Work, Worship, and the Environment (Haggai 1:1-2:19; Zechariah 7:8-14)Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
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.