Introduction to Haggai 2:20-23
We’ve reached the end of Haggai’s short book. This is the fourth and final sermon, or word from God, that Haggai received and recorded for posterity. Last week we looked at his “bad news and good news” message about the contagious sinfulness of the people and the promise of God’s blessings on the people. I described, that day, that Haggai was speaking to a large audience including priests and laypeople. Well, on the same day that he delivered that word, December 18th, he also got this final word, specifically for the governor of Judah, Zerubbabel. This brief message, or sermon, was a message of hope and consolation that God is still sovereign, still in control, and has a plan for his people down the line. Where the previous sermon promised temporary blessings (namely good crops in the coming harvest), this sermon promised blessings that would be much more long-lasting in impact. In fact, these promises would have eternal effect!
God makes two promises in this sermon. The first one is that God will “shake the heavens and the earth,” and the second is that he will make Zerubbabel a signet ring. Haggai packs a lot of material into just three verses, so let’s unpack it a bit and get a better sense of what he’s talking about.
The first promise, to shake the heavens and the earth, is similar to something we heard earlier in chapter 2. The previous mention of the shaking of the nations resulted in the treasures of the nations of the Gentiles pouring into Jerusalem and the Temple; this mention of the shaking of the nations leads to their subjection under God’s kingship. Look at how verse 22 repeats itself emphatically: God will overthrow thrones, God will overthrow chariots and riders, God will destroy horses and riders, they will “go down” by the sword. Horses and chariots were like the tanks of their day – fast, defensible, maneuverable, and intimidating to the ordinary foot soldier – they were not just symbols of military strength, they were military strength! But Haggai insists that God will sweep away these foreign kingdoms and their armies. His “shaking” of the heavens and the earth will be like the shaking of a sieve: all the wicked will fall through, and all God’s people will remain, safe and sound.
The second promise is that God will make Zerubbabel a signet ring. Zerubbabel, you may recall, was the governor of Judah and grandson of Jehoichin, the last king of Judah. He stands in the royal line of David. Making him a signet ring is a gesture of giving him power and authority, an acknowledgment of his royal heritage. This falls short of making him king, which might have been disappointing for the Jews as they continued to live under Persian rule; nevertheless the image of the signet ring was an encouraging picture of God’s commitment to King David and his descendants. And more than that, it was also an act of redemption. In Jeremiah 22:24, God says that even though Jehoichin was a signet ring in his hand, he would tear him off! Thus what Haggai gets to do here is “reverse the curse” – at least partly. The faithless kings of Judah once again have a faithful man whom God chooses to lead his people.
Lest we just look at these words of God through Haggai as merely of historical interest, we should now dig in further: what do these promises really mean, and how did God carry them out? Both the shaking of the world and the giving of the signet ring point to the same event.
In various psalms, major events in the history of God’s people are poetically described to have occurred with the shaking, trembling, or quaking of the world. Two events in particular are highlighted with this epic style of language: Psalms 68:8 and 77:18 both refer to the Exodus event, the crossing of the Red Sea and the drowning of Egypts’ charioteers as a shaking of the earth; and Psalm 18:7 describes God’s choosing of David to be king as an earth-shattering event as well. Considering that both chariots and signet rings are mentioned here in Haggai, easily reminding its hearers of the drowned chariots of Egypt and the signet ring of the royal line of David, the promise of God shaking the heaven and earth once more should indicate something on a similar magnitude as the exodus or the establishment of the monarchy. In fact, even better, both of those events led to the establishment of a major covenant: the first to the Mosaic Covenant, and the second to the Davidic Covenant. Both the Priesthood and the Kingship are established in these epic and grandiose moments of history!
For God to say that he will shake the earth once more is to suggest that another covenant is to be established, and someone greater than Moses or David is going to be raised up. Zerubbabel is identified here as a “chosen servant,” but we know from this text and from history that he didn’t amount to much. He was a good leader in his day, but he was no Savior. He is remembered in the book of Sirach (49:11-12) very simply “How shall we magnify Zerubbabel? He was like a signet on the right hand, and so was Jeshua the son of Jozadak; in their days they built the house and raised a temple holy to the Lord, prepared for everlasting glory.” Instead, to see the great shaking of the heavens, we must look to the Cross. There we see Jesus leading his people out of bondage to sin towards the Promised Land of the Kingdom of Heaven, and we see a King from the line of David enthroned to reign for ever and ever. Or, you could say, the signet ring is on the hand of Jesus.
Now, as we turn to look at what Haggai’s sermon has to teach us in our own day, perhaps now is a good time for me to refresh our memories as to why we’ve been going through these Old Testament books in the first place. I’ve named this sermon series “Now What?” based on the idea that Christians are no longer the majority force driving Western culture. As a result of this change of status, we Christians have to re-learn how to be a minority, and more especially, one that is not always liked, appreciated, respected, or even tolerated. And so we’ve been going through 2 Chronicles and Ezra and Haggai to see how God’s people can survive (and thrive!) in the midst of a hostile culture.
There are different phases in the life of God’s people through this period of Old Testament history, and our present situation relates to each of them in different ways. In one way, we are still in decline, like those late kings of Judah we looked at during Lent. As a large number of people who claim to be God’s people continue to reject him and his Word and Sacraments, the Church as a whole continues to grow weaker and sicker. We have to take our queues from the good kings of that period of decline to show us what true repentance looks like, and how to turn this ship around.
In another way, we’re like the Jews in captivity after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. We live in a country that promotes sin and evil and has a disdain for the truth of God. We are like strangers and foreigners in our own land, and so we have to learn from God’s people in that period of Old Testament history how to be faithful to God without the support of the government, looking instead to the community of the faithful – the Church – as the center of our identity as God’s people, and the place where we are grounded in God’s truth.
And in yet another sense, we’re like the exiles who returned to Jerusalem and are rebuilding upon the ruins of the old. This is where Haggai particularly comes in. The people have been released from the punishment of exile, and are happy to be home, but that doesn’t make them immune to sin and corruption and faithlessness! Many of you have left one church or another and found refuge here in the ACNA – the Anglican Church in North America, but that doesn’t mean you’re safe from sin and temptation. What we rebuild and how we rebuild it is very important. There are good legacies to restore, like how the ancient Jews got to rebuild the Temple, and there are bad legacies to leave out, like the pagan shrines, altars, and unjust ways of living.
What I think we should particularly receive from Haggai today, especially this ending part of the book, is the lesson of keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus. It sounds simple, but it’s really quite profound and really quite crucial. Haggai told Zerubbabel and the people that God was going to perform another earth-shattering event, and that he would make Zerubbabel a signet ring. As I’ve already explained, that means that God wanted his people to know that something great was yet to come – something greater than the Exodus with Moses, or the Kingship with David. Rather, that something was a Savior, Jesus Christ, who would judge the wicked and vindicate the righteous, who would lead his people in a new exodus out of their bondage to sin and death, who would take the throne and signet ring of God’s eternal kingdom. We, as God’s people, are therefore invited to look to the very same promises in the course of our lives. As we seek to establish a Christian way of life for ourselves and perhaps rebuild the Church in this land, we must keep our hope fixed on the ancient promises of God fulfilled in Jesus Christ, especially on the Cross, though also in his promise to come again.
In case it isn’t clear by this point, I should point out that Israel’s story is our story too. These Old Testament stories are not about “those people back then;” we Gentiles have been grafted in to join “those people.” There is only one people of God, after all. When we become Christians we are imported into the true spiritual Israel of God. These promises to Abraham, Moses, and David, are fulfilled in Jesus, to whom we are united. They looked ahead to Jesus, we look back to Jesus. Promises to the people in the Old Testament that God’s Kingdom was coming are echoed in what we in the New Testament experience when we hear the words of Christ Jesus, preaching the arrival of that Kingdom. Constant reference to the past reminded them, and us, that we are part of God’s covenant legacy, the story he is unfolding through history.
So when we read Haggai, or any other Old Testament Prophet, we should find the same encouragement that the original hearers got, and even more encouragement than they because we have seen the Savior, the “salvation that God has prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to his people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32), of whom we are a part. They heard, as the book of Hebrews put it, the “sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them” (12:19). They could not see where God’s promises led. But we have the word of “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant” (12:24). We do see where God’s promises led. And even though the story of salvation still is not quite over, we have the final decisive piece of the puzzle, “a kingdom that cannot be shaken. And thus let us offer to God acceptable worship” (12:28-9), because we have seen God’s greatest act of love on the Cross, God’s greatest show of power in the Resurrection, and God’s greatest promise of glory in the giving of the Holy Spirit since Pentecost!