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Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Dating Scene

It’s the eighth shortest book in the Bible and the second shortest in the Old Testament — only 1,131 words in English in two brief chapters.

But Haggai is full of dates. Almost a quarter of its 38 verses are given over to specifying times right to the very day. The book’s five prophecies to four different individuals or groups are each arranged around these dates.

Even readers unconvinced of the inspiration of scripture are unlikely to see such an obvious pattern as accidental or merely a writing tic. They will generally concede the author must be trying to make a point.

It might be worth a few hundred words to try to work out what the point may be.

Historical, But Not a Textbook

Such very specific details are not actually all that common in holy writ. You find them primarily in the books of history, of course, but even a careful historian like Luke mentions dates and times sparingly, concentrating more on ‘what’ and ‘where’ than precisely ‘when’.

By way of contrast, all that is specifically revealed about Job is that he lived in the land of Uz. Not a date to be found. There are of course clues sprinkled throughout the text of the book (such as references to Sabeans or Chaldeans) that enable us to speculate about the time frame, but the writer tells us little that is superfluous to his spiritual theme.

Which makes sense. The Bible is historical, but it is not a textbook. Its primary purpose was not to provide data for future generations to analyze but rather to communicate truth from God valuable to all generations. More relevant in some generations (and to some audiences) than others, but all valuable nonetheless.

So, depending on their subject matter, some authors of holy writ just jump right in and start telling the tale. Where historical context is not important to their main point, they get right to the narrative.

The Prophet as Historian

Not so Haggai. He specifies everything:
“In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest.”
(Haggai 1:1)

“And they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month, in the second year of Darius the king.”
(Haggai 1:14-15)

“In the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet … to Zerubbabel … and Joshua.”
(Haggai 2:1-2)

“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 … Ask the priests about the law.”
(Haggai 2:10)

“[To the priests] Consider from this day onward, from the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month.”
(Haggai 2:18)

“The word of the Lord came a second time to Haggai on the twenty-fourth day of the month, “Speak to Zerubbabel …”
(Haggai 2:20-21)
That’s a lot of specificity, and it can be mapped to our calendar.

Dates and Structure

These six references to dates effectively structure the book of Haggai for us. They all take place within about a 3-1/2 month period sixteen years after a remnant of Judah had returned from Babylon under the leadership of Zerubbabel, the governor, and commenced rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. This would have been approximately 67 years after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed it in 587 BC. The dates provided by Haggai in his first verse enable us to locate his first prophecy precisely on September 24, 520 BC, assuming our calendar is in sync with his.

The reason God impelled Haggai to speak was that the Jews gave up. If they had kept working, Haggai may not have spoke or written at all. But the children of the survivors of the Babylonian Captivity puttered about in the ruins of the temple for a couple of years before turning their efforts to building their own residences and returning to some semblance of normal living.

God was not thrilled with his people’s priorities, and sent them a message through Haggai. The prophet spoke in five ‘movements’: first, to the governor and the high priest; secondly, to the people generally; thirdly, to the priests; fourthly, to the governor and high priest again; and fifthly and finally to the governor with a personal message.

History and the Spiritual Point

With that in mind, we might ask again why Haggai records dates as scrupulously as he does. Is there a larger message here?

Let me make a few suggestions:

1.  Accuracy Matters.  One possible reason for Haggai’s specifics is to establish historicity. Under Old Testament law, prophets were not simply free to spout any old nonsense, and the people were not encouraged to believe a man simply because he declared “The Lord Says”. Had that been the case, every politician and his brother would have claimed the Lord’s blessing of their personal agendas. Instead, the truthfulness of prophets was carefully scrutinized. If a prophet was inaccurate about details like times and places, it would be a sure indicator that his message was not credible.

Haggai’s care with these things suggests that he was not afraid to be challenged on the facts by future generations.

2.  Sin Has Consequences Even After Repentance.  You can hardly fail to note that every date referenced by the prophet is keyed to the reign of Darius the Mede.

It would have been impossible for Haggai to date his prophecies with reference to the reign of a king in Judah: there had been no king for three-quarters of a century and has never been again to this day. So however patriotic Haggai may have been, the regnal dates it made sense to reference were those of the Persian monarch who still called the shots for his nation. That’s more than a little degrading, but it is a reminder that sin has long-term, significant consequences. Judah’s rejection of God bore bitter fruit, and it shows up here. God was still working in Judah, but the reminders of the nation’s failure were not going anywhere.

Anybody else have a life like that? I do.

3.  Old Testament Prophecy is Mind-Bogglingly Precise.  In The Coming Prince, Sir Robert Anderson notes the mathematical exactitude with which God fulfills his promises, and fulfills them over periods of time so vast as to preclude any one individual, no matter how personally powerful or devout, from being singly responsible for their fulfillment. During the fourth year of Jehoiakim, God decreed seventy years of “desolations” on Judah for her sins. Anderson says this:
“The close of the [desolations] is indicated in Scripture with equal definiteness, as the ‘four-and-twentieth-day of the ninth month in the second year of Darius [Haggai 2:18] ... from this day I will bless you’. Now from the tenth day of Tebeth B.C. 589, to the twenty-fourth day of Chisleu B.C. 520, was a period of 25,202 days; and seventy years of 360 days [a solar year containing twelve lunar months] contain exactly 25,200 days. We may conclude, therefore, that the era of the ‘desolations’ was a period of seventy years of 360 days, beginning the day after the Babylonian army invested Jerusalem, and ending the day before the second foundation of the temple was laid.”
If it is possible to be any more precise than this, I certainly cannot see how. If we accept Anderson’s calculations, the three references to this particular date in Haggai upon which the desolations ended become very significant with respect to both prophecy and the relationship of God to Israel.

4.  The Promises of God Are There to Be Claimed.  Little details might not matter during the year that Haggai recorded his prophecy and they may not even have crossed his mind as he did so, but future generations would judge his message by the accuracy of his information and may well depend on them. Daniel did so in a similar situation, using dates in Jeremiah to calculate the length of time Jerusalem would be desolate:
“I, Daniel, perceived in the books the number of years that, according to the word of the Lord to Jeremiah the prophet, must pass before the end of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years.”
Accordingly, Daniel prayed for the fulfillment of what God had promised through Jeremiah. But he needed to have an actual historical starting point to work from.

Here the dates were not just a matter of curiosity, but were critical in claiming the promises of God. If we believe God has granted humans the dignity of agency, then Daniel’s faith and prayer made the situation in which Haggai found himself possible in the first place.

5.  Obedience is Bliss.  Another reason Haggais dates are of interest is this: they demonstrate that within a mere 24 days of the Jewish rulers receiving the commands of God, his people were once again at work on the temple. John says the evidence of love is obedience, and such quickness to obey suggests a willing people looking for direction rather than a hardened group of unrepentant sinners. So exactly three months to the day after they started work on the temple, the Lord promises them this:
“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.”
Obedience matters. God takes note, and his notes are dated.

6.  God is Faithful to His Word.  Finally, God’s comments through Haggai to Zerubbabel at the end of chapter 2 are significant. Zerubbabel is the 30th individual named in Matthew’s genealogy of the Lord Jesus, validating his right to the throne of David as God had promised. But descending from Zerubbabel would mean nothing if Zerubbabel had no right to the throne. And yet about the governor, Haggai says this:
“On that day, declares the Lord of hosts, I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, the son of Shealtiel, declares the Lord, and make you like a signet ring, for I have chosen you, declares the Lord of hosts.”
In doing so, as Got Questions points out, God is reinstating the Davidic line. God’s promises cannot fail, and when something that important is at stake, it should not surprise us that God makes special note of the date.

The Point, I Hope

Not every writer notes historical details the way Haggai does. But it’s not a quirk, a personal style feature or an accident.

It’s just God making sure we’re paying attention.

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