I love this book as it provides my sole contribution to the C of E’s Common Worship corpus – if you look on p 116 of New Patterns for Worship you’ll see my lectionary module to help with a preaching series on Haggai. All my own work!
The book dates from the period after the return from the Babylonian exile, and as we have already seen in Ezra and the third section of Isaiah things were not going as well as they might. Released from the hardship of exile and slavery, the people seem to have returned to their homeland and simply flopped. Haggai is called by God to wake the people up from their stupor and refocus on their worship of God. In particular they are called to rebuild the Temple, the symbol of God present among his people.
The spiritual stupor, though, was not one of slumber, but rather of self-centredness. In 1:4 the term ‘panelled houses’ implies a programme of home improvements for the people, while the Temple still lies in ruins. A modern rewriting of this book might include a concentration on block paved driveways and fitted kitchens, along with a neglect of spiritual life and values. In other words it is a book which speaks directly to well-off Christians feeling they deserve a bit of ease after the rigours of life. Yet it is a lifestyle which does not satisfy: Haggai describes in 1:5-6 and 2:15-19 the materialistic lifestyle which is never enough, in a way which speaks uncannily accurately into 21st century consumerism.
Unlike many prophets Haggai’s words do not fall on deaf ears, and there is a speedy response. If you look carefully at the chronology of the book the whole thing happens over a period of months. The people are motivated to work in around three weeks, and the work appears to be completed within around three months. But with it come some promises from God: the future is going to be even better than the past, and that the rebuilding will mark a turning point in the people’s fortunes.
Haggai also brings encouragement to the nation’s leaders, Zerubbabel and Joshua, and promises the presence of his Spirit with them. The book ends with an apocalyptic-sounding glimpse of a victorious future for the remnant of the people.
The book reminds us of two important truths: the temperature of our spiritual lives cannot but affect everything else, and that outward ease and prosperity are shallow if they are not the gifts of God. The ‘peace’ promised in 2:9 sounds an altogether different thing from the implied ease and comfort of 1:4. The more we procrastinate over our spiritual lives, symbolised here by the state of the Temple, the less the things of this world will bring us satisfaction. I write as the schools are breaking up for the summer, and church life often trims back to give everyone a well-deserved rest. But I know only too well how easy it is to forget God when life gets easier. It is paradoxical that the gift of rest, which is our eternal destiny, can serve to help us forget God when we have it down here.
The second truth, though, is the good news of fresh starts, as many as we need. How many times in our lives have we heard God saying to us ‘From this day on I will bless you’? Praise him for his mercy and patience.
Image: By Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia (On the Building Site Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons