There are two distinct topics presented in these lessons, though the post-exilic setting in Jerusalem remains the same.
In 520 B.C., our prophet Haggai has motivated Governor Zerubbabel and High Priest Joshua to order the Jewish refugees returning from exile to get busy rebuilding the ruined temple. As they begin, a second message from Yahweh a month later promises that “my spirit abides with you” to make this a splendid temple (2:5-9).
Haggai 2:10-19 is the prophet’s third oracle, two months later. It includes a riddle about purity and impurity. The priests are questioned: If impure things touch consecrated things like meat, do the impure things become pure? No. But is the opposite true? Can unclean things like a dead body make people or other things unclean? Yes.
But now something is changing. Yahweh recaps the situation: “Before a stone was placed upon a stone in the Lord’s temple, I struck you and all the products of your toil with blight and mildew and hail” (2:15-17). But from now on, “since the foundation of the Lord’s temple was laid . . . I will bless you” (18-19). Apparently a consecration ceremony was held when the temple’s foundation was completed, after which the land will again be productive.
Problems and questions for discussion:
First, this purity/ritual theology directly counters many other prophetic texts, such as Isaiah 1:11-17, where Yahweh roundly rejects such observances from those who oppress poor people.
Second, contrary to Haggai 2:13, Paul asserts in 1 Cor. 7:14 that an unbelieving spouse and children are sanctified by the believing spouse.
Third, Jesus rejects the theology of material blessings for good behavior when he observes that it rains on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt. 5:45).
Does God change the rules depending on different situations? Or did Haggai’s priestly background influence him?
The lesson for June 22 takes us back to the same time and place, but the topic and writing style are different. We learn that Haggai is not the only prophet in town. Zechariah, also from a priestly family, continues to advocate reconstructing the temple in Jerusalem. He writes eight visions, which use symbolic language similar to the apocalyptic style we find in Revelation.
In 4:1-14, an angel shows Zechariah seven lamps on a golden lampstand, and on each side is an olive tree. From each olive tree a golden pipe pours out oil. Zechariah is as puzzled as we are, so the angel explains: “These [olive trees] are the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth.”
The two trees producing oil are the two leaders we’ve met before: Zerubbabel and Joshua. The governor stands out for particular commendation. His hands “have laid the foundation of the house; his hands shall also complete it” (4:9). The oil may represent food and fuel now available through Yahweh’s blessing.
At this point we can bring in Haggai 2:23, which is set in a paragraph sounding somewhat messianic. “ ‘On that day,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will take you, O Zerubbabel, my servant . . . and make you like a signet ring, for I have chosen you.’ ” Just as the bearer of the signet ring carries the authority of the king, so the chosen one acts on behalf of Yahweh.
Zerubbabel is honored not only for rebuilding the temple but also as the grandson of the Judean king Jehoiakim. He is in the Davidic lineage and named in both Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies of Jesus.
To discuss: At this critical juncture in Israel’s history, why was it so important to rebuild Solomon’s temple?
After retiring from teaching Bible at Messiah College, Reta Halteman Finger teaches part time at Eastern Mennonite University. She is co-author of Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation.