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Introduction to the Book of Haggai

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Haggai the prophet

The name “Haggai” means "festal". It has been suggested that he may have been born on some outstanding feast day. He was probably born during the captivity in Babylon and returned to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel after 539 BC. Otherwise, nothing is known about him. He possibly remembered Solomon's temple (2:3), if so, he would a very old man when he prophesied.

Haggai is the first of the post-exilic prophets, who spoke God's message to the returned exiles in Judah and Jerusalem after the restoration. His contemporary was Zechariah, whose prophetic word was complementary to Haggai.

Dates of his messages

Haggai has carefully dated his work. His four messages were all given in 520 BC, the second year of Darius. Each of the messages came at a significant time in the Jewish calendar, and the message would fit the day.

1st message (1:2-11) 1st Elul (Aug-Sept) Feast of New Moon
2nd message (2:1-9) 21st Tishri (Sept-Oct) Last day of Feast of Tabernacles
3rd & 4th message (2:10-19 & 20-23) 24th Chislev (Dec-Jan) Rains could be expected to water the new crops they would have just planted

Historical background to Haggai and Zechariah

We can divide the history of God's people in relation to the captivity into three periods, determined by the world power at the time:
1) Assyrian period - brought about the fall of Samaria
2) Babylonian period - brought about the fall of Jerusalem
3) Medo-Persian period - saw the return of the exiles to Judah, the time of Haggai and Zechariah.

Chronology

586 The fall and destruction of Jerusalem, seen as the death of the nation and a foreshadow of the final judgement.
Things could never be the same again. The nation was truly dead (Ezek 37:11).
But God had promised restoration (Ezek 37:12ff).
562 Death of Nebuchadnezzar, decline of Babylon, no stable government
556 Nabonidus seized throne in Babylon
552 Nabonidus withdrew into Arabia, leaving Belshazzar his son to rule.
Cyrus, prince of Anshan, became ruler of Persia, Media, Asia Minor, Parthia and Afghanistan.
550 Cyrus conquered Media, Armenia and Cappadocia
547 Cyrus moved west, conquering Asia Minor and came up against Greece, so moved east, conquering Parthia and Afghanistan, creating the largest ever world empire, only Babylon remained.
539 Jewish history started a new chapter when Cyrus captured Babylon. The last bastion of the Babylonian Empire had fallen and Cyrus' empire was complete. He saw the decline and defeat of Babylon as a judgement against Nabonidus for forsaking the Babylonian god Marduk

Ezra 1:1-4:5 describes this period from the Jewish point of view:
Cyrus decreed that the Jews could return to Judah if they wished (many didn't), with royal authorization to rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:2). According to Ezra, Cyrus claimed that the Lord, the God of heaven has given him all the kingdoms of the earth and he has charged him to build him a house in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:2). The Cyrus Cylinder, in the British Museum, records that Cyrus rebuilt temples in Babylon and restored gods to their places. His prayer, "May all the gods who I have placed in their sanctuaries address a daily prayer in my favour" - shows his syncretistic outlook. He was counting on the help of all gods, including Yahweh.

Cyrus had returned all the images collected by Nabonidus and Neb to their own shrines. As there was no image of Yahweh, the vessels taken by Neb were returned to Jerusalem. 50,000 returned with the vessels which Nebuchadnezzar had taken in 536 BC. Ezra ch 2 gives a long list of returning exiles.

The altar was set up within the ruins of the temple and the sacrifices started (Ezra 3:1-6). There was an official grant of timber from Cyrus to start the project (Ezra 3:7). A celebration and thanksgiving was held to mark the start of the rebuilding programme (Ezra 3:8-13).

However progress was short lived. The local people tried to join in, wanting to help in the restoration work, probably to control local political issues and for power grabbing reasons. These were people who had settled in the land during the exile, a mixed race population moved in from other nations, who had intermarried with the remnant left in Judah. Zerubbabel and Joshua refused to work with them - danger of compromise. This became the bed of hostility lasting for centuries between the Jews and the Samaritans. This caused the work to grind to a halt (Ezra 4:1-5, 24). Work on the temple stopped until 520 BC.

There would have been high hopes at the prospect of return and restoration of the community in Jerusalem and restoration of the covenant relationship with God - partly due to the inspiration of the prophets such as Ezekiel. Despair and disillusionment struck the returning Jews when the ruins of Jerusalem were first seen. We need to remember that most of the exiles were taken in 597 BC, ten years before the destruction. Very little of the city was left intact. It was just a pile of rubble, with enemies wandering in and out of the city through the ruins of the walls.

Returning exiles were certainly not wealthy, as the affluent people stayed in Babylon. secure, content and settled. Very little money was available to rebuild the city. The returning exiles had a difficult existence in a ruined city open to enemy attack and raids. The first concern would be new houses for shelter for families, less time and effort available for work on temple and walls.

There was therefore a great need for inspired leadership to lead the spiritual renewal. Haggai and Zechariah were called to this difficult task in 520 BC. Haggai brought encouragement to build new temple - the physical reconstruction. Zechariah brought a greater spiritual dimension of rebuilding the hopes of the nation and stimulating Messianic hope.

530 Cyrus was killed in battle against tribes North East of Persia. He had established an efficient communication structure and effective control through his officials (satraps). He was known for his unusual liberality as a ruler. Herodotus wrote this:
"The Persians considered Cyrus to be a father to his people because in the kindness of his heart he was always occupied with plans for their well-being".

529 His son, Cambyses, was a tyrant, fearful of any threat to the throne. He assassinated his popular brother. He conquered Egypt, adding it to the Persian empire. His armies passing through Israel would have caused much poverty by their looting and damage. Perhaps the poverty described by Haggai was caused by the armies of Cambyses (Hag 1:6,9, 2:16).

522 When Cambyses heard that an usurper (Smerdis) pretending to be his brother had seized the throne, he committed suicide. This caused rebellions throughout the empire.

522 Darius, son of the governor of Susa, claimed the throne, killing the usurper, and defeating the rebel factions. This was a time of weakness and instability in Persia, which would have sparked off Messianic hopes and hopes of judgements on the nations. If the Messiah was about to appear, the temple must be ready for him. Therefore, urgency for prophetic message to get temple built.

520 Rebuilding commenced. This was challenged by the Persian governors, who wrote to Darius, who found Cyrus' approval of the project in the court records (Ezra 5:6-6:12). Darius stopped interference and ordered that material help must be given to the Jews. This suggests that Darius had no suspicion of any potential Jewish rebellion.

516 Temple reconstruction was completed without further interference.

In later years there was a clash with Greece and oppression of Jews by Persian governors based in Samaria through high taxes. The Jews felt helpless, so hope for future faded, and the low morale led to moral and religious apathy, which was the situation addressed by the prophet Malachi.

The foundation of the temple had been laid by the returning exiles, but because of opposition during the reign of Cyrus, the work had stopped. Sixteen years later, during the reign of Darius I (522 - 486 BC), the work had still not progressed beyond the foundations. The influential members of the community were content to leave it incomplete while they concentrated on building their own fine houses.

Repeated crop failure had come as a warning that their complacency and tendency to blame past opposition for their lack of work on the temple was not acceptable to God. God sent Haggai and Zechariah to set them into action.
"Now the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them". (Ezra 5:1-2)

Through Haggai's prophecy, God called rulers and people to recommence their unfinished task.
"And the elders of the Jews built and prospered, through the prophesying of Haggai, the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. ... and this house was finished on the third day of the month of Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of Darius the king." (Ezra 6:14-15)

Haggai was one of the most successful of God's prophets, having the pleasure of seeing the fruits of his message before his eyes. His main message is about having the right priorities in life, that God must come first. Howver, Haggai was not concerned only about bricks and mortar, but also saw that the reconstruction of the temple was a link in God's chain of events, and that Zerubbabel, his prince, who was of the house of David, was a link in the Messianic line (Mt 1:12). Into the same temple, after it was remodelled by Herod the Great, the Lord Jesus walked, fulfilling Haggai’s prediction: "The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former" (Hag 2:9).


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