1In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month on the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak the high priest, saying, 2“Thus says the LORD Sabaoth: these people say, ‘this is not the time to rebuild the house of the LORD.’” 3Then the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, saying, 4“Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in paneled houses, while My house lies in ruins? 5Now, therefore, thus says the LORD Sabaoth: Consider your ways. 6You have sown much but harvested little; have eaten but are not sated. You have drunk but have not had enough; you are clothed but are not warm. And he who earns wages does so to put into a bag of holes. 7Thus says the LORD Sabaoth: Consider your ways. 8Go up to the hills, and bring wood and build this house, that I may take pleasure in it, and be glorified, says the LORD. 9You looked for much, but it came to little, and when you brought it home I blew it away. Why, declares the LORD Sabaoth? Because of My house that lies in ruins, while each is busy with his own house! 10Thus the heavens above you have withheld the dew and the land has withheld its produce. 11And I have called for a drought on the land, and the hills, and the grain, and the new wine, and the oil, and on the ground that produces, and on man and cattle, and on all their labors.
Editor’s Note: the exegetical commentaries I’m using for this text are as follows:
- Interpreting the Minor Prophets (Robert Chisholm)
- The Books of Haggai and Malachi (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), Pieter A. Verhoef
- Haggai (The New American Commentary: Haggai and Malachi), Richard A. Taylor (another Hebrew professor of mine)
- Micah-Malachi (Word Biblical Commentary), Ralph L. Smith
- The Ancient Christian Commentary: Vol. XIV, The Twelve Prophets, Gen. Ed. Thomas C. Oden
As Habakkuk had predicted, trouble was, indeed, coming upon Judah. Shortly after Habakkuk’s prophecy, the Chaldeans (Babylonians)—led by Nebuchadnezzar—invaded the land bent on conquest in 605 BC. The siege of Jerusalem was over by 587-586 BC, and the temple was destroyed. During this defeat, many of YHWH’s people were carried off into Babylon as slaves—among them Daniel and his three friends. The prophet Jeremiah had predicted that this would last for 70 years, and then they would return. This lined up with Habakkuk’s word that eventually YHWH would bring judgment upon the Chaldeans, and His own people would live by faith (and faithfulness). What happens next in history shows that the prophets of YHWH were right.
In the same night as Daniel’s prediction of the writing on the wall, the Babylonian empire came crashing down with the invasion of the Medo-Persians. The king Darius mentioned in Daniel 9 is not the same one mentioned in Haggai; the one in Daniel’s day predated Cyrus, and is lesser-known. Cyrus of Persia is the big dog in history following this point. He had established himself as the king of Persia by entering Babylon as victor, and eventually had written a memorandum (Ez 6.3-5)—that is, an oral decision of the king filed in the royal archives. This memorandum had provided that YHWH’s temple should be rebuilt as a place to present sacrifices, that costs were to be paid from the royal treasure, and that all the stuff taken by Nebuchadnezzar should be returned (Verhoef). Unfortunately, the Jewish response to Cyrus’ edict was disappointing. There was hostility from their neighbors (aristocratic people from Samaria), and eventually a spirit of procrastination had settled over the exiles (Chisholm). The temple DID finally get rebuilt by 515 BC.
Haggai’s time comes sixteen years after the project had begun (Ezra 3.8-13; 5.16). Unlike many other works in the Old Testament, the messages in this one can be precisely dated due to Haggai’s mention of corroborative dates. This book contains four main messages, each of which can be dated to 520 BC:
- 1-11: 29 Aug 520—this message emphasizes agricultural matters
- 1-9: 17 Oct 520—this message emphasizes God’s presence with His people
- 10-19: 18 Dec 520—this message continues an emphasis of God’s presence with His people
- 20-23: 18 Dec 520—this message emphasizes eschatological realities on a universal scale
There are two individuals singled out as the recipients of Haggai’s work: Zerubbabel was a political authority and Joshua was a religious one. This latter name was a direct descendant of Aaron the priest (1 Chr 6.14-15). The distinct eschatological flavor to Haggai (which will show up a bit later) is enhanced by this motif: after all, the book of Revelation will divide the Great Tribulation between a political authority (Antichrist) and a religious one (false prophet). In that day, apparently, there will be a perversion of YHWH’s holy program….a sort of “evil” version of Zerubbabel and Joshua. The phrase “by the hand of Haggai the prophet” appears twice, and emphasizes the formula of revelation. YHWH is speaking, and does so here through a prophet. This entire work is extremely centered from YHWH’s perspective because of this. Another phrase that makes repeat appearances is “Lord Sabaoth” (4x). The Hebrew is יְהוָ֥ה צְבָאֹ֖ות, and the explicit imagery here is military. This is the edict of the commander of the armies of the Lord God Almighty (“the Lord of Hosts”) speaking here, and forms a powerful contrast with the carrying on of Cyrus’ edict. What they saw as the word of the emperor pales in comparison with the fact that the entire project was actually the word of the Almighty Himself. The central problem here is that YHWH’s people didn’t prioritize YHWH’s house, and thus didn’t prioritize YHWH’s worship. Their excuse was that the time for building was inconvenient to them (2). This was a major problem, for “a people who acted and argued in this manner could not be designated as ‘My people.’ They had disregarded the attitude of their ancestor Abraham who believed the Lord, and they had forgotten God’s word through Isaiah: ‘if you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all’ (7.9)” (Verhoef). They had become a people of sight, not faith. Now you can see how Habakkuk’s word is still hanging powerfully over them. Their inattentiveness to YHWH’s house was palpable: their own houses were empaneled and beautiful, while His lay in ruins (4). YHWH’s response to their lack of faith (also known as unfaithfulness) is sketched in the text: an acknowledgement of the inverted priorities of the people (1.4), the unsuccessful efforts of the people (1.5-6), and the necessity of obedience (1.7-11). Verse 8 is a threefold command to them: go up to the mountains, get timber, and rebuild My house. The consequences of failing to trust YHWH in the program that He has given them is that they are in violation of the original covenant that He’d made with them. This is why there is drought (חֹ֜רֶב) and blight and failure. It is why they sow and don’t reap, why they work and are still broke. It is not because YHWH is “inflicting” it on them, but because these things are the natural consequences of violating the covenant (Dt. 28.1-14). Their agricultural and economic success had always been contingent upon the covenant relationship with YHWH. If He’s sovereign, there are consequences to ignoring that relationship.
Some have considered Haggai’s work as of lesser importance because he seems so preoccupied with the rebuilding of YHWH’s temple. But such people underestimate how significant the concept of physicality was (and is) to YHWH in His definition of worship. The theology of Haggai is grounded in his understanding of the covenant relationship that YHWH’s people had with their God. Part of that covenant was the significance of their corporeal worship in YHWH’s house. Thus, Haggai’s focus is quite appropriate, and those who are dismissive of the significance of the building of a physical place of worship are actually demonstrating the exact problem for which YHWH’s people are here being calle out. His command to them to rebuild is coupled with a divine rationale: “that I may take pleasure in it, and be glorified” (8).
How relevant this is for us today! God has given us a divine command: to rebuild the institution of the local church as a community of faith situated in a broader community of people we’re called to love. For too long, God’s people have ignored this command, seeing it as unnecessary to their spiritual growth. For too long, God’s people have prioritized the personalized, individualistic “what is God saying to me” aspect of evangelicalism over His divine decree to live by faithfulness. We learned last year that it is impossible to be faithful to God apart from being faithful to the local church (1 John). The reason that the church fell into disrepair is that the physical, corporeal place of worship stopped being a “thing” with God’s people. What they could “get” from listening to or watching celebrity ministers was more important. But just like in 520 BC, God has a plan for the community in which the local church sits. He intends for His name to be glorified in that community, and He intends to specifically do that through the institution of the local church. So a refusal to “get on board” with that program is actually a refusal to prioritize what God wants ahead of what we want. Like the faith community in 520 BC, many local churches today wrestle with how to revitalize. In order to shift our priorities from “me” to “we,” such communities must wrestle with this problem. We must break patterns of the past and turn to God with urgent sincerity. If not, all of our endeavors and efforts are caught in a web of diminishing returns, just like those described in the first message of Haggai.
Do you value the local church as much as God? Do you value the program that He has for the community around you? The first challenge of Haggai the prophet is that we get our priorities straight. What God is doing, He’s not just doing in the personal lives of disconnected people. He’s doing it locally, physically, powerfully, habitually. Are you on board with this?