worship in urban Jerusalem.
Some seventy years later, when Persia captured Babylon and the Jews were released from captivity many of those who had been born in Babylon chose to remain there for they had become established traders and business people. It really isn’t hard to understand why some wouldn’t want to return to the ancestral homeland when we grasp just how devastated was Jerusalem. Life there was harder by far than in Babylon. It seems that two classes of Jews returned from exile, those who had been unsuccessful and hoped for a new start and those who had a vision of an Israel restored to its former glory. Evidently neither group possessed adequate building skills. Those who had lived on the land during the period of exile raised serious opposition to the reconstruction plans of the returning Jews. That is attested to by this passage in Nehemiah.
Sanballat was a leading Samaritan and one of the chief opponents to Jewish reconstruction efforts. In Nehemiah 4: we read “When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he was very indignant; in his anger he jeered at the Jews and said in front of his companions and of the garrison in Samaria, ‘What do these feeble Jews think they are doing? Do they mean to reconstruct the place? Do they hope to offer sacrifice and finish the work in a day? Can they make stones again out of heaps of rubble, and burnt at that? Tobiah and Ammonite, who was beside him, said, ‘Whatever it is they are building, if a fox climbs up their stone walls, it will break them down.’
The text I’ve chosen for today, Haggai 1:15b-2:9, comes from that same period of Jewish history. It begins at the end of the first chapter and carries over into chapter two to illustrate the passage of time: “they came and began work on the house of the Lord of Hosts their God 15on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month. 2In 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: 2Speak 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, 3Who 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? 4Yet 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, 5according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. 6For 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; 7and 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. 8The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. 9The 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.”
The story that the book of Haggai tells is the story of a second beginning of reconstruction. The first effort, under the edict of Cyrus had fizzled. Sanballet was correct in his assessment of the challenge, lack of resources and skills. The conditions faced by the returning ex-patriots in what was supposed to be a land flowing with milk and honey was disheartening at best. Their early good intentions were undermined by misfortune, bitterness, demoralization and, ultimately, resignation. What more would you expect of a people in survival mode? And to make matters even more difficult for those who most wanted to re-establish temple worship was that while in Babylonian captivity many of the returnees had followed a form of Judaism that had no need for a temple. It was quite a feat of leadership that, for the next generation, these people worked to rebuild their second temple and dedicated it in 515 BCE.
Compared to Solomon’s temple, what they had accomplished was – well it paled in comparison. And because it had been generations since a temple actually functioned, there were some huge mistakes made in how the rites of the temple were carried out. By the way it wouldn’t be actually completed for another 500 years, until it was expanded and splendidly restored under Herod the Great during Roman occupation, about the time of Jesus’ birth.
About twenty-eight days after this disparate group of builders had begun their work, the temple, far from the grand and glorious place its memory suggested, appeared to many of the them to be little more than a shadow of its supposed former grandeur. Haggai asked in a divine oracle, “Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory?” Since almost seventy years had passed very few indeed had ever seen Solomon’s temple. What they lived with was the idealize memories that had been told in the years that had past. That is why they said, “Is it not in your sight as nothing?” The building that the struggling Israelites were building was nothing like the glorious temple that their imaginations had conjured during all those exilic years. Surely this pathetic pile of mud bricks and sticks could not be the temple they had longed for, prayed for, hoped for! And here is Haggai’s answer for those hugely disheartened builders; “Take courage, Zerubbabel; take courage, Joshua, son of Jehozadak, high priest; take courage, all you people of the land. Work, for I am with you, says the Lord of Hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear! Those words continue to inspire even to today.
Yes, Haggai wanted, but clearly not for its own sake. The bricks and mortar of a rebuilt temple have no meaning apart from the conviction that God has brought us out of the Babylonian bondage and remains with us still. No matter what this building looks like, God is here, and God is working.
Haggai insisted that God was every bit as present with the people in this modest second temple under the Persian ruler Darius as was God present in the extravagant temple under king Solomon, or for that matter, under the oppressive regime of king Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon when there was no temple at all. They had to revise their judgments about the modest restoration project and what it did and did not signify about the presence of God in their community. They had to accept their meager circumstances with brutal realism, even as they worked hard to overcome the challenges. They also had to maintain their confidence in the word that God spoke to them through Haggai where he said: “Be strong, all you people of the land, and work. Rebuild, for I am with you,” declared the Lord Almighty. This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains among you. Do not fear. Despite the outward circumstances, I will bless you, and the glory of the second temple will outshine the splendor of the first temple.” Whether in victorious exodus out of Pharoah’s Egypt, in humiliating exile in Nebuchadnezzar’s pagan Babylon, or in the post-exilic return to the ruins of Jerusalem under the Persian rulers Cyrus and Darius—God was present among the people.
As I look at this small tidbit of this very short Old Testament book a couple of things stand out from the procedural language and history. These were things that the prophet was told to actually say to the people.
First he said: “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;” Most of us have experienced our share of reversal, exile, defeat, destruction, and catastrophe. Some times enemies do this to us. Other times we are our own worst enemy. Often there’s no apparent reason at all. Our health, our checkbooks, our jobs and families all include some amount of battle, whether a slight skirmish or wholesale devastation. The outward circumstances of our lives can feel harsh beyond measure, and threaten our vision. Remember in the text how Haggai asks the people about what was left of the old temple: “Does it not seem like nothing?” When things look like they can’t get any worse—take courage. Courage comes from the French word for heart. “Take heart” God tells this dispirited group of refugees.
The second thing God told Haggai to tell the people was “work, for I am with you”. That was it, plain and simple. What needs to be done won’t get done without making a concerted effort. To be overwhelmed by the challenge is no worse than day dreaming about some wished for future. He didn’t say ‘pray’, well he didn’t say not to pray either, but the point is that fulfilling the promise of God’s kingdom requires work.
The third thing God said to the people through Haggai is just as important: “My spirit abides among you; do not fear”. Ever wonder how come the phrase “do not fear” or ‘fear not’ or something like it shows up in scripture? It’s because people get scared. We can be scared that we will have inadequate resources, that we won’t be able to finish the project we’ve begun, that we will get ill, even that we will not have enough days yet to live to accomplish what we feel called to do. We can be afraid of the economic conditions, violence in our community – each of us have our own list. And what we know is that when we are fearful, we are less able to think things through, less able to see solutions to challenges, less able to have compassion for others – anxiety and fear separate us from our higher values. We become so focused on survival that we lose sight of life. The returning Jews were fearful. What is the antidote to fear? Hope! Haggai tells us that. That poor excuse for a temple – God tells the people, its splendor will exceed that of Salomon’s. Not because it is dependent on their skills and resources, but because God will fill it.
Still, God speaks to us today through Haggai’s ancient promise: “I am with you, do not fear, My Spirit remains among you. There can be greater glory in your lesser circumstances.” Haggai says that God meets us where we are, not where we wish we could be, even and especially in downsized circumstances like a rebuilt temple in a ravaged Jerusalem. His Spirit moves even when we might not see or feel His presence. When we least expect it, in the dust and dirt of our lives God says, “From this day on I will bless you”