Social Justice in the Minor Prophets, Part 5: When the Prophetic Message Touches Our Pocket Books

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Social Justice in the Minor Prophets, Part 5: When the Prophetic Message Touches Our Pocket Books

Most notions of social justice in the world today carry some enunciation of a call for economic equality, stability, and propriety. What demarcates the biblical notion of social justice from non-biblical views is its association with the prophetic word, the foundational importance of God’s revealed will (ethics), and the recognition of our fallen human nature. From the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, God’s people get an “insider’s perspective” of the true causes of economic hardship among them. The two prophets are connected chronologically,[1] and their ministries overlap in concern,“to rebuild the temple of God in Jerusalem. The prophets of God were with them, supporting them.”[2]

The modes of communication between the two prophets vary enough where readers can hear two voices looking at the same problem from different angles. Haggai comes to people with a pragmatic impetus that touches on their economic life, whereas Zechariah’s visions assert a more qualitative ethos about their attitudes in the social sphere. Both prophets focus on God’s justice and mercy, and it is the relationship between the two that makes their calls for justice more relevant than any social theory of today’s practitioners. Suffice it to say that, from a biblical perspective, economics cannot be disassociated from ethics.

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It must be said in clear and unambiguous language that, whatever their supposed merits in the secular arena, the theories of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Ludwig Feuerbach (commonly known as socialism, communism, and its multitudes of variations) can never be associated with God’s revealed will and gift of divine empowerment in the economic sphere. By the way, the same can be said for any secular economic theory, including laissez-fairecapitalism (vis-à-visFrench businessmanM. Le GendreorAdam Smith’s “invisible hand”). The penchant for associating non-biblical economic theories with God’s divine revelation of wholistic stewardship has caused tremendous problems in the church, primarily because of the tendency to define biblical words, ideas, and concepts with secular definitions that did not and do not have God and His will front and center.

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It is clear from Revelation 18 that economics plays an important role in the eschatological prophetic picture outlined for the people of God. Having stated that, it must be noted that I am not suggesting that Christians become anarchist or economically disconnected from society. How one relates to the state is a topic of discussion for another day. For our purposes here, we want to listen in as it were to how God would have His people utilize their social and economic capital in light of His will, His promises, and His purposes. The specific focus of Haggai and Zechariah on a restored Temple carried immense implications for a socially functional covenant community who had recently returned from exile in Babylon to the land of Israel. Ultimately, the prophetic word addresses the selfish hearts of the people by critiquing their apathy and indifference to the work of God in the sphere of economic injustice.

 

The Desire of the Nations – Haggai and God’s Restoration

As is customary, it is good to start with a view of the organization of the book. Structured around four experiences that can be identified by the dates that cover approximately three months (1;1; 2:1, 10, 20), it deals with such topics as the rebuilding of the Temple, the glory of the Temple, the progress of the building of the Temple, and the ultimate purpose of the Temple. It is clear from reading Ezra 1– 4 that the Enemy, Satan, had a diabolical design to frustrate the rebuilding of the Temple. What is amazing about this time are the dynamics of politics, ethics, economics, and the justice of God. If at any time in Israel’s history there was a justification for using politics for economic interests, it was now, as the coffers of Media-Persia were open to helping the people of God restore political, religious and economic stability (Ezra 7). Amazingly, as part of the leadership, Ezra’s priorities were for the spiritual welfare of his people. The Bible says of him that “Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.”[3]

It is here that the first lesson of Haggai addresses the people of God: their confused priorities. About 70 years after the Exile (585 B. C.) and 60 years before Ezra’s decree (457 B. C.), the people of God were caught between the prophet Jeremiah’s promise of return to the land and the restoration of the Temple (Jer. 25:8–14; 29:10), and the starting point of Daniel’s 490-years prophecy (Dan 9:24–27). So, those who were able to help restore the ethical dynamics of the economic aspect of stewardship—governor, high priest, a remnant (1:12; 2:2,4), needed the prophetic guidance of the prophet Haggai (1:13; 2:1). Haggai clarifies that the reason the people were suffering economic hardship was that they showed more concern for their economic well-being than for the purposes of God. For, by building the Temple, the true infrastructure of Israel’s economic well-being would be restored; covenant relationship with God that followed God’s Torah in caring for all members of their society.Sadly, the misuse or misappropriation of funds for personal benefit is not solely a problem of the past. Jesus put our duty simply, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.”[4]

Economic hardship can always be correlated with fiscal policies of secular society, yet Haggai and Malachi make it clear that when God’s honor is put before our creature-comforts we open up the opportunities for Him to bless that we may be a blessing and no power can withstand the providence of God. The issue was not financial mismanagement as much as indifference to the character-building project God planned for His people. The people suffered under the judgment of God (blight, mildew, hail) because they were not principled. When God’s people truly seek for His justice in the world, they will do it through the channels He set up to accomplish His work. I wonder if our appeal for economic equity would be more fortuitous if God’s honor were our main focus.

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Haggai’s second lesson was for the people of God to remember history. History is moving toward a destination of God’s choosing, so ethics and economics are goal-oriented. The appeal to economic equity must always be approached by the people of God with different motives than purely secular ends. Admittedly, the church has participated in systems of economic malfeasance or indifference (e. g. slavery) that frustrate the plans of God, and God has given His people prophetic guidance meant to meet this dilemma. So, just like the post-exilic community, it is only for our benefit that we follow that guidance. Secular instrumentalities cannot stop the judgment of God in the economic sphere no matter how “sound” their methods. God points to the Exodus experience to reinforce the point. By dismantling the political hegemony of Egyptian power within a years’ time, God’s people would be confronted with the reality that in an instant God can act in a way that completely decimates the present order of things. So, like Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Media-Persia, Greece, and Rome experienced, man plans, and God laughs. These empires that boasted great material wealth deteriorated for one reason or another. Ezra put no trust in the viability of Medo-Persian economic solvency. The prophets Daniel, Haggai, and Zechariah had spoken, and Ezra listened; shouldn’t we?

 

Zechariah and the Call for Just Witnesses

Our familiarity with this powerful book typically draws from its imagery used in Revelation 6–7 and its messianic prophecy quoted in the New Testament (Zech 12:10; John 19:37). Often overlooked is the context in which this great messianic prophecy occurs. Through his servant Zechariah, God again addresses the motives of the people (Zech 7:4–7). In his first call to restoration, God reiterates His initial ethical demands found in Torah. The true judgments, kindness, and mercy advocated, all impact the social sphere (widow, fatherless, sojourner, poor; 7:8–10; Exod 22:21–27).[5] Absent is any of the typical modern stereotypes of why these dear people are found in these circumstances. Thankfully, in several instances, God explains how misfortune could overtake some of His people (cf. Lev 25). In Zechariah, God puts the onus for social instability on the hard hearts of those who have means (7:11–12), not on those who did not have economic resources or social capital.

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Zechariah’s call to justice is goal-oriented (see above). God gives a beautiful picture of Him dwelling amid His people who dwell with joyous hearts because they are restored. The imagery is picked up in Revelation 14 and 21–22, so Christians can have that same assurance in their lives. Like Haggai, Zechariah’s proclamation of history is grounded in the plans God intends and His foreknowledge of events imminent in His people’s lives. By appealing to the “prophets” (7:12; 8:9), the past of the people is connected with its present and future. The modern notion of an unknown future of possibilities with no ties to the linear flow of history falls flat in the face of God’s revelation.

The prophetic witness of Zechariah envisioned a world of agricultural bounty and perpetual blessing. This should alert us today to the type of world God desires. Moreover, it is the ethical life of truth telling, judicial equity, and honest dealings with one another that testifies to the type of society where this can happen.[6] It should be evident to everyone that this will never happen without a complete transformation of human hearts and the world. This is precisely why the church today should be more adamant about using its resources to proclaim the everlasting, while striving to alleviate human suffering. Not solely to make this world a “better place,” but all the more because the type of character God wants His redeemed people to have will enable us to live in God’s presence forever. The attitudes that we model here will not magically be changed when Jesus comes back. Note God’s attitude towards corrupt leaders among His people in Zech 10:1–12. In addition to idolatry, their grave sin was giving the people false hope of economic restoration without the requisite moral purity God graciously empowers His people with.

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In conclusion it seems that the church faces two missional goals. First, as in the days of these two prophets, we need to develop a heart for the mission of God where delayed gratification is our calling card for the benefit of the gospel. Second, and connected to it, is the focus on alleviating human suffering, not because we are “good people,” but on the basis of God’s prophetic word about the value of resources in serving humanity, God’s moral command to live selflessly as He is our example, and because human nature as described by God tends toward self-preservation, which God seeks to transform from within us. It is just at these two points where Satan’s sophistry is often successful. The wicked among the people of God walked about with gross and ungodly stereotypes in their hearts and used sophisticated arguments to justify their indifference. But more importantly, resources are often used for personal comfort while the church “corporate and local” suffer. The problem is not the lack of means. If we are honest, Haggai and Zechariah are right; the problem is us. May God help us to show the world we believe Him and strive by His grace to be like Him!

Read the rest of Jerome’s series on Social Justice and the Minor Prophets

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Notes.

[1] Ezra 5:1; 6:14.

[2] Ezra 5:2.

[3] Ezra 7:10

[4] Matt 6:33

[5] Note how God ends that section, stating “for I am compassionate” (Exod 22:27).

[6] Zech 8–9.

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Jerome Skinner, earned his Ph.D as an Old Testament scholar at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. He focuses on the Psalms and Wisdom literature and on practical Christianity. Jerome is active in following American Christianity and social issues.