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?


The Short Story as God’s Word

Jonah image 2

The prophetic word in the Book of Jonah is not what Jonah says, but his story.

The Book of Jonah draws me in like the light bulb on the front porch that attracts the moths throughout the night. You can sense that when you notice that I have written about this book twice in my blog (see Who Has the Last Word in Jonah? and When Was Jonah Saved?).

It fascinates me because for one, it is a very short work, but dense, very dense in meaning. And for a second reason. It is an odd book to find in the prophetic corpus.

Most prophetic books in the Old Testament are heavy on the words that the prophet declared to the people of Israel. You find scattered biographical details in the texts (like the story of Jeremiah’s imprisonment or the death of Ezekiel’s wife), but no sustained narrative that tells the story of the prophet’s life. What is of central importance are the words from God that the prophet is commissioned to deliver.

But in Jonah, the message he delivers is just one sentence: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). That’s it. No further elaboration. No poetic embellishment. No hopeful promise. If we understand prophecy as a word from God, how did Jonah make it into the collection of the 12 prophets? He seems a very minor prophet indeed.

Story as Prophecy

The Book of Jonah forces us to expand our understanding of prophecy. The word of the Lord to Israel does not always consist of just spoken words coming out of the prophet’s mouth. The word of the Lord may also be the prophet’s story. In fact, the prophecy declared in the Book of Jonah is the short story of Jonah itself.

In this respect, I like to see the Book of Jonah as analogous to the parables Jesus teaches. They, too, are short stories. I once heard a Bible teacher describe the parable of the prodigal son as one of the most perfect short stories ever written. The story is the vehicle for revelation.

Even though I don’t regard the Book of Jonah as a historical account–and I don’t–I have no less respect for it as scripture. Jonah was certainly a real historical figure. He makes another appearance in 2 Kings 14:25.

But there are too many improbabilities in the story that tax our credulity if we regard it as a historical account. I offer two examples: the improbability of a man remaining alive for three days in the belly of a fish and the description of the city of Nineveh as a three-day walk across in breadth. Archaeologists tell us this is a far exaggeration over the real city.

Those improbabilities do not trouble me at all, because the word of the Lord that comes to us in this story is contained in the story itself. And if we listen attentively to the story, we find the Book of Jonah to be one of the most powerful expressions of the compassionate love of God for sinful humanity in all of the Bible.

When Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, I have the distinct impression that Jesus knows the Book of Jonah intimately. He has absorbed its message into his own very being. Jesus is at one with the author of the book.

The Prominence of Narrative in the Bible

All this should remind us that a huge part of the Bible consists of narrative, narratives about individuals and narratives about peoples and nations. It has been customary to call the first five books of the Bible the Law of Moses. But if you study those books attentively, you find narrative has just as dominant position in the Torah as do legal, ritual, and moral injunctions.

The same is true of the gospels. Yes, they contain large blocks of Jesus’ teaching. But that teaching is embedded in narratives, narratives that tell the story of Jesus and his acts. This is a striking feature of the canonical gospels when we compare them to a non-canonical gospel like the Gospel of Thomas. Thomas is a collection of sayings, but sayings lifted out of their context.

This also suggests for me that there can be something revelatory about the narratives of our own lives. If we are given the prophetic gift of insight, we can perceive the way that God is at work in the many twists and turns, the ups and downs of our lives. But most of us are not given that prophetic gift, and so we turn to the prophets of the Bible for the insight they can provide us.

Yet we have that strange prophecy in the prophet Joel that the apostle Peter claims is fulfilled on Pentecost. It goes:

In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy. (
Acts 2:17-18)

This passage suggests that prophecy is not to be an elitist gift, but a universal gift. And we hope that someday it will be.