Old Testament Wisdom: Haggai and Setting Priorities
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Before I get into this commentary on the Book of Haggai, I would like to say that I am not Christian or Jewish. I am like many people today who consider themselves spiritual though do not label myself or follow any one religion. However, I was raised Catholic and attended a Christian elementary and middle school and have respect for religion and people of faith.
Why talk about the Old Testament if I am neither Christian or Jewish? While I do not adhere to or follow any one religion, I have kept a very profound aspect of most, if not all of the religions, and that is I believe that the good life, the meaningful life, is lived through self-cultivation or self-improvement. Studying holy texts like the Old Testament can give us great clues and advice on the best way to live our lives—even for nonbelievers.
The prophet Haggai ministered and wrote his book in 520 B.C. which was in the middle of the Axial Age (800 B.C.—200 B.C.). The Axial Age was: “Characterized by human thought directed towards understanding man’s place in the world. That inquiry sought a moral structure which would explain how man should live his life to achieve happiness and be in balance with the wishes of the gods. […] It featured individuals such as Plato, Confucius, Buddha, and Jeremiah, whose ideas had a profound influence on the future of religion and philosophy.” (The Axial Age—Man Becomes a Philosopher by Michael Anderson, thedailyjournalist.com, 2014) During this time, the Mediterranean city-state had arisen with loads of commercial trade. Democracy rose as a form of government, and in 509 B.C. the Roman Republic was founded. (timemaps.com) Twenty years before the book of Haggai was written, “Cyrus allowed the Jews who had been conquered by the Babylonians to return to Jerusalem after his defeat of the Babylonians. […] The Jews were allowed to rebuild the temple destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar seventy years before.” (historycentral.com) Most likely Haggai had returned to Jerusalem in 538 B.C. after the allowance of Cyrus and would write his book eighteen years later. (The MacArthur Study Bible written and edited by John MacArthur, p.1331)
Like all Old Testament prophets, Haggai has a bone to pick with his fellow Jews. When Haggai began to preach, twenty years had passed since Cyrus had allowed the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. However, in a very human fashion, those twenty years flew by pretty fast, and so far, little to no effort had gone into rebuilding the temple. Instead, people dug in and worked on their lives. They built houses and farms; they fabricated goods and got involved in trade; they made wine and invested their money. Essentially, once the Jewish refugees were able to return home, they made rebuilding their material lives their highest priority. “Then the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Is it time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” (Haggai 1:3-4, NRSV)
Haggai tells people that they have been blowing off building the house of God and instead have been solely focusing on their material lives and this poor choice of priorities has not been without consequences. “Now therefore thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag of holes.” (Haggai 1:4-6, NRSV) Haggai was saying that because they had not set a priority to work on rebuilding the temple, God was keeping them from flourishing. However, it is my argument that Haggai also was implying a deeper thing: when people place their material prosperity as their only priority, their lives become very poor. No matter how much you eat—you will always feel hungry for more. You will never be truly satisfied. No matter how much money you make—you will feel like it is not enough. You will never be truly satisfied. Of course, Haggai was speaking literally regarding rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. However, Haggai was a wise man in a profound philosophical period, and I believe he implies that if one does not set ones’ priorities correctly one will live a life of little. “You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? Says the Lord of hosts. Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses.” (Haggai 1-9, NRSV)
By saying ‘building the house of God,’ I am not literally meaning that one should financially or physically get into building holy structures. No, I am implying a psychological space instead. I am also going to suggest that everyone from Christians to Atheists can and should build this house. For me, there are roughly five pillars or aspects that all religions, including secular Humanism, point out as being key building blocks for a stable house or psychological space that one can develop and nurture along with their other ‘houses’ like finance, family, and career. Awe—openness to the wonder and beauty of the universe that surrounds us; gratitude; humility; moral and ethical development; and contemplation—genuinely considering oneself, life, actions, and truth. These five attributes of Awe, Gratitude, Humility, Moral and Ethical development, and Contemplation are all amazing materials that can build a strong ‘house of God,’ or for my agnostics and atheists: ‘house of higher being.’ Taking a few minutes a day, and perhaps an hour or two once a week, on building your higher ‘house’ I believe will bring tremendous rewards. The food you eat with awe and gratitude might finally fill you. The wages you make with moral and ethical consideration might finally make you feel rich. You might even find peace if you contemplate your life with humility.
I will be the first one to say that I blow off rebuilding the Lord’s temple all the time. I will also say that I repeatedly put my material priorities above my spiritual development. Luckily, I have an enormous collection of holy texts in my house with a good dozen of them on my nightstand. I reread Haggai recently when I could not sleep and afterward felt an amazing peace.
When I eat with gratitude, it fills me finally. When I feel in awe of the blue jay’s beauty outside my window, I become wealthier than a billionaire.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”
Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.