Puzzled by Haggai

How did the prophet Haggai make it into the Bible?

For the last three months I have been reading my way through the 12 books that form the Minor Prophets in the Old Testament. There is rich stuff in these books, especially in Hosea, Amos, Habakkuk, and Jonah. Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows how much I treasure Jonah.

There are several prophets, however, that I scratch my head and wonder how they made it into the canon of the Bible. One is Obadiah. The whole burden of his prophecy is a denunciation of the neighboring kingdom of Edom. Another is Nahum. He pronounces doom on the Assyrian capital of Nineveh.

I’ve never heard any preacher base a sermon on either text. So I find it hard to see what enduring message either prophet has for future generations, apart from the message that evil ultimately gets what it deserves.

And then I come to Haggai. I have heard a preacher preach a stewardship sermon on this text, drawing upon Haggai’s plea to the returning exiles to Jerusalem to give priority to the rebuilding of the temple over their own private homes. But as I read the whole book, I wonder why the people who formed the canon decided to include it in the Twelve Prophets.

A Glorious Promise from God

As part of his incentive to move the Jerusalemites to rebuild the temple, Haggai proclaims this promise from the Lord:

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; 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. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the LORD of hosts. 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. (Haggai 2:6-9)

But this promise never seems to have been fulfilled. The temple those returning exiles built was a far less splendid and imposing structure than the one Solomon built, at least until King Herod decides to rebuilt the temple in a truly magnificent way in the 1st century B.C.

And though contributions from Jews from across the diaspora came in to fund the temple, certainly the riches of Gentile nations did not stream in, as the prophecy implies.

I know that text makes no promises on timing. So we can argue that God is talking about the glorious eschatological age to come sometime in the future. That may be how the generations after Haggai understood his message. Yet I think the most natural way to read Haggai is to read his message as being directed to his own generation. It was meant to be encouraging words to them.

What Am I Missing?

As I read on in Haggai, the puzzles get more severe. At the end of the book, the Lord speaking through Haggai directs a promise to Zerubbabel, the governor the city. Zerubbabel is a descendent of the royal dynasty of David. Therefore, Jewish hopes for the continuation of the Davidic line rest upon him.

To Zerubbabel comes the divine promise that God will soon overthrow the power structure of the ancient world with its many empires and kingdoms. (See Haggai 2:20-23.) On that day, then, God will make Jerubbabel the signet ring on God’s finger. I read this as imagery saying that Zerubbabel will become the supreme leader or God’s designated representative over the ancient political order.

If that is what the ambiguous phrase means, that never happens. Instead, Zerubbabel disappears with no explanation from the Biblical record. Scholars speculate that Persian authorities, who ruled Palestine, got wind of Jewish hopes around Zerubbabel and summarily removed him from power. His fate is unknown.

My point is that when the people who formed the decisions on what books should be included in the canon of the Bible and which not, they would have known that this particular prophecy had not become true in any literal way. Yet the consensus that emerged in the canonical process found the message of Haggai significant enough to preserve it for future generations to read and ponder.

The question that puzzles me is: Why? One of the criteria in the Old Testament for discerning a true prophet from a false prophet is whether his prophetic predictions come true or not. (See the debate between Jeremiah and Hananiah in Jeremiah 28.) By that criterion, it would seem that Haggai was not a true prophet. So why was he worth preserving?

I am not arguing that we should go in and change the canon. The canon of the Bible is one we have received from generations long in the past. That canon has been treasured and read for centuries. And I am not one to argue that I or my generation is wiser than past generations.

But I still ask: Why? What am I missing that earlier generations saw? Any ideas?