Uniform 06.01.2014: All Deliberate Speed

Haggai 1:1-11

May 17, 2014 marked the 60th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that ordered the integration of America’s schools. After centuries of treating people differently based on the color of their skin, the high court determined that such inequality could no longer be tolerated in our public education system. In the inevitable backlash that followed this historic decision, the court ordered that schools be desegregated “with all deliberate speed.”

Having grown up in Georgia, I have heard many stories about when my state’s public schools finally integrated. In many cases, the court’s order did not take hold until the mid-70s, twenty years after its decree that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Since first learning about this case in a high school U.S. history class, I have been astounded by the snail’s pace with which this important change took place. How could it take twenty whole years? Why was the court’s decree not taken seriously?

God expresses frustrations like these in Haggai. The people have been back in Jerusalem after their exile in Babylon for nearly twenty years, but they have failed to rebuild God’s temple. After living without a place to worship for so long, how could they ignore God’s house for almost two decades? Ezra 3 tells us that work on the temple began quickly after their return, but Haggai lets us know that this work was left unfinished for many years.

Like the communities that resisted integration, the returned exiles reveal their priorities by ignoring their responsibility to rebuild the temple. They have focused on their own houses rather than on restoring God’s house. This choice suggests that their covenant relationship with God—the God who has just delivered them from exile—is not important to them. God wants them to attend to their faith lives, but they act like other things matter more.

In Haggai 1, God explains that the people’s lives will be difficult and unfulfilling as long as they neglect the temple. From our experience with desegregation, we understand how uncomfortable and tumultuous our lives can be when we discount the need for important changes. But God promises that when we make God’s priorities our own, God will “take pleasure” and “be honored” (v. 8). Our lives are fuller and happier when what matters to God matters to us.


1. How quickly did your community comply with the desegregation of schools? Why?
2. What changes has your community been slow to accept for political or ideological reasons? What have you learned about others and about yourself through the implementation of such changes?
3. What are God’s priorities for our lives? How well do we reflect God’s priorities for us in the way we live? How do our own priorities get in the way of doing God’s will?
4. How have you experienced contentment when your priorities matched God’s?
5. What is God calling you to do “with all deliberate speed”? How are you responding to that call?


“History of Brown V. Board of Education,” United States Courts, http://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/get-involved/federal-court-activities/brown-board-education-re-enactment/history.aspx.

Reference Shelf

Haggai 1:1 opens the book with the first of six date formulas normally attributed to the Haggai/Zechariah Chronicler (Hag 1:1, 15; 2:1; 2:10, 18, 20). Taken together, these six dates in Haggai cover the time from September to December 520 BCE. The report that Haggai received the word of YHWH has a different formulation than other examples of this formula. Haggai 1:1 has the word coming by the hand of Haggai the prophet. This formulation emphasizes the instrumentality of the prophet more than the typical expression of the word event formula in most other prophetic writings (“The word of YHWH came to X”), including the remaining formulae in Haggai and Zechariah. This subtle shift in language is one of several elements that sets apart Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi as a group. These deviations may also help account for the way in which Haggai is treated in rabbinic tradition.


Haggai 1:2 contains a short saying that functions as an accusation against the people of Judah in the early postexilic period. Following the messenger formula, which gives the saying authority from YHWH, the prophet charges “this people” with neglecting their God. To be sure, nothing in 1:2 alone indicates anything more than the people’s opinion that it is not yet time to rebuild God’s house. The larger context, however, makes clear that Haggai refutes this position, giving a decidedly sarcastic tone to the term “this people.” The situation presumed in this verse confronts the reader of the Book of the Twelve with the juxtaposition of the promise of Zephaniah 3:18-20 and the situation of Haggai 1:2-6.

A new introduction (1:3), in the form of a word event formula, begins the prophet’s challenge (1:3-6). The prophet challenges the people to take the situation to heart and consider what their actions say about their relationship to God. The challenge proper begins with a rhetorical question: “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” (1:4). This question assumes that the people are living in finished houses, though there is some debate about the precise meaning of the term translated by the NRSV as “paneled.” The term either refers to “panels” on the roof or to panels on the inside walls of houses. The former would not necessarily imply any sense of extravagance, since it would merely mean a roofed house. By contrast, paneling on the inside walls would only be constructed for buildings of significance like the temple or a royal residence. Paneling is therefore the more appropriate translation, since in other Old Testament texts using the word it appears to mean the cedar planks used to line the walls and roofs of the temple (1 Kgs 6:9; 7:3, 7; Jer 22:14). The contrast is clear. At least some of the people are living in relative luxury, while reconstruction of YHWH’s temple has not yet gotten underway to any significant level.

Haggai 1:5-6 extends the contrast
 by grabbing the attention of the
reader/hearer with two formulaic elements. First, the transitional phrase
 “But now” suggests that a significant
 shift is about to occur. Second, a new 
messenger formula adds weight to the
 authority of the message with its
 claim to speak for the LORD of hosts.
 Next, the prophet commands the 
people to examine their behavior, 
using an idiom that literally says, 
“Place your hearts upon your ways”
 (1:5). The meaning is clear and 
forceful: Think about what you are 
doing. Haggai 1:6 goes on to explicate the situation. While (some of) the buildings in which people are living show signs that significant resources have been spent on them (1:4), there is a looming crisis from insufficient food, water, clothing, and money. Using the contrasting images of a poet, the prophet calls their attention to the amount of energy they are expending just to get by: there is grain, but just enough; there is enough to drink, but just barely; there is clothing, but not enough to stay warm; and the wages are spent as fast as they are earned. This picture hardly portrays a glorious existence for the people who had recently returned from Babylon with hopes of a new promised land. Some of the people are living in finished houses, but the current scenario implies that economic hardships are prevalent for the majority of the population. The prophet has laid the foundation for his dispute with the people. This speech implicitly assigns a cause to the situation that will become explicit in 1:7-10: God will ignore the plight of the people because they are ignoring God. The message of these verses draws on the language of theodicy.

Haggai takes a position akin to Proverbs in the wisdom tradition or the blessing/curse theology of Deuteronomy (cf. Deut 28:15-18). God rewards those who serve him properly and punishes those who do not obey. To be sure, this message has limits, as the book of Job points out so powerfully, but Haggai tries to motivate people to reevaluate their priorities. As long as the people have no place for God, God will not improve the situation.

Haggai 1:7-11 commissions the people to rebuild the temple, and in so doing the prophet escalates the threat implied in 1:5-6. Following yet another messenger formula, Haggai 1:7 reprises the call from 1:5 to consider their lifestyle: “Place your heart upon your ways.” Now, however, rather than describing the situation, the prophet commands the people to change their behavior by changing their focus from their own houses to YHWH’s house by gathering wood for building YHWH’s temple (1:8). The prophet implores the people: “Don’t just stand there, do something.” Most people would be ill equipped to cut and haul the kind of lumber needed for the construction of the temple. Yet the prophet commands the people to go up to the mountain and bring wood. Scholars have postulated at length on exactly what the prophet expects the people to do. Does he really intend for them to go and gather wood from the hills (NRSV) or the mountains (NAS) or the (temple) mountain (MT)? Or would these have been words intended figuratively for the leaders Joshua and Zerubbabel? At any rate, the purpose of the command is clear: to build the temple to bring pleasure and glory to God.


James D. Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve: Micah–Malachi, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2011) 771-77.

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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