signet rings*

 

Last Sunday I had the unusual experience of hearing a sermon preached from Haggai. BIG points to any of you who have ever preached from Haggai, bonus points if you can find it without having to rummage through the Minor Prophets!

It’s a fascinating little book that dovetails particularly with Ezra and the rebuilding work following the return from Exile under Nehemiah. The preacher based his sermon on two phrases in Chapter 2 verse 4: “Be strong… and work. For I am with you.” There’s a lot in that alone, but later on I read the whole of the book and was fascinated by God’s promise to Zerubbabel (governor of Judah) that God “will make you like my signet ring, for I have chosen you.” (Haggai 2:23) That’s an unusual phrase, isn’t it?

I wonder how Zerubbabel felt when Haggai delivered those words to him from God. Was he hoping for something a bit more dynamic, a bit more impressive or a bit more visible? I turned to my three commentaries on Haggai (yes, three! (although they are all collections of Minor Prophets)) and discovered that Zerubbabel was not only the bounciest man in the Bible but was a grandson of King Jehoiachin, so therefore was part of the royal line of David. In Jeremiah 22:24 God had described Jehoiachin as being like his signet ring that he was going to take off and fling away (into Babylon) because of his sin. Now God is ready to put his signet ring back on, having retrieved it from down the back of the sofa of the Exile. To take the language of Habbakuk, in his wrath God had remembered mercy. And the line of David could continue through to Jesus.

A signet ring in those days was not a mere piece of jewellery. It signified the King. (Pharaoh put his signet ring on Joseph’s finger to give him his authority, for example). It was as important as a crown and was used to seal important documents to prove that the King endorsed them. God calls Zerubbabel his ‘Servant’ not ‘Governor’ in this prophecy, which is a messianic description too. However we don’t hear much more about Zerubbabel after this moment, except that he appears in Jesus’ family tree (Luke 3:27).

sealedSo what do we make of all this? Is it just interesting historical analysis? Is it merely fascinating Biblical cross-referencing? I think it’s so much more than that:

  • it’s a reaffirmation that God is still King of kings (which is why he wanted them to get on and finish the Temple rebuilding (see earlier in Haggai)) even though his kings had let him down;
  • it’s a reminder that God is the thread of continuity in history (despite the bleak present God will still be King in the future);
  • and it’s a reminder that God works through people (including political leaders). He spoke through Haggai and he planned to restore the monarchy through Zerubbabel (ensuring Jesus’ royal lineage). As God’s signet ring Zerubbabel would be God’s seal of endorsement on his activity. He would be his proxy.

These thoughts spoke to me in our current circumstances in the UK – where there is turmoil and a need for a reconstruction of society. We need to ensure that God’s visible presence (which is what the Temple was, and we now are) stands strong and proclaims that he is still King of kings. And we should remember that God fulfils his purposes through people – those in low positions and those in authority too. He longs for us all to be his servants and to use us to be part of the answer to Jesus’ prayer that “Your Kingdom come and Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Perhaps we might even dare to consider that as co-heirs with Christ we too are signet rings – signs of God’s rule and authority, and his proxy in his world.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*this was first sent out as a ‘thought for the week’ sent to Baptist Ministers in the Eastern Baptist Association

being smallerised

Russian Nesting Dolls 4Today I spent some time away on a retreat. As part of it I decided to explore a book of the Bible that I have not really explored before. So I turned to Obadiah. How many of you can turn to it without checking the index or flicking through hopefully?

It’s a tiny book among the so-called ‘minor prophets’ in the Old Testament. It’s so small it doesn’t have chapters, just verse numbers. I was struck by verse 2: “See, I will make you small among the nations: you will be utterly despised…”

This prophecy delivered by Obadiah on God’s behalf was to a small nation bordering Israel / Judah – Edom. The Edomites were descended from Jacob’s brother, Esau. The nation of Edom had maintained hostility against Israel and Judah for centuries. But why would God be miniaturising them? Why were they smallerised (Edom no longer exists as a nation)?

The reasons are set out in the following verses, most notably that they had been “deceived by pride” or “remained aloof” – standing back and watching as the Babylonians invaded, defeated and plundered their neighbours.

I may be on dodgy hermeneutical and exegetical ground here, but bear with me. I recognise too that I am about to make some sweeping generalisations that are, by definition, not accurate in every local church or situation.

I wonder whether the smallerisation that is currently happening to the church in the UK has some links to tiny Obadiah’s message? We are being made smaller, and perhaps even despised by some, and is it for similar reasons to the Edomites?

In the past did we rest on false pride: “we are a Christian country!”? Even after the Second World War the majority of people were churchgoers. Now we are down to less than 7%. Did we become complacent and irrelevant to the questions and doubts of the nation and refuse to engage with the issues that they felt were important – sidelining ourselves.

Did we remain aloof from those who are being oppressed: those who are poor, marginalised, oppressed, victims of prejudice? How many of those people are in our churches today? How loudly have we spoken up on their behalf? How much action have we taken? Yes we have Foodbanks and Debt Counselling and many more activities, but they are recent innovations…

Are we being ‘smallerised’ because the general population can no longer see Jesus in us?

I wonder whether we need to take note of tiny Obadiah again… It’s not the whole answer, but it might be part of the question we need to be asking.

Be blessed, be a blessing