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Politics of Scripture, Quick Takes

The Politics of Managing Expectations: Haggai 1:15b-2:9

As it was with Haggai, the real test of leadership is not necessarily the capacity to motivate people to action, but rather to keep them fixed on that same goal when it becomes clear that the rhetoric that moved them in the first place bears little resemblance to the actual situation in which they have to act.

Haggai 1:15—2:9
15 on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month. Chapter 2 In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: 2 Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, 3 Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? 4 Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, 5 according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. 6 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; 7 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. 8 The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. 9 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.

The prophet Haggai’s moment in the religious spotlight, as described in the eponymous biblical book, lasted only about four months. Jeremiah he was not. So it’s a small book—most people can’t find it without looking it up in the table of contents and most ministers I know couldn’t even tell you what it’s about. If a printer accidentally omitted it from a batch scarcely anyone would notice. But its brevity belies its pivotal significance in the life of post-exilic Judah, as it cast about for a new identity in the wake of the return from Babylon.

The year in which Haggai gets his fifteen minutes of fame is 520 BCE. According to Zechariah, who is a contemporary of Haggai, the Judahites started coming home almost two decades earlier in 538. And when they came, they brought with them a mandate to rebuild the temple (cf. Ezra 1, 8), which had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586. Unlike other ancient conquerors, who sought to control the vanquished by the chaos and disorientation of the forced movement of the defeated peoples all around their empire, the Persians were committed to control by buttressing the rightful local rulers and using them as conduits through which to exercise their will. Thus the Persians had made, over its province of Yehud, as the Persians referred to Judah, Zerubabel son of Shealtiel to be its governor and Joshua son of Jehozadak to be its high priest, in other words,putting back into leadership the people who otherwise would’ve been power if the Babylonians had not wrecked the place and its governing institutions.

The problem, however, is that, for some reason unknown to us, the Jews were stuck. Nearly two decades had passed since the return and the temple still lay in ruins. The lectionary text does not begin until 1:15b but the preacher will have to tell the story from the beginning in order to get the full effect of what Haggai says subsequently. It was in that context that the prophet Haggai became a conduit for Yahweh Sabaoth, the “Lord of Hosts,” a form of identification which conveys an image of inexhaustible military potency. Three things are important about Haggai’s message here. The first is its striking reversal of the language of 2 Samuel 7, where David, having conquered all of his rivals within and his enemies without, contemplated building Yahweh a “house. ” In that text, Yahweh responds through the prophet Nathan that he is uninterested in a house, and furthermore, what had he ever said that would’ve given anyone any impression otherwise? Now, however, the situation is very different. Whereas in 2 Sam 7, it was David who notes that, though everybody else had fine digs, Yahweh was living in a tent, now Yahweh is the one who points out out that, despite severe economic conditions, everyone else in Jerusalem is at least living in a rebuilt structure, while his house “lies in ruins.”

The second important point of this prophetic utterance is the connection that the prophet makes between the abject state of Judah’s society, economy, and infrastructure nearly decades since the return from Babylon and the pile of rubble that is still the temple. In the phrasing of our time, the prophet basically asks, “How’s that workin’ out for ya?” He answers his own question: all of their efforts at creating the kind of flourishing environment that Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel had envisioned had, as of yet, come to nought. The reason, the prophet asserts, lay in their failure to properly prioritize the reconstruction of Yahweh’s house.

The third feature that should be noted is the forcefulness with which the demand for Yahweh’s house is articulated. A drought so severe that the dew itself will fail to materialize is promised until the people shake off their torpor and get busy. Apparently, this was exactly what the people needed to hear. For, as the text says the “spirits” of both the governor, the high priest as well as those of all the people found the motivation to get the project moving in earnest.

It is at this point in the story that the lectionary text begins. Approximately two months have past, and the reader is given to believe that great strides have occurred in the building project. Although it will be several more years before the temple will be dedicated, the reconstruction has progressed at least to the point where there appears to be arising some dismay, as the form and substance of the new structure began to emerge, evincing an underwhelming quality of splendor and eliciting sadness at the prospect that this temple was going to be but a shadow of that which it was replacing. In 520 BCE, when Haggai’s ministry took place, anyone who was about 70 years of age or older would have had memories, however dim, of the First Temple. It is a commonplace to note that as we age, nothing in our later years is ever beautiful, vibrant, moving, sensual (pick your adjective) as it was when we experienced it in our youth, and so we might want to dismiss the concerns that Haggai faces here. The straitened circumstances of post-exilic Jerusalem, however, over which the prophet has already lingered, lend credence to the very real possibility that the growing edifice was shaping up to be a massive aesthetic disappointment (2;3).

It is here that the Prophet does his best work. For he must shift gears, away from the exhortational and motivational focus of chapter 1 and into a more subtle and nuanced reframing of the situation for the people. Haggai does not sugar-coat the situation: nor does he try to dispute the memory of those who knew full well what they had seen and experienced in the First Temple. Instead, he shifts the people’s gaze to the future, moving beyond their present sensory experience of the building before them, onto an eschatological vision of what God will yet accomplish, declaring that “the latter splendor of this place will be greater than its former” (2:9) The Lord of Hosts is going to “shake the mountains” and the “nations” and he will “give to this place prosperity” (2:7-9). In the meantime, he prophet declares, we have the presence of God in our midst. And after all, it is the presence which sustains us, which guides and protects us. In other words, Haggai helps the people manage their expectations by giving them a reminder of what is most important. “Take courage…work…do not fear” (2:4-5). It was never about the building. Reminding them of a time, in Egypt, when there wasn’t even a land, much less a building, he reminds the people of the divine promise; “‘I am with you,’ says The Lord of Hosts” (2:5). It was always about the presence: “‘My Spirit abides with you” (2:5). In fact, the prophet proclaims that whatever the artisans and architects cannot do, that Yahweh himself will take the matter into his own hands and put the splendor of the whole world within (2:7-8).

The importance of this reframing cannot be overstated. Undoubtedly the first returnees had been excited and highly motivated two decades before and yet had foundered on the shoals of reality and had been incapable of moving further. Having roused them to action a second time in chapter 1, Haggai was on the cusp of watching the community revert again to immobility. The timely word of the prophet, given at the the moment when hope was nearly exhausted, kept the community’s anxiety over the progress at a minimum and allowed them ultimately to complete the work which was so central to the overall society’s spiritual, cultural and economic well-being.

In studying this passage this week, I have also been flitting back-and-forth between reading A. Scott Berg’s brilliant new biography of Woodrow Wilson and watching news coverage of the rollout of Obamacare. It strikes me that both the prophet and the two presidents face similar rhetorical and leadership challenges in their work, despite the vast differences in time, place and culture. In each instance, these leaders rose to prominence on the back of a powerful critique of society and a rousing call to action, which made a deep emotional appeal to the core values of their societies. Yet also in each case, the soaring rhetoric and idealistic fervor that began their meteoric rise to national prominence, ran headlong into the muck and mire of real life in which neither people nor circumstances are so cooperative. In the midst of such encounters of ideals with reality, many visions collapse and many leaders are undone. Wilson’s desires to keep America out of World War I and to get her into the League of Nations were both eclipsed by events beyond his control. Obama’s vision of universal health care for all Americans may be thwarted by, of all things, a buggy website. As it was with Haggai, the real test of leadership is not necessarily the capacity to motivate people to action, but rather to keep them fixed on that same goal when it becomes clear that the rhetoric that moved them in the first place bears little resemblance to the actual situation in which they have to act.

It seems to me that this is a basic issue faced regularly by those of us in congregational leadership. We are tasked, especially those of us who preach regularly, with rhetorically shaping the call to mission and action for the sake of the kingdom. We have been trained in techniques designed to win the hearts and minds of our hearers for a grand vision of what might be. And most of us are fairly accomplished in that particular task. Much more daunting, is the situation in which we find ourselves now, in which such visioning confronts obstacles such as declining membership, aging congregants, shrinking budgets, splintering denominations, and increasing secularism. Like the temple-builders in Jerusalem, many of the people with whom we labor have become discouraged at the progress and the ever diminishing prospects of attaining any of what would have been, in any other time, normal goals or at least measures of success.

Like Haggai, we are having to help our people manage their expectations. And what he told his people 2500 years ago still bears repeating for us. It was never about our physical plant. It was never about our per capita giving. It was never about the number of people on the rolls. It was never about the size of the denomination. It was never about the influence of our religion on the culture or whether the White House took the calls of our leaders. It was always about the presence of God in our midst, and the sooner that church leaders realize this ourselves, the sooner we can begin to help others live it, too. For our strivings are producing little but anxiety, both in ourselves and in our people: the harder we work, the less things seem to improve. The truth is that none of the conventional methods and means in which we have so long invested can help us. If we are to be prosperous, it will be because of the presence. If we are to be safe and secure, it will be because of the presence. If we are to have a future, it will be because of the presence.

Timothy F. Simpson is Editor Emeritus of Political Theology.

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