Of Signet Rings and Coming Kings

"The word of the LORD came a second time to Haggai on the twenty-fourth day of the month, 'Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying, I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, and to overthrow the throne of kingdoms. I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders. And the horses and their riders shall go down, every one by the sword of his brother. On that day, declares the LORD of hosts, I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, the son of Shealtiel, declares the LORD, and make you like a signet ring, for I have chosen you, declares the LORD of hosts.'” (Haggai 2:20–23)

Christmas should be a time of both remembrance and anticipation. We look back to the appearance of the eternal Son of God and his birth in Bethlehem of Judea so long ago. We remember his lowly and humble beginnings, his residence in rags surrounded by flocks with shepherds to attend him. We wonder at the love of God the Son, incarnate as a human baby for us, to dwell with us. But Christmas should not solely be a time of looking backward. It should also be a time of looking to the future.

Haggai's Prophecy

Haggai’s final prophecy is not one normally associated with the birth of Christ. The post-exilic Judean community was in the midst of the back-breaking work of rebuilding the temple of the Lord. They would have been much more concerned with the construction project, as well as their own security with the ongoing reality of living in a city whose walls had been torn down. Yet in these dark early days of the Persian Empire hope shone down like starlight on this remnant of God’s people through Haggai’s last recorded prophecy.

Based on the time formula in Haggai 2:20 and its correspondence with Persian chronologies, a date of December 18th, 519 B.C. can be assigned to this final oracle. One week before Christmas! Of course, the birth of Christ had not yet occurred, and it is unlikely that snow was falling on the hills of Jerusalem when the word of the Lord came to Haggai. The timing of the prophetic word, situated close to our modern celebration of Christmas, is not what makes this a Christmas passage. It is the content of the prophetic word. The prophet Haggai had already foreseen eschatological earthquakes in store for the kingdoms of the world whereby God would bring glory to his people and their land once again (Hag 2:6-7). But now the Lord promised that when this judgment came, he would at that time raise up the descendant of David, his chosen king.

The Signet Ring

Haggai’s message was directed toward Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah in this early post-exilic period and heir by blood to the promises of enduring kingship made to David (2 Sam 7:12–16; Matt 1:12). God promised to take Zerubbabel and make him like a signet ring. In the ancient world, the signet ring was a symbol of the power and authority of the ruler who wore it. The signet bore the inscription or insignia of the king, and its impression in clay carried with it the full authority of the ruler and the power of his office.

Interestingly here, as the signet is the symbol of the authority of the ruler, Zerubbabel is a symbol of a greater ruler who would come from his line. This seed of David would come through Zerubbabel, whose name means “seed of Babylon,” a demonstration that God had not abandoned his people during the exile but was indeed preserving his covenantal promises to Israel and David in spite of their sin.

The point of this oracle was to encourage Zerubbabel that the Babylonian exile had not invalidated God’s promises to Israel. They were still in effect. God was going to bring forth a ruler from the line of David and establish him as his representative, his signet ring, on the earth. He would collapse the power of the nations and solidify power in the person of the Messiah, the anointed king, the chosen servant of the Lord (Isa 42:1). This was the messianic expectation at the time of Christ’s arrival on earth in Bethlehem.

O Come Immanuel

For followers of Jesus the Messiah today, this is still our expectation. That our Savior and King, Jesus, will return to judge the nations of the earth, shatter their power, and rule them with a rod of iron (Psalm 2:9; Rev 2:26–27). We live in the age between the advents. Haggai’s message reminds us that God is not only sovereign over creation but intimately involved and concerned with the course of human history. Just as he has directed all events toward the coming of Christ in Bethlehem so long ago, he continues to direct all modern events toward the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven to set up his everlasting kingdom and give enduring joy to the world.

This Christmas we can reflect on both advents of Christ, both testified to in Scripture, the one past from our present moment, the other yet future. We await with great anticipation the messianic Signet Ring, the Chosen One, the Son of God to return to our earthy realm in power and great glory. Christmas is for both advents.

JJ Routley

Jonathan J. Routley (JJ) serves as Professor of Bible and Theology at Emmaus Bible College in Dubuque, Iowa. JJ also serves on the Board of Directors for the Associates for Biblical Research (ABR). He holds a PhD in Theological Studies from Columbia International University, South Carolina. JJ and his family reside in Dubuque, Iowa.
Blog: jjroutley.wordpress.com
Twitter: @JJ_Routley
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