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: 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, 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? 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, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. 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 splendour, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. The latter splendour 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.
According to the text, just a few weeks after starting to rebuild everyone is feeling demoralised. They ‘remember’ the golden-age spoken of by their predecessors, of a glorious temple; and sense either that the task is too great for them to complete, or that they are only able to build something inadequate in comparison.
Haggai speaks again, to offer encouragement. Don’t look back to the previous edifice: remember that God is with you. Remember how God brought your ancestors out of Egypt and the promises God made to them. Remember God’s faithfulness to those promises and remember that you are building God’s house. God will provide the resources needed, God’s Spirit will sustain you; and God will fill the new house with more splendour than the previous one.
Splendour makes us think of something that looks fantastic, is highly ornate, costly to produce; but the Hebrew word could be translated ‘glory’ (as in verse 3). That would put a different connotation on the passage; reminding us that it is God’s presence that transforms the mundane into somewhere glorious. Likewise the word ‘prosperity’ in verse 9 might suggest that God was promising material riches; but the Hebrew word is shalom, which has a wider range of meanings – peace, welfare, wholeness.
The message is: be reassured, the work you are embarking upon will fulfil God’s purposes and the whole community will feel a sense of accomplishment and renewed harmony when it is completed.
We should never be discouraged by false memories of grandiose success stories of the past when we embark on any smaller scale project in church or community. If the project is of God, we need not fear. As we start working we’ll discover God’s Spirit alongside us, until all is completed and God’s purposes are achieved, in God’s time.
Eternal God, remind us of your living presence with us at every moment of our lives; and forgive us when we are so engrossed in tasks before us that we fail to discern you. Forgive us when we devalue the work you have given to us because it seems an insignificant contribution to your mission. Help us to trust your wisdom and to fulfil our calling in enthusiastic obedience. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister living in Cambridgeshire; she is a member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge