Extracts from Haggai ‘Consider your ways’

Reflection by Anne Stewart

Having journeyed through the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah, where we followed the exiled Israelites as they returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple, the community and the walls, today we are having a wee look at one of the minor prophets who played a part in the story; Haggai.

For centuries the Hebrew prophets had been accusing Israel of breaking its covenant with God through their idolatry and unjust ways.  The prophets had warned that God would send the great Empire of Babylon to take out Jerusalem, destroy the temple and haul the people off into exile.  As we know, this all happened in 587 BC – but we know too that this was not the end of the story.  The prophets believed that there was still hope and that God would one day bring a transformed remnant of his people Israel to live in a new Jerusalem where God’s presence would live in their midst.  The prophets invited people to have a rethink and to consider their ways.

Haggai joins the story in 520BC some 70 years after the exile when the Babylonian empire had collapsed and the world was now ruled by Persians who had allowed any exiled Israelites who wished to, to return to Jerusalem; to rebuild the ruined city.  You might remember from Ezra chapter five it is Haggai’s words to Zerubbabel and Joshua that motivates the restart on the rebuild of the Temple.  Haggai is pleased that some of the Israelites have heard him and have returned as directed.  But he is not all that pleased with their efforts when they get there.  He begins by accusing the returnees of misplaced priorities.  They have become distracted from the work of rebuilding the Temple, by the lure of rebuilding their own homes.  To Haggai this neglect of God’s house, the Temple, is all too similar to the covenant rebellion of their ancestors.  And this ‘rebellion’ is directly related to the lack of productivity they are experiencing from the land.  In Haggais’ understanding, they cannot expect God’s blessing while they neglect the care of his house.

Haggai then goes on to address some of the problems of shattered expectations.  You might remember we talked about these a few weeks back too.  The Temple they were working on was not the glorious building that was there before.  They were taunted for this and morale dropped and they became uninspired by the whole project.  Haggai worked hard to remind them of the importance of the Temple and called them to work on in hope, despite their disappointment.

Then he returned again a couple of months later to call them, this time, to covenant faithfulness.  He uses a parable about impurity to inspire them further.  I haven’t included this in the excerpts we read earlier because it was very convoluted and the image he used was not something that would make a lot of sense to us.  But what the parable was trying to say was, that what is done with an unclean heart will not be rewarded.  So, in this case this generation of the people of Israel needed to humble themselves, let go of their tendency to idolatry and injustice so their work would be rewarded.  Only true repentance and covenant faithfulness would see their building efforts result in God bringing his kingdom and blessing.  Obedience will lead to blessing while faithlessness will lead to ruin.

So, what do we make of that!  Obedience, it seems to me is a fairly loaded word in our world, except perhaps in relation to animals or small children!  However, most of us do try to obey the road rules and generally lead lives that are obedient to state and societal laws.  But we don’t like to be told to be obedient.  It can make us feel small and lead us to feel we are being controlled by someone else.  In our faith life the call to obedience has often led to an expectation of slavish adherence to someone else’s idea of the rules.  I wonder what word we might be more comfortable with these days…

But what I initially found more difficult with Haggai’s thinking is the idea that doing the right thing will win God’s favour.  This feels very works based to me and reflects little of God’s generous love for us that requires nothing of us, before it is offered.  This is not about our response to God’s generosity and more about what we are told we have to do to in order to earn God’s love.  This got me thinking about how we read these old stories.  As Christians we have little choice other than to read them through a Christian lens.  Which leads us to ask: Is this how we know God to be through what we know of Jesus? 

Does Jesus point to a God who demands our perfection before he will bless us?  No, the God I see Jesus point to, is one who accepts and welcomes all, in whatever shape or form he finds them and then invites them into another way. 

These Old Testaments stories can be troublesome for us to read in our contexts.  This week I read an excerpt from Brian McLaren’s recent book Faith after Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do about It.  I found this helpful for today because he was talking about whether or not stories have to be proven to be factually accurate in order to be of any use to us.

“Looking back, McLaren says, I now see that underneath arguments about what I believed to be true factually, something deeper and truer was happening actually.  For example, whether or not the creation story happened factually as described in Genesis, I was committing myself to live in the world as if it actually were a precious, beautiful, meaningful creation, and as if I were too. . . .

What mattered most was not that I believed the stories in a factual sense, but that I believed in the meaning they carried so I could act upon that meaning and embody it in my life, to let that meaning breathe in me, animate me, fill me. . . . Whether I considered the stories factually accurate was never the point; what actually mattered all along was whether I lived a life pregnant with the meaning those stories contained. To my surprise, when I was given permission to doubt the factuality of my beliefs, I discovered their actual life-giving purpose. . . .Doubt need not be the death of faith. It can be, instead, the birth of a new kind of faith, a faith beyond beliefs, a faith that expresses itself in love, a deepening and expanding faith that can save your life and save the world.”[1]  

I hope you find his observations helpful.  These Old Testament stories that are at times so foreign to us, don’t need to be factually correct, or even sanitised as we might like them, to still hold kernels of truth that give our lives meaning and life-giving purpose.

The Israelites told stories that expressed their faith in a God who requires something of us in order to bless us and their growing understanding of how God shapes history; a faith history.  We would see it another way.  We know that God blesses and provides for us long before we get anywhere near perfection.  I don’t think Jesus points to a God who needs perfection – far from it, in fact.  I was interested in Haggai’s plea to the Israelites to, “Consider your ways!”  I think tone really matters here.  I hear this as an invitation to have a good look at who and how you are, consider these things and see where that takes you.  Rather than a raised voice shaking me saying THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU ARE DOING!!  I think he was pleading with the people to consider their motivations; and the ramifications for others in doing what they were doing; to consider whether their choices will bring life to them and to others. He was challenging them not to settle for an unexamined life.  I think this might be the great transferable element in the story. 

Did the congregation in the story about the organist that I read earlier need Agnes to be perfect before they loved and valued her?  No, of course they didn’t, just as they didn’t need the young man to be anything other than who he was to accept and love him.  Agnes could only remember and play three songs but she was faithful and obedient in doing what she could do and the people loved and valued her for it.  The young man in the story who could play a whole lot more than three songs recognised the perfection in the imperfection because he was aware of his own.  He had considered his ways and he had found rest with a group of 80 year olds who had also considered theirs.  What does ‘consider your ways’, say to you?  Does it draw you to want to think about your ways so that you are enabled to live in ways that, even more fully, bring life to you and to others?   It’s a call, I think, to going deeper with God, into the nooks and crannies of our lives to see what’s going on there and what might need to be brought to the light.  It’s an invitation to let God take you deeper into who you are and to be there with you in all you discover.

[1] Brian D. McLaren, Faith after Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do about It (St. Martins: 2021), 206, 207, 212.