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.
I – 1:1-11 -- Command to Build the Temple
- August 29, 520 BCE
- Oracle came through Haggai for Zerubbabel (governor) and Joshua (high priest)
- People say the time has not come for the Lord's house to be built
- Message to the people
- Nation's priorities are wrong
- The people live in paneled houses; the Lord's house is in ruins
- The people work hard, but don't get commensurate results
- Their best efforts have not produced prosperity
- They have experienced God's curses, not his blessings
- Positive action is required
- Turn their attention to God's house, not their own
- God will delight in it and be honored by it
- People had had great expectations, but little had come of them
- God's hand had thwarted their efforts
- Economic catastrophe is the price for unfaithfulness
II – 1:12-15 -- The People's Positive Response
September 21, 520 BCE
- Zerubbabel and Joshua hearkened to the prophecy
- They had spent last three weeks planning and organizing the work
- The remnant obeyed the voice of the Lord as spoken through Haggai
- Original temple took seven years, relied on forced labor, high taxation
- This temple will be built by volunteers
- People volunteered in spirit of obedience to God
- Believed in the prophet's word
- No mention of payment of any kind
- People "feared in the Lord"
- Giving God his due; putting God first
- Getting right again with priorities
- Divine Oracle
- The Lord spoke through Haggai
- Pledged to be with them
- God had "stirred their spirits" – indicating renewed energy, vision
- People had a complete change of heart; they wanted to do this
- Haggai transmitted his enthusiasm, vision to the leaders
- They, in turn, transmitted it to the people
- And all came to work on the house of the Lord
III – 2:1-9 -- The Promised Glory of God's New House
- Encouragement for Zerubbabel and Joshua
- October 17, 520 BCE
- (This would have been the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles. No doubt many people took the time to go check on the rebuilding of the temple. Those who remembered the old one were surely disappointed, not only by the slow progress, but also by the "lack of splendor.")
- Haggai acknowledged the grumbling, spoke words of encouragement
- Despite criticisms God was with them; they should go forward in joy and with courage
- God told them to "work" so he will supply ability to do it
- People were highly encouraged by his assurances
- The glory of God's house
- The Lord would cause a great "shaking"
- They should not fear since this would only benefit the temple
- (Might be a reference to the marching of the Persian army across their lands. Indeed, the Persians helped underwrite the rebuilding of the temple.)
- Wealth would flow into treasury
- The glory of this temple would far outweigh that of Solomon's
- Words intended to encourage a dispirited, economically depressed people
- And the final result will be peace
IV – 2:10-19 -- Blessings for the people
- People's past defilement
- December 18, 520 BCE
- Holiness is not contagious
- Example of holy meat touching unholy meat – doesn't make it holy
- Uncleanness is contagious
- Example of unclean meat touching holy meat – it all becomes unclean
- Analogy is not certain
- Possibly a rebuke against having non-Israelites help with temple
- More likely a reminder to people that working for God doesn't automatically make one holy
- Moral integrity has to accompany ritual integrity
- Future blessings
- Reminds people what life had been like before rebuilding process started
- Crops and supplies were always less than they expected
- These hardships were intended to have people turn back to God
- They kept trying on their own
- Finally God directed Haggai to speak to them on His behalf
- People listened to Haggai
- Because of their work on the temple, Haggai predicted a bumper harvest
- (Work on the temple had been going on for three months – would take over four years.)
- Haggai's reputation was on the line
V – 2:20-23 -- Message for Zerubbabel
December 18, 520 BCE
- God will overthrow Gentile nations (Again, this must be seen in the light of the Persian army approaching, heading through to Egypt. This was no doubt very frightening for everyone. Haggai reassured Zerubbabel and the people that God was in control and caring for them.)
- Zerubbabel will be given "signet ring"
- Signet ring was symbol of authority
- Davidic monarchy that had been interrupted during exile was restored
- Prophecy of messianic age implies that it will begin with Zerubbabel
The book that began on a sad note with an indictment of the people ends with an exclamation of promise and restoration. The Davidic monarchy was restored through Zerubbabel. Work on the temple was moving forward. Yet several of Haggai's final prophecies -- Zerubbabel would usher in the messianic age; God would overthrow the Gentile nations; and moneys would flow into the temple treasury -- did not come to pass as expected. Nonetheless, his message continued to speak to the people throughout the restoration period. Through him, God promised the people a great future, filled with blessings. (That future was just a little farther out than Haggai suggested.)
Craigie, Peter. "Twelve Prophets." Daily Study Bible Series. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1984
Gaebelein, Frank. "Haggai." Expositor's Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1985.
Mills, Watson and Richard Wilson. Mercer Commentary on the Bible. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1995.
Redditt, Paul. "Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi." The New Century Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1995.
Smith, Ralph. "Micah-Malachi." Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1984.
Stuhlmueller, Carroll. "Haggai & Zechariah." The New International Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1988.