From Apathy to Action- Thursday, 25th Week in ordinary time- Haggai 1: 1-8
Haggai lived more than half a century after that great exile at a time when a new page of history lay bare before the Jewish people. Yet this time was also the lowest point in the experience of the Hebrew people throughout the whole biblical period.
Some 66 years earlier, in 586 B.C., the city of Jerusalem had been defeated by the armies of Babylon and its temple had been desecrated. A large portion of Jerusalem’s population had been exiled to live in the labour camps of Babylon. Others had escaped the invaders and had settled in foreign countries, far from their homeland. Only a few had remained in the Promised Land. Devoid of any leadership, they had survived, but they had neither the vision nor the will to retain the vitality of faith which used to be celebrated in Jerusalem.
The international situation began to change in 539 B.C. The newly powerful Persian Empire, under the leadership of Cyrus, defeated Babylon and thus became the new master of the fate of the exiled Jews who lived in the territories Persia now controlled. Cyrus made it possible, perhaps as early as 538 B.C. for exiles that lived in his newly acquired territories to return to their homelands. And so, some of the Jews, after half a century of residence in Babylon, began to move back to their own country, a land that many of them (having been born in exile) had never visited.
Of those who returned home, in and after 538 B.C., a few seem to have set about the task of restoring the temple, which had been destroyed in 586 B.C. Their efforts, however, were too little. Most of them would have been hard pressed to eke out a living in their new circumstances, and though the foundations for a restored temple were cleared and prepared, little progress seems to have been made with the reconstruction as such.
It is against this background that we are provided with a brief glimpse of the ministry of the prophet Haggai. Where the pre-exilic prophets had ministered to a violent and evil nation; Haggai was faced with the inertia of despair and sluggishness. Some of this people sought merely to survive; others survived in reasonable comfort, but had no vision for the people as a whole.
To cap it all drought and various crop afflictions (arising, no doubt, from years of agricultural neglect) left the land poor and the people dispirited. This was no time, so it must have seemed, to most people in the year 520 B.C., to start worrying about the state of the temple. It had been in ruins for decades. Most would have thought that it should remain that way until such time as the economy improved.
Haggai was one of a small handful of men who perceived that, despite the sad state of the economy, something had to be done about the temple. Poverty and despair were no grounds for leaving Solomon’s once splendid structure in such a sorry state of ruin.
From a religious point of view, the temple was a symbol of God’s presence amongst his people; while it remained a ruin, there was little hope for a revival of the faith. And from a strictly national point of view, the temple had once been the pride of Jerusalem and Israel; while it remained derelict, there could be no hope for the restoration of national pride, and therefore, little hope of the people escaping from the despondency of their circumstances.
Thus Haggai was at once a man of vision and a man with a practical mission. His vision was rooted in his faith: he desired to see Jerusalem’s temple restored to something of its former glory, so that in turn God’s presence amongst his people could be clearly proclaimed. But his vision was wedded to practical realities.
Unless he could persuade the people as a whole, and their rulers in particular, to set about the hard work of restoration, his vision would remain the stuff of dreams. Haggai’s book provides a glimpse into some of the turning points from apathy to action. It does not, in itself, tell the complete story of the temple’s restoration, but gives an extraordinary insight into the will and vision of one man who contributed to the realization of his own vision.
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