The Greater Glory to Come
A Study in the Minor Prophets: Haggai
October 1, 2002 - In the late 1960s and early 1970s I was a graduate student at New York University, in New York City, and I witnessed the construction of the World Trade Center just a few blocks away.
by Eugene H. Merrill
At the time I thought that those massive towers would stand forever. The genius of the architects, the skill of the builders and the quality of the materials gave reason to believe that the World Trade Center was there to stay. However, on September 11, 2001, the work of many years crashed to the ground in only a few minutes, thereby demonstrating the fragility and impermanence of human institutions.
History is littered with examples of once-towering human achievements being annihilated in the aftermath of natural calamity, war or divine judgment. In the Old Testament the most famous example is the destruction of Solomon's Temple in 586 B.C. by the Babylonians. That magnificent edifice, completed in 960 B.C.,(1) stood firm and strong for nearly four centuries. Then, in a decisive moment of God's righteous judgment, the Temple—and Jerusalem with it—was reduced to burning ashes.(2) What had been started with optimism and apparent stability ended in wisps of smoke, testifying to the ultimate failure of the best efforts of humans.
When they returned from Babylonian exile, the Jews confronted the daunting task of rebuilding. The first exiles returned about 50 years after the Temple's ruin, and made preliminary attempts to clear the debris and to lay the foundation of a second Temple. But the work lagged and finally ground to a halt. Meager resources and incessant opposition from hostile neighbors plagued the struggling Jewish community. Soon the people lost focus and began to put their own interests ahead of God's. Their actions said that the Temple could wait while they attended to their own concerns. This is the attitude of any self-centered, narcissistic generation—including our own.
God called two post-exilic prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, into this situation. Both commenced their public ministries in 520 B.C., nearly 20 years after the Persian King Cyrus authorized the rebuilding of the Temple. Haggai's ministry, as recorded, lasted only a few months but was so successful that construction of the second Temple was completed by 516 B.C.
The real issue underlying the community's lethargy was a spirit of abysmal discouragement and disillusionment—not a lack of material resources or preoccupation with self-fulfillment. The glory and grandeur of Solomon's Temple was still fresh in the minds of the old men who had seen it with their own eyes 50 years earlier. By comparison, the new Temple was a pitiful beginning.
At first, building supplies had been accumulated easily,(3) and the work began without much ado. But once the foundations were laid and the dimensions of the Temple became apparent, the younger generation's joy from what they saw as progress was drowned out by the elders' bitter lamentations over what they perceived to be a dim shadow of the former Temple.(4)
Haggai was caught in the midst of these viewpoints, but by the time he addressed the matter publicly, the naysayers appeared to have the upper hand. The entire community abandoned the project, and with one mind they began to pursue their own objectives. This action provoked God's judgment of drought and famine.(5)
Jesus made it clear that we need to give God first place in our lives: "[God] will give you all you need from day to day if you live for him and make the Kingdom of God your primary concern."(6) The answer to the problems created by distorted values lies in changing our priorities. Haggai, speaking on God's behalf, said, "Now go up into the hills, bring down timber, and rebuild my house. Then I will take pleasure in it and be honored, says the Lord."(7)
The people were persuaded by the prophet's strong appeal, and the rebuilding quickly resumed. Although the words of the prophet might seem harsh, Haggai had a pastor's heart and empathized with those who still carried memories of Solomonic splendor. Compared to the first Temple, the present Temple, he said, "must seem like nothing at all!"(8) But Haggai promised the people that God would be with them just as He had been with their fathers, and that what God had done in the past would be more than matched in the future.
The more glorious future would not depend on a Temple made with hands, for like the Temple of Solomon, such a Temple had no guarantee of durability. As with any human achievement, the Temple, despite being the house of God, would be flawed by intrinsic obsolescence. The difference in the Temple to come would not be the silver and gold with which it would be adorned; it would be the presence of the glory of God in such form and magnitude as human eyes had never seen.
Isaiah saw something of this transcendent splendor in his inaugural vision at the Temple. He relates, "I saw the Lord. He was sitting on a lofty throne, and the train of his robe filled the Temple."(9) Overcome by such a display of glory, Isaiah could only confess his mortality and sinfulness. But the glory of the Temple described by Haggai would exceed even this, for his point was precisely that "the future glory of this Temple will be greater than its past glory."(10)
The Temple ministry of Jesus Christ anticipated this greater glory when Jesus, exercising His kingly majesty, drove the money changers from the Temple.(11) But the ultimate display of Haggai's promise awaits the eschatological age when the Messianic descendant of Zerubbabel,(12) hinted at by the prophet, will not just inhabit a heavenly Temple but in some mysterious sense will
In a day of impressive human accomplishment, it is important to remember that only that which is established and maintained by the Lord has permanence: "Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain."(14)