As I have opportunity to preach on Sunday mornings over the next couple of months, I hope to look at the four sermons given by the prophet Haggai. These sermons addressed a particular situation, but they are as relevant for us today as they were for those who first received them. They highlight the importance of establishing clear priorities and following through with them.
To appreciate Haggai’s message, we have to understand its historical background. Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, had destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in a series of three raids made in the late seventh and early sixteenth centuries BC, at which time he also carried the people of Judah away captive. The prophet Jeremiah had predicted that this captivity would last seventy years. When it was over, King Cyrus permitted more than forty-two thousand Jews to return to their homeland in 538 BC under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Joshua the high priest (Ezra 1:1–4). Two years later, they began rebuilding the temple but this work did not last long due to the interference of some of their neighbors who wanted to have a part in the work (Ezra 4:1–4, 24). For the next fourteen years, no more work was done on the temple, yet the people managed to build comfortable homes for themselves. They could have legitimately continued rebuilding the temple, but they really had no interest in doing so.
Into this situation, God sent the prophet Haggai. In his four sermons (one in chapter 1 and three in chapter 2), the Lord’s servant both reproved the people for their neglect of this important work and encourage them to take it up. Because of the poverty of the people, no one expected the rebuilt temple to have the physical beauty of Solomon’s, but that would be okay because their temple would have an even greater glory. It would be the temple to which the Messiah himself would go. In fact, in God’s providence they rebuilt the temple specifically in preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ.
Haggai delivered all four of his sermons within a four-month period. The Lord used them to move the people to do the work, which was completed four years later (Ezra 5:1–2; 6:15).
The Main Characters
Haggai’s first sermon introduced three men to us. These three men are the main characters of the story.
The first is the prophet himself. Haggai (חַגַּי), whose name means “festive” (probably indicating that he was born on a holiday), was the earliest of the three post-exilic prophets (Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi). We know nothing about his personal life, except that his name appears twice in the book of Ezra (5:1; 6:14), where we learn that he was a contemporary of Zechariah the prophet. Zechariah was probably his younger assistant. Some Old Testament scholars also conclude from Haggai 2:3 that Haggai may have seen Solomon’s temple before the Babylonians destroyed it in 586 BC. If so, this would mean that the prophet was quite old when he preached to the people of Judah.
Haggai himself tells us that he began his prophetic ministry on the first day of the sixth month (Elul) in the second year of the Persian king Darius. This gives us an exact date for his first message, viz., August 29, 520 BC. He chose this day on purpose. Being the first day of the month, i.e., the new moon, it was a day of celebration and special observances. The people were gathered together, which meant that the prophet could speak to all the people at once. This was important since this was the very first prophetic word given to them since their release from captivity.
Haggai described his message in verse 1 as the word of the LORD by Haggai the prophet. Note how he stated the whole truth of the inspiration of Scripture in just a few words. First, he affirmed the divine authorship of his message. It was not his message to the people, but the Lord’s. It originated with God and belonged to God. Further, its divine origin implies its absolute authority. But this is only part of the story. The message belonged to God, but that God did not speak it directly in the ears of each man. It didn’t come as a message in a bottle or even as an e-mail. Rather, the Lord chose to speak through human agents. Not everyone was permitted to speak in the name of the Lord — only the prophets who had been commissioned by God for this purpose. Throughout his book, Haggai reminded us repeatedly that he spoke for and in the name of God. Note how often he used phrases like “Thus saith the Lord” (1:2, 7, 13; 2:4, 6-9, 11, 14, 23), plus each of his four messages began with a clear statement of the fact that he spoke the word of the LORD (1:1; 2:1, 10, 20).
When Haggai spoke God’s word to the people, he began by addressing it to specific leaders — Zerubbabel and Joshua. These are the other two main characters.
Zerubbabel, who in other passages bears the Babylonian name Sheshbazzar, was a grandson of Jehoiachin, one of the last kings of Judah before the Babylonian captivity. The fact that Jehoiachin was such an evil man only demonstrates God’s sovereignty: he can cause a good plant to grow out of the foulest soil. In any case, Zerubbabel’s royal lineage entitled him to be recognized as the prince of Judah during the captivity, to be appointed governor of the exiles when Darius authorized their return, and to be an ancestor of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is, of course, the promised seed of David. Zerubbabel was a son of David, but Jesus Christ is the son of David.
We know less about Zerubbabel’s biological father. Several passages of Scripture say that his father was Salathiel or Shealtiel, Jehoiachin’s eldest son. However, I Chronicles 3:19 says that Pedaiah, Jehoiachin’s third son was his father. There are three ways to resolve this. First, it’s possible that Shealtiel may have adopted Zerubbabel after his biological father Pedaiah died. Second, Zerubbabel may have been his levirate son according to the provisions laid out in Deuteronomy 25:5–10. In this case, Pedaiah would have raised up seed for his deceased brother through his brother’s wife. And third, if Shealtiel died childless, Zerubbabel may have been granted the rights of sonship as his next of kin. Considering how often Zerubbabel’s name appears with Shealtiel’s, it’s highly likely that Shealtiel was also a man of great faith and most likely had a hand in shaping Zerubbabel’s.
The third man in Haggai’s prophecy was Joshua, the son of Josedech (also known as Jozadak and Jehozadak; cf. Ezra 3:2 and I Chron. 6:15). Josedech was the high priest when the Babylonians carried Judah captive, which meant that Joshua was the next in line for this honor.
All of this means that God had his leaders and place. Zerubbabel was the political leader of the Jews and Joshua was their religious leader. It’s possible, even probable, that these two men had been appointed by the Persian government to their positions of leadership, but that doesn't really matter. Their ancestry demonstrates that they were rightfully chosen. After all, the Lord controls the hearts of the kings. Proverbs 21:1 says, The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will.
This demonstrates one thing more. The messages that Haggai preached not only originated with and belonged to the Lord, they also recorded God’s acts. Darius would not have let the people return, Haggai would not have preached, Zerubbabel and Joshua would not have led the restoration if God’s sovereign providence had not ordered it to be so. The Lord was building the kingdom of his dear Son through these men, just as he builds the same kingdom today through us.
Instructions to Build
The first matter that Haggai addressed in his first sermon was what the people were saying about rebuilding the temple: according to verse 2, they said that the time for rebuilding it had not yet come.
This may seem like a strange thing for the Jews to have said, but they had a reason for it. The prophet Jeremiah had predicted that the Babylonian captivity would last for seventy years (Jer. 25:11–12; 29:10). The Jews applied Jeremiah’s seventy-year prophecy to the temple itself. Since it was destroyed in 586 BC, it could not be rebuilt until 516 BC, which meant that it had to lie in ruins for another three or four years. But there were two problems with this. First, Jeremiah predicted a seventy-year captivity of the people, but said nothing about how long the temple would be desolate. Second, the number seventy is itself a rounded number. Nebuchadnezzar’s first raid on Jerusalem took place in 605 BC and Cyrus’ decree to let the Jews return to their land came in 538 BC, i.e., after sixty-seven years. It’s fairly clear that the Jews were using Jeremiah’s prophecy only as an excuse for not doing what they should have done.
Some excuses are legitimate. If a man is late for work because his tire blows out on the freeway, this circumstance has hindered him from fulfilling his duty. On the other hand, there are no legitimate excuses for outright disobedience. Was God impressed when Aaron said that the people just threw their gold into the fire and out popped a calf for them to worship? Or was it any more acceptable when Uzza tried to steady the cart transporting the Ark of the Covenant by touching it contrary to the clear commands of Scripture? Of course not. God cannot and will not approve of sin.
So, why did the people of Haggai’s day not want to rebuild the temple? A lot of commentators assume that the people were afraid. It hadn’t been that long since the Samaritans and others used legal means to halt the work. It’s possible that the people were somewhat motivated by fear. But that’s not what Haggai told them. He said that they had their priorities all wrong: they were more interested in making their own homes and extravagant and glorious than in restoring the Lord’s house. In verse 4 the prophet asked them, Is it time for you, O ye, to dwell in your cieled houses, and this house lie waste?
The Jews had improved their outward circumstances significantly. When Haggai says that their houses were ceiled, he meant that they were decorated with the finest and most exotic woods. The poorer people probably used only enough wood for wainscoting, while those of greater means may have covered both their walls and ceilings with wood. In any case, this was the way the King would decorate his house in that day (cf. I Kgs. 7:7; Jer. 22:14), not a common citizen.
Meanwhile, the Lord’s house lay waste. It had only been partially restored in the first attempt to rebuild it, and only minimal services could be carried on there (cf. Ezra 3).
Consequently, the Lord called upon his people to judge themselves in verses 5 and following (cf. 1:7; 2:15, 18 [twice]): consider your ways. They were to look at their behavior, evaluate it on the basis of God’s Word and change it accordingly.
One thing that the Jews had to consider, according to verse 6, was their own poverty. In a sense, they seemed to be quite wealthy. They panel their houses as if they were kings. They had all the leading economic indicators on their side. They had plenty of seed to plant in the springtime. They also had food, drank, clothing and money. But because they lacked God’s blessing, they couldn’t make it work. The prophet said, Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink; ye clothe you, but there is none warm; and he that earneth wages earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes (v. 6).
Of course, this is exactly what God had said would happen when the hearts of the people turn away from him. Deuteronomy 28:38–41 says, Thou shalt carry much seed out into the field, and shalt gather but little in; for the locust shall consume it. Thou shalt plant vineyards, and dress them, but shalt neither drink of the wine, nor gather the grapes; for the worms shall eat them. Thou shalt have olive trees throughout all thy coasts, but thou shalt not anoint thyself with the oil; for thine olive shall cast his fruit. Thou shalt beget sons and daughters, but thou shalt not enjoy them; for they shall go into captivity (cf. Lev. 26:18–20; cf. a similar situation in Jas. 4:1–3).
The Jews had not learned that real blessing comes as a result of obedience to God and seeking everything we need in him. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount that when we seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, all other things that we have need of, which in the context include food and clothing and other blessings, will be added unto us (Matt. 6:33). David wrote with the same confidence. Psalm 37:25 says, I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread. And just how plentiful is this blessing? The apostle Paul wrote that God is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us (Eph. 3:20).
In verses 7 and 8, the prophet renewed his call to repentance, this time telling the people exactly what their repentance would require: they needed to gather wood to build the Lord’s house. He didn’t tell them together stones and other materials. Apparently, the other things that they would have needed were either on hand or readily accessible. But they needed wood. According to Ezra 3:7, all the wood that was needed for the project had been gathered years earlier. But what had become of it? Had it been used by the people to panel their homes? The prophet seems to be suggesting that it was. If so, what a tremendous indictment! Not only had the Jews failed in their duty to rebuild the Lord’s house, but they also used the supplies that had been designated for the Lord’s house for their own aggrandizement.
Even so, the Lord in his great mercy told the people that, if they would turn from their ways and rebuild his house, he would take pleasure in it and be glorified. There was no way that their temple would come anywhere close to Solomon’s in size or in beauty. The simple fact is that they just didn’t have Solomon’s means. Their temple was a fraction of the size of the original structure and much shabbier in comparison, but it would glorify God. Why? For one thing, because God delights in the sacrifices of a contrite heart. But even more importantly, God would be pleased to exalt the glory of our true tabernacle — the incarnate Son of God — by having him teach and do miracles outside this very building.
Haggai’s call to repentance concluded in verses 9 through 11 with another reminder of why the people had been unable to prosper in the land. It was because God had judged them for their apathy towards his house. Here the Lord openly acknowledged that he was the one who had orchestrated their poverty: what they brought home, he blew away. God sent dryness, barrenness and drought to get their attention. Their corn, vineyards, cattle, and even they themselves, could not produce. Just as they were in rebellion to God, so God ordered the whole creation to rebel against their plans and expectations.
Interestingly, the word translated drought (חֹרֶב) in verse 11 is a play on the word translated waste (חָרֵב) in vv. 4 and 9. Because the people had left God’s house as a waste, God will turn their land into waste.
The People’s Response
It’s a sad truth that God’s prophets, more often than not, preached to deaf ears, but that was not the case here. As soon as the people heard Haggai’s message, they obeyed. Verse 12 says, Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Joshua the son of Josedech, the high priest, with all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the LORD their God, and the words of Haggai the prophet, as the LORD their God had sent him, and the people did fear before the LORD. They obeyed because they received Haggai’s word as the Word of God. Verse 13 is about as strong an attestation of the prophet’s commission as we find anywhere else in Scripture: Haggai was the LORD’s messenger giving the LORD’s message to the people.
Just as the people’s indifference had cause the Lord to withdraw his favor and blessing, so their renewed obedience brought divine favor once again. This was evident in the fact that the Spirit of God stirred up Zerubbabel and Joshua to accept their positions of leadership and to guide the people in the Lord’s work. The Lord also stirred up the people, so that they willingly submitted to those whom the Lord had placed over them.
What was the result of all of this? Verse 15 says that the work of rebuilding the temple resumed on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month, i.e., twenty-three days after Haggai spoke to the people. If you’re wondering why there was a twenty-three day delay, the answer is very simple. It took twenty-three days for the people to gather the wood for the temple, which the prophet had instructed them to do in verse 8.
The Jews to whom Haggai spoke had their priorities all wrong. With just a little bit of opposition, they turned away from the Lord’s work and enthusiastically built their own homes, probably using materials that had been set apart for the Lord’s house. Shame on them!
Haggai’s message demands that we also examine our priorities. Is the kingdom of God and his righteousness the first thing in our lives? With every little bump in our lives, we are tempted to turn our focus away from the kingdom of God and direct it to ourselves. We want to improve our lives. We want to fix the things that are wrong. Our tendency is to try to make things the way we want them, instead of seeking God’s will in all things.
The prophet’s call to repentance should resound loudly in our ears. The same God who summoned his people to faithfulness in the sixth century before Christ summons us to obedience now. Will you heed that call? Will you frame your thinking, your speech and your behavior so that it purposely directs you and all men to the glory and the power and the might of the one who gave his life for yours on the cross? Is the kingdom of God your highest priority?
Beloved, pray every day that they Spirit of God would make it so. Amen.