The prophet Haggai had a vital role to play among the people who had settled in Jerusalem after their return from their exile in Babylon. The purpose of this post is to provide an historical and theological introduction to the message and ministry of Haggai and how his message motivated the people of Judah to begin rebuilding the temple that Solomon had built.
Nothing is known about Haggai’s family, his age when he was called to the prophetic ministry, his occupation, or his place of origin. Haggai appeared in Jerusalem, preaching a message to a discouraged people, challenging them to finish the task of rebuilding the temple, and then, four months later, he finished his work and he was never heard of again.
Haggai began his ministry in 520 BCE. Haggai’s name comes from the Hebrew word hag, a word that means “festival.” His name may indicate that Haggai was born on a feast day. It is possible that Haggai was a layperson, called into divine service for a few short months in order to motivate the community to rebuild the temple. It is also possible that Haggai was an old man who had actually seen the glory of the former temple before being taken away captive to Babylon.
Haggai is mentioned eleven times in the Old Testament. His name is mentioned nine times in the book that bears his name. He is also mentioned twice in the book of Ezra (Ezra 5:1; 6:14). Seven times Haggai is called “the prophet.” This title may indicate that the postexilic community accepted his authority as a messenger of Yahweh. The favorable response of the people to his message indicated their belief that Haggai was a true prophet of God.
Some of the people that heard Haggai’s message had memories of the painful ordeal they had endured during the Babylonian siege. During the sixth century BCE, Judah was conquered by the Neo-Babylonian empire. Thousands of people were forcibly removed from their homes and taken into exile in 597 BCE and 587 BCE by the army of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. King Jehoiachin was carried away into exile together with the Judean elite. Only the poorest people of the land were left behind.
When Cyrus, the Persian king, conquered Babylon in 539 BCE, he established a policy of repatriation of the conquered people. According to the book of Ezra, Cyrus allowed the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem at the empire’s expenses.
“Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of those among you who are of his people – may their God be with them! – are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel – he is the God who is in Jerusalem; and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:2–4).
Cyrus was apparently sensitive to the different religious cultures within the empire. He allowed the exiles to return to their homeland in 538 BCE. Cyrus not only granted freedom to the exiles, but he also ordered that the temple be rebuilt and that the temple vessels taken by Nebuchadnezzar be returned to Jerusalem. Cyrus also decreed that the expenses incurred in restoring Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the temple were to be taken from the royal treasury.
After Cyrus granted the people in exile permission to return to their countries, Sheshbazzar, “a prince of Judah” (Ezra 1:8) led the first group of Jews to return to Jerusalem in 538 BCE. Sheshbazzar appears in 1 Chronicles 3:18 as a son of Jehoiachin, the Judean king deported to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BCE.
According to Ezra (Ezra 1:8, 11), Cyrus allowed Sheshbazzar to return the temple vessels to Jerusalem. Upon arriving in Jerusalem, Sheshbazzar began the process of rebuilding by laying the foundation of the temple. In their second year in Jerusalem, the returnees laid the foundation for the new temple at the same site of Solomon’s temple: “Sheshbazzar came and laid the foundations of the house of God in Jerusalem; and from that time until now it has been under construction, and it is not yet finished” (Ezra 5:16).
Sheshbazzar was unable to finish the work because of the dire conditions of Judah the returnees encountered when they arrived in Jerusalem. Some of the problems the returnees encountered as they arrived in Jerusalem were the lack of financial resources, the failure of the Persian empire to provide the promised resources, and the harassment by some of the people of the land. These problems forced Sheshbazzar and the community to stop the rebuilding of the temple.
When the people arrived in Jerusalem, they were amazed at the devastation of the land. The land had been plagued by a continuous, severe drought. There was no money or food in the land and no means by which they could earn money or raise food. Survival was bleak and their lives in Babylon began to look better and better. Many people believed that when they arrived in Judah, the land, the wilderness, and the dry land would burst into flowers (Isaiah 35:1). Instead, the people found the desert encroaching on their fields and orchards as one year of drought followed another.
The economic condition of the people who had returned to Jerusalem was precarious. Most of the people who had returned from Babylon in 538 BCE were poor. With the fall of the nation and the exile of the population to Babylon, the wealth and riches of Jerusalem were gone. When the people arrived in Jerusalem, they were devastated by the poor economic conditions of those living in the city. The returnees were unable to continue rebuilding the temple; they had no money to contribute to the restoration the temple.
The second reason for stopping the rebuilding of the temple was the opposition the returnees encountered by the people who were living in the land. When the people of Israel were taken captives to Babylon, Jerusalem and the surrounding areas were not left completely vacant.
Only a small percentage of the population was taken into exile. Thus, when the people returned from Babylon, the people living in the land did not agree with the demands of the returnees. One issue that was a source of conflict was property claims.
The people who returned from Babylon wanted to reclaim land that had belonged to their families at the time of their exile. The current inhabitants, however, believed they were the legal owners of the land. The problem of property ownership caused some of those returning to be without land. They were, in essence, at home without a home.
The rebuilding of the temple lay dormant until the day when Haggai began his ministry in 520 BCE. Haggai begins his ministry by alluding to the apathy of the people about the temple. After more than fifteen years of poor economic conditions caused by the drought, the inhabitants of Jerusalem were poor, starving, and lost in a condition of hopelessness. The low morale of the people contributed to delaying the rebuilding of the temple. To them, it was inappropriate to spend time, money, and effort on rebuilding the temple. Instead, the people turned from rebuilding the temple to improving their own lives.
After Darius became king of the Persian empire in 520 BCE and the arrival of the second group of returnees, led by Zerubbabel and the high Priest Joshua, Haggai encouraged Zerubbabel to begin the process of rebuilding the temple once more, which proved to be the successful motivation that led to completion of rebuilding the temple.
When Haggai began his prophetic ministry in 520 BCE, Zerubbabel was the governor of the province of Judah and Joshua was the high priest. The people, however, insisted that they could not rebuild the temple because of their economic hardships and because of the opposition of the inhabitants of the land.
Haggai, however, did not accept the people’s reasoning as a valid excuse for not rebuilding the temple. Haggai’s message dismissed their excuses as a pretext to conceal their concern for themselves and not for the house of God.
Haggai said to the people, “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now therefore thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider how you have fared. 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” (Haggai 1:4–6).
“ Consider how you have fared.” Haggai told the people that it was time to change their attitude and focus their attention on rebuilding the temple. The people considered the words of Yahweh in the mouth of Haggai. They committed themselves to begin the rebuilding of the temple of their God.
NEXT: Our next study will focus on Haggai’s message: “The Message of Haggai.”
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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