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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

The Exhortation to Rebuild

The Exhortation to Rebuild

The first chapter of Haggai paints a vivid picture of the impoverished state of the Jewish community after the return. The difficulty of their situation was compounded by drought and crop failure. Haggai offered a daring interpretation of this situation: their difficulties were due to the fact that they had not rebuilt the Temple but had concentrated instead on rebuilding their own houses. We find here a classical case study in religious priorities. Socially minded critics tend to see Haggai as merely superstitious. The people needed the shelter of their own houses. God did not need a temple. This criticism is congenial to modern thought, but we also find it in antiquity. The anonymous prophet in Isaiah 66, 1–2 asks: “The heavens are my throne, the earth is my footstool. What kind of house can you build for me?” That passage very probably comes from Haggai's time and suggests that there were other prophets who opposed the rebuilding. Yet there was social wisdom in Haggai's position. The morale of the community was at a low ebb. One way of raising that morale was to engage in a community project, which would encourage people to think of the good of the community as a whole rather than dwell on their own misfortune. This is not to suggest that Haggai thought consciously in such sociological terms but, in fact, by urging the people to think of God rather than of themselves he was directing their attention to the greater good of the community. A comparable situation occurred in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The immigrant communities from Europe were made up of poor working‐class people. Nonetheless they took pride in erecting great churches and schools in cities like New York and Boston. These edifices were put up at no small sacrifice, but their value to the communities was enormous. While success was difficult for individuals, it was possible for communities that banded together. The buildings were simultaneously an offering to their God and an expression of their own self‐worth.

The Reaction to the Finished Temple

We are told in the book of Ezra that when the foundation of the new Temple was laid, the old men who remembered Solomon's Temple cried out in sorrow, and their laments could not be distinguished from the shouts of joy. This was because the new Temple was puny in comparison with the old (Ezr 3, 12f). Haggai 2, 3 records this reaction. Besides, the completion of the Temple did not bring about the dramatic reversal of fortunes that Haggai had predicted. Haggai's reaction to this situation is typical of prophets through the ages whose predictions have not come to pass. First, he tells the people to wait “a little while.” The prediction is not wrong, only the time is delayed. Second, he diagnoses a reason for the delay. The people are not observing purity laws and their offerings are unclean. He ends by reaffirming that God will shake the heavens and the earth when conditions are right.

It must be admitted that this reaction shows some embarrassment on the part of the prophet, which can only have increased with the passage of time when his predictions remained unfulfilled. The case of Haggai points out the Achilles heel of predictive prophecy. The hopes raised by the prophet were good for the morale of the community, but only for a time. When they were not fulfilled, they led to disillusionment. The same problem would beset the apocalyptic and messianic expectations of later generations, and eventually tend to discredit them.

The Lesson of Haggai

There are, then, two lessons to be learned from Haggai. One is that hope should not be focused on specific predictions. The faith of Habakkuk was secure because it was a faith in ultimate justice and did not depend on specific events coming to pass within a short space of time. Haggai's more specific prediction gives rise to problems. The other is that he has a positive lesson to offer on the value of religious symbols and ritual as a means of bringing the community together. It was largely through his efforts that the Temple was rebuilt. While the Temple may not have satisfied immediate expectations, its contribution to Jewish life over the next five hundred years was enormous, and would far outweigh the initial disappointment which many felt when it was completed.

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