I’ve just started leading a women’s Bible study at my church. The idea is that we are learning Bible study skills together as much as studying a given text. If you’re looking for a great book to explore and learn lots of skills through, I highly recommend Haggai.
In our pilot series we looked at 1 John, because it is short enough to look at the whole book, but complex enough to take several sessions. We took four sessions to go through it (once a month), and discovered that it’s a rather more challenging book than I had anticipated! We looked at some good principles, but I’m not sure we either learned the skills successfully or came away with a clearer understanding of what 1 John was trying to teach us. (One really helpful question we looked at, right at the end, was “What would we lose if 1 John wasn’t in the Bible?” That helped us focus on what the book uniquely says, which I think gave a freshness to the content.)
So, we had three months of the academic year left, and wanted to try a new book. I’m an Old Testament girl at heart, so wanted to go there, and the group had really appreciated having a complete book to look at as a whole (which warmed my heart!).
By the super-spiritual process of starting near the end of the OT and reading till I found something I thought looked short enough and promising, I settled on Haggai. I’m so glad I did.
In her fantastically helpful Women of the Word, Jen Wilkin recommends printing out the text of the book, double-spaced, with nice, wide margins. This is so you’re all looking at the same translation, you have plenty of space to mark up the text and make notes, and, importantly, you’re not tempted to run to the explanatory notes too quickly.
So we did that, read the text aloud together (taking a paragraph each, to try to keep the flow), then read it through individually, marking up anything we didn’t understand, repeated words and phrases, and anything that stood out.
Then we did our observation:
Me: What happened in this book?
Person 1: God was really mad with the people
P1: Because they weren’t rebuilding the temple
Me: Why did they need to rebuild it?
Me: So that’s something for us to look at. What else?
P2: He was upset with them for focussing on making nice homes for themselves before finishing his. So we need to remember to build God’s house before making our lives comfortable.
P3: What does it mean for us to build God’s house?
Me: Another great question to come back to.
P4: In 2:4-5 God keeps telling the people to be strong and not be afraid. What were they afraid of?
Ah-ha! Time to look at the context. We noticed it talked about King Darius – that name rang a bell, and someone identified him as being in Daniel. So that gave us a sense of where in the Old Testament story it took place, and we went to a Bible timeline I had prepared earlier. I’d made cards outlining some key figures and events, and together we figured out where they came along the timeline. We talked about the divided kingdom and the Babylonian exile, and the Medes and the Persians, and what happened to the northern kingdom, and generally got a better sense of the structure of the OT than I think any of us had had before.
I also told them that Haggai occurs at the same time as Ezra, and that we could find the answer to the ‘fear’ question there, so we looked at that.
That led to pondering why Haggai was written at all, and why it is so far from the rest of the story in the canon.
By that time our two hours were up, and we had to leave the questions in the air to come back to another time.
That next time was a month later. Again, we began by reading the text through together and making a note of anything that stood out.
This time someone asked, “Why does 2:22 say, ‘[I am about] to overthrow the throne of kingdoms’, not the thrones of kingdoms? What happened next? Did God defeat all their enemies?” We decided that we’d look up what happened next for homework, but that it seemed as though perhaps it was a messianic prophecy. So then we looked at Zerubbabel. Who was he, and what had God chosen him for?
A quick name search took us to Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, and the prep I had done beforehand (looking at what the signet ring was all about) had led me to Jeremiah 22:24-30. After a confusing few minutes trying to disentangle the Coniah/Jeconiah/Jehoiakim/Jehoiachin names, we constructed a little family tree to work out what was going on.
That led us to a discussion of God’s promise to David that he would always have a descendant on Israel’s throne, and trying to imagine how it felt for Israel/Judah when Coniah was removed as God’s ‘signet ring’, and his line was cut off. This then helped us understand how significant it must have been for Zerubbabel when God made him his signet ring, and made it all make a lot more sense.
The third session showed us the importance of reading a passage in context. We’d noted 2:3 several times: “Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes?”
People had commented about how less than a month after telling the people to get to work on rebuilding the temple, God came back to them and said, “You’re not doing a very good job, are you?” Anyone who knew anything about Haggai was aware of this section and understood it as God being a bit disappointed in the people. Once we’d noticed the timeline, they felt it was even more unfair – the original temple took seven years to build; how could God be telling them off for doing a poor job only a month in?
But then we read on, and hearing what God said in the very next sentence, and remembering what he said to Zerubbabel at the end of the book, completely changed the tone we heard in God’s voice.
There was so much more we discovered – comparing the different writing style of the account in Ezra helped us identify Haggai as prophecy more than history, and to better understand its placement in the Bible (and to talk about how the canon is arranged); looking at why God was so keen for them to rebuild the temple gave us some great insights into what the temple was all about, and led us to a richer application than the one we had instinctively assumed; wondering why God exclusively referred to himself as the Lord of hosts throughout led to a brilliant insight from one of the participants who knew a bit about the tabernacle…
We could easily have spent another 2-hour session on it, and we all found it fascinating and so helpful. And perhaps the most exciting thing about it was that we barely touched any resources other than our brains and our Bibles (helped by the search function on the Bible app). A couple of quick glances at study Bible information to help us date it, and a Bible timeline I had found online that gave us a few more key dates, but that was about it. It really gave us confidence that God has given us what we need to be able to explore and understand his word, and to gain so much from it.
Part of this was to do with remembering to read the text with curiosity. We had all skimmed, many times, over the question, “Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory?” without ever pausing to wonder who was left among them who had seen that. We just read it as a rhetorical question and moved on. But once we started thinking about it as a book with a purpose, about real people, with real thoughts and feelings and histories, it opened it up so much more.
I loved leading the study so much, in fact, and found it so helpful, that I’m developing it into a structure that I can deliver to churches for women’s days/weekends or other groups that want to learn Bible study skills while also discovering one of the less familiar books of the Bible. If you’d like to know more, do get in touch.
This post first appeared on Think Theology.