A Question of Law

by Pastor Ricky Kurth

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A man got lost one day while hot air ballooning. Lowering the balloon to near ground level, he spotted a man and asked him where he was. The man replied, “You’re in a balloon about 30 feet off the ground.” The balloonist replied, “You must be a lawyer. You gave me advice that is completely accurate, yet completely useless!” The lawyer replied, “And you must be a lawyer’s client. You didn’t bring a map so you’re in trouble of your own making, you expect me to provide you with an instant fix, and yet somehow your problem is all my fault!”

When we have questions about the law, we ask them of lawyers. But when it came to questions about the law of Moses, God told Haggai to ask them of Israel’s priests:

“Thus saith the LORD…Ask now the priests concerning the law…” (Hag. 2:11).

Before we consider the question God wanted His prophet to ask the priests, you might be wondering why God didn’t send Haggai to one of the “lawyers” in Israel that we read about in Luke 14:3 and other places. Evidently this class of men had arisen in Israel in New Testament times to interpret the Law of Moses when God’s people had questions concerning it.

But that just shows how far God’s people had drifted from the way He had set things up in Israel. When God gave the law, He put the priests in charge of knowing it, and answering questions about it.

“For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth…” (Mal. 2:7).

If God had wanted a separate class of men called lawyers to answer questions about the law, He would have told His people to establish one—but He didn’t! So it’s no surprise that lawyers in Israel are always cast in a bad light (Matt. 22:35; Luke 10:25, etc.). The Lord said, “the…lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him” (Luke 7:30), that is, of John the Baptist (v. 29). That meant that lawyers weren’t saved, for John preached “baptism…for the remission of sins” (Mark 1:4). And that meant that lawyers were likely to give the wrong answers when asked about the law. No wonder the Lord said,

Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered” (Luke 11:52).

Part of the “key of knowledge” that allowed the Jews to enter the kingdom of heaven at that time was knowing they had to be baptized to be saved! When those lawyers refused to be baptized, they failed to enter the kingdom. And when people asked them about John’s baptism, they must have hindered others from entering the kingdom by dissuading them from being baptized as well.

Of course, in our text in Haggai 2, God directed Haggai to the priests to pose His questions about the law, reinforcing the way He had established things.

In and Out of Touch

Now let’s see what God wanted the prophet to ask the priests:

“If one bear holy flesh in the skirt of his garment, and with his skirt do touch bread, or pottage, or wine, or oil, or any meat, shall it be holy? And the priests answered and said, No” (Hag. 2:12).

The “holy flesh” here was the flesh of Israel’s animal sacrifices. Moses said, “the flesh of the ram… wherewith the atonement was made…is holy” (Ex. 29:32-34). But evidently, when men carried their sacrifice to the priest to be offered, it was carried in the skirt of their garment, as in an apron. And God wanted Haggai to ask the priests what would happen if the skirt bearing the sacrifice brushed up against an object on its way to be offered. Would the object it brushed up against also be considered holy. If so, it too would have to be offered to God, for the word holy means “set apart unto the LORD” (Ex. 13:2 cf v. 12), and things set apart unto God belonged to Him.

The reason God asked Haggai to ask the priests this question was to see if they knew that there was a law that covered it. And there was—sort of! Leviticus 6:25,27 says,

“…the sin offering…whatsoever shall touch the flesh thereof shall be holy…”

But you’ll notice that this law didn’t exactly address God’s question. He didn’t ask what would happen if the offering touched something. He asked what would happen if the skirt that was carrying the offering touched something.

But even when the law didn’t clearly spell out the answer to questions about the law, it was still the priest’s job to address them. Speaking of the priests (Ezek. 44:15), God told Ezekiel,

“…they shall teach My people the difference between the holy and profane…in controversy they shall stand in judgment; and they shall judge it according to My judgments…” (Ezek. 44:23,24).

When it came to questions not directly addressed by the Law, controversies would naturally arise. God said that the priest was expected to settle such controversies by extrapolating an answer based on the issues that God did address directly in the law with His “judgments.” This is similar to how judges in our courts must also make decisions based on extrapolations of our laws when an issue is not directly addressed by our civil laws

In Haggai’s day, the priests answered his question correctly (2:12). The objects Haggai asked about were not made holy because they didn’t touch the holy sacrifice itself; they only touched the skirt of the garment that was bearing the sacrifice.

Now before God explains why He wants Haggai to ask the priests this question, He has His prophet submit yet another question to them. Still speaking about the bread, pottage, wine, and oil he mentioned in the previous verse, we read,

“Then said Haggai, If one that is unclean by a dead body touch any of these, shall it be unclean? And the priests answered…It shall be unclean” (Hag. 2:13).

When a man in Israel touched a dead body, he was considered unclean (Num. 19:11). If he in turn touched something else, the rule was: “whatsoever the unclean person toucheth shall be unclean” (v. 22). So the answer to this question was a little more cut and dried, and once again the priests answered it correctly.

And Your Point Is?

Before we read the point God was making for His people in Israel in this passage, think about the point we can make from it for ourselves. When it comes to the kind of people with whom you choose to associate, you might think you can make sinful Christian friends clean up their act by hanging around with them. But what usually happens is the opposite. Their sinful ways end up influencing you instead!

If you think about it, God’s laws reflect the very laws of nature. When mixed together, clean water doesn’t make dirty water clean; dirty water makes clean water dirty. A healthy child can’t make a sick child healthy, but a sick child can make a healthy child sick.

So “touch not the unclean thing” even among believers by choosing your friends wisely (2 Cor. 6:17), for “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6). Leaven is a type of sin in the Bible because it spreads. You are better off not letting sinful friends help sin get started in your life by remembering that “evil communications corrupt good manners” (1 Cor. 15:33).

Leprosy is another type of sin in the Bible, for it too was highly contagious. But the Lord could heal lepers by touching them because He was God in the flesh. He was able to make virtue flow from Him to the leper, instead of allowing the leprosy of the leper to flow to Him. But the best way for those of us who aren’t God in the flesh to avoid contracting the leprosy of sin is to avoid hanging around sinful “lepers.” You can’t help but rub shoulders with sinful people at work or school (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9,10), but you need to be selective about who you hang around with after work or school.

Now I’m sure God had those points in mind when He gave Israel the laws we are considering. But He had other points in mind in our text here as well, as we see when Haggai gets to the point:

“Then answered Haggai, and said, So is this people, and so is this nation before Me, saith the LORD; and so is every work of their hands; and that which they offer there is unclean” (Hag. 2:14).

Earlier we saw that animal sacrifices were considered holy (Ex. 23:32-34). But Haggai said of his countrymen that the sacrifices they were offering were not holy. Verse 14 says that “that which they offer there is unclean.” Their offerings were made unclean because of their disobedience to God’s commandment.

And we know what specific disobedience God had in mind here, for He had instructed the people of Israel to rebuild the temple, and they had opposed this instruction (Hag. 1:4). That meant they themselves were unclean. Normally, contact with their holy sacrifices would make them clean, as we saw in Leviticus 6:25,27. But the “skirt” of their disobedience came between them (cf. Hag. 2:12), and prevented the holy sacrifice from making them holy.

Skirting the Issue

If you’re not sure what I mean by that, consider the indictment God leveled against His people in Jeremiah 2:34:

“…in thy skirts is found the blood of the souls of the poor innocents…”

The “poor innocents” were the babies the Jews were offering to the false god Molech as human sacrifices in Jeremiah’s day (Jer. 32:35). Their blood wasn’t literally on the skirts of their parents, of course, for when they would “cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire unto Molech,” fire doesn’t make a baby bleed. God was saying that the blood of the innocents was figuratively on their skirts because of their disobedience to God. This may have been because they carried their babies to sacrifice to Molech in the skirts of their garments, just as they carried their animal sacrifices.

But that was in Jeremiah’s day. In Haggai’s day, the figurative sin on the skirts of God’s people in Israel didn’t involve sacrificing babies, it concerned their failure to rebuild the temple. The holy animal sacrifices they carried to God couldn’t make them holy due to the skirt of that disobedience that came between them and God (cf. Isa. 59:2). So instead of those sacrifices making them clean, their uncleanness was making their sacrifices unclean, the way the unclean man who touched a dead body made everything he touched unclean. This was the point God was making with the questions He had Haggai ask of the priests.

Now when God’s people in Israel were disobedient, He would chasten them with things like bad crops (Lev. 26:18-20), and they were certainly reaping this fate in Haggai’s day (1:5,6). God had warned them, “Thou shalt carry much seed out into the field, and shalt gather but little in” (Deut. 28:38), and Haggai reminded his people that this is what was happening to them when he said, “ye looked for much, and, lo, it came to little” (1:9). The prophet told them to “consider” their ways (1:5) because they just didn’t seem to be making the connection between their disobedience and the chastening they were receiving that the law prescribed for their disobedience. Once they considered the connection, they repented and went to work on the temple (Hag. 1:12-15).

But then some discouragement set in when they saw that the size of the new temple couldn’t compare with the size of Solomon’s temple (2:1-3), and the work on God’s house came to a screeching halt. So Haggai again asked them to “consider” the connection between their sin and the chastening that the law prescribed for their sin, this time begging them:

“And now, I pray you, consider from this day and upward, from before a stone was laid upon a stone in the temple of the LORD:

“Since those days were, when one came to an heap of twenty measures, there were but ten: when one came to the pressfat for to draw out fifty vessels out of the press, there were but twenty” (Hag. 2:15,16).

Doesn’t that sound like they “looked for much, and, lo, it came to little” (1:9)?

If that didn’t jar their memory of God’s covenant with them, and cause them to consider that they were being judged again, Haggai went on to remind them of more of God’s judgments that had befallen them:

“I smote you with blasting and with mildew and with hail in all the labours of your hands; yet ye turned not to Me, saith the LORD” (Hag. 2:17).

Blasting and mildew were more tools in God’s chastening toolbox (Deut. 28:15,22), and hail was normally reserved for His enemies (Ex. 9:18-34; Rev. 16:21). The people of Israel hadn’t considered the connection between these judgments and their sin, but they were about to!

Consider It Done

God’s people must have finally considered that He had brought these judgments on them, and repented in Haggai’s day, for He went on to tell them to “consider now” something different about their chastening, something that would bring them blessing, and not cursing:

“Consider now from this day and upward…even from the day that the foundation of the LORD’s temple was laid, consider it.

“Is the seed yet in the barn? yea, as yet the vine, and the fig tree, and the pomegranate, and the olive tree, hath not brought forth: from this day will I bless you” (Hag. 2:18,19).

There was no fruit on their trees, or seed in their barns, because they had sowed much but taken in little the year before, as we’ve seen. Their crops had yielded barely enough to eat (1:6), with nothing left over to store in the barn to plant the following year. And with no seed to plant, the prognosis for that year’s crop was looking grim.

But here the prophet is calling on the people of Israel to “consider” their chastening for a different reason. Earlier it was to get them to repent by pointing out that God had been faithful to His promise to chasten them if they were disobedient. Here it was to get them to consider that God will now be just as faithful to His promise to bless them, now that they’d repented. That’s why verse 19 ends with a promise of blessing.

This is similar to what the prophet Daniel did after his personal Bible study in the Book of Jeremiah made him realize that Israel’s 70 years in captivity were ending (Dan. 9:1,2). He remembered that God promised if His people confessed their sins after He scattered them among the heathen (Lev. 26:33), He would remember His covenant and forgive them (v. 40-42). So Daniel got busy confessing the sins of his people (v. 3-10), admitting that their sins had caused God to judge them (v. 11), and likewise admitting that in judging them, God was just confirming the covenant He had made with them (v. 12,13). He added that God had been “righteous” to do so (v. 14), for they deserved His judgment (v. 15). Then he wrote,

“O Lord, according to all Thy righteousness…let Thine anger and Thy fury be turned away from Thy city Jerusalem…” (v. 16).

In other words, Daniel was calling on God to be just as righteous, just as faithful to His covenant, to bless His people now that they had repented as He had been when He cursed them when they disobeyed, in accord with all His righteousness.

And that is what God was asking Israel to consider in Haggai’s day: that He would be just as faithful to bless them now that they had repented as He had been to judge them when they disobeyed.

Of course, if you tell a farmer with no seed in the barn to plant that he is going to have a blessed year, he will likely wonder if you’ve been playing football without a helmet. He knows the laws of nature can’t promise that. But Jewish farmers knew that the God of nature could promise that, for His law said He would bless them when they repented, and “with God nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37). And you don’t need a lawyer to tell you that!

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