Uniform 06.15.2014: Being Holy

Haggai 2:10-19

Old Testament writers are often concerned with holiness. With an extensive collection of laws about how to remain holy, or set apart, God’s people had an innate knowledge of what threatened their holiness. Much of the book of Leviticus is dedicated to explaining what foods and actions can best help maintain the people’s holiness, and the prophets continually uphold God’s holiness as an ideal for the people to strive toward.

While I appreciate that Christians are no longer expected to fulfill the letter of the Old Testament’s holiness laws, I sometimes think it would be much easier to know how to be a faithful follower of God if I had such a specific instruction manual. The parables and teachings of Jesus are both challenging and inspiring, but they can also seem vague and difficult to apply to modern life. Surely we would have an easier time being God’s people if God told us exactly what to do in every situation.

Haggai reminds us that holiness, even with a detailed set of instructions, is difficult for people to achieve. The returned exiles were familiar with the holiness laws, but they still struggled to remain holy. They hoped that they could catch holiness from contact with holy people or consecrated objects, but the priests reminded them that only impurity is transferable. God didn’t want them to forget how difficult their lives had been since their return for Babylon, and God told them that their struggles were the consequence of unholy choices.

Even with the law to guide them, the people charged with rebuilding God’s temple failed to be holy. Living up to God’s standards for our lives is challenging, and, like Haggai’s audience, we might not succeed. But the prophet tells us that God will continue to love us even when we fail. The returned exiles broke God’s laws and neglected God’s house, but God still promised to bless them. When we feel like we can’t figure out what God expects of us, or when we feel like we’ve failed to live up to God’s standards, we can still trust in God’s grace.

Discussion

1. Do you prefer general or specific instructions? Why? How do you respond to each kind?
2. What situations might merit detailed instructions? What situations benefit from more general instructions?
3. How can we work toward being holy people even without detailed laws about holiness?
4. How do we fail to live up to the standards expected of us, even when we know exactly what they are?
5. How can we trust that God will continue to love us even when we fall short?

Reference Shelf

At its core, this section emphasizes holiness, obedience, and blessing. The ritual purification of 
the temple area was demanded by the holiness of
 God. The people, although they needed
 reminding, followed the lead of the prophet, the 
governor, and the priest in undertaking the con
secration of the temple area. As a result, the 
prophet anticipates YHWH’s blessing in the 
form of agricultural fertility in which the people 
will benefit from their obedience. This movement from call to obedience to reward represents the typical theological movement that most people expect from God. And yet this text contains subtle reminders that the actualization of this movement is not that common, and certainly not a mechanical formula by which we may manipulate God into bettering our fortunes.

Both in the context of Haggai and the Book of the Twelve, one must remember that the change in the people came about slowly, required considerable effort to keep going, and probably did not last long. Haggai begins by confronting the people for ignoring YHWH while they attempted to satisfy their own needs. Moreover, in the context of the Book of the Twelve, Haggai’s success in getting the people to change comes only after the failure of Hosea through Zephaniah to change the people. Only in Haggai and in the opening chapters of Zechariah do the people as a whole respond affirmatively to God’s message through the prophets. It is rare for a group of people to commit themselves in significant ways to accomplishing things on behalf of God.

The promise in Haggai is not some mechanistic process by which we can control God’s response. We cannot manipulate God’s actions so that by doing something good for God we force God to reciprocate. The promise is not fulfilled in dramatic terms from one moment to the next. In order to see the fulfillment of this promise, the prophet tells the people to mark the day. This command implies that the coming change will be gradual. Only by remembering what life was like before will one be able to see how much better things become over time. Much of life is lived in anticipation of another blessing from God. We easily fall prey to the desire to have God do more for us. Much less frequently do we look back on our own significant points of commitment and reflect on how we have changed for the better. We are more likely to ask God, “What have you done for me lately?” than to acknowledge what God has already done.

Resource

James D. Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve: Micah–Malachi, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006) 793-94.

Bonnie Chappell is the editor of the Uniform Series Bible Study. She is a graduate of Mercer University and Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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