Thursday of Week 25 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Haggai 1:1-8

For these two days we take our readings from Haggai, one of the lesser known of the so-called Minor Prophets. The whole book consists of only two chapters and both our readings will be taken from the first chapter.

The Jerusalem Bible notes:

“The last, post-exilic, period of prophecy opens with Haggai. The change is striking. Before the Exile the watchword of the prophets was Punishment. During the Exile it became Consolation. Now it is Restoration. Haggai appears at a critical moment in the development of Judaism; the birth of the new Palestinian community. His short exhortations are precisely dated, August and September of 520 BC. The first Jews to return from Babylonia to rebuild the Temple were quickly discouraged. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah stirred them to new efforts and urged Zerubbabel the governor and the High Priest Joshua to resume work on the Temple. This was done in September, 520 BC.”

The four brief discourses composing this book are entirely concerned with this “restoration”. Since the Temple is still in ruins and Yahweh has destroyed the harvests, it is believed the rebuilding will usher in the age of prosperity. However unimposing, this new Temple will dim the glory of the old; and power is promised to Zerubbabel, the chosen one of God. Therefore, this Temple and this descendant of David become the focus of a messianic hope that will be more clearly expressed in Zechariah.

The New International Version Study Bible also gives a brief historical background which helps to contextualise today’s reading:

“Haggai was a prophet who, along with Zechariah, encouraged the returned exiles to rebuild the Temple (see Ezra 5:1-2;6:14). ‘Haggai’ means ‘festal’, which may indicate that the prophet was born during one of the three pilgrimage feasts (Unleavened Bread, Pentecost or Weeks, and Tabernacles). Based on the verse in 2:3, Haggai may have witnessed the destruction of Solomon’s Temple. If so, he must have been in his early 70s during his ministry…”

In 538 BC, the conqueror of Babylon, Cyrus king of Persia, issued a decree allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. Led by Zerubbabel, about 50,000 Jews journeyed home and began work on the Temple. About two years later (in 536 BC) they completed the foundation amid great rejoicing. Their success aroused the Samaritans and other neighbours who feared the political and religious implications of a rebuilt Temple in a thriving Jewish state. They therefore opposed the project vigorously and managed to halt work until Darius the Great became king of Persia in 522 BC. Darius was interested in the religions of his empire, and Haggai and Zechariah began to preach in his second year (520 BC). The Jews were more to blame for their inactivity than their opponents, and Haggai tried to arouse them from their lethargy. When the governor of Transeuphrates and other officials tried to interfere with the rebuilding efforts, Darius fully supported the Jews. In 516 BC, the Temple was finished and dedicated. Next to Obadiah, Haggai is the shortest book in the Old Testament.

Today’s reading finds us in the same period as the Book of Ezra which we have just been reading. King Darius is the emperor of Persia. It is the first day of the sixth month (August/September) in the year 520 BC, the second year of his reign. The New Moon was the day on which prophets were sometimes consulted.

King Darius Hystaspis (or Hystaspes) ruled Persia from 522 to 486 BC. As a historical footnote, it was he who prepared the trilingual inscription on the Behistun (Bisitun) cliff wall (located in modern Iran), through which cuneiform languages were later deciphered.

Haggai, the Lord’s prophet, has a message from Yahweh for the governor of Judah, Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, and for the high priest, Joshua, son of Jehozadak. In 1 Chronicles we are told that Jehozakak was taken away into captivity by Nebuchadnezzar.

The Lord’s message is clear. He wants his Temple to be built, but “these people” are saying the time has not yet come for the rebuilding, even though the foundations had been laid 16 years previously (in 536 BC). They have other priorities, like the building of their own houses. Because of their sin, the nation is not called “my people”.

And Yahweh asks:

Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?

The luxury of the homes of the wealthy with their “paneled houses” contrasts sadly with the ruined state of the Lord’s home. “Paneled houses” were usually connected with royal dwellings, which had cedar paneling. There seems to be an element of sarcasm in the Lord’s question. It also reminds one of David’s embarrassment about living in a palace while the Ark of the Covenant was still confined to a tent:

See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent. (2 Sam 7:2)

It seems the returned exiles did not have any such qualms.

Now comes a warning about their self-centred lifestyle:

They are living a life of conspicuous consumption, like people living it high while debts mount on their credit cards:

You have sown much and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.

This is a pretty accurate image of our own credit card culture.

They have planted abundantly, but have been punished by famine when the harvests never materialised. Because of that, they live lives which give no satisfaction, no matter how active they are. They earn wages, but these disappear when prices soar during time of famine.

Instead, let them get down to the task of rebuilding the Lord’s house. Let them go up into the hills of Judah and get the timber for building. Perhaps wood from the hills around Jerusalem was to supplement the cedar wood already purchased from Lebanon. Once the Lord’s House is complete, he will:

…take pleasure in it and be honored…

The reading is a wake-up call to us about our priorities. How are we building the “house of the Lord”? Do we take care of our own priorities first and then wonder about what God wants as an after-thought? St Ignatius Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises speaks of people organising their own lives according to their own desires and likes and then, when everything is set, think about wondering what God might want. Of course, it should be the other way round.

The rich man in the Gospel made his money first and then asked Jesus what he should do to gain eternal life. When told that he needed to get rid of his wealth and share it with the needy, he could not do it.

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