It has been said that the best commentary on Scripture is Scripture. This is particularly the case with the book of Haggai. The events of the book took place during the second year of King Darius (1:1), which is also the occasion of the early chapters of Zechariah, and part of Ezra (Zc. 1:1, 7; Ezr. 4:24–6:15). To gain a fuller picture, therefore, we can read these three passages alongside each other. In addition, it will help to read about God’s attitude to the disobedience of his people in Dt. 28 and Am. 4.
It is not known who committed the book of Haggai to writing. It could have been Haggai himself. Interest in authorship is a modern concern; OT books seldom mention who wrote the text. In contrast, the name of any person who gave prophecies is almost always recorded. All the prophecies in this book are attributed to Haggai (1:1, 13, 2:1, 10, 20).
The text of the book is in good repair. Some have proposed that the repeated phrase ‘the twenty-fourth day’ (1:15, 2:10) is a sign of the text being corrupt, but there is no need to create difficulties. The text makes good sense as it is.
The background to Haggai can be read in Ezr. 1–4. The returning exiles had begun to rebuild the temple in 536 bc (Ezr. 3:8), but had stopped work as a result of local opposition (Ezr. 4:1–5, 24). In the second year of King Darius (520 bc) they started building again, prompted by the word of the Lord through Haggai (1:14–15). The building was finished in 516 (Ezr. 6:15), about 70 years after the earlier temple had been destroyed in the fall of Jerusalem in 587 (see Je. 25:11; 29:10; Dn. 9:2). (See also the chart ‘The prophets’ in Song of Songs and the map of Jerusalem in Nehemiah.)
The future is also in mind. God promises that environmental and political upheaval will cause his temple to be filled, and that his leader will be kept safe in the coming turmoil (2:6–7, 22–23).
The people mentioned in the book
Haggai is simply referred to as ‘the prophet’. No family history is given, and his name does not occur in any lists of returning exiles. Given this silence, it seems unhelpful to guess about his origins. The idea that he was ignorant of priestly affairs because of his questions to the priests in 2:11–13 is not convincing. From the fact that his word was acted on promptly, we may take it that he had already been accepted as a true prophet.
Darius (1:1) is known to be Darius I, son of Hystaspes, who ruled Babylonia from 522–486 bc. He followed Cambyses (530–522), who had followed his father Cyrus (539–530; see Ezr. 1).
Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah, was a member of the royal line. He was descended from Jehoiachin, who was taken into exile in 597 bc (2 Ki. 24:15; cf. Mt. 1:11–13). He was the son of Shealtiel according to 1:1. This is not easy to relate to 1 Ch. 3:18–19, where he is said to be the son of Pedaiah. Perhaps there was an adoption, or even a Levirate marriage, that has not been recorded (Dt. 25:5–6). Maybe the crown did not pass in direct descent, as happened in the UK in the eighteenth century.
Joshua the high priest (also called ‘Jeshua’ in Ezra and Nehemiah) was the son of the Jehozadak who had been taken into exile in 587 (1 Ch. 6:15). He was a leading priest, if not already the high priest, from 537 onwards (Ezr. 2:2, 36, 40; 3:2). God had special words for him in Zc. 3 and 6:11–13. His name suggests ‘God saves’, and is the Hebrew form behind the Greek ‘Jesus’.
Those described in the book as ‘the people’ were the remnant of those who had gone into exile in Babylon, and had now returned to Judah (1:14; Ezr. 4:1). Their first attempt to rebuild the temple had been opposed by the local people then living in Samaria (Ezr. 4:17–24).
While there is no explicit reference to the coming Messiah, it has long been felt that the promises made to Zerubbabel (2:23) and Joshua (Zc. 6:11–13) were such that they would find their ultimate fulfilment in the promised Messiah. See also comment on 2:7.
We may note that apart from the brief ‘yes’ and ‘no’ of the priests, nobody other than Haggai speaks in the book. They simply act in response to the word of God through Haggai. This highlights the fact that the word of God achieves its purpose (cf. Is. 55:10–11).
There were five prophecies, on three days during four months in 520 bc. All of them came through Haggai, and were addressed to specific people in each case. In these words of prophecy, God desired to open the eyes of the people, encouraged them to repent and obey, and promised that blessing would result.
One feature of the word of God is its recurring relevance in successive generations. The fulfilment of prophecy is not necessarily limited to a single application. It can be compared to the art of sending a flat stone skimming across a lake. Rather than sinking when it first hits the water (as the law of gravity would suggest) the stone rises up and touches the lake in a number of places because of the spinning energy it carries (cf. 1 Sa. 3:19–20).
An example of this in Scripture is the recurring theme of deliverance through water. Noah was saved in the ark (Gn. 7:1); later Moses was preserved in his ark (the same word in Hebrew; Ex. 2:3); later the people were delivered at the Red Sea (Ex. 14:21–29). This theme recurs in a number of later passages, and became part of the symbolism of Christian baptism (e.g. Jdg. 5:21; Is. 43:2; 51:10; 1 Cor. 10:1–2).
So, in the book of Haggai we can expect the words from God to have more than one level of application. As well as anticipating fulfilment of the prophecies within a few months or years, it is helpful to look ahead to later periods as well, especially the life of Jesus and the church, in fact to our own day too.
This leads us to the phrase ‘in a little while’ (2:6). Although this may give us the impression of a short period of time, when seen from a human viewpoint, it may instead be a short time from God’s viewpoint, to whom a thousand years are like one day (2 Pet. 3:8). If this is the case, then discerning further fulfilments of Haggai’s words hundreds of years later would not be a difficulty.
This brings us finally to the possible application of Haggai’s words to our own day. Some would find hope for peace on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and protection for modern Israel, in Haggai’s words (2:9, 21–23). Others would see a spiritual application of these promises in the church, arguing that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world (Jn. 18:36; see 1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; Rev. 21:22). Others again would anticipate fulfilment in both arenas. We do well to be cautious; few people expected Jesus to fulfil prophecy in the way that he did. It is easier to recognize the fulfilment of prophecy after the event than before.
While the word ‘curse’ does not appear in the book of Haggai, the description of what was happening to the people corresponds closely to the ‘curses’ of the Pentateuch, to what God had promised to do to his people if they did not obey him or heed his voice (Dt. 28). The people had been under God’s curse in the exile (Zc. 8:13) and evidently they still were, despite the fact that they had come home (1:6, 11).
Such language may sound strange to us, but we need to hold in mind that in Scripture, God not only blesses, he also curses. This did not lapse with the coming of Jesus who cursed the fig-tree. This story comes either side of a visit to the temple (Mk. 11:12–21) and Jesus’ action can be seen as a comment on what would happen later to the temple community of God’s people. The temple, which had been rebuilt since Haggai’s day (Jn. 2:20), was destroyed in ad 70, and the people were scattered to the nations (Mk. 13:1–2; Lk. 21:24).
God’s curse still operates today, since it will only be removed at the very end, in the era of the new heavens and the new earth (Rev. 22:3). Believers do well to grasp the damaging and continuing effect sin has on our lives. We can be set free from any curse now by true and full repentance from whatever has allowed the curse to operate, asking God to apply the effects of the cross to our lives (Pr. 26:2; Gal. 3:12–14).
The use of repetition in OT texts is often worth noting. In the book of Haggai, the words that God says tend to be repeated. The people are told to give careful thought to their ways four times (1:5, 7; 2:15, 18); the state of God’s house and their houses is compared twice (1:4, 9); they are told ‘I am with you’ twice (1:13; 2:4); and the instruction to ‘be strong’ comes three times (2:4). Lists of disasters that have hit the country are repeated (1:6, 10–11; 2:16–17, 19). Similarly, the prophecy that the nations will be shaken is repeated (2:6, 21–22).
In view of the amount of repetition in so few verses, we may ask what its purpose might be. Perhaps it was for added emphasis; the people needed to hear things more than once, so that the message would sink in (2 Pet. 1:12–13). Another possibility is suggested by Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams. The dreams came twice in order to show that God was firmly decided, and would ‘soon’ do what he intended (Gn. 41:32). On how long ‘soon’ might be, see under ‘The prophecies’ above.
Structure and theme
The contents of the first half of the book are repeated in miniature in the second half, as is shown in this diagram.
One theme which emerges from this is that where God’s people repent and turn to God, and adopt his requirements, God will not only respond by blessing his people, but there will be turbulent effects in society and further afield.
Outline of contents
1:1–11 God’s message to the leaders of Judah: ‘My house and your lives are in ruins’
1:1–4 Whose house comes first? The book opens by setting the date (520 bc), the people to whom God’s word came, and through whom it came. (For the details, see the Introduction.) Although it affected the whole community, the word was to be given only to the two leaders at this stage.
The people were against building the temple. Previously, there had been attempts by their neighbours to discourage and frighten them (Ezr. 4:4–5). However, there is no hint that this was still the case. By now, the people were living in panelled houses. This phrase implies prosperity and comfort, and that the building of their homes was complete.
The Lord’s reply picks up the people’s own words time and house. Why was it time to work on their houses but not on God’s house? In building for themselves but not for him, the people apparently didn’t mind whether the Lord lived among them or not. Their priorities are revealed by their attitude.
The words ruin and drought (11) are very similar in Hebrew. Rain was thought of as a blessing in Israel (see Ps. 65:9–10) and the lack of rain matched the lack of attention paid to God’s house.
1:5–11 Open your eyes. The people were under a curse (Dt. 28:15–68).One effect of being under a curse is to come into confusion, and so fail to recognize what is happening (Dt. 28:28). This was the case here. The curse affected their food, drink, clothing and money. This experience of failing to see God’s hand in our troubles is common among believers today; we do not realize the effects of the sin that we tolerate in our lives (Am. 4). This is not to say that all disaster is because of sin, but rather that sin has consequences (Ho. 8:7).
The people’s problem with money was not a lack of it, since they had panelled houses and earned wages (4, 6). Rather, it was that their money quickly lost its value. The damaging effect of inflation is seen here as having a spiritual origin, a fact which is often ignored today when attempts are made to deal with inflation without investigating its underlying cause.
The drought even extended to the dew (see Dt. 11:10–17; 28:23). The marked effects of the curse are further emphasized (cf. Dt. 28:18, 38–40). The disobedience of the people had made the kind of life as described in Ps. 104:10–23 seem like a distant dream.
God’s words suggest that his house was to be rebuilt on the same site and layout as before (see on 2:20–23). The purpose was so that God might take pleasure in it, and receive honour from it. This continues to be his desire today for his people, who function as a spiritual building (1 Cor. 3:9–17).
1:12–15 The response of the people: the rebuilding starts
The leaders and people accepted Haggai’s message and acted upon it. We have been told that the people were against building the temple, but we do not know whether that also applied to Joshua and Zerubbabel. If they had shared the people’s view, then their change of heart is remarkable, since their forefathers had opposed the prophets ever since following Moses through the desert. Haggai must have known how to speak to the people as well as to God. It seems easiest to see the leaders as godly men, able to accept God’s word and also able to take the people with them. No wonder God thought so highly of Zerubbabel and Joshua (2:23; Zc. 6:11–13).
Once they obeyed, a short message came from God to the people through Haggai. In view of the curse, they might have expected ‘I am against you’; instead, they heard God say I am with you. God’s curse is not a sign that God has rejected his people; rather, it shows his love for them. He wants to draw them back to him, and uses disaster to wake them up (Am. 4:6–11; cf. Am. 3:2; Is. 7:13–25, where Immanuel means ‘God with us’).
As they humbly obeyed God’s word and started work, God helped them. We have a role in bringing about the blessing of God by choosing to act in submission to God’s will (2 Tim. 1:6–7). In Hebrew, the words messenger and work are similar. Their use close together here reminds us that a prophecy is not a ‘blessing’ to be pleased about, but an instruction that should lead to action.
Some think that the repetition of ‘on the twenty-fourth day’ (15) in 2:10 is an indication that the text is corrupt but there is no reason to doubt its authenticity.
2:1–9 God’s message about the new temple: ‘I will transform your lives’
2:1–5 God’s present purposes. Once again God spoke through Haggai; this time the word came to leaders and people together. God responded to the thoughts of the older people who remembered the first temple and were disappointed with its replacement. These feelings may have been vocalized, as they had been earlier (cf. Ezr. 3:12). They could, however, have been secret thoughts. If this was so, then God would have been speaking directly to people’s minds in a way which was beyond the prophet’s natural knowledge (cf. Lk. 7:39–40). This would arrest their attention.
The instruction be strong was given to Moses’ successor Joshua on the first entry into the promised land (Jos. 1:6–7, 9, 18). We may note that on both the first entry to the promised land and the re-entry in Haggai’s time, there was a leader named Joshua. This may be a matter of chance, or we may choose to compare the latter era with the former. Both Joshuas acted on the word of the Lord to be strong, and so inherited God’s promises. In both situations, although God strengthened the people (1:14), it was up to them to apply their effort as he directed. The same partnership is required today in God’s service.
The repeated I am with you (5; see on 1:13 and the Introduction) may be linked to the next clause, which says that the covenant remains in force. Some of the people may have thought that the exile was a sign that the covenant was finished, or that the continued curse indicated God’s rejection, but this was not so. God’s gifts and call are irrevocable (cf. Rom. 11:29).
Similarly, God’s Spirit is not driven off by his people’s sin, or at least not for long (see 1 Sa. 4:22; 6). In Ezekiel’s visions, the glory of God finally left Jerusalem due to wickedness in the temple, but only to go to the exiles in Babylon. (Cf. Ezk. 10:18–22; 11:22–23 with Ezk. 1:1; 11:16.) Now the people are reassured that God’s Spirit has returned from Babylon with them, to stay. This reassurance is for all who earnestly seek God’s presence and obey his commands (Jas. 4:8).
The people were told not to fear, but to press boldly on. This instruction shows that God’s people should not allow themselves to be prevented from obeying God by fear (1 Jn. 4:4, 18).
2:6–9 God’s future purposes. These verses are quoted in Heb. 12:26–27. This would suggest that any fulfilment during Zerubbabel’s lifetime (see 2:22–23) is best seen as partial rather than complete (see the Introduction). The writer to the Hebrews saw the description of God shaking the earth as a reference to Sinai (Ex. 19:18). This implies that God’s voice will be heard in the shaking that is to come, and that is why the desired of all nations will come to God’s house.
When God comes on the scene, his creation shakes (cf. Jdg. 5:4–5). At Sinai, the shaking was limited to one mountain, but this time it will involve the whole environment. The idea may be figurative, along the lines of our phrase ‘earth-shaking events’. It may, however, suggest turbulent weather conditions and pollution. (For the idea of God being the author of violent cosmic events, see Rev. 6:12–14; for God causing pollution in a disobedient world, see Rev. 8:3–12.) Such things will happen before the great and glorious day of the Lord (cf. Acts 2:19–20, quoting Joel 2:30–31). This suggests that if a Messianic reference is to be seen in this passage and 2:23, then the second coming may be primarily in mind rather than the first.
The phrase the desired of all nations will come has, in the Hebrew, a singular subject and a plural verb. It might be literally translated ‘What is desired by the nations, they will come … ’. The phrase can be taken several ways. We can either try to make sense of the text as it stands, or change the Hebrew to be either singular or plural throughout.
Before we hasten to amend the text, we may notice that in Daniel, there is a similar use of both singular and plural in a prophecy about God’s chosen leadership. The Son of Man receives the kingdom (Dn. 7:13–14), then the saints also receive the kingdom, and the text switches abruptly from ‘they’ to ‘he’ (7:26–27). We may, therefore, want to try to keep hold of the singular and plural nature of our phrase. This has been achieved to some extent by the niv with the desired of all nations will come.
Some translators (including Luther and the av) have followed the Latin Vulgate of the fifth century ad by making the whole phrase singular: ‘the desired one of the nations shall come’. This would allow us to see a reference to the Messiah here, which fits the context (2:23 seems to have a Messianic flavour). There are, however, problems in making the Hebrew singular.
It is easier to change the Hebrew to be plural throughout (as the Greek translation the Septuagint does): ‘the treasures of the nations will come’. This might refer to God’s intention to include all the nations of the world in his plan of redemption (Is. 49:6–7; 60:10; Zc. 6:15). It might also mean that the day will come when what the world regards as the finest and best will come into the temple, rather than what is poor and despised (cf. Zc. 8:20–23; 1 Cor. 1:26–29; Rev. 21:24). It might even mean that there will be no shortage of earthly riches and finance, looking forward to v 8.
While the first option may be most attractive, if one had to choose between the other two, the latter seems preferable. This emphasizes the breadth of God’s plans for the world coming to pass, suggesting that world leaders will one day turn to God for direction and vision in a way that they have not done up to now (see Is. 2:1–5).
We are twice told that God’s house will be filled with glory. This word may simply suggest wealth here, because of the reference to silver and gold between the two statements. However, the word for glory, which also suggests ‘weight’ in other contexts, has a rich OT usage, including the description of the awesome presence of God which causes worship (Ex. 33:18–20; 34:8). When the former temple, and the tabernacle before it, had been completed, they had been so filled with the glory of God (in the form of a cloud) that no-one could enter (Ex. 40:34–35; 1 Ki. 8:10–11).
God’s silver and gold are inflation-proof, in contrast to the earnings of believers under a curse (1:6; cf. Mt. 6:19–20). God promised that peace was to come; this would replace their fear (5). It would have its first fulfilment shortly (Ezr. 6:14–16).
2:10–19 God’s word on the curse: ‘I will replace it with a blessing’
2:10–14 A priestly ruling. The next word that came to Haggai involved asking the priests to give a ruling. They explained that holiness was not communicated by touch, but defilement was. For example, anyone who touched a dead body became unclean for a week, and anything he touched became unclean (Nu. 19:11, 22). God said that this teaching could be applied to the people. Their indifference to God’s presence spoiled not only their offerings but also everything else they did. So today, believers need to be ruthless with careless attitudes, which are not merely neutral but positively defiling, and ask God for cleansing (Mt. 5:29–30; 2 Tim. 2:20–21; cf. Zp. 1:7). Failures in this area will blight a church and society.
2:15–19 From curse to blessing. Haggai now seems to be talking to the people. Although they have started work, there is little progress. Perhaps the three months have been spent mainly preparing the site. During that time, the effects of the curse have still been present. Blight, mildew and lack of fruit are all aspects of God’s curses (Dt. 28:22, 38–42; Am. 4:9).
God was at pains to show that it was the laying of the foundation stone which brought about a sudden, marked change. This calls for an explanation. It seems likely that at the ceremony the people would have gathered together. In the days of the former temple, the greatest spiritual advances were made when the people assembled together (1 Ki. 8:14; 65–66; 2 Ki. 23:1–2, 21–23). This gathering at Haggai’s prompting was in contrast to their earlier actions, when they worked separately on their own houses (1:4, 9). We might say that the one main achievement in our text was that the people began to act together and so became united.
The significance of a nation-wide act of obedience on a particular day can also be noted during the first entry into the promised land (Jos. 5:9). Here too we might have expected that the ‘reproach of Egypt’ would have been removed long before, but it seems there was a delay which was only ended by the whole nation obeying the instruction about circumcision. This was because circumcision and the ownership of the land were connected in the covenant made with Abraham (Gn. 17:1–14).
If we understand the laying of the foundation stone of the temple as a significant occasion in this sense, then this day would have been a turning point (‘the end of the beginning’, to quote Winston Churchill’s phrase). God seems to have been noting the commitment of the people, and rewarding it. We may learn then that God rewards decisive action taken by his people acting together. For the shape that the Lord’s blessing would take, see Zc. 8:9–13.
2:20–23 God’s word to Zerubbabel: ‘I will keep my leader safe’
Once again, God says he will shake the heavens and the earth (see on 2:6–7). The emphasis this time is on political upheaval, the defeat of powerful armies, and civil strife. Israel’s history taught them that even the most powerful enemy is shaken when God acts (e.g. Jdg. 4:15; 7:22; 1 Sa. 14:20). This theme emerges strongly in the prophecies about war against Israel in Ezk. 38–39 (especially 38:19–22). Although war involving Israel is not mentioned here, the promise to Zerubbabel that he will be kept safe makes most sense in a context of the danger of attack.
The similarity between the passages in Ezekiel and Haggai is such that it is worth asking why the pattern of the new temple in Ezk. 40–46 was ignored in Haggai’s day. There is no obvious answer to this. Perhaps they did not interpret the vision as a detailed scheme to be put into practice; seeing its primary purpose rather as an encouragement that God was with them despite the exile (see on 2:1–5 above). Maybe the Lord’s words in 1:8–9 were taken as an instruction to rebuild on Solomon’s original site with his original plan. In any event, Ezekiel’s temple has never been built and, with the ending of animal sacrifices at Calvary, it is hard to imagine what precise function it might now have (see Ezk. 43:13–27).
Zerubbabel and Joshua had obeyed the word of the Lord promptly and exactly. Joshua was rewarded with a crown in Zc. 6:11. God speaks of his approval of Zerubbabel here by calling him my signet ring. This seems to be a reversal of the judgment on Jehoiachin, king at the time of exile (Je. 22:24). Jehoiachin had been rejected; his descendant is now affirmed.
Such a ring was a costly item and may have been worn on the finger or round the neck on a chain; either way, it was always attached closely to its owner, and would never be lost or abandoned. This speaks of Zerubbabel’s value to God. It seems that such rings were used to stamp the royal seal on a document; this suggests that God entrusted Zerubabbel with authority to carry out his will.
In addition to any fulfilment of God’s promise to Zerubbabel which may have taken place in his lifetime, it has been felt that Joshua and Zerubbabel together foreshadow the Messiah, God’s chosen leader who receives his authority (Dn. 7:13–14). God delights in those who obey him, and loves to be close to them, but he withdraws his blessing from the disobedient (1 Sa. 15:22–23; Mk. 1:11; Jn. 4:34).
David F. Pennant
OT Old Testament
niv New International Version
av Authorized (King James) version
David F. Pennant, M.A., B.D., Ph.D., Director of Music, St Andrew’s School, Horsell, Woking, Surrey; formerly Curate in Charge, St Saviour’s Church, Brookwood, UK.
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Hag 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.