Summary: Theme Paper in Haggai-Zechariah, tracing the appropriate applications of hope, despite the difficult realities of our circumstances. An excellent theme for redevelopment pastors to consider.
“Hope” in Haggai and Zechariah: True, False, Postponed and Perilous
The Shawshank Redemption: Morgan Freeman tells fellow-inmate Tim Robbins, “Hope is a dangerous thing. Drive a man insane. It’s got no place here.” In a place like Yehud, with the Jews seeking to rebuild the temple amidst economic, political, social and even religious conflict, hope was just as dangerous as at Shawshank Penitentiary. Mercifully, it was also in just as short supply. Expectations of future glory dimmed beneath the clouds of present experience. Drought and famine, curtailed Imperial subsidies, and increased taxation impinged upon support essential to the worship of God. Controversy over foreign marriages, objections by neighboring provinces, and the constant yammering of prophets led some to conclude it was a serious mistake to return to this “Promised Land.” Yet Haggai and Zechariah insist and persist in proclaiming hope.
Not false hope. Not optimism misconstrued as hope. Sacks writes,
“One of the most important distinctions I have learned in the course of reflection on Jewish history is the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the faith that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue; hope, an active one.”
Likewise, it is not a vain hope. Not whistling in the dark to calm one’s fear while rushing toward safety. Sacks continues, “It takes not courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to have hope.” Neither is hope postponed. Present hope engenders the patience required in any godly endeavor. Hauerwas comments,
“Hope without patience results in the illusion of optimism or, more terrifying, the desperation of fanaticism. The hope necessary to initiate us into the adventure must be schooled by patience if the adventure is to be sustained. Through patience, we learn to continue to hope, even though our hope seems to offer little chance of fulfillment….Yet patience equally requires hope, for without hope, patience too easily accepts the world and the self for what it is, rather than what it can or should be.”
For Haggai and Zechariah hope is not false, nor vain, nor postponed; but it is still perilous. Hope draws on experience to raise expectation. When the experience is disappointment, then expectations raised by God’s messengers may ring hollow. Whether in Yehud, before more modernly designated “redevelopment churches,” or in denominations whose methodology leaves them wondering where the God of their hopes has gone, the post of the prophet who proclaims God’s promises and their prerequisite premises is perhaps the most perilous possible.
A Theme Occurring Throughout Each of Three Corpora
As Haggai’s prophecy opens, Yehud has postponed their hopes of rebuilding the temple. “This people says, ‘The time has not come, even the time for the house of the Lord to be rebuilt.’” (Haggai 1:2) Whatever hopes once held, whatever boldness in refuting Tattenai’s challenge before Darius (Ezra 6:1-12), and however they had survived the famine, drought and disaster alluded to in 1:5-6, the rebuilding holds little interest and less attraction. Haggai’s rhetorical questions implicitly indict them, “If you are capable of finding resources for your own home improvements, it’s long past time to complete the work of rebuilding God’s house.” Haggai cites reasons that their previous hopes had failed. Their personal practices, meeting their needs by the work of their hands, result in frustration and further lack of provisions. Haggai 2:10-19 addresses the community’s false hopes that their half-hearted, conveniently postponed, and haphazard approaches to the work of God’s temple may still result in God’s glory and holiness returning, and His people prospering, despite the fact that holiness is not transferable, while uncleanness transfers even to the third degree. God’s people choose to remain unclean; the altar erected on the unfinished temple site is unholy. Therefore, the sacrifices with which they seek to curry God’s favor are just as unholy as is their temple, and as are they.
In Zechariah 1-8, the elements of the formula of hope are woven together toward chapters seven and eight, where the tapestry takes full form in Zechariah 8:18-23 (to be considered alongside passages from the other two corpora). Zechariah 1:1-17 compares past and present, contrasting expectations (hoped-for) and experiences (of disappointment). God’s expectations (of attentive, cooperative and obedient response) and past experience equally inform His cry to Yehud. “Do not be like your fathers.” But the expectations of the repatriated likewise differs from their experience as the nations (God’s instrument of discipline) have “furthered the disaster.” (Zech. 1:15). On these foundational elements of past and present Zechariah builds the future promises of hope. But the juxtaposition of the elements portrays a special compassion for the skepticism against accepting any assurance of future hope, whether in “terrifying the horns,” extending Jerusalem beyond its borders and eliminating the need for physical barriers (since “I…will be a wall of fire around her.” Zech. 2:5), in adding to Jerusalem’s number those from many nations (2:11), or in a restored and cleansed priesthood (3:1-5). Referencing hope as motivation for cooperation and obedience, and encompassing key perspectives on God’s relationship with His people in the past and present as well as future, Zechariah now addresses priesthood and community, conditioning His promises on walking in God’s ways and performing God’s service. The high priest is promised the governance and access necessary to lead God’s people, but the prophecy still indicts the greater population. These promises set before God’s people a hope extending into the future when The Branch will follow and there will be peace, gladness and wholeness. As Ryken et al illustrate, “The OT counterpart of the American dream of a car in every garage and a chicken in every pot is inviting a neighbor to sit under one’s own vine and fig tree (Zech 3:10).”