Faithful Work After the Exile—Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi
After the exile ended, Jewish civil society and religious life were restored in the land of God’s promise. Jerusalem and its temple were rebuilt, along with the economic, social and religious infrastructure of Jewish society. The Book of the Twelve now shifts to the challenges of work that follows sin and punishment.
One of the challenges we face in work is the temptation to put self and family ahead of society. The prophet Haggai paints a vivid picture of this challenge. He confronts people working hard to rebuild their own houses while neglecting to put resources into the rebuilding of the temple, the centre of the Jewish society. “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your panelled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” (Haggai 1:4). He says that this failure to invest in social capital is actually diminishing their individual productivity.
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 with holes. (Hag. 1:6)
As the Lord stirs up the spirit of the people and their leaders, they do begin to invest in rebuilding the temple and the fabric of society (Hag. 1:14-15).
Investing in social capital reminds us that there is no such thing as a “self-made man.” Although individual effort may create great wealth, each of us relies on resources and social infrastructure that originate ultimately in God. “I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts” (Hag. 2:7–8). Prosperity is not a matter only—or even primarily—of personal effort, but of a community grounded in God’s covenant. “In this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.” (Hag. 2:9).
How foolish if we think we must provide for ourselves before we can afford to take time for God and the society of his people. The truth is that we cannot provide for ourselves except by the grace of God’s generosity and the mutual work of his community. This is the same concept behind the tithe. It is not a sacrifice of 10% of the harvest, but a blessing of 100% of the amazing yield of God’s creation.
In our own day, this reminds us of the importance of putting resources into the intangible aspects of life. Housing, food, automobiles, and other physical necessities are important. But God provides richly enough that we can also afford art, music, education, nature, recreation and the myriad things that feed the soul. Those who work in the arts or humanities or leisure industries, or put money towards the creation of parks and playgrounds and theatres are making every bit as much of a contribution to the world of which God dreams as the businessman or carpenter.
This also suggests that investing in churches and church life is crucial to empowering Christians’ work. Worship itself is intricately tied to doing good work, as we have seen, and perhaps we should engage in worship as formation for good work, rather than merely as private devotion or leisure. Moreover, the Christian community can be a powerful force for economic, civic and social well-being if it can learn to bring the spiritual and ethical power of God’s word to bear on matters of work in the economic, social, governmental, academic, medical, scientific and other matters of work.
Haggai connects the economic and social well-being of the people with the state of the environment. By means of a play on words more obvious in Hebrew than in the English translation, Haggai links the desolation of the temple (“in ruins,” Hebrew hareb, Hag. 1:9) with the desolation of land and its harvests (“drought,” Hebrew horeb) and the consequent ruination of the general wellness of “human beings and animals, and all their labours” (Hag. 1:11). The linchpin of this link is the health of the temple, which becomes a kind of cipher for the religious faithfulness or unfaithfulness of the people. So there is a three-way link among worship, socio-economic health, environment and worship. When there is disease in the physical environment on which we depend, there is disease in human society, and one of the marks of an unhealthy society is its contribution to the disease of the environment.
There is also a link between the way a community worships and cares for the land, and the economic and political condition of those who occupy the land. The prophets call us to re-learn the lesson that a respect for the creator of the earth we occupy is a starting point for peace between the earth and its inhabitants. For Haggai, the drought of the land and the ruin of the temple are inseparable. True and whole-hearted worship ushers in peace and blessing from the land. “Since the day that the foundation of the Lord’s temple was laid, consider: Is there any seed left in the barn? Do the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree still yield nothing? From this day on I will bless you” (Hag. 2:18–19). Zechariah, too, draws a link between human sin and desolation of the land. Those in power “oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien or the poor” (Zechariah 7:10). “They made their hearts adamant in order not to hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent” (Zech. 7:12). As a result, the environment became degraded, and thus “a pleasant land was made desolate.” (Zech. 7:14). Joel had observed the beginnings of this degradation long before the exile, in fact. “The vine withers, the fig tree droops. Pomegranate, palm, and apple—all the trees of the field are dried up; surely, joy withers away among the people” (Joel 1:12).
Given the importance of work and work practices to the wellbeing of the environment, if Christians were to do their work according to the vision of the Twelve Prophets, we could have a profoundly beneficial impact on the planet and all those who inhabit it. It is the urgent environmental responsibility of the faithful to learn in concrete ways how to ground their work, in the worship of God.
Haggai’s long oracle on purity (Hag. 2:10-19) also suggests a link between purity and the health of the land. God complains that because of the people’s impurity, “with every work of their hands…what they offer there is unclean” (Hag. 2:14). This is part of the more general link between worship and the health of the environment. One possible application is that a pure environment means an environment being treated in sustainable ways by those to whom God has given responsibility for its wellbeing, namely humanity. Thus purity entails a fundamental respect for the integrity of the whole created order, the health of its ecospheres, the viability and wellbeing of its species, the renewability of its productivity. And so we return to the theme of Christians and responsible work practices.
Accordingly, if desolation is part of God’s punishment for the sin of the people reported in the Book of the Twelve, then productive ground is part of their restoration. Indeed, in quite different circumstances, Zechariah has a very similar vision to that of Amos during the time of Israelite prosperity: people experiencing wellbeing in the form of sitting under the fig trees that they planted. “On that day, says the Lord of hosts, you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree” (Zech. 3:10). Peace with God includes care for the earth that God has made. Productive land, of course, has to be worked in order to yield its fruit. And so the world of work is intimately connected with the realisation of abundant life.
For a further exploration of this link, see T.J. Meadowcroft, Haggai (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2006), 238-42.
In this daily reflection on Malachi 3 from The High Calling, Mark Roberts considers how God's justice is always shaped by his grace and mercy; therefore we can face transitions in our life with hope.
Even in the time of restoration, human sin is never far away. Malachi, the third of the restoration prophets, complains that some of the people begin to profit by defrauding labourers of their wages (Mal. 3:5). Not surprisingly, such people also pollute the temple worship by stinting what they contribute in offerings (Mal. 1:8-19), and as a result the environment is also degraded (Mal. 3:11).
Yet the hope of the prophets remains, and work is at the centre of it. It begins with a promise to restore the religious/social infrastructure of the temple. “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 3:1). It proceeds with the restoration of the environment. “I will rebuke the locust” (Mal. 3:11a), God promises, and then “you will be a land of delight” (Mal. 3:12). People go about their work ethically (Mal. 3:14, 18), and as a result the economy is restored, including “the produce of your soil” and “your vine in the field” (Mal. 3:11b).