You’d have to be very brave or very cruel to go to a poor community and tell them to stop being so materialistic, but that’s just what I reckon Haggai was doing.
I had the pleasure of teaching Old Testament Introduction to our first-year students last semester. For their major written assignment I had them research the background to the book of Haggai, after which they were to examine the major themes in the book against their findings. I set the assignment largely because I wanted them to do the research for which I foresaw I would not have adequate time, but it turned out to be an interesting subject in its own right.
One of the most disagreed-upon passages in the book is in 1:4-6
“Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your panelled houses, while this house (i.e. the Temple) remains a ruin?” Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but have harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.”
The Persians had allowed the Jews to return from their exile in Babylon with the order to rebuild their temple and make their gods happy, but they had found things difficult. Their ancestral lands were occupied by others, most of the infrastructure remained in the state of devastation in which the Babylonians had left it 70 years before, taxes were high, farm land was not in good condition and they faced political opposition to the restoration of Jewish fortunes. Besides this, the weather was not helping and there had been droughts and crop failures. As the latter part of the above passage points out, whatever wealth they had brought back was dwindling, and no satisfaction resulted from their investment of time and money. Everything indicates that survival was hard and the people were becoming impoverished. Financial difficulties are probably behind their consensus that ‘The time has not yet come for the Lord’s house to be built’ (Haggai 1:2).
Into this context, the prophet accuses them of ‘living in your panelled houses’, which sends commentators into a spin. Panelling one’s house with timber was a show of wealth, a sign of luxury, and not something that you would do if you had mouths to feed and taxes to pay.
Many of my students dealt with this difficulty by treating it as though it wasn’t there. The Jews were poor people living in luxury. Uh…
To be fair, some commentators seem to do much the same thing. Others point out that ‘panelling’ can refer to ‘roofing’, and so the suggestion is that the people had finished their houses while neglecting the Temple. This is more consistent, but the people had been living there for 15 years already, and presumably would have attended to roofing considerably earlier (unless they had been tenting until then, I suppose).
Few commentators seem to pay much attention to the possibility that Haggai’s charge is an allusion to an earlier story. When Solomon built the first Temple, he had it panelled:
So Solomon built the temple and completed it. He lined its interior walls with cedar boards, panelling them from the floor of the temple to the ceiling, and covered the floor of the temple with planks of pine. (1Kg. 6:14-15)
And when he built his own house, he did the same:
He built the throne hall, the Hall of Justice, where he was to judge, and he covered it with cedar from floor to ceiling. And the palace in which he was to live, set farther back, was similar in design. (1Kg. 7:7-8)
So, it seems to me that Haggai is attempting to get these ‘House-builders’ to think of the original, Solomon, who had first panelled the Lord’s House and then panelled his own. The Jews of Haggai’s day were meant to understand that they had their priorities completely wrong, and that having returned to the land to rebuild the Temple, they should not have been attending to their own kingdoms first.
The startling thing, of course, is that the Jews were not lazy or greedy — they were battling to survive. Their ‘kingdoms’ were small, war-ravaged, unfertile homesteads. I’d be very surprised indeed if there was any actual panelling going on at all. When Haggai accused them of living like kings, he was actually addressing people living in severe hardship. In my opinion, he was employing exaggeration as a rhetorical device in order to expose their attitude, not their standard of living.
In other words, although poor, the people were nevertheless living in disregard for the things that ought to have been most important to them, namely their relationship with God. They had built enough of the Temple to be able to carry out their religious duties, but nothing extended beyond duty. They were living as though making a living were all that mattered (and neglecting the One upon whom survival ultimately depends anyway).
So regardless of how much of a battler you think you are, Haggai would still stand in front of you and tell you to get your head straight. Relationship with God is not just for those who have nothing else to do. It’s the only thing to do. Or in Jesus’ words, ‘But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’.
Evangelicals often have a problem with the idea that exaggeration is compatible with a high view of scripture. If someone is exaggerating, it is too close to them being mistaken or dishonest as far as some are concerned. I don’t see why this should be the case. It’s not much different to a parable in terms of accuracy and honesty. I rather think that Jesus is exaggerating in just this sort of way when he describes lust as adultery and anger as murder. In neither case do we think that the consequences of each crime should be the same. They are not the same sins. What Jesus reveals, however, is that the attitudes underlying each are remarkably similar, and what happens in your heart matters. God isn’t interested in outward adherence to the Law only. He is interested in worship and obedience that takes place inwardly.