by David C. Grabbe
June 4, 2020
The Bible contains the record of one extended family of people and its checkered history with God. The book of Genesis reveals the beginning of Israel through the fathers, and Exodus shows their first faltering steps. Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy define what God required of them—namely, for them to be holy. Joshua through II Chronicles contain their many adventures and misadventures as they continually turned from God. God also inspired seventeen prophetic books in the Old Testament to instruct His people, to correct them, and to warn them. These books were penned mostly before their captivity, but several were written after the Babylonian captivity of the Kingdom of Judah.
The book of Haggai is one such post-exilic work. The immediate application of the prophecies contained therein is the work on the Second Temple, but they incorporate definite dualities with end-time events. Of note in the last two prophecies of Haggai—which we will investigate—is God’s desire to bless His covenant people, even when they do not deserve it. What we will see is that God blesses to improve the condition of His people, especially spiritually.
Haggai received the last two prophecies on the same day. Haggai 2:10 and 20 identify that day as the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, which is called Kislev (or Chislev). Kislev falls during November and December on the Gregorian calendar, near the beginning of winter. This date—Kislev 24—is easy to find on the calendar because it is always the day before the Jews celebrate Hanukkah on the twenty-fifth of Kislev. These prophecies in Haggai were given on, and refer to, the previous day.
Historically, this date has been highly significant on several occasions. It was on Kislev 24 that the Temple was freed from its desecration by Antiochus IV (“Epiphanes”). The cleansing of the Temple began that evening, which, since it was after sunset, was technically Kislev 25. That is the origin of Hanukkah.
A lesser-known fact is that it was also on Kislev 24 in 1917, during WWI, that British troops liberated Jerusalem from the Ottoman Empire. We can see that this is a significant date in Jerusalem’s history, and considering the dualities of these prophecies, it may be significant again.
An Unclean People
The first Kislev 24 prophecy concerns the uncleanness of the covenant people and God’s response:
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, saying, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Now, ask the priests concerning the law, saying, “If one carries holy meat in the fold of his garment, and with the edge he touches bread or stew, wine or oil, or any food, will it become holy?”’” Then the priests answered and said, “No.” And Haggai said, “If one who is unclean because of a dead body touches any of these, will it be unclean?” So the priests answered and said, “It shall be unclean.” Then Haggai answered and said, “‘So is this people, and so is this nation before Me,’ says the Lord, ‘and so is every work of their hands; and what they offer there is unclean. And now, carefully consider from this day forward: from before stone was laid upon stone in the temple of the Lord—since those days, when one came to a heap of twenty ephahs, there were but ten; when one came to the wine vat to draw out fifty baths from the press, there were but twenty. I struck you with blight and mildew and hail in all the labors of your hands; yet you did not turn to Me,’ says the Lord. ‘Consider now from this day forward, from the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, from the day that the foundation of the Lord’s temple was laid—consider it: Is the seed still in the barn? As yet the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree have not yielded fruit. But from this day I will bless you.’” (Haggai 2:10-19)
It is important to remember what came before this. Approximately 42,000 Jews had just returned from the Babylonian captivity that had lasted seventy years. Haggai 1 concerns God stirring up the people to rebuild His destroyed Temple. The account in Ezra shows that, after getting this kick-start from God in Haggai 1, Zerubbabel and Joshua did everything precisely as Moses had instructed. The priests were consecrated correctly, an altar was constructed, and the proper offerings were made, all according to God’s specifications (see Ezra 3:2; 6:18).
In Haggai 2:16-17, the same primary complaint appears as in Haggai 1, and the same necessary reaction from God. The people were looking to their own affairs rather than to God and His will for them. In Haggai 1, they were more concerned about their houses than about the proper worship of God (verses 4, 9). In Haggai 2:17, God says that the people were not turning to Him.
In both cases, God crippled their productivity. They were putting forth the effort, and there was no end of activity, but they produced little. God was cursing the work of their hands to get their attention. Their efforts to build were in vain since God and His will for them were not their top priority.
We see, then, a humbled people returning from captivity, a newly consecrated Levitical priesthood, a new altar, and the beginnings of a new Temple—yet God still declares the whole nation to be unclean. Because the people are unclean, all the works of their hands are also unclean, including the sacrifices and offerings.
True Removal of Sin
The fact is, under the Old Covenant, there was no way to be spiritually cleansed. God provided instructions on how to be ritually clean, but the Old Covenant did not provide a means to remove sin from the people. The blood of bulls and goats, though required, could not take away sin (see Hebrews 9:11-22). They could only point to the future, perfect Sacrifice that could cleanse them of sin and prepare a people for their Savior (Galatians 3:19, 24). Thus, if they followed God’s instructions, they could achieve a level of ritual cleanness or holiness (setting apart), but their sins could not be truly cleansed.
Through a series of questions that Haggai asks the priests, God points out that uncleanness is transferable, but holiness is not. Defilement or impurity can spread from an object to a person to another object, but purity and holiness cannot. Holiness is personal and individual.
This principle is especially interesting in light of what was happening at the time. The people and the leaders were finally in the process of building the Temple, the dwelling place of the Holy God. It contained many objects that were also holy, as well as the Most Holy Place. However, even the presence of God could not, by itself, make the people clean. To make them clean, it would take something more than just having the Temple nearby, with all of its holy objects and even the Shekinah—the glory of God.
This prophecy has a curious ending. It does not contain a call to repentance, except perhaps by implication. God says that His people are unclean, that the presence of something holy cannot make them clean, and that they had not turned their hearts toward Him. Then He suddenly says that from this day forward, He would bless.
In most other places where God begins listing the transgressions of His people, He concludes with something that sounds a lot more like a curse than a blessing. Yet here, His blessing seems to be as a consequence of their sinful state. It is not a reward for their condition, but rather, His blessing will be a means to bring them out of it. His blessing is the solution to their wayward hearts and their general uncleanness.
God does not specify explicitly what the blessing will be in this first prophecy, though verse 19 (“Is the seed still in the barn?”) hints at it. Certainly, it was a blessing to have a Temple again to restore the proper worship of God. On later dates, it was also a blessing to have the Temple liberated and cleansed, and it was likewise a blessing to have Jerusalem freed from the Ottoman Empire early in the twentieth century. But these are all lesser applications of the blessing that was truly needed. Verse 19 will become clearer after examining the next prophecy.
The second Kislev 24 prophecy, found in Haggai 2:20-23, spells out a readily identifiable blessing: righteous leadership:
And again the word of the Lord came to Haggai on the twenty-fourth day of the month, saying, “Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying: ‘I will shake heaven and earth. I will overthrow the throne of kingdoms; I will destroy the strength of the Gentile kingdoms. I will overthrow the chariots and those who ride in them; the horses and their riders shall come down, every one by the sword of his brother. In that day,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will take you, Zerubbabel My servant, the son of Shealtiel,’ says the Lord, ‘and will make you like a signet ring; for I have chosen you,’ says the Lord of hosts.”
This prophecy contains, among other things, the fulfillment of the gospel of the Kingdom of God. God is describing the time when, as it says in Revelation 11:15, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ.” It is the time when the divine Stone strikes the Gentile kingdoms on the feet, and they are all blown away and consumed by God’s Kingdom, as Nebuchadnezzar saw in his dream (Daniel 2:35, 44-45).
God will shake heaven and earth, as is described by the Sixth Seal (Revelation 6:12-13) and which is also mentioned back in Haggai 2:6 (see also Matthew 24:29, 35; Mark 13:25; Luke 21:26; II Peter 3:10). At that time, Israel and Judah will be reunited with each other, and more importantly, with God, who will be ruling from a liberated and cleansed Jerusalem. At the time God gave this prophecy, the Jews were still living under the shadow of the Gentile Persian Empire, so it held great hope for those hearing it.
Verse 23 singles out Zerubbabel, and though there may be several lesser fulfillments of this, it is vital to recognize the real, ultimate fulfillment. The name Zerubbabel means “seed of Babylon” or “planted in Babylon.” He became the governor of Judah after the Babylonian captivity. As a scion of the Davidic line, he was also part of Jesus’ lineage on Joseph’s side (Matthew 1:12-13).
Zerubbabel was indeed a prominent figure in what God was working out, but we must keep in mind that the One who ultimately fulfilled his role is Jesus Christ, the epitome of a righteous ruler. In the same way, the ultimate fulfillment of Joshua’s role as High Priest is also Jesus Christ. Zerubbabel is called God’s servant, but so is Christ (Matthew 12:18; John 13:16; Acts 3:13, 26; 4:27, 30; Romans 15:8). Zerubbabel was chosen, but so was Christ (Matthew 12:18; Luke 23:35; I Peter 2:4). Zerubbabel received God’s seal, but so did Christ (John 6:27).
Just as God chose Abraham and promised to bless all nations through him, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, and Judah to bring forth the Messiah, so God chose Zerubbabel and his Descendant—his most important Descendant—to be His signet or signature ring. God set His seal on Zerubbabel, but more importantly, He set His seal on Zerubbabel’s holy Descendant, the Messiah.
A Blessing in Winter
When God takes note of Judah’s uncleanness, and her disastrous focus—idolatry—His promised blessing will be the means by which He will turn those things around. He will restore Israel’s and Judah’s lands and cities to them, and He will give them the definitive Governor and the ultimate High Priest. Zerubbabel and Joshua are just types of what will be fulfilled later by Christ.
When we understand this, we can go back to Haggai 2:19 and better understand the imagery: “Is the seed still in the barn? As yet the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree have not yielded fruit. But from this day I will bless you.”
Recall that Kislev 24 is in the winter, a time of short days and long nights. Farmers have completed their harvesting, and everyone hopes that they have stored away enough to last until the vines, trees, and crops begin producing fruit again. Remember, also, that this particular harvest was probably sparse because of God’s curse upon their crops.
Winter, even in a good year, is not usually a time of blessing. It is often a difficult time, one of making use of the blessings that came in previous seasons. Nevertheless, God chose this specific date, which in some years could even be the shortest day of the year. He chose this bleakest of times to start His blessing—a blessing whose highest fulfillment will be found in the work and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
This scenario sets up an intriguing possibility. We know that Jesus was born sometime in the fall. If we count back nine months from the fall, we arrive at a date in winter. Is it possible, then, that Kislev 24 is the date when the power of the Most High God overshadowed Mary and caused her to conceive the Messiah (Luke 1:35)?
Verse 19 contains a curious play on words that may support this possibility. A question is asked, “Is the seed still in the barn?” The word translated as “seed” is also rendered “child” or “posterity.” Remember that Zerubbabel means “seed of Babylon,” but also recall that when God tells Abraham, “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 22:18; 28:14; emphasis ours throughout), the Seed to which He refers is Jesus Christ, forty-two generations later (see also John 7:42; Romans 1:3; Galatians 3:16, 19).
Haggai 2:19 describes a time when the seeds from the previous harvest are not in the barn because they have been planted, but it is before any fruit was produced. It could also, then, describe a Child who has been conceived, but not yet born—and through that Child the blessing on Judah and Israel, the church, and eventually, the entire world would come. Again, this is speculation, but Jesus’ conception on this date could be another application of what God means when He says, “from this day I will bless.”
However, regardless of whether this speculation is correct, we see that God is incredibly active in the lives of His people and quite willing to shake heaven and earth to bless. Yes, God gives physical blessings, but the far more meaningful ones are not material in nature.
A People Cleansed
The book of Haggai exposes the people’s problems to be apathy to God and His purpose as well as their uncleanness. God knew what His people lacked, and He purposed to give it to them. These prophecies are designed to be an encouragement that God will act on behalf of His people, even when they are flawed. In fact, He acts on behalf of His people especially when they are imperfect because He is committed to perfecting them (see Hebrews 13:20-21).
God promises to cleanse Israel and Judah from all their iniquity—and not just to be near them in the Temple. Zechariah 3 is particularly apt, for Zechariah was another post-exilic prophet and contemporary of Haggai. While Haggai addresses Zerubbabel the governor, Zechariah’s vision in chapter 3 concerns Joshua the high priest, another type of Christ. Zechariah 3:3-5, 8-9 foretells a coming national cleansing that takes place by divine decree and the coming of the BRANCH—the Messiah—rather than through animal sacrifices:
Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments, and was standing before the Angel. Then He answered and spoke to those who stood before Him, saying, “Take away the filthy garments from him.” And to him He said, “See, I have removed your iniquity from you, and I will clothe you with rich robes.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head, and they put the clothes on him. And the Angel of the LORD stood by. . . .
“‘Hear, O Joshua, the high priest, you and your companions who sit before you, for they are a wondrous sign; for behold, I am bringing forth My Servant the BRANCH. For behold, the stone that I have laid before Joshua: Upon the stone are seven eyes. Behold, I will engrave its inscription,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘And I will remove the iniquity of that land in one day.’”
Similarly, in portions of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, God promises to give them a new heart, a heart that is faithful to Him rather than inclined to its own interests. He will give them His Spirit, which will cause them to walk in His ways, and He will make an everlasting covenant of peace with them. Notice:
» And I will cause the captives of Judah and the captives of Israel to return, and will rebuild those places as at the first. I will cleanse them from all their iniquity by which they have sinned against Me, and I will pardon all their iniquities by which they have sinned and by which they have transgressed against Me. (Jeremiah 33:7-8)
» For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. . . . I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. I will call for the grain and multiply it, and bring no famine upon you. (Ezekiel 36:24-27, 29)
» “Then say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “Surely I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, wherever they have gone, and will gather them from every side and bring them into their own land; and I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king over them all; they shall no longer be two nations, nor shall they ever be divided into two kingdoms again. They shall not defile themselves anymore with their idols, nor with their detestable things, nor with any of their transgressions; but I will deliver them from all their dwelling places in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them. Then they shall be My people, and I will be their God. . . . Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them, and it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; I will establish them and multiply them, and I will set My sanctuary in their midst forevermore.”’” (Ezekiel 37:21-23, 26; see also Isaiah 44:22-23; Jeremiah 50:19-20; Ezekiel 16:62-63; 36:33; Daniel 9:24; Micah 7:18-20.)
Jacob’s descendants have bright days ahead of them, even though we know they will first go through Jacob’s Trouble because of their uncleanness and unfaithfulness to God (Jeremiah 30:7). However, if God has intervened in our lives through His election, these tremendous blessings that He has promised to the nations of Israel and Judah have already been given to us! Through Christ’s sacrifice and our baptism, we have already been made clean. We already have a High Priest who intercedes for us whenever we repent and seek forgiveness. We have already been given a measure of the Spirit that produces holiness and thus the means to develop a pure heart. We have the means to prioritize correctly, turn to God, and seek to be like Him.
As significant as Kislev 24 is—and it is significant, if for no other reason than that it is mentioned five times in one chapter, directly or indirectly—and as significant as it may be again in the future, we do not need to wait for winter for God’s blessing. God has and is already blessing us. But He is not just blessing us with these things for our sakes. He is blessing those whom He has called so that, through the cleansing, our High Priest, and the Holy Spirit—all of which we already have, along with the pure and clean hearts we are developing—our lives may be a testimony to Israel and Judah of what God is willing to do for His covenant people.