Welcome to Bible Fiber where we are encountering the textures and shades of the prophetic tapestry in a year-long study of the twelve minor prophets, one prophet each month. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.
This week we are reading the prophet Haggai, the first prophet to break the divine silence after the exiles returned from Babylon. A century has passed since Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah first warned the people of Judah that divine punishment at the hands of the Babylonians was near certain. The prophets promised that a remnant would survive the exile, return, and rebuild. For Haggai, the remnant was not eschatological. The remnant was his audience. And good news: the remnant’s response to Haggai’s exhortation is refreshingly positive. The ears that went deaf to preexilic prophets are now actively keen to hear out the postexilic prophets.
In 586 BCE, the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem and destroyed Solomon’s Temple after a brutal protracted siege left the Jews weakened and starving, unable to defend their city walls against Nebuchadnezzar’s army. The Temple and palace were set aflame (Jer. 52:13). Thousands of Judah’s fighters, skilled workers, artisans, and royal court were deported to Babylon (2 Kings 24:16). Only the poor who survived were left in the land to eke out their existence in the ruins of their kingdom.
Babylon’s fall arrived as quickly as its rise. By 539 BCE, only fifty years after Jerusalem’s destruction, the Persian empire overran the Babylonians. King Cyrus of Persia had a refreshing philosophy concerning conquered peoples. He encouraged the Judeans living in Babylon to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their lost capital and Temple (Ezra 1:1-4; 2 Chron. 36:23). According to the Bible, 50,000 Jews in the Diaspora took Cyrus up on his generous offer, “everyone whose spirit God had stirred” (Ezra 1:5). Those who returned to the land of their covenant were zealous to fulfill the role of the remnant as foretold in the prophets. They understood that Cyrus’s decree was a result of God’s fidelity and a fulfillment of his promises.
The historical record in Ezra corresponds with the theme of Haggai’s prophecies. Only seven months after the first wave of Jewish exiles returned to the land, they enthusiastically erected an altar atop the ruins of Solomon’s Temple so they could properly celebrate Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. With only an altar, they were able to reinstitute the sacrificial system as “prescribed in the law of Moses” (Ezra 3:1-7). They brought back the priesthood and laid the foundations of the new Temple. Most of the people responded to these acts of renewal with enthusiastic shouts. However, older witnesses in the audience wept because they understood they did not have the means to build a Temple as beautiful as the one they had lost (Ezra 3:11-13).
Soon, the returnees faced opposition from the “people of the land,” presumably those groups who were deported to Judah in the intervening years between Assyria’s destruction of Israel and Babylon’s destruction of Judah. The “people of the land” saw the return of the Jews as a threat. They wrote a letter to King Darius accusing the Jews of illegally rebuilding the Temple with a plot to rebel against the Persian empire. The Judeans became demoralized by the intrusion and all their Temple work stopped (Ezra 4). Only once the decree of Cyrus was located in the royal archives were the Jews able to prove that their Temple work was sanctioned at the highest levels of the Persian courts (Ezra 6).
Haggai’s prophetic ministry dates precisely to 520 BCE, “the second year of Darius the king” (1:1). There is a sad note in this superscription as no other prophet before Haggai included the reign of a foreign king rather than Judah’s own king. Thus, the book opens with a reminder that even though the Jews have repatriated their own land, they still lack independence.
Haggai’s book consists of four self-contained oracles recorded over the course of four months. No prophet living before the exile used precise dating formulas with the month, day, and year, but it became customary practice for prophets during and after the exile. Ezekiel and Daniel, prophets in exile, used calendar dating in their oracles, as did Zechariah. They all show the same commitment to chronological precision which was clearly learned in exile. Historians compare the new prophetic dating style to the system found in the Babylonian Chronicles. The royal historians of Babylon and Persia consistently used exact dates for every event that impacted the throne. The prophets who survived the Babylonian exile were not immune to the traditions and practices of the larger community of Babylon.
Haggai’s four dates have been correlated with the Babylonian Chronicles and astronomical calendars so we know the exact dates of each of his oracles: August 29, September 21, October 17, and December 18. All took place in the year 520 BCE.
Haggai first shares “the word of the Lord” with Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, and with Joshua, the high priest (1:1). By speaking to the community through the political and religious leaders, Haggai is recognizing their legitimacy. Cyrus appointed Zerubbabel as governor over the small Persian province of Judah. His grandfather was Jehoiachin the last king of Judah before the Babylonian destruction. As a descendant of King David, Zerubbabel was a legitimate heir to the throne, but because they were living under Persian rule he held the lower title of governor and had limited authority (1 Chron. 3:19). Joshua was also an appropriate choice for high priest since he was in the line of Aaron. His grandfather, Seraiah, was high priest at the time of the Babylonian attack (Ezra 2:2). Haggai’s prioritization of Joshua and Zerubbabel demonstrates his recognition of their proper credentials as leaders.
Yahweh has one message to deliver to the people through Haggai, his prophetic megaphone. The returnees must rebuild his holy Temple. For sixteen years the Jewish community delayed the Temple’s reconstruction, at first because of the discouraging effect of the hostility of their Samaritan neighbors. But by the time Haggai ministered, they were procrastinating out of sheer complacency. Haggai sarcastically notes, “These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house” (1:2). To my mind, the modern equivalent of what Haggai is saying are Christians who justify laziness and lack of action by claiming God “closed a door” or has yet to “open a door.”
Apparently, while God’s house remained a heaping ruin, the remnant busily constructed their own homes. Yahweh asked, “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” (Hag. 1:4). Paneling was a luxury in antiquity available mostly for palaces or the Temple (1 Kings 6:9, 7:3). Perhaps the paneled houses referenced in Haggai belong only to Joshua and Zerubbabel, not to the regular people. If so, he is holding the leaders accountable and questioning their priorities. The greatest leader Israel ever had was King David, and his attitude towards God’s house was the opposite. King David wanted desperately to build the Temple. He lamented to Nathan the prophet that he felt guilty living in a “house of cedar” while the Ark of the Covenant languished in a tent (2 Sam. 7:1-11).
The average Judean likely did not have a luxurious home. Still, Haggai had a pointed challenge for all. How can they claim that it is not yet time to build God’s house, if they have built nice homes for themselves? Neglecting the building of the Temple was not just the fault of Judah’s leaders but it was a failure of the whole community. Their apathy about rebuilding the Temple was reflective of an apathy toward Yahweh in general.
Haggai addresses all the returnees when he chronicles their recent hardships. He says, “You have sown much and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes” (1:5-6). The people of Judah are struggling. Food, drink, and clothing are in short supply. And you are right to read our own 2022 resource scarcity and inflation into this sixth century BCE scenario. The economic meltdown of that time is not unlike what we are going through now, only we feel it at the pump while they felt it in the fields. Their money ran out so quickly, it felt as if they had holes in their purses.
Haggai explains that the drought and crop failure were part of Yahweh’s judgement on them. Though they had planted and labored, they did so in vain because God was withholding the rains and the produce. In their complacency, they had not connected their agricultural hardship to their neglect of the Temple. Haggai twice tells them, “Consider your ways” (1:5). He is reminding them to think about their actions in light of the covenant obligations. Since the time of Moses and the establishment of the terms of the covenant on Mount Gerizim, God promised that if the people stayed faithful and obedient to him, he would bless them with success of their crops and security on their borders (Deut. 27-28). If they failed to follow him and keep the commandments, God would turn the earth under their feet into iron (Deut. 28:23).
Although Haggai’s prophecies highlight the community’s failures, he gives them exact instructions for how to move forward and right their wrongs. Here, Haggai is a prophet for the builders. They are to “go up to the mountains” and “bring wood” to rebuild the Temple (1:7). Years earlier, when the exiles had enthusiastically returned from Babylon and laid the foundation for the Temple, they had purchased quality cedar from Lebanon (Ezra 3:7). That wood was evidently not enough because it was time to acquire more for the Temple’s scaffolding.
Ezra reports that the people used large stones and timber to rebuild the Temple (3:8). Presumably, enough stones were strewn about the Temple Mount from the destruction of Solomon’s Temple that the people could repurpose the stone. But Solomon’s scaffolding did not survive the fires of the Babylonian army. Interestingly, the prophet is telling them to gather local inexpensive wood for the rebuilding of the Temple. God is not making harsh demands on them during tough economic times. His house does not need to be ornate or built with the finest of timber. It merely needs to exist.
God “stirred up the spirit” (1:14) of Zerubbabel, Joshua, and the community so they began diligently acquiring the building materials. The phrase “stirring of the spirit” used in Haggai is the same wording used for what God did in the heart of Cyrus (2 Chron. 36:22). When God stirs the spirit, people are bursting with adrenaline to fulfill God’s purpose. Christians read about the rousing of spirits in God’s people and rightly see an early supernatural working of the same Holy Spirit who continues to stir our spirits today.
Haggai was the rare prophet privileged enough to witness the right response to the divine voice among his people. The preexilic prophets like Amos were spurned. The people in Amos’s day were unwilling to hear the harsh words of the prophets and accept them as the voice of God. In Haggai’s case, the people were eager to have a prophet among them once more.
One important question that lingers in the back of the mind when reading Haggai is more of a theological conundrum. Why is the prophet so insistent on building God a house? The preexilic prophets were far more concerned with moral and ethical obedience than ritual responsibilities. “Obedience over sacrifice” was their mantra. But Haggai is singularly focused on the rebuilding of the Temple. Why? Was he suspicious that if there was no temple God would leave the people?
Most people of the Ancient Near East built sanctuaries to their gods on the suspicion that if they placated the gods, the gods would protect and provide for the community. A Jewish believer had to be of two minds when it came to their sanctuary worship. Yahweh, their God, could not be contained in an earthly Temple or represented with carved objects. Even King Solomon, at the dedication of his beautiful Temple to Yahweh, prayed, “Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this house which I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27).
The superiority of faith in Yahweh is knowing that he does not require a house. However, building a sanctuary to Yahweh was their way of communicating their eagerness for him to dwell in their midst. In the wilderness period, God instructed Moses, “make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8). Refusing to build a sanctuary is equivalent to rejecting the divine indwelling. The remnant in Judah understood that Yahweh was still with them even without a finished sanctuary. But in God’s grace, he designed the community so that a sanctuary committed to him would be a symbol of their covenantal relationship. The Temple was not for God. The Temple was for the people. What was important to God was not the measure of the Temple’s wealth, but the spirit of the people’s desire for him to dwell among them.
Revelation tells us that the eschatological temple will far overshadow the temples of Solomon, Zerubbabel, or Herod. In the messianic age, the Lord and the Lamb are the Temple. The New Jerusalem will have no need of the sun or moon because the glory of God will give its light. As that light radiates out, “the nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it” (Rev. 21:24). That vision of God providing the glory and splendor for his own Temple is further fleshed out in Haggai 2. Join us next week as we close out Haggai.
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