I doubt the book of Haggai is on your must-read list. But after we read Ezra-Nehemiah, it seemed natural for us to read the books of Haggai and Zechariah. Those were two prophets who helped restart the building of the temple (Ezra 5:1). As you see in Haggai 1, the reconstruction of the temple is the prophet’s main goal.
Just to recap, the Israelites were carried off into captivity by the Babylonians in 587 BC. After the Babylonians were taken over by the Persians about 50 years later, the Persian King Cyrus released the exiled peoples to go back home to their own countries. The Jews were among them. This happened in about 538 BC.
Of course, when the Israelites returned, they found the city of Jerusalem in shambles. The walls had been reduced to rubble by the Babylonian invaders, and the temple was destroyed. Their first task was to rebuild the temple. It was the center of religious life – the place where the people came into contact with God. “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!'” (Psalm 122:1).
The temple foundations were laid relatively quickly, and the altar was put back into use. But then the people became discouraged, and the work stopped. This happens sometimes. The Israelites had just come back to the land. They were re-establishing themselves there. Economically, they likely were quite fragile. Politically, things were fragile as well. Dedicating large sums of time, energy, and money probably seemed like a risky proposition. So the work at the temple stopped for more than a decade.
Haggai prophesied in 520 BC. You can see he was careful to date his messages to the people. The first one came during the second year of the reign of King Darius, who was the king who succeeded Cyrus. Haggai addressed his first message to Zerubbabel, the local governor, and to Joshua, the high priest.
Zerubbabel was descended from King David. This is important because it’s a reminder of the fact that the Israelites were waiting for the restoration of their nation. And part of that waiting included waiting for the resumption of the Davidic monarchy. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God had promised this would happen. “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness'” (Jeremiah 33:14-16).
And so the return of the people to Israel – with a descendant of King David with them – must have marked a renewal of these hopes. The restoration of the temple and the rebuilding of Jerusalem were only part of the story. The people also were looking for the return of the King.
I thought of this as I read through Haggai 1. The people were lax. They were saying the time hadn’t come to rebuild the temple – “the house of the Lord.” God noted that the people were living in houses with roofs and walls while his house was in “ruins.” The temple was described that way twice in Haggai 1 – a house that “lies in ruins.”
God also noted that the people of Israel weren’t exactly swimming in prosperity. They had sown much and had harvested little. The crops weren’t a success. And perhaps inflation was causing even the little they did earn to go not quite as far as they would have liked. “And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes.”
Maybe you know what that is like, living hand to mouth and never quite seeming to be able to get ahead financially.
God said twice to the people, “Consider your ways.” Ah, that’s a good phrase. Examine yourself. The apostle Paul said largely the same thing to the members of the church in Corinth when they came to take the Lord’s Supper. “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28). In the Corinthian church, the people weren’t paying enough attention to the church (the new temple of God). They were leaving behind their brothers and sisters in Christ. They were failing to love one another the way that Christ had loved them.
It’s not all that different from what God had told the people of Israel, some 500 years earlier, through Haggai. God was disciplining the people because of their unfaithfulness. “You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? declares the Lord of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house.”
God wanted the people of Israel to turn away from their own personal cares and begin to pay attention to the needs of the nation. They needed to look beyond themselves and build up the people of God by building up the temple. They needed to consider their ways.
In this way, it’s a call to repentance for the people of God – and it is applicable to our lives today. Sometimes we need a wake-up call, like what Haggai gave the Israelites and like Paul gave the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 11:30). We need to pay attention to what we are paying attention to! Are we spending all of our time concerned with our own needs and concerned with our finances and our own personal security? Or are we concerned with the upbuilding of the “house of the Lord?”
Well, the people listened to Haggai. For his part, Haggai was a fairly successful prophet of God. Most of the time, the people ignored God’s prophets. Or killed them.
And there was a stirring among the people to begin work again on the temple.
Two other statements caught my attention in this chapter. First, God told the people he desired for the temple to be rebuilt “that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified.” When God is glorified, the world is blessed. That is, when the creatures turn their attention and praise to their Creator, things are operating as they should.
Jesus went to cross with the glory of God on his mind. “‘And what shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour”? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven: ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again'” (John 5:27-28). The ultimate glory was brought to God when Jesus went to the cross and died for the sins of humanity. It was the ultimate display of God love. When we put our faith in Christ, when we trust in his work on the cross, we bring glory to God.
Second, the people found their motivation to re-start the temple construction after Haggai’s wake-up call. But you’ll notice God made them a promise. “I am with you, declares the Lord.” And we remember again: All of this is God’s doing. Our ability to obey is fueled by the promise of God – “I am with you.” It was God’s promise to his people from the very beginning. Read Genesis 26:3; Joshua 1:5; Isaiah 41:10; Jeremiah 30:11.
And read Matthew 28:20. This particular promise – “I am with you” – makes all the difference in the world.