On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came by Haggai the prophet, “Thus says the LORD of hosts: Ask the priests about the law: ‘If someone carries holy meat in the fold of his garment and touches with his fold bread or stew or wine or oil or any kind of food, does it become holy?’” The priests answered and said, “No.” Then Haggai said, “If someone who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?” The priests answered and said, “It does become unclean.” Then Haggai answered and said, “So is it with this people, and with this nation before me, declares the LORD, and so with every work of their hands. And what they offer there is unclean. Now then, consider from this day onward. Before stone was placed upon stone in the temple of the LORD, how did you fare? When one came to a heap of twenty measures, there were but ten. When one came to the wine vat to draw fifty measures, there were but twenty. I struck you and all the products of your toil with blight and with mildew and with hail, yet you did not turn to me, declares the LORD. Consider from this day onward, from the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month. Since the day that the foundation of the LORD’s temple was laid, consider: Is the seed yet in the barn? Indeed, the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree have yielded nothing. But from this day on I will bless you.”
Haggai 2:10-19 ESV
The book of Haggai, as we have seen, is a series of oracles given by God to the people of Judah who have returned from their captivity in Babylon. Although the returnees were obedient to God in the beginning, they quickly buckled under the opposition of their adversaries in the land and ceased rebuilding the temple. After about fifteen years of busying themselves with their own homes while neglecting the house of the LORD, God commanded His people to work on the temple again. And they did. The people responded in obedience, and the three oracles of chapter two are messages of encouragement for them to continue their work.
QUESTIONING THE PRIESTS // VERSES 10-14
Again we find that this oracle begins with a specific date. The twenty-fourth day of the ninth month is December 18 by our calendar, and the year is still the second of Darius, which is 520 BC. Thus, two months after encouraging the discouraged people that the latter glory of the temple would be greater than the former, Haggai is now sent with two questions for the priests, who were expected to give rulings and guidance on matters of uncleanness and holiness, which are the exact topics that the LORD is ready to discuss.
First, Haggai is told to ask them: If someone carries holy meat in the fold of his garment and touches with his fold bread or stew or wine or oil or any kind of food, does it become holy? The priests answer correctly by saying “no.” Leviticus 6:24-27 gives us the crucial context for understanding this question and answer:
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the law of the sin offering. In the place where the burnt offering is killed shall the sin offering be killed before the LORD; it is most holy. The priest who offers it for sin shall eat it. In a holy place it shall be eaten, in the court of the tent of meeting. Whatever touches its flesh shall be holy, and when any of its blood is splashed on a garment, you shall wash that on which it was splashed in a holy place.
When a sin offering was made, the meat of the sacrifice was holy, set apart for the purposes of God. Therefore, the priest, as God’s mediator, ate the meat of the offering. And because the meat is holy, whatever it touched, such as the fold of a garment, also became holy. Haggai, thus, asked whether the fold that was made holy could also make another object holy through contact. And the priests rightly affirm that holiness does not transfer to the third degree.
Then comes the second question: Is someone who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean? Again we turn to Leviticus for some much needed context:
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons so that they abstain from the holy things of the people of Israel, which they dedicate to me, so that they do not profane my holy name: I am the LORD. Say to them, ‘If any one of all your offspring throughout your generations approaches the holy things that the people of Israel dedicate to the LORD, while he has an uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from my presence: I am the LORD. None of the offspring of Aaron who has a leprous disease or a discharge may eat of the holy things until he is clean. Whoever touches anything that is unclean through contact with the dead or a man who has had an emission of semen, and whoever touches a swarming thing by which he may be made unclean or a person from whom he may take uncleanness, whatever his uncleanness may be—the person who touches such a thing shall be unclean until the evening and shall not eat of the holy things unless he has bathed his body in water. When the sun goes down he shall be clean, and afterward he may eat of the holy things, because they are his food.Leviticus 22:1-7
Of the many things that might make someone unclean, God uses contact with the dead. Many of ways of becoming unclean were necessary functions, such as dealing with the dead or childbirth; therefore, being ritually unclean was not always a result of an immediate sin. But all uncleanness does stem from the Fall. For example, while we treat the dead with reverence, that contact was unclean because death is the curse of sin and God is the God of life. Likewise, children are a reward from the LORD, but childbirth was cursed by the Fall. The uncleanness found both in sin and in ordinary life served as a constant reminder to the people that a gulf still remained between themselves and God. In fact, so many impurity laws existed that we might say that uncleanness was the default state, while God gave them means of becoming sanctified. Every day even the priests were forced to confront the reality that God is holy, and they were not. By grace, He gave them means of purifying themselves so that they could come into His holy temple to worship Him, but their defilement would always come back.
Haggai’s second question is piggybacked onto the first. If a person who is unclean from touching the dead also touches anything else, does that thing become unclean as well? The priests again give the correct answer: yes. Thus, uncleanness does transfer to the third degree. Stead summarizes the point of these two questions concisely as, “Defilement is more contagious than holiness” (623).
This is, of course, not to say that defilement is more powerful than holiness. As we have seen and will continue to see, God’s holiness will have the final word. He alone will stand enthroned for all time. But for now, the world is broken by sin. As Isaiah realized in the presence of God’s throne, we are “a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). Our default state is one of uncleanness and defilement, not holiness.
And the people of Judah were no different. In verse 14, the point of the priests’ pop quiz is made clear: So is it with this people, and with this nation before me, declares the LORD, and so with every work of their hands. And what they offer there is unclean. The first part of this verse seals the application. The LORD was not simply testing the priests’ knowledge; rather, He was making a point. As with the rituals, so with the people and the works of their hands. The defilement among them was more contagious than holiness. The second part of the verse is an appraisal: And what they offer is unclean. As we saw in Ezra 3, the altar was already rebuilt, and they were offering sacrifices. Yet God now pronounces that their sacrifices, their offerings, are unclean.
This, of course, is a serious offense based on what we read in Leviticus 22. To approach holy things while unclean meant profaning the name of the LORD. Such offenders were “cut off” from the LORD’s presence. To profane what God has designated as holy meant also profaning the holiness of God Himself.
But how had the people made themselves unclean? It was their sinful neglect of the temple. Their failure to prioritize God’s house while still busying themselves with their own homes was ultimately a refusal to hallow the LORD’s name. Like the uncleanness after touching a dead body, this root sin contaminated everything so that even their offerings were unclean before the LORD.
We see this truth in the story of Saul’s sacrifice from 1 Samuel 15. While waiting to go into battle, Saul grew anxious of Samuel’s absence, and eventually, Saul took it upon himself to offer a sacrifice to God. Upon his arrival, Samuel rebuked Saul’s behavior as disobedience, declaring that obedience is better than sacrifice. While a sacrifice may seem to be inherently positive, Saul was subtly treating the LORD as if He were no different than any of the false gods of the other nations. The king was convinced that sacrifices were needed to secure God’s favor; thus, he was attempting to bride God to his will. The LORD, however, is the almighty Creator who demands our obedience and often, by grace alone, acts on our behalf. We cannot, therefore, out sacrifice our disobedience.
Here God reminded the people of Judah of that truth, and we must keep it before our eyes as well. Our giving, church attendance, Bible reading, prayers, or whatever other “sacrifices” we might use in attempt to cover up our sin, our willful disobedience to the Word of God, will never be enough. Nothing can remove our sins except for the atoning death and triumphant resurrection of Jesus Christ in our place. Only by His absorbing of God’s wrath for us and imputing upon us His righteous are we able to be cleansed of our uncleanness and to be made holy. And, of course, in response to such an astounding love, we now offer our entire lives as a “living sacrifice” to the LORD (Romans 12:1), so “that we are not our own but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Savior Jesus Christ” (New City Catechism, Q1).
But wait a minute, we are getting ahead of ourselves. Wasn’t this oracle supposed to be an encouragement? If so, why is the LORD rebuking their uncleanness? Hadn’t the people been obedient to the LORD? Didn’t they already repent of their sin? Why is the LORD seemingly repeating the rebuke from Haggai 1:1-11?
The following five verses provide an answer to these questions.
I WILL BLESS YOU // VERSES 15-19
One of the largest questions regarding this passage centers around two phrases: before stone was placed upon stone in the temple of the LORD (v. 15) and since the day that the foundation of the LORD’s temple was laid (v. 18). Many view these phrases as referring to the day of Haggai’s oracle, December 18th. This seems especially true since the phrase from this day is strategically repeated three times in verses 15, 18, and 19. This would suggest that the foundation of the temple was laid in December of 520 BC, but this runs contrary to what we’ve already seen in Ezra 3, where the temple’s foundation was laid during the reign of Cyrus, nearly fifteen years our text’s date. A common answer to this apparent contradiction is the suggestion that December 18 marked a resetting of the foundation that was laid in Ezra 3. While that is certainly a possibility, there seems to be a simpler solution.
The first phrase (before stone was placed upon stone in the temple of the LORD) appears to be referring to the renewed work on the temple in response to Haggai’s initial rebuke. The LORD, therefore, calls them to consider again previous years of neglecting the LORD’s house in verses 16-17. These two verses are a replay of verses 6, 9, and 10-11 of chapter one. The second phrase (since the day that the foundation of the LORD’s temple was laid) seems to refer to the laying of the foundation in Ezra 3 since it is followed with another command to consider and another description of poor harvests and lacking barns.
These two calls to remember the past discipline of the LORD are punctuated by three orders to fix the present day firmly in their minds. The third of these commands to make note of this day concludes with a promise for the future, I will bless you. If we were to make a simple graph of the pattern here, it might look something like this:
Mark the present: this day (v. 15) -> Consider the past: before stone upon stone (v. 15) -> Mark the present: this day (v. 18) -> Consider the past: since… the foundation.. was laid (v. 18) -> Mark the present: this day (v. 19) -> Hope in the future: I will bless you (v. 19)
What then is point? Why is the LORD instructing them to mark December 18 as a day of significance? And how does this relate to the people’s unclean offerings from verse 14?
The final promise of blessing as the culmination of the from this day repetition seals this oracle as fixedly one of encouragement, but it is an encouragement that is built upon reminders of past sin and discipline. Like our previous text, the future hope is being juxtaposed over their former disobedience. And again, this seems to be a response to discouragement of the people. But what discouragement is the LORD answering here?
Most likely the people of Judah were becoming disheartened over their circumstances. The LORD told them to consider their ways. He pointed out their sin and the futility of their busying themselves with their own homes to the neglect of His house. He even acknowledged that it was His own hand against them as a measure of discipline for turning them back to Himself.
But then, at Haggai’s oracle, they did turn back to the LORD. They did respond in obedience. They learned the truth of Samuel’s words to Saul so many years before: “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22). God desired their obedience more than their sacrifices and burnt offerings, so they had begun to work on the temple.
They repented, but it seemed that the problems remained all the same. The implication was that just as their disobedience had cursed them, so would their obedience lead to blessing, a reversal of the curse. But there was still no seed within the barn. Indeed, the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree have yielded nothing. After almost four months of obedience, they still seemed to be under the LORD’s discipline. God promised to be with them as they worked on His house, but as far as their livelihood was concerned, He still seemed to be working against them.
The LORD responds to their discouragement with both strength and gentleness. First, He brings to their minds the severity of their sin. Their neglect of His house for the past decade and a half was not a light matter, as verses 10-14 displayed. Indeed, the drought that they faced was a relatively light act of discipline from the LORD when compared to the immediate death that He could have brought for their breaking of the Third Commandment. By comparison, their four-ish months of obedience was quite a short length of time. In short, God is forcing them widen their view of their present condition. He was teaching them that they had no right to demand an immediate reversal of their circumstances from the LORD.
Yet it is all too easy to fall into a similar trap. We can often pass quickly over our innumerable acts of disobedience, while simultaneously boasting with pride before the LORD of our relatively small acts of obedience. But then a further step is typically taken. We expect God to reward our goods works. We expect payment to be promptly given for submitting to the will of Him before Whom the angelic seraphim cover both their feet and faces and cry out unceasingly, “Holy, holy, holy” (Isaiah 6:3). Do you see the disconnect here? Although God often graciously rewards our obedience, He is under no obligation to do so (except, of course, when He obliges Himself through a covenant). We must obey because God is God. Obedience is the foundational expectation; it is not an extra gift that we give to God. Jesus illustrates this well to His disciples:
Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’Luke 17:7–10
Consider the weight of that passage. If we somehow managed to obey perfectly all of God’s commands (which we certainly have not), we would still not deserve special accolades from the LORD because we would have merely done our duty. Likewise, the LORD reminded the people of Judah that their commitment to obey did not entitle them to an immediate reversal of their circumstances. They were simply doing what was expected all along.
But then the LORD speaks gently and with grace to His people, telling them three times to remember this day because going forward the LORD would bless them. Again, such a promise is grace. They did not deserve blessing, but the LORD freely gives it as His people walk by faith in Him, building His house and seeking first His kingdom.
Like the people of Judah, we too were an unclean people. Although we may not have been stricken with drought by the LORD, “we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). Ours was, at the very least, a drought of the soul. But we too now mark a day when the winds changed, when the curses of the LORD were swallowed up by blessing. Nearly two thousand years ago, the Son of God chose to allow living clumps of dust, whose very lives He upheld by the word of His power, to mock, scorn, beat, and kill Him upon a Roman cross. By His death, He who knew no sin took the full curse of our sins upon Himself, so that the blessing of communion with God the Father that He had before the world was made would be given to us as well. We look to that day as the day when God laid to rest our uncleanness and gave to us the blessing of Himself.
Throughout this life, we will, of course, continue to sin. But upon the cross, we see that sin’s grip has been loosed, that the fangs have been broken off. Even as we continue to put our sins to death inch by inch, we stand firm that by faith in Christ we have been legally declared righteous before God and that one day we will be freed from sin’s grasp for all eternity.
We also see that the life of blessing in Christ is not always what we would expect. Our typical notion of the blessed life is one of ease, comfort, health, and wealth. Jesus, however, explicitly warns us of the grave danger of such things. His way is not easy; it is hard, narrow, and not many will find it. Following Him is not comfortable; it is a daily death as we crucify self and devote ourselves wholly to His kingdom and His will. Christ does not guarantee health; many of church history’s heroes of the faith died painfully from a multitude of diseases. He does not promise wealth; in fact, He warns that a camel can pass through the eye of a needle easier than a rich man can enter the kingdom of heaven. Instead of these things, we have been blessed “in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3). Ours is a vast inheritance that we do not yet fully possess (Ephesians 1:14). Our blessing is that we have been adopted as children of God, co-heirs with Christ, and indwelt by the Spirit. For now, this blessing is by faith, but one day, it shall become sight as we live physically and eternally in the presence of our God.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, let us heed the encouragement given by God through Haggai. Although the discipline of God may at times feel heavy upon us, “let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9). We do not judge our standing before the LORD by our present circumstances but by faith in Christ’s finished work upon the cross, the glorious day when our great High Priest defeated the curse of sin and all of our uncleanness once for all.
- Why does the LORD address these questions of holiness and uncleanness to the priests? What was their role under the Old Testament?
- The two questions posed show that uncleanness is more contagious than holiness. Why?
- Why did God remind them of their sin and uncleanness again after they had already repented?
- What discouragement did the people seem to be experiencing? How does this oracle encourage them?