Written by Pastor Ed
November 15, 2015
Haggai & Zechariah – Books of the Bible
As I was working on this sermon looking at the two prophets of Haggai & Zechariah, it was interesting to hear the stories of the Krahn family coming to Canada. They left the Orenburg region of Russia, which was by all accounts not a good place to be, and eventually made their way to Saskatchewan with the promise of a new life and more prosperous future, except that they arrived in their new home in 1929-30, just as the dust bowl days were setting in. And life was hard on the prairies during those first years.
In some ways they must have experienced what the people of Haggai & Zechariah experienced. If you read the books, you will have noticed that they are from the same time period, around the 2nd year of the reign of King Darius of Persia. Let’s recall a bit of the context.
Haggai & Zechariah are post-exilic books. The children of Israel had been in exile for in Babylon for many years, longing to return to their homeland and to Jerusalem, the centre of their worship. Even though Jeremiah and Ezekiel had told them to settle in and seek the welfare of the place where they were, they still longed for home. And then when Babylon had fallen to the Persian empire, the new king had loosened the restrictions and all owed captives who had been displaced to return. Those are the accounts written in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, as well as in the latter part of the Chronicles.
And so they had returned to their homeland, full of anticipation and hope. And, with the encouragement of Ezra and Nehemiah, they had begun to rebuild the temple. But “home” was no longer the place they had longed for. For the most part, these were the children of those who had been exiled. Haggai asks, “Who is left that remembers what the temple used to look like?” and it’s a rhetorical question, because the answer is clear – no one.
Not only that, but it’s not like they were just gone on vacation for a little while and returned to find everything as they had left it. The country was a mess. The Babylonians didn’t just exile the people, leaving only the old and lame behind, they also devastated the land, stripping in bare, sometimes even spreading salt on the land so it wouldn’t produce. Life was tough.
And to add to that, there was opposition to rebuilding the temple, not only from the surrounding tribes, but even it seems from some of the returned exiles themselves. “Why should we spend time on rebuilding the temple? What good will that do us?”
And so, even though they had begun to rebuild the temple, it wasn’t long before other things took priority – things like building their own houses or trying to eke a living to of the soil. And somewhere along the way, the temple rebuilding was neglected and seemingly abandoned.
It is into this scene that these two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, enter with a message directed first of all to the governor of Judah, Zerubbabel, and the high priest Joshua, and then to the people. Now Zerubbabel plays a key role in this scenario, and we know something about him from other sources, both Biblical, mainly Ezra and Nehemiah, but also from sources outside the Bible. He served as governor of Judah, appointed by the Persian king, Darius, and was indeed instrumental in the return and rebuilding of the temple. He was also from the line of David, according to genealogies, which figures into some of the expectations, as we shall see.
The messages of Haggai are fairly straight forward. The book consists of 3 messages, all within 3 months of each other in the year 520 B.C., urging Zerubbabel and Joshua to work at rebuilding the temple and promising that God would reward their work with better days ahead, and the promise of a future king in the line of David. At that point the people probably would have seen Zerubbabel as a potential for filling that role.
The prophecies of Zechariah are more obscure, because at least in the first part of the book they come in visions and therefore are symbolic rather than literal. He sees vision of horsemen, of measuring lines, of flying scrolls and a woman in a basket, among others. And we could, as others have, spend hours and days trying to figure out the exact symbolism of each vision and try to pin some current or future event to them for fulfillment, but I don’t think that’s helpful or good interpretation. All of them point ot the same thing in their context.
The Persian empire, like all the empires before it, was eventually going to fall and when it did the people needed to be ready to reclaim the country for themselves and again live as the people of God. And part of that readiness consisted of rebuilding the temple to its former glory so that it could reclaim its place as the centre of worship for God’s people.
The second part of the book of Zechariah is even more difficult to interpret for several reasons. For one, it seems that they come from a different author and a different time period, perhaps even as late as the 2nd century B.C. It seems to be a collection of various writings and sayings. They do however, all point to a future hope for the kingdom of God, and thus follow in some ways the theme of the rest of the books, which is probably why they are attached here.
The prophets Haggai and Zechariah are speaking to a people who had great anticipation of what lay ahead for them, only to discover that the future they dreamed of and longed for wasn’t as rosy as they had anticipated. And who of us hasn’t experienced something of that feeling? I recall sitting with a man in the depths of depression, partly because he was sure that God had wanted him to buy a farm, but now the farm wasn’t producing as he had anticipated and things were not going well. Perhaps it’s a move to a new location, or a new job, or marriage, or whatever. All of us can probably identify in some way with these people and their disappointment.
And in those situations it is very easy to give up and wonder, “What’s the use?” And so we need the words of the encouragers, like Haggai and Zechariah to prod us onward and keep the goal in front of us. But their words offered not only encouragement, but also a warning.
The word of encouragement was that God had not abandoned them and was still working God’s purposes out both through them as well as through those that God called to be his servants. The promises of God still held true for God’s people and they could anticipate that God’s kingdom would indeed come, headed by a servant in the line of David. The promises of a Messiah were still in place.
But the prophets also had a warning, that the coming age would not be without its struggles. You couldn’t just say, “Well God is going to work it out, so I don’t need to do anything.” No, the prophets say, that day will only be perceived as glorious and fulfillment by those who are prepared. Zechariah says it will be like a refiner’s fire, separating out the silver and gold from the dross.
Therefore they needed to prepare themselves for that day, and as I said, they saw part of that preparation as rebuilding the temple. But perhaps more than the actual rebuilding, they needed to recognize the priority of God over the other things they were worried about.
Haggai asks the people if they think it’s ok for God’s house to be in ruins while they build mansions of their own. A passage I’ve often heard used in arguments related to church building, asking if we’d allow our houses to get in the shape that some church buildings are. But while Haggai may have been talking literally about the temple, and there is some merit to the argument even now, although we don’t hold our buildings in quite the same honor as the ancients did the temple, I think the question as always is about where are our priorities lie.
Rebuilding is never easy, whether it’s a structure, an organization, or our own personal lives. It’s easy to get discouraged, either because of external factors that work against us, or because of our own expectations or dreams of what things should be like even when they aren’t. In those times we need people like Haggai and Zechariah to encourage us to keep our priorities straight, to recognize that there will be trials along the way, and that God’s purposes will indeed by fulfilled, even if we can’t see that right now.
On this side of the Incarnation, we know that Zerubbabel was not the promised Messiah, in fact, we really don’t know what happened to him, the record seems to disappear. But we do know that a Messiah did come and that God’s kingdom is breaking in and God’s people are being restored. And we are called to continue that work of building up the temple, not made with hands, the church universal.