Saturday, December 02, 2023

Mining the Minors: Haggai (1)

Around 606 BC, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon besieged Jerusalem and carried off its king, some of the vessels from the temple, and the cream of the Judean nobility to be educated and serve his empire. Thus began the second Israelite diaspora, the first coming over a century earlier when the king of Assyria conquered Samaria and dispersed the people of the northern kingdom across his own empire. Nebuchadnezzar returned at least twice more, finally destroying Jerusalem and its temple in 586 BC and carrying off the vast majority of Judeans to Babylon and beyond.

Jeremiah and many other prophets we have studied in this series foretold this, and the power and judgment of God were behind it. The last chapter of Chronicles tells us Nebuchadnezzar fulfilled the word of the Lord “until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths”, to fulfill Jeremiah’s seventy years.

Sir Robert Anderson fixes the point at which the seventy years began in 589 BC, when Nebuchadnezzar invaded for the third time, from which he counts forward seventy Jewish years of 360 days (25,200 in total) only to find himself in the prophecy of Haggai, our latest study. Anderson notes it was precisely seventy years from the loss of Judean sovereignty to the date the foundation was laid for the second temple in Jerusalem, which may explain why Haggai is so specific with his dates — it turns out they matter.

Overview of Haggai


Haggai is the first post-exilic prophet and the tenth of the twelve Minor Prophets. The dates of his prophecies are among the most well-established in all of scripture. Four of the five messages reference the reign of Darius the Great, which history tells us began in 522 BC and ended in 486 BC, and the only undated word from God in Haggai falls somewhere in a twenty-four day window between the first two dated prophecies. Accordingly, we can pin down Haggai’s first prophecy to September of 520 BC on the Western calendar and the last to December 17 of the same year.

The book of Ezra details the historical events that gave rise to Haggai’s prophecy. In the first year of his reign, Cyrus king of Persia released the first group of approximately 42,000 Judean exiles to return to Jerusalem under the guidance of the governor Zerubbabel, grandson of Jeconiah, the second-last king of Judah, and Jeshua (in Haggai, Joshua) the priest. Cyrus commissioned the exiles to rebuild the temple of the Lord destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar.

Ezra describes how the returned exiles built an altar on the former temple site, kept the Feast of Booths and offered burnt offerings regularly. They contracted with the Sidonians to bring in cedars from Lebanon, laid a foundation and celebrated, but went no further. Ezra 4 and 5 document what stopped them. The Gentiles who had made the land their home over the last forty years or so discouraged the newly returned Judeans and made them fear for their safety, which is understandable considering the walls of Jerusalem torn down by Nebuchadnezzar had yet to be rebuilt. Ezra also notes the prophetic ministry of Haggai and Zechariah at the beginning of chapter 5, and how the belief that God was now with them inspired Zerubbabel and Joshua to recommence building the temple.

The date assigned to the commencement of Cyrus’s reign is disputed. Some secular historians place it in 559 BC and some in 538 BC. Anderson goes with 536. This has no effect on the computation of the termination point of Jeremiah’s seventy years, as that is tied quite precisely to the reign of Darius, not Cyrus, but it does factor into determining how long Israel idled and the temple site sat barren after their return to the land. Anderson has it at seventeen years, some secular historians considerably longer. We must keep in mind that secular history is always a work in progress.

Concerning that delay, Anderson writes:

“Here is something to set both critics and Christians thinking. A decree of a Persian king was deemed to be divine, and any attempt to thwart it was usually met by prompt and drastic punishment; and yet the decree directing the rebuilding of the Temple, issued by King Cyrus in the zenith of his power, was thwarted for seventeen years by petty local governors. How was this? The explanation is that until the very last day of the seventy years of “the Desolations” had expired, God would not permit one stone to be laid upon another on Mount Moriah.”

It also explains the apparent urgency of Haggai’s message and the alacrity of its response. Israel didn’t know it, but they were working to a deadline.

The Prophet Haggai

Little is known about Haggai other than that he was a prophet and the presumed author of his book. On the basis of the fact that he is referred to in the third person throughout, some commentators believe he prophesied verbally and another wrote it down, but that argument holds no water at all. Moses is presumed to have written most of the Pentateuch, which refers to him in the third person throughout, and Samuel presumed to have written significant portions of the book that bears his name, which also refers to him in the third person. Ezra mentions Haggai twice, commenting that his ministry and Zechariah’s were the impetus that kept Judah working (and prospering) until the temple was finished.

Theme and Purpose

The primary theme of Haggai is to get your priorities in order. Whenever God’s people put the glory of God ahead of their own needs, he can be counted on to attend to theirs. It’s sort of a “seek first the kingdom of God” message long before the Lord Jesus ever preached his sermon on the mount, and it resonates with Christians more than many of the Minor Prophets’ messages precisely because we are so inclined to do the same. The same concept reappears in the letter to the church at Ephesus in Revelation: “Repent and do the works you did at first.”

There are also minor subthemes as noted below, and several references usually taken to be Messianic.

Structure of Haggai

The book consists of five messages from God through his prophet delivered over slightly less than four months, punctuated by a record of the people’s responses to the Lord’s word.

  • Message #1: Get your priorities in order (1:1-11)
  • -- the people respond (1:12-15) --

  • Message #2: I am with you (1:13)
  • Message #3: The temple will be glorious (2:1-9)
  • Message #4: Defilement and blessing (2:10-19)
  • Message #5: The signet ring (2:20-23)

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