What does a “minor” prophet from 520 B.C. have to say to our post-Christian culture? Quite a lot actually. In the last fortnight, our church went through the book of Haggai and were challenged to “give careful thought to our ways” and to refocus our wandering attention back to kingdom priorities of Christ our great Servant King.
To help prepare for the series, I translated Haggai from the Hebrew text (with occasional peeks at the LXX translation, especially around Haggai 2:6-7). On the text, I found Andrew Hill’s contribution to the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries at a good level of depth and detail for a busy pastor. Michael Prodigalidad’s excellent 9 Marks article gave good pastoral reasons to tackle this book as a church. Some timely help also came from conversations with two Hebrew-reading friends (one who is about to begin her PhD in Old Testament post-exilic narrative – great!)
For preachers, bible study leaders and keen readers, here’s a few thoughts in no particular order:
- The average church-goer is unlikely to have read Haggai. So it’s important to set the scene and explain where this minor prophet fits within the biblical storyline. I found Vaughan Roberts God’s Big Picture schemas a quick and helpful way to paint the post-exilic picture for God’s broken people, living in God’s place, longing for God’s rule.
- Preaching Haggai has to be a balance of challenge and encouragement. Chapter 1 has the Lord’s well-known rebuke of people seeking material comfort over kingdom priorities (“panelled houses” over completing God’s temple, 1:4). But context matters: it’s written to people who were already faithful – they’d obeyed the call to leave Babylon almost two decades earlier, they’d begun the rebuild, and were worn out by the constant opposition (c.f. Ezra 3-4). Our listeners today are likewise not faithless people to rebuke, but faithful people who have lost heart, been discouraged, and saturated with the messages of our world.
- I think that’s also why the LORD repeats the phrase “Consider your ways” (or literally, “set your heart upon your ways”; 1:5, 1:7, 2:15, 2:18). It’s the language of wisdom (e.g. Job 1:8, 2:3, Daniel 1:8), rather than a fiery rebuke. So our tone and posture matters, especially since we’re exposing deeply-held beliefs and values shaped by our society and culture’s materialism (who of us hasn’t been sucked in by the “I want” songs of our age?). But as we repent of our self-centred pursuits and return to kingdom priorities, there will surely be great blessing for God’s faithful remnant.
- If Haggai 1 challenges the returnee Jews’s FOMO (fear of missing out), Haggai 2’s prophecies tackle their FOBO (fear of better options). After all, a few months into a 4-year rebuild it could be tempting to lose heart when “it seems to you as nothing” (2:3). And after restoring offerings and sacrifices it could be tempting to think holiness can be transferred to a people who are still defiled (2:14). Whether to the people, the priests, or Zerubabbel himself, the underlying fear is one of committing to the Lord’s will for our lives. Haggai gives us a startling vision worth committing our lives to: God shaking the nations with His peace (v6-9), God blessing a defiled people with his holiness (v19), and God promising a great servant He has chosen (v20-23).
- I think Isaac Watts was well-meaning but incorrect in treating Haggai 2:7 as a direct Messianic prediction in the carol, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” (verse 4 starts with the famous line, “Come Desire of Nations come”). The Hebrew text reads, “they will come (plural), what is desirable/precious of all the nations” (וּבָ֖אוּ חֶמְדַּ֣ת כָּל־הַגּוֹיִ֑ם). Although the LXX renders the subject as singular (“he/it will come”), the object is translated as “the chosen things” (τὰ ἐκλεκτὰ), so it’s more likely a description to the “treasures” among the nations coming to worship the LORD, rather than a single individual.
- Accordingly, I think it’s better to preach this verse (and prophecy) not being fulfilled by Jesus the Messiah individually, but rather by us corporately as we join in God’s mission to fill His temple with the glory of treasures from the nations (c.f. Rev 7:9-11). As a well-known Maori saying puts it: What is the greatest treasure? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. (It is people, it is people, it is people.) As we cross the pew, cross the street, or cross the oceans with the fragrance of Christ (2 Cor 2:15), this proverb and Haggai’s prophecy becomes truly fulfilled.
- Rather, I think the Christ connection more readily comes from two places. Firstly, in God’s promise to be present with His people as they resume His kingdom-building work (“I am with you”, 1:13, 2:4), we see a foretaste of the risen Lord Jesus, whose Spirit is truly with us — always — as we fulfil His Great Commission (Matt 28:20).
- And secondly, in Haggai’s personalised prophecy to Zerubabbel (2:20-23), we get another glimpse of Christ from the Old Testament. The Hebrew in v23 literally reads: “For in you I have chosen” (the בְךָ֣ construction is the same as Genesis 12:3 where the LORD says to Abraham: “In you, all peoples of the earth will be blessed.”). But if Zerubabbel is the signet ring, who is the chosen one in Him? Who else? Jesus. Son of David (Mk 10:47). Once a future seed in Zerubbabel’s line, now our chief Cornerstone and foundation of God’s ultimate dwelling place – His church (Eph 2:19-21). There’s no better option than Him.
At our church, we considered Haggai over two talks (though perhaps three would have been easier!) You can hear our English service sermons on Soundcloud, Spotify and elsewhere (just search “PCBC English”).