Bible Overview is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in Bible study. Each month we feature a book of the Bible (in order) by Bible scholar and lecturer, Mary Jane Chaignot.
This month has three entries, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, whose writings complete the works of The Minor Prophets. It is generally assumed that these three were all post-exilic prophets. Their worldview was radically and forever altered by the events in 587 BCE, when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. It is possible that Haggai and Zechariah might have been alive at that time, though scholars cannot know that for certain. They both devoted their ministries to the rebuilding of the temple, to restoring proper worship, and to assuring the people of their unbroken relationship with God. Malachi, speaking another generation later, knew the rebuilt temple was not the final answer. The people still had a responsibility to conduct their lives in a manner consistent with their status of being God’s chosen people. And he tried hard to make that happen, all the while knowing that the Israelite community was still a “work in progress.” Thus it is that Malachi’s final words look forward – to the future, to the messenger who would be the forerunner of the Messiah yet to come. If you want to read some of the history previous to this selection, you can find the earlier books in our archives.
The Bible Time-Line is another quick reference for locating individuals or specific books. We encourage readers to share their Bible Study success stories on this site. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to be included on next month's site.
Haggai was written almost one hundred years after the book of Zephaniah, eighty after Habakkuk, and sixty after Jeremiah. In that period of time, the world of the biblical prophets completely changed. Zephaniah (along with many of the other prophets) had preached a message of doom and destruction. For the most part, their words had been ignored, but then all that they prophesied had happened, just as they had said. Haggai and his contemporaries lived in the aftermath of that disaster and devastation. The half-century since the fall of Jerusalem was, no doubt, one of the lowest times in all of Jewish history. The temple had been destroyed; the Davidic kingdom was a distant memory; the younger generation had only known life in Babylon.
The change took place in 587 BCE when the Babylonians conquered the city and desecrated the temple. Many people had already perished during the preceding three-year siege. After Jerusalem fell, the leaders and most of the population were taken to Babylon to live in exile. A handful managed to escape to foreign lands and lived there far from everyone else. The few who stayed behind were forced to eke out a living under very difficult circumstances and had neither the energy nor the resources to even think about rebuilding Jerusalem.
Then in 539 BCE, the international scene changed once again, when Persia -- under king Cyrus -- brought the Babylonian reign to an abrupt end. Cyrus issued a decree that not only ordered the rebuilding of the temple, but also allowed the Jews to return to Palestine. Those who preferred to remain in Babylon (and many did) were encouraged to make contributions to this cause. Ezra, for one, records how some responded enthusiastically to this decree and, in turn, they were given the gold and silver that had been taken from the temple to take back to Jerusalem. Under Shashbazzar (the official governor appointed by the Persians), some of the exiles did return and began laying the foundations of the temple. But the work was difficult and opposed by many of the neighboring nations. Sometime later, Zerubbabel took over the governorship. Scholars think Shashbazzar wasn’t getting that much done since most of the credit goes to Zerubbabel for what was accomplished during this period.
Ezra records some of the challenges the workers faced, including the fact that many of the older workers wept aloud. Maybe they were shedding tears of joy because things were finally returning to normal, but even under the best of circumstances they had to admit it was a very different “normal.” Jerusalem and the temple were mere shadows of their previous glory.
Those who did return had to literally start over in a strange land. It is thought that most of these would have been the poorer people who had nothing to lose by returning to Jerusalem. The struggle to survive was relentless year after year. Regardless of their initial enthusiasm, the building of the temple stalled and after eighteen years, the people’s efforts had waned. The history of these struggles provides the setting for Haggai’s ministry. On the first day of the sixth month in 520 BCE, Haggai began his work as God’s prophetic instrument. Scholars disagree whether he had come back to Jerusalem in that first wave of returnees, or whether he was one of those who had stayed behind. In either event, they agree he was probably an older man – at least seventy years of age by this time. He was the first prophet of the postexilic time. His entire book is devoted to one theme – the building of God’s house! This can only be understood in light of what the temple meant to him, and supposedly to all of them. It was God’s designated house, the place where God resided; it was the visible manifestation of God among them. The temple was the link between God and his people, the place where they came to sacrifice, to purify themselves, to make things right with God. It was the center of their religious lives.
But the realities of life were harsh. Most of the families that had stayed behind were struggling just to survive. That first wave of people who came back from Babylon had put a big strain on already limited resources. During the intervening years, they had experienced times of drought and problems with crops. This was only made worse by the Persians’ appetite for Egypt. In traipsing through Palestine on his way to acquiring Egypt, the king required the nations to provide food and supplies for his army. The people were close to the breaking point. Nonetheless, Haggai saw the bigger picture. He knew that as long as the temple lay dormant, so would the people’s faith. It wasn’t a matter of waiting until they felt better, had more time or more money; instead it was a matter of building God’s house first, of putting God first. Then the rest would fall into place. The problem is that when people are struggling to survive and truly don’t know where their next meal is coming from, their priorities may not involve setting everything aside to build a temple.
Yet, Haggai remained undaunted. His oracles were a call to action, intended to transform a dispirited people into a group committed to building a house for God. That the people responded was a testament to his effectiveness. Within four years of his prophetic work, the temple was completed.
The book is generally divided into five sections, each delineated by an exact date, spanning a period of four months. Scholars don’t know if Haggai passed away at the end of those four months, or whether his ministry ended because people were actively working on the temple. I – Command to Build the Temple 1:1-11; II – The People’s Positive Response 1:12-15; III – The Promised Glory of God’s New House 2:1-9; IV – Blessings for the people 2:10-19; V – Message for Zerubbabel 2:20-23.