The first Kislev 24 prophecy concerns the uncleanness of the covenant people and God's response.
It is important to remember what came before this. Approximately 42,000 Jews had just returned from the seventy-year-long Babylonian captivity. Haggai 1 concerns God stirring up the people to rebuild His destroyed Temple. Ezra's account shows that, after getting this kick-start from God in Haggai 1, Zerubbabel and Joshua did everything precisely as Moses had instructed. The priests were consecrated, an altar was constructed, and offerings were made, all according to God's specifications (see Ezra 3:2; 6:18).
In Haggai 2:16-17, the same primary complaint appears as in Haggai 1, and the same necessary reaction from God. The people were looking to their own affairs rather than to God and His will for them. In Haggai 1, they were more concerned about their houses than about the proper worship of God (verses 4, 9). In Haggai 2:17, God says that the people were not turning to Him.
In both cases, God crippled their productivity. They were putting forth the effort—there was no end of activity—but they produced little. God was cursing the work of their hands to get their attention. Their efforts to build were in vain since they did not have God and His will for them as their top priorities.
We see, then, a humbled people returning from captivity, a newly consecrated Levitical priesthood, a new altar, and the beginnings of a new Temple, yet God still declares the whole nation to be unclean. Because the people are unclean, all the works of their hands are also unclean, including the sacrifices and offerings.
The fact is, under the Old Covenant, there was no way to be spiritually cleansed. God provided instructions on how to be ritually clean, but the Old Covenant did not provide a means to remove sin from the people. The blood of bulls and goats, though required, could not take away sin (see Hebrews 9:11-22). They could only point to the future, perfect Sacrifice that could cleanse them of sin and prepare a people for their Savior (Galatians 3:19, 24). Thus, if they followed God's instructions, they could achieve a level of ritual cleanness or holiness (setting apart), but their sins could not be truly cleansed.
Through a series of questions that Haggai asks the priests, God points out that uncleanness is transferable, but holiness is not. Defilement or impurity can spread from an object to a person to another object, but purity and holiness cannot. Holiness is personal and individual.
This principle is especially interesting in light of what was happening at the time. The people and the leaders were finally in the process of building the Temple, the dwelling place of the Holy God. It contained many objects that were also holy, as well as the Most Holy Place. However, even the presence of God could not, by itself, make the people clean. To make them clean, it would take something more than just having the Temple nearby, with all of its holy objects and even the Shekinah—the glory of God.
This prophecy ends curiously. It does not contain a call to repentance, except perhaps by implication. God says that His people are unclean, that the presence of something holy cannot make them clean, and that they had not turned their hearts toward Him. Then He suddenly says that from this day forward, He would bless.
In most other places where God begins listing the transgressions of His people, He concludes with something that sounds a lot more like a curse than a blessing. Yet here, His blessing seems to be as a consequence of their sinful state. It is not a reward for their condition, but rather, His blessing will be a means to bring them out of it. His blessing is the solution to their wayward hearts and their general uncleanness.
David C. Grabbe
Cleansing God's People