In recent months, the lectionary has been offering us passages from the prophets, the second main section of TaNaK, which is the Jewish name for the collection of scrolls, largely in Hebrew (with a tiny section in Aramaic in the prophet Daniel), which are known as the Old Testament by most Christians.
I prefer to call this collection of documents the Hebrew Scriptures—technically, not quite accurate, but a better option, I believe, than the title that labels these works as “old”, with the implications of out-of-date, no longer relevant, or (worst of all) superseded by something that is “new”. As it is quite unfair to label the scriptures of a living faith, Judaism, as “superseded”, I prefer to take the option of a descriptor which refers both to the language of the documents (well, most of them), and the cultural origins of the documents, as coming from the ancient Israelite culture of the Hebrews.
So, within the central section of these documents are the scrolls of the Prophets (nevi’im, in Hebrew). These books (using Christian terminology) date from a number of centuries, before, during, and after, the central historical era of the Exile (from 587 BCE until the various returns to the land of Judah in the 530s, 520s, and beyond). It is from this section of the scriptures that we have been offered a series of readings in recent months—starting with Amos and Hosea, touching on Isaiah, covering many key parts of Jeremiah, and then moving into a series of “minor prophets” (Joel, Habakkuk, and Haggai), before concluding with Isaiah 65.
There are four prophets whose activity can reasonably be dated to the specific time soon after the exiles had returned to Jerusalem. The books of Haggai and Zechariah each open with a specific date, both placing their activity in the time of Darius, King of Persia. The third section of Isaiah (chapters 56—66) are widely considered to have originated around this same period of time, as the exiles returned to the land and undertook the task of rebuilding its society and its buildings. The prophet Malachi is not dated, but is generally considered to have been written fairly soon after Haggai and Zechariah.
The people from Judah who had lived as exiles in Babylon for five decades were permitted to return to Judah late in the 6th century BCE, by decision of the Persian King, Cyrus (whom Deutero-Isaiah described as God’s “Messiah”, Isa 45:1). In his decree, Cyrus acknowledges “the Lord, the God of heaven” and states that “any of those among you who are of his people … are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel” (Ezra 1:2–4).
Under Nehemiah as Governor, worship is reinstituted in Jerusalem (Ezra 3:1–7), the walls around the city of Jerusalem are rebuilt (Neh 2—6, 12), and the Temple is rebuilt and rededicated (Ezra 5–6). After this, the Law is read in the city under the guidance of Ezra, a priest who is also described as a scribe (Neh 8) and the covenant with the Lord is renewed (Neh 9–10).
Initially, there was opposition to the rebuilding works from “the enemies of Judah and Benjamin” (Ezra 4:1–16), and with intervention from King Artaxerxes, work on the temple ceased (Ezra 4:17–24). The narrative in Ezra reports that “the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them” (Ezra 5:1), and work on restoring the temple recommenced (Ezra 5:2).
Further opposition emerged (Ezra 5:3–17), resulting in intervention from King Darius that decreed “let the house be rebuilt … let the Governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews rebuild this house of God on its site … let it be done with all diligence” (Ezra 6:1–12).
The end result is that the prophets of the Lord and the rulers of the Persian Empire together ensure that the temple is restored: “So the elders of the Jews built and prospered, through the prophesying of the prophet Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo. They finished their building by command of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus, Darius, and King Artaxerxes of Persia” (Ezra 6:14).
What is it, then, that Haggai says to the people? His prophetic words are nestled within a relatively brief narrative telling of this return to Jerusalem; they were delivered over a short period of time from “the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month” (Hag 1:1) until “the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius” (Hag 2:10, 20).
In the course of those three months, Haggai condemns the people for failing to rebuild the ruined temple while people live in “paneled houses” (1:4) and encourages the people to “go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house” (1:8). In the oracle offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday (1:15b—2:9), Haggai declares that “the latter splendour 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” (2:9).
“I am with you, says the Lord of hosts”, the prophet affirms, “according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt; my spirit abides among you; do not fear” (Hag 2:4–5). The prophet offers a word of hope to a people who have suffered and who are anxious about what the future may hold for them.
Haggai then goes on to relay an ominous word of the Lord: “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” (2:21–22).
Yet this short book ends with a positive note for the future, promising to make Zerubbabel, who led the first wave of exiles to return to Judah, “like a signet ring, for I have chosen you” (2:23). It is undoubtedly with this motif of hope that the selected passage has been chosen for the lectionary, as we come to the final Sundays after Pentecost at the end of Year C in the cycle of seasons. It leads well into the vision of “new heavens and a new earth” that we will read the following Sunday (Isa 65:17).