After the second revelation that was given on the seventh day of Tabernacles, Haggai was given another word to convey to the people, beginning in Hag. 2:10,
10 On the twenty-fourth of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to Haggai the prophet, saying…
This prophecy came two months after Haggai’s second word (Hag. 2:1). This word was given to him on Kislev 24, which was in December of 520 B.C. Hag. 2:11 says,
11 Thus says the Lord of hosts, “Ask now the priests for a ruling.”
The priests were the custodians of the law and were charged with the responsibility for teaching and interpreting it, even as the prophets were called to apply it prophetically to national and personal situations. So the priests were asked for a legal ruling (or “legal opinion”) on the law of God before the prophet applied it.
The First Legal Question
The question is posed in Hag. 2:12,
12 “If a man carries holy meat in the fold of his garment, and touches bread with this fold, or cooked food, wine, oil, or any other food, will it become holy?” And the priests answered and said, “No.”
In other words, if a priest were carrying the meat of a sacrifice (which is “holy meat”), and if that meat were to touch other food, would the holiness of the holy meat sanctify the ordinary food? Can holiness be transmitted in this way? The answer is “No.”
This was a ruling based on the law in Lev. 22:4-6, where a priest who is ceremonially unclean (for example, if he has touched a dead body) is not allowed to offer the sacrifices. This legal ruling shows that an unclean priest cannot expect to be made holy by touching something holy. The law does not specifically say this, so the prophet asks for a ruling.
An extension of this principle may be applied to people who go to shrines or who touch objects that they consider to be “holy,” hoping the objects will transmit sanctification to them. This is not a valid method, according to the law. If anything, the unclean sinner would transmit his uncleanness to the “holy” object or shrine, as we are told in the second part of Haggai’s legal question below.
The Second Legal Question
The second question is similar in Hag. 2:13,
13 Then Haggai said, “If one who is unclean from a corpse touches any of these, will the latter become unclean?” And the priests answered and said, “It will become unclean.”
So we see that if an unclean priest touches any of these holy sacrifices, they are rendered unclean. This was why the law forbids unclean priests from ministering in the temple. Unclean priests cannot receive holiness by touching holy things, but instead, his defilement is transmitted to all that he touches.
Only if a close relative dies did the law permit a priest to defile himself by touching a dead body, and he was unclean for seven days. Lev. 21:1-3 says,
1 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them, “No one shall defile himself for a dead person among his people, 2 except for his relatives who are nearest to him, his mother and his father and his son and his daughter and his brother, 3 also for his virgin sister, who is near to him because she has had no husband; for her he may defile himself.
Only a “clean” or undefiled priest can handle the holy things of God and make sacrifices that are satisfactory to God. If he is defiled by touching a dead body, and yet tries to minister to the people, the entire worship is unclean.
Haggai’s immediate application of this legal ruling was to show that in all of the years during which the temple work had ceased (533-520 B.C.), there had been crop failures. The reason was because their priests were unclean, and the sacrifices being made on the makeshift altar during that time were actually unacceptable to God.
Hag. 2:14 says,
14 Then Haggai answered and said, “So is this people. And so is this nation before Me,” declares the Lord, “and so is every work of their hands; and what they offer there is unclean.”
This stressed the importance of finishing the temple. Without a proper sacrifice (utilizing clean priests), every work of their hands was unclean, regardless of their good intentions. Keep in mind that these were the few who had left Babylon to rebuild the kingdom and Jerusalem. If their works remained unclean, what might we say about the works of those who remained in Babylon?
The fact is that during times of divine judgment, and especially during the days of captivity, everything is in an unclean state, because it all falls short of the glory of God.
Even building the second temple itself did not really solve the problem. First, the temple was still subject to the dominion of the second beast (Persia). Second, the blood of bulls and goats can never remove sin (Heb. 10:4). Third, everyone, including every priest, was yet mortal. In that highest sense, they were all touching a dead body. No one is truly rendered “clean” until they stop touching a mortal body.
The main law dealing with this problem of death (mortality) is found in Leviticus 14 in the law of cleansing lepers. Leprosy is a slow death and thus represents mortality. It took two birds to cleanse lepers after being healed of leprosy. The first was killed, and the second was dipped in the blood of the first bird and then released into the open field. These two birds represent Christ in His two appearances on earth.
He came the first time to die, and when He comes the second time, his robe is dipped in blood (Rev. 19:13). Though we are justified by faith in His blood through His first work on the cross, we are not made immortal until His second coming, when the dead are raised and the living overcomers are changed (1 Cor. 15:51).
Only then will the priests (of the Melchizedek Order) be cleansed and given immortality, to make “offerings” in righteousness (Mal. 3:3).
Haggai does not directly address this deeper problem, but focuses on the more immediate problem of crop failures and its relationship to their temple project.