Neglected Books of the Old Testament: Haggai
Haggai suffers from pretty terrible neglect. There’s very little traditional liturgical use of the text by either Jews or Christians, and it suffers from an almost complete lack of exegetical interest. Among the few notable exceptions is Pseudo Epiphanius who in his Lives of the Prophets has Haggai as one of the first to return from the Babylonian exile, the first to sing ‘Alleluia’ in the ruins of the temple. Part of the reason for this neglect is because by most standards he seems something of a failed prophet.
In the old view of prophets having keen insight to the future, he seems to have little to reveal to us, and a more modern view which is more concerned with the calls for social justice found in prophetic writings also reveals Haggai to be somewhat lacking. Indeed his concern with rebuilding the temple as well as his focus on law and ritual gives the text a narrative which might, in the modern Church, be described as rigid.
So is Haggai a failed prophet? You will not be surprised to find that I answer, no. Nestled early on in Chapter 2 are the key prophetic texts of this short book. In verses five and seven we read, ‘… My Spirit abides among you; fear not… and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with splendour, says the Lord of hosts.’ These verses were taken by Cyril of Jerusalem as the basis of his mystical catechesis on the workings of the Holy Spirit, and this text, written at the time of the return from exile, looks forward to the coming of the Messiah; the Messiah who is the treasure, sometimes more familiarly translated as the desire, of all the nations. This phrase is used in the antiphon O Rex Gentium, one of the great O Antiphons that we shall soon sing in joyful expectation of the advent of our saviour on Christmas Day. Isaiah tells us that a child will be born to us, and a son given to us (Isaiah 9:6) and that ‘shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’ (Isaiah 2:4). Haggai foretells the coming of the Messiah in a way that is perhaps less immediately obvious than Isaiah, but still the prophetic message is there to be found, a reminder, perhaps, that we should look for words of prophecy in some of the least likely, and perhaps most rigid of places.