1:15b In the second year of King Darius, 2:1 in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: 2 Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, 3 Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? 4 Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, 5 according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. 6 For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; 7 and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. 8 The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. 9 The latter splendor 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.
From the time that Solomon erected the Temple in Jerusalem, it served as the center of Israel’s life (after the kingdom divided it was the center of life for the kingdom of Judah, but I’m using the terms interchangeably here as by the time we get to Haggai the kingdom of Israel no longer existed). When the Babylonians came early in the 6th century that Temple was destroyed and its fixtures, including the Ark of the Covenant, were taken away. Where the Ark landed, no one knows, though the search for it goes on (Remember Indiana Jones’ search for it in Raiders of the Lost Ark?). When the exile ended around 538 BCE, after the Persians brought down the Babylonian Empire, permission was given to rebuild the Temple. According to the book of Ezra, this occurred in the first year of Cyrus’ rule in Persia (Ezra 1). For our purposes that is occurred in 538 BCE. When Haggai comes on the scene it’s been eighteen years, and the Persian rebuilding program that was authorized hasn’t gotten very far, and Haggai isn’t happy.
When we pick things up in the book of Haggai, we’re in the second year of the reign of King Darius I (520 BCE). In this reading from Haggai, the prophet addresses Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the High Priest. He encourages them to get busy with work on the Temple so that it might reflect the splendor of God. Note here that Zerubbabel, though a descendant of David, is not a king but governor appointed by the Persians. It doesn’t appear that Haggai has in mind the restoration of the monarchy, though his contemporary Zechariah does seem to envision a king arising (perhaps Zerubbabel) who will rebuild the Temple (Zech. 6:12). Haggai, like Zechariah, is interested in rebuilding the Temple so that it might again serve as the fulcrum of Judaic life. Whatever work had been done on rebuilding the Temple was insufficient. Haggai asks those who might have seen the original Temple whether whatever had been erected in the past eighteen years was anything like what had existed previously. Had anyone seen it in its previous glory? Now, we’re taking nearly seventy years here, so the number of people who remembered the previous Temple would be small if they were present at all. Nevertheless, Haggai’s point is that this dump isn’t worthy of the God of Israel. This isn’t a domicile worthy of the one who had called the people of Israel out of Egypt. Therefore, Joshua the priest and Zerubbabel the governor needed to get to work on bringing this about so that it might again reflect the splendor of God.
The word that Zerubbabel and Joshua hear is “be strong” and get to work because the Lord of Hosts is with them. Remember Egypt and the promises God made to the people as God led them out of Egypt. The former Temple might have been destroyed, but God is still present and will provide what is needed to rebuild. Just get busy! It is interesting that Haggai understands that God can live without a house, but that a house serves an important role as a symbol of God’s splendor.
To add a bit of drama, Haggai speaks in apocalyptic terms. Heaven and earth will quake. Then the wealth of the nations, the silver and gold that belongs to God, will shake out and fall into the Temple so that this place would be a place of prosperity. Note here who is responsible for this. It’s God. God will bring glory and splendor to the people, but they have to build the Temple as a prerequisite. Things might seem bad, but there is hope, for God is with them!
Now this word about the Temple and the splendor that Haggai envisions might be a bit off-putting to some in our day. I remember vividly the cover of the Christian satirical magazine The Wittenberg Door after the erection of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove. The accompanying article listed all the good things that could be accomplished with the eighteen million dollars expended to build that glass house. Ironically this famous building, which was as much a tourist attraction as a church, was sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange to serve as its cathedral after the original congregation declared bankruptcy. Now, this building was an expression of a certain vision of God and the church—Schuller’s message about “possibility thinking” (a version of Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking”). Unfortunately for the congregation fame was fleeting, as was the vision of “possibility thinking” (though the prosperity gospel still attracts plenty of adherents, leading to the building of new temples.
The lesson of the Crystal Cathedral could be anti-building, but perhaps it’s not the right model for understanding Haggai’s message. Consider the great temples and cathedrals spread across the globe, many of which continue to be centers of worship and pilgrimage centuries and even millennia after their creation. My own recent visits to the cathedrals in Speyer, Strasbourg, and Cologne brought me into contact with awe-inspiring buildings that continue to be expressions of splendor. Is it divine splendor or human splendor? That is a question that one must answer by faith, I think. The fact is, for many people, these buildings are more than tourist attractions (they are that as well), but they are expressions of divine presence. Indeed, during my own visits to these great centers of worship, I at times felt that divine presence, taking me from being a tourist to a pilgrim.
We live at a time when the position of many people of faith is that buildings are irrelevant. There’s nothing sacred about them. Why a building? Isn’t God everywhere? Can’t I be with God out in the forest or on a mountain? Of course, I’ve felt that presence standing on a mountain, but does that mean buildings have no sacred value? Or could it be, that buildings do have their place as sacred locations where we can encounter the divine presence on earth as in heaven?
There are material temples and there are spiritual ones. Both, I think, have their place, within reason. Perhaps that is the message that Haggai offers us. May we enjoy the splendor that is God, wherever we encounter it.