How To build a Temple

Proper 27 - Year C
Haggai 1:15b-2:9
(Detailed exegetical comments at the end)

Haggai had one of the shortest ministries and wrote one of the shortest books in the Bible (two chapters, 37 verses). But its dating is unusually precise. The reigns of kings and seasons of the year mentioned at each of the four “sermons” (oracles) nail it nearly to a precise day, so that scholars know exactly what day he wrote on. The notices put it between mid- August and mid- December, 520 bce, early in the reign of King Darius I of Persia (whose grandfather, Cyrus the Great, released the Jews from their captivity to the Babylonians) when he was making plans for a campaign against Egypt. It’s possible that Persia freed the Judeans because it didn’t want disgruntled people within a newly acquired kingdom and thought a stable Judah would be a benefit. And it’s possible that it needed more food producers for the Egyptian campaign, and thought Judah might be a supplier if it ever got itself together again.

In spite of Haggai’s small size, the story told in the book is a pivotal one. It was Haggai (along with his contemporary, Zechariah) who talked the Governor, Zerubbabel, and the High Priest, Joshua, into rebuilding the temple, and that changed the tone and climate of Israel for generations. The Israelites had just been released from decades of captivity in Babylonia and were dismayed at what they saw when they returned home. Perhaps it’s better to say, what they did not see. Everything was gone or flattened. They had expected to come back home to their beloved land of “Milk and Honey” (though it had never been quite that good), but what they saw was rubble and weeds. And, among inevitable chores of farming and not starving, they came back with explicit orders to rebuild the temple.

The return home was in the beginning a time of great promise and excitement. But—whether by despair or exhaustion—they spent two years doing nothing on the temple, and little to rebuild the society they had left behind. They barely scratched out a living, and barely moved forward on any big projects. Finally along came Haggai, who said things will never get better until you start rebuilding the destroyed temple (the main message of chapter one) and they did.

The two leaders of the new Judah, Zechariah, the governor, and Joshua, the high priest, had actually been appointed by King Darius of the newly conquering Persia to rebuild the temple when they got there. But they never did it. The best guess is that they thought the people of Judah were just too demoralized and couldn’t get themselves together. That’s why Haggai’s ministry was so important. There are indications that some work had actually begun on the Temple, but evidently it was not much and it eventually stopped. In 2:15, God, describes the beginning of construction, laying “stone upon stone,” but complains that their work stopped before it was finished: “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.”

When Haggai took God’s message to Zechariah and Joshua, they were resistant. God says of them, “These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the lord’s house” (Hag 1:2). But God speaking to them through Haggai is not above doing a little shaming (“Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?”) and using a few threats (“the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills.” Hag 1:10–11). And their spirits were “stirred up,” and they went to work. “They came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God, 15 on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month” (Hag 1:14–15). In 353 bce, it was finished.

Though it was completed,  it clearly did not have the magnificence of the first temple—they had neither the funds nor the workers (nor possibly the emotional energy) to build back to that level. They were clearly were distressed and depressed when they saw what they were able to create because this new Temple was just a shell of what the old one was. The old one was a grand pinnacle of Israel’s glory at its height, and in comparison, the new one looked pale. It’s true that the first one had been built with vastly larger numbers of people and at a time when Israel had much more wealth, the second by fewer people and fewer resources and it was inevitable that it would be less grand. Nonetheless, a negative comparison was also inevitable and they were saddened by it. After they worked and worked to rebuild it, what they came up with made the old timers with long memories weep:
“But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.” (Ezra 3:11-12).

It is the weepers, who are Haggai’s main audience when he says with sympathy, “Is it not now in your sight as nothing?” (Or, “Doesn’t it look like nothing in your eyes?) Nehemiah account of the scene says that outsiders looked at the frail walls they were building and laughed:
“Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he mocked the Jews…(4:1 ). Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, “That stone wall they are building—any fox going up on it would break it down!” (Nehemiah 4:1-3).

Crying and Cheering for the Church
But Haggai, speaking for God, challenged both those who cheered and those who cried to be courageous because God is, in fact, still with them. The journey is not over:
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;
·       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 (2:5).

It’s interesting to note that there are 101 verses in the Bible that contain the phrase “Do not fear” (or “fear not”). It is a bedrock call from Yahweh. It was given to Abram in the beginning of the biblical story (Gen 15. 1) and Zechariah at the end (Zech 8. 13, 15). In Haggai, it promises that “from the poverty, despair, and factionalism of the restored people of the land, the Lord promises deliverance.”[a] This is the most comforting line in the passage, and possibly the best jumping off point for a pastoral conclusion for a sermon.

At the end of the reading, Haggai, speaking for God, promises that when the temple is built then people and riches will return to it.
I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor… The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former…and in this place I will give prosperity….(2:7-9).

(Don’t confuse this with the “Prosperity Gospel, which says with a semi-straight face that if you love Jesus, you’ll get rich. The word translated here as prosperity is šālôm, which is usually translated “peace,” which is, in my opinion, a much more accurate translation here).

What does all of this mean to me?
What does it mean to people who were torn over which way to go and were on the brink of immobility and collapse? The older people knew that the church (“Temple”) had once been huge and important in Jerusalem. They remembered its glory years, when the choir had forty members and the youth group had fifty. They remembered the days when everybody went to church and reservations had to be made in advance to get to the church suppers. They had two pastors back in those days and a full time music director, youth director, and CE director. And now they were faced with the task of building it back up again, and the task is daunting. They had a part time preacher, and a volunteer mother with three kids doing CE. It was very easy for depressed people in the center of the crisis to say it just can’t be done.

The historical evidence is scant, but it seems there were two groups in Judah who were active in the discussions about rebuilding. The first were those who were older and had more power and influence and remembered the Temple in its early glory. They said that if we just act like we did back when it was a big and important place, then all would be well. If we sacrificed the old way, did ritual the old way, dressed the old way, then somehow all of those people who had moved on and changed and become indifferent today would just come back again and act like they did back when we were young.

The second group was younger and they had never seen the Temple when it was such a glorious place. They said it needed to be a new place, a new ministry, have a new mission. They said that it didn’t need to be that huge building that it used to have but it could be lean and mean and directed towards meeting needs of a new world in a new way.

That’s the significance of the two groups above, some who cried and some who cheered. The old cried because it wouldn’t be the Temple of their past and the young cheered because it had the potential of being the new Temple of their new future. [b]

Which side “won”?
The answer to that question is not clear.

This is where we are now. We come at the task with all levels of enthusiasm, we want to “build the temple,” we want to do ministry, but then we are slapped in the face by reality. The work load is daunting, our resources are minimal, and our energy has to be parceled out to a dozen other tasks. What do we do?

For Haggai, in the end, it was never really about the building. It was really about work that was only symbolized by the building. God says, “do the work, and I will always be with you,” and that was the real point. He said, do it “according to the promise I made to you when you came out of Egypt,” back when they had no building whatsoever. “My spirit abides among you, do not fear” (v. 5). That is the true and final message. Do the work, he says, build the building, but know that whatever happens, I will be there, do not have fear. And then, at the end of the day, “The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former…and in this place I will give šālôm, ‘peace.’”

We are living in a Haggai era. We are a people with widely (and wildly) varying expectations of what a church is supposed to do and be and with not nearly enough resources to fulfill half of them. But at the end of the day, in spite of all of my desires that it be different, church and ministry and the realm of God on earth is not about budgets and buildings and memberships and endowments. It was and is and always will be about creating a community (both locally and globally) in which people feel the presence of God in their midst, lifting, enabling, empowering, and redeeming their lives and the lives of others. If we can do that, then God’s “House” will be rebuilt and revived and revised, and it will be a beacon to outsiders and will beckon to others. If we are unable to do that, then we might as well join those who moved to Samaria and started another religion.
 “The truth is that none of the conventional methods and means in which we have so long invested can help us. If we are to be prosperous, it will be because of the presence [of God]. If we are to be safe and secure, it will be because of the presence. If we are to have a future, it will be because of the presence.”[c]


Haggai 1:15b-2:9

The Future Glory of the Temple

1:15b In the second year[i] of King Darius,[ii] 2:1 in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month,[iii] the word of the Lord came by[iv] the prophet Haggai,[v] saying:
2 Speak now to Zerubbabel[vi] son of Shealtiel,[vii] governor[viii]
of Judah,
and to Joshua[ix] son of Jehozadak, the high priest,
and to the remnant of the people,[x]
and say,

3 Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory?[xi]
How does it look to you now?
Is it not in your sight as nothing?[xii]
4 Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel;
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,[xiii]]
5 according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt.
My spirit abides among
you; do not fear.
6 For thus says the Lord of hosts:
Once again, in a little while, I will shake[xiv] the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land;[xv] 7 and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations[xvi] shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor,[xvii] [says the Lord of hosts.[xviii] 8 ]

The silver is mine, and the gold is mine,[xix]
[says the Lord of hosts. 9 ]
The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, [says the Lord of hosts;] and in this place I will give prosperity,[xx]
      [says the Lord of hosts.]

Notes on the Text

[i] In the second year…”  Cf. also 1:1 “In the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest.” “The superscription at the beginning of Haggai provides detailed dating information—down to the year, month, and day: August 29, 520 b.c.e.; it also indicates an editorial structure that connects the books of Haggai and Zechariah.” (Stephen Breck Reid, in Van Harn, R., ed., The Lectionary Commentary : Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 505.
[ii] Darius. Also known as Darius Hystaspis, or Darius, son of Hystaspis. Reigned from about 522 to 485 b.c.  He continued Cyrus the Great’s policy of restoring the Jews to their homeland. He ordered the rebuilding of the Temple and sent a generous subsidy to help restore worship in it (Ezra 6:1–12).
[iii] The date is October 17, 520. Not quite one month after his first utterance, in 1:1. This would be during the Festival of Booths (Sukkoth, Tabernacles), a feast closely associated with the Temple and messianic fulfillment: see 1 Kings 8:2; John 7:2, 37-39; 8:12-59.  “During Haggai’s time, the Israelites used this feast not only to celebrate the harvest but also the historic event of Solomon bringing the ark of the covenant into the newly constructed temple during its dedication (1 Kings 8:1-13, 62-66).” Homiletics, Nov-Dec, 2007, No. 6, p. 22-23.
[iv] “Came by.” The Hebrew has (beyad), “by the hand of” = “through.” Also could be “comes through,” as it is also translated by NET, ESV, NAB, and NIV. Used similarly in Hag. 1:1, 3. “the point here is to accent the instrumentality of the prophet.” (Reid, Lectionary Commentary p. 506.)
[v] “Haggai” His name in Hebrew means “festal,” though it’s doubtful that there is any significance in that. Ezra 5:1-2 says that Haggai and Zechariah prophesied, and that Zerubbabel and Joshua set out to rebuild the Temple with the help of the prophets. Ezra 6:14 says that the Jews prospered “through the prophesying of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah.”
[vi] “Zerubbabel”: The name is Babylonian, meaning offspring of, seed of, or born in, Babylon. He was son of one of Jehoiachin’s sons: either of Pedaiah (see 1 Chronicles 3:17-19) or of “Shealtiel” (as here and in Ezra 3:2). He was a royal descendant from David, so continuity in leadership with the pre-exilic community is maintained (see note below on “Joshua”). Zerubbabel’s return from exile is mentioned in Ezra 2:1-2. He is also mentioned in Ezra 3:8; 4:2-3; 5:2; Nehemiah 7:6-7; 12:1, 47; Haggai 2:21, 23; Zechariah 4:6-7, 9-10; Matthew 1:12-13 (the genealogy of Jesus); Luke 3:27.
[vii] “Shealtiel”: He was taken with his family to Babylon in 597 BC: see 2 Kings 24:12. He was of Davidic lineage.
[viii] “Governor” (peḥāh) Noun, masc. Governor,  captain. A ruler over a given district or territory. The primary meaning only indicates that he was some kind of administrative officer.
[ix] Joshua was also descended from David.  2 Kings 25:18-21 tells us that Seraiah was the last chief priest before the Exile. Per 1 Chronicles 6:12-15 “Joshua” was a grandson of Seraiah. Both he and Zerubbabel came from Babylon. There is no evidence one way or the other whether Haggai also did.
[x] “The remnant of the people”: In Jeremiah 23:3 and 31:7 this term refers to those who were deported, but here it probably includes those who stayed in Judah, because any old enough to have seen Solomon’s Temple would be too old to make the trek back from Babylon: see 2:3.
[xi] “Its former Glory” (kāḇôḏ) Noun, masc. singular. It can mean splendor and riches (as in Isaiah 10:3; 61:6; 66:11-12) or spiritual, religious, majesty. Here it may suggest the glory through which God in his transcendence dwells in the Temple, the glory that the visionary Ezekiel saw returning to the post-exilic Temple: see Ezekiel 43:1-4. See also v. 9. However, “glory” may also be understood as the opulence of gold and silver in the Temple. Cf. 1 Kings 6–7 where ‘glory’ is the ritual ornamentation of the temple.
[xii] Ezra 3:12 says that some who saw the new temple cheered and some wept: “many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy…” Haggai’s audience is the weeping group.
[xiii] The words of this verse are very like those addressed to Joshua son of Nun: see Joshua 1:6-7, 9, 18.
“Lord of Hosts.” “The writer uses a particular divine epithet, the Lord of Hosts, attached to the end of the formula, which has its roots in the “holy war” depiction of God. Over one-third of the Old Testament occurrences of this term are in Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.” (Stephen Breck Reid, in “Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume One (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), p, 506.)
[xiv] “Shake” (rā‛aš) Verb. To quake, to tremble, to shake, to leap, to be abundant. The effects will be both cosmic: “heavens and the earth” and economic: “the treasure of all the nations shall come.” The result will be a gathering in of gold and silver and the “splendor” (Kāḇôḏ, “glory,” but here possibly meaning wealthy) of this temple becoming “greater than the former.”
[xv] This verse is referred to, and partially quoted, in Hebrews 12:26.
[xvi] “The treasure of all nations”: Meaning probably commerce with other countries of the ancient world. See also Isaiah 60:6 and 61:6.
[xvii] “Splendor” Kāḇôḏ, or “glory.” See above on v. 3. 1 Kings 6-7 describe the gold and silver ornamentation of the first temple as its “glory.” The translators are probably following that lead and assuming that Yahweh intends to repaint the temple with the incoming gold and silver so that “the latter splendor (i.e. gold, glory) of this house shall be greater than the former.”
[xviii] 6-7: A poetic expression of divine intervention in the functioning of the universe. Vv.  21-22 says “...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 ...”
[xix] Some have estimated that the gold inlay alone in Solomon’s temple was worth over $20,000,000.
[xx] “Prosperity” (šālôm) Noun, Masc. peace or tranquility. “The general meaning behind the root sh-l-m is of completion and fulfilment-of entering into a state of wholeness and unity, a restored relationship.” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr. & Bruse K. Waltke (Grand Rapids: Moody, 1980.) Every other translation consulted has some form of “peace” for this word, except the nrsv and the rsv. Presumably they mean that with the new trade and gold/silver glory will come prosperity, but the text seems clearly to say instead that with it will come peace

Notes on the Commentary

[a] HarperCollins Study Bible
[b] Timothy F. Simpson (Editor Emeritus of Political Theology), “The Politics of Managing Expectations: Haggai 1:15b-2:9,” 04 Nov, 2013 Timothy F. Simpson
[c] Ibid.