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?


5 thoughts on “Puzzled by Haggai

  1. The Old Testament canon was established predominantly by the Jewish people. The author of Hebrews quotes Haggai (12:26). Ultimately, Haggai has tremendous import in the whole schema of God. For they that believe the end times holds future significance, Haggai has prophecy that has yet to be fulfilled. Obadiah and Nahum also have a lot to say in regard to the end times. While most don’t find it significant, I think that there are both tremendous statements as well as patterns expressed in these texts if we’re willing to dig. However, you’re correct in pointing out that they aren’t very good “sermon material”. These prophets deal with the cosmic purposes of God concerning the fulfillment of all things and the restoration of the Kingdom.


  2. Oh I love the minor prophets! They are thick and condensed. They support the pattern of many things which other prophets and Jesus also spoke of. Don’t be too caught up in the surface and historical accounts given in these “minor” prophets, because if you take away the proper nouns you’ll notice the patterns are the same.
    In Obadiah, Edom was suppose to kinsmen to the people of God (as Esau and Jacob were brothers) but they did not live up to this, and more over they did worst things because they were not acting as God had ordains them to be. This is very parallel with Jesus parable of the sheep and the goats, with Edom being more like the goats. They did not see Jesus or God because they did not recognize “the least of these my brethren” as a represtation of God even in their most woeful times.
    Nahum is remarkable similar to Babylon and indeed Nineveh was later to be taken over by Babylon, but the spirit of both were the same. Also the punishment is very similar.
    Haggai seems to be more of call to God’s people, of those who willing to hear it. Just like Relveations 3:17-18 so also Haggai 1:6 (through to verse 10 even) share similar components of no matter how hard God’s people try to do for themselves, if they do not consider God’s glory and reputation foremost, than selfish ambitions will ultimately lead to nought (in short).
    The promise of Zerubbable becoming a signet ring, is the same promise and hope of God restoring the Davidic kingdom which means the Promised One of Israel, the Messiah, or the Christ. The wording in Haggai maybe “modernized” for its readers, but it’s the same promise. It’s the same hope the Jews and Christians both dwell on in our current modern day.

    Ultimately what we have here is similar pattern to one Jesus references many times: the bad servant, the dwellers of darkness, the good servant, and the Master.
    Stories like the prodigal son, the wedding banquet, the 10 virgins, the sheep & the goats.
    It’s a sight and subtle pattern, but it certainly is there. The book of Revelations also talks about those who are caught up in the age, Babylon, those who overcome, the Faithful One.

    Just a thought to consider as well. Maybe the details have captured you so well, that the larger overview is the evasive points you’ve been missing to finder the greater worth of each of these small condensed books.
    Godspeed in your Bible adventures.


    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Yes, you are right. It is important to pay attention to patterns and rhythms that run through a series of Biblical texts. The Biblical tradition does see Esau and Jacob as brothers, reconciled at the end of Genesis 33. Edom and Judah are their descendants, but they do not act as reconciled brothers. I think Nineveh and Babylon are two sides of the same coin, so the prophet Nahum was probably read as a condemnation of Babylon as well. It is certainly in the same spirit of Psalm 137. Whether the promise to Zerubbabel is Messianic, I am not sure. You may be right. But thanks for taking time to respond.


  3. Judy Brown

    Hi Gordon,      I guess my response to your question about Haggai, is that as much as I know you love the Old Testament, I am happy that we have the New Testament to follow.  I think Jesus came to help straighten out the Jews, by giving simple–or not so simple – guidelines to follow to lead a “good life.”       If you can’t understand why some of those minor prophets are in the Bible, then it is beyond understanding!!  You are the most intellectual Bible scholar I know!   Judy


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