Things Leaders Need to Know – Haggai 2:20-23

By: Northern Seminary

I was about twenty-seven when I was appointed pastor of a new church plant. Getting a church started from nothing is both exciting and terrifying. There’s no negative reputation to live down, no inconvenient systems to get in the way, no old buildings to maintain, no leadership feuds to sort out.

Sounds good? It is, except there is also:

  • No reputation at all so no one knows who you are.
  • No systems at all, so you have to organize every team, task force, or process from scratch.
  • No buildings at all, and carrying all you need into and out of a school hall every Sunday soon wears you down.
  • No leadership at all, so every job has to be filled whether or not you have suitable people.


That church plant was hard work and very challenging, and it was all too easy to get dispirited.

Then Sue spoke to me. Sue had become a family friend as well as a church member. She heard me talking about my frustrations, and then she said: “Alistair, we see God’s Spirit in you, and know that God has placed you here. That’s why we have you as leader, and that’s why we follow you.”

No one had ever said that to me before, and it was immensely encouraging.

It is a great privilege to be a leader of God’s work, but also very tough. The last few verses of the Book of Haggai point to the things leaders need to know to survive and thrive in God’s service.

Haggai 2:20-23

20 The word of the Lord came to Haggai a second time on the twenty-fourth day of the month: 21 “Tell Zerubbabel governor of Judah that I am going to shake the heavens and the earth. 22 I will overturn royal thrones and shatter the power of the foreign kingdoms. I will overthrow chariots and their drivers; horses and their riders will fall, each by the sword of his brother.

23 “‘On that day,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘I will take you, my servant Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will make you like my signet ring, for I have chosen you,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”

Three things make this prophecy unique in the book. First, it’s by far the shortest. Second, it’s the second prophecy of the day (December 18, 520 BC). Third, it’s addressed only to Zerubbabel (whereas others were to Zerubbabel and Joshua, or to them and all the people).

Zerubbabel was the civil leader, the “governor of Judah” (Haggai 1:1), under whose leadership the people held in exile came back to Jerusalem (Ezra 2:2). Interestingly, he is also listed in the New Testament as an ancestor of Jesus. Both Matthew (1:12-13) and Luke (3:27) name Zerubbabel as a forerunner of the Messiah.

On that day, when Haggai prophesied to Zerubbabel, the words must have been deeply encouraging and reassuring in that leader’s ears.

There are many things a leader of God’s work needs to know, and three of them stand out in these verses.

1. Leaders need to know God’s confidence in them.

When I was about fourteen, I was chosen to be a Patrol Leader in the Boy Scouts. Lots of other boys could have been selected. But it was me. I felt great.

When I was twenty I spent the whole summer doing mission on the east coast of Scotland. After a couple of weeks the leader said he was choosing a second in command from among the mission team, and to my amazement he picked me. I felt privileged.

When the person in charge puts their confidence in you, it affirms you and charges you with determination never to let your leader down.

Zerubbabel had God’s confidence. Early on he’s referred to by his title, ‘the governor’ (v. 21), but he’s more than that. A couple of sentences later God refers to him as ‘my servant’ (v. 23), and then Zerubbabel hears these words: “‘I have chosen you,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”

Out of all the people back from exile, Zerubbabel is God’s chosen servant. He is the one God will use. He will be the leader. It’s through him that God will work out his will among the people.

And if Zerubbabel needed any other signal of his importance in God’s plan, he got it in imagery very powerful in his day. “‘I will take you, my servant Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will make you like my signet ring’” (v. 23).

A king’s signet ring was his signature. Normally the king wore his signet ring at all times, so if an official order was sealed with that ring then that order had to have come from the king. The signet ring seal meant the order carried the king’s authority.[1]

“I will make you like my signet ring,” God tells Zerubbabel. He’s saying, ‘You will be invested with my authority. You will act for me. You will speak for me. You will lead for me. I give you my power and my authority, for I have chosen you to be my signet ring to these people.’

There could not have been a clearer or more certain endorsement from God of Zerubbabel, God’s servant.

All leaders of God’s work need to know God’s confidence in them.

Moses, Gideon, Isaiah, and Jeremiah began by doubting God could want them. “Lack of gifts.” “Lack of a good pedigree.” “Lack of a holy life.” “Lack of years.” They gave many reasons why they were not a good fit. But God had chosen them. He really was willing and able to use them, and they led and spoke for God with great power.

I have strong memories of learning to ride a bicycle, and even stronger memories of teaching my children to ride their bicycles.

  • It was important to have a bike the right size.
  • It was important to know how to push on the pedals, turn the handlebars and grip those brakes.
  • It was important to know the rules of the road and keep away from cars and trucks.


All these were important, but not any or all of these things ever enabled me or my children to ride a bike. The essential thing was to believe you could do it, hold your head up high, climb high in the saddle, and turn those wheels with confidence that the bike would stay upright, that you could point it in the direction to go, and you would get there.

A leader of God’s work needs that kind of confidence, and it comes from knowing you’re chosen by God and what you do for God is with his power and authority.

2. Leaders need to know God’s ownership of the work entrusted to them.

Almost every pastor faces a time when the church needs to take a course of action some members will strongly dislike. I’ve seen pastors face struggle with people over issues ranging from changing the worship style or changing the seats in the sanctuary.

The struggle happened for me when lots of new people came to church. That seems a strange problem, but a large influx of newcomers diminished some people’s sense of being a close fellowship. They didn’t like that, and they liked it even less when we began to investigate moving the church to a new and much larger building.

I had been their pastor for only two years. Many who didn’t like the changes had grown up in that church and supported it financially and with their work for decades. To them I probably seemed just another pastor who would be there for a few years and then move on. “Meanwhile,” I imagined them asking, “What’s he doing to our church?”

That question tortured me. ‘What are you doing to their church?’ I asked myself. Then it was as if God spoke. “It’s not their church. It’s my church.”

“It’s my church.” Not theirs, and of course not mine either. What was being done in that place for God’s kingdom was God’s business, and he would guard and guide that work to ensure his will was done.

I needed to know that deep down – that this was God’s business and no one else owned it or managed it – and then I was at peace.

Zerubbabel needed that message too. There were enemies of God’s people who did not want to see the temple rebuilt and Israel re-established in its homeland.[2] As well as enemies outside he had doubters and sceptics inside. They said things like, “We can’t do this – we don’t have the skills, the money, or the time. And it will never amount to anything important anyway.” Zerubbabel didn’t have far to look for obstacles or obstinate people. How could he get his work done?

Answer: By knowing it wasn’t his work but God’s work, and God made that very clear.

“I am going to shake the heavens and the earth.I will overturn royal thrones and shatter the power of the foreign kingdoms. I will overthrow chariots and their drivers; horses and their riders will fall, each by the sword of his brother.” (vs. 21-22)

There are three strong emphases in these words.

First, no force of nature, no human power, and no human government can stand against God. Heaven and earth will be shaken. Royal thrones and foreign kingdoms will fall.

Second, no weapons, no technology, no battle skill can defeat God. Chariots, horses, drivers and riders will all fall.

Third, God will make this happen. Again and again God says he will do this. “I am going to shake the heavens and the earth.I will overturn royal thrones…I will overthrow chariots and their drivers….” God speaks repeatedly of what he will do.

God is not merely interested in the lives and mission of his people, like a curious or even concerned bystander. He’s not just invested in the work, hoping for a return on what his people do. Rather, God is intrinsic to his work. He is at the heart of it, and actively engaged in every part of it.

Leaders who don’t know that God owns the work either get in God’s way, or, in their arrogance, try to take control. Both lead to disaster.

Leaders who do know that God owns the work have no reason to fear. They’re like a small duckling following a parent across a large lake. The duckling doesn’t know the way to go. The duckling doesn’t know where the next meal is coming from. The duckling has no idea how to deal with predators along the way. But Mama Duck does. Sure the little duckling still has to paddle hard, and must stay close to Mama Duck, but that duckling knows there is a loving parent who knows what to do and will make it happen.

Leadership takes Christians into places and situations others would never go. But we have a heavenly Father who already knows the way, provides for every need, takes care of every enemy, and will make sure we get to the right destination.

Leaders know God owns the work they are given to do.

3. Leaders need to know God’s assurance that their work will matter.

Three times in verses 21 and 22 God said “I will shake,” “I will overturn,” and “I will overthrow.”

Three times in verse 23 God signs off to Zerubbabel with deeply reassuring words. These are his promises: “…declares the Lord Almighty,” “…declares the Lord,” “…declares the Lord Almighty.”

It’s like a multi-millionaire writing a letter to his poor nephew, promising to fund the nephew’s education, and he signs off: “I have the funds and I will do this.” It couldn’t be clearer. He has given his word.

It couldn’t have been clearer for Zerubbabel:

God had not only told him he was his servant, but also his signet ring. He was God’s chosen one.

God had promised in stark terms to shake heaven and earth, overturn thrones and powers, the armies of enemies.

All that sealed with God’s word: “‘I have chosen you,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”

The outcome would not depend on Zerubbabel but on God. The conclusion was as good as the promise of God.

In the days ahead not all of it worked out in the way Zerubbabel might have expected. One of the deepest challenges for any of us, and perhaps for leaders especially, is to realize we’re not the last chapter of God’s story in a particular place. Don’t all God’s promises get fulfilled with what we are doing? No, they probably don’t. There were people before us, and most likely there will be people after us. We are not the end of the story.

And there was much more after Zerubbabel. Generations followed him until one of his descendants was born in a stable in Bethlehem, brought the good news of God, and died and rose again to bring salvation and life to all who would trust in him.

Heaven and earth was certainly shaken then.

All other powers were thrown down then.

God’s ultimate signet ring, Jesus, came long after Zerubbabel and then all the glorious promises came true. Not everything God promises happens the way we think it should. But it does happen. The Lord Almighty declares it will.

The Book of Haggai is a strong warning and massive encouragement.

The warning: never relegate God or God’s work until a time of our convenience. Those who returned from exile to Jerusalem suffered years of hardship because they chose to be comfortable rather than make rebuilding the temple their priority. God would not be usurped.

The encouragement: God gave them the chance to put it all right. He didn’t reject or abandon them, and he promised to be with them in the work and provide all the resources they needed.

This record of Haggai’s prophecies ends with the work on the temple restarted and marvelous promises for what’s ahead ringing in the ears of their leader.

God has not given up on us either, imperfect though we are. He calls us to sort out priorities, and with his help and in his power, the greatest of days are not behind but right before us.


[1] Joseph was given Pharaoh’s signet ring when appointed to rule all Egypt as a sign that everything Joseph did carried the king’s authority. “Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt.’ Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger” (Gen. 41:41-42).

[2] Ezra 4 details the opposition very clearly.

July 15, 2014

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