By Sam E. Stone
After returning from Babylonian exile, the Jews laid the foundations for the temple but then did no other construction work. After encountering opposition, the people were discouraged from continuing. Sixteen years passed, and the work was still unfinished.
Haggai and Zechariah were two of the prophets who served in this period. Some believe that Haggai was an old man who had seen the first temple (2:3) some 60 years before. J. McIlmoyle wrote, “There is a terseness, directness, and brevity in what he has to say . . . The prophet was a messenger plain, straightforward, and direct.”
Haggai 1:1, 2
The date of the prophecy is specified carefully. Bible scholars point out that this date would be August 29, 520 BC. James E. Smith noted that the title, the prophet, is used five times by Haggai, more than by any other biblical prophet. He was very conscious of his responsibility. His message was addressed to two primary recipients—Zerubbabel (the governor of Judah) and Joshua (the high priest). They were the primary leaders of God’s people at that time. Zerubbabel was the political leader, while Joshua was the spiritual leader.
Haggai began by pointing out the way in which the people had been putting off obeying the Lord’s command. Sixteen years had passed since the first exiles returned and laid the foundation for the temple. Apathy followed. “Right now isn’t a good time to complete the structure,” the people rationalized. Haggai’s message removed all excuses. Any time is the right time to do what God commands.
“Is it a time for you to . . . be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” God challenged the people through Haggai.
C. F. Keil wrote, “With this question the prophet cuts off all excuse, on the ground that the circumstances of the times, and the oppression under which they suffered, did not permit the rebuilding of the temple.” The people were living in luxury but felt no responsibility to rebuild the house of God—God, who had freed them from captivity and brought about their return (Psalm 126).
The people’s efforts toward self-induced prosperity had not succeeded. The prophet reminded them that their attention needed to be focused on the Lord: “Give careful thought to your ways.” This theme is repeated (see Haggai 1:7, 2:15, 18). Haggai gave specific examples of how living for themselves had not brought them success or happiness.
Human pleasure never satisfies. Those who live in this way find that even their clothes aren’t warm. A person’s wages will fall through a hole in his money bag. Henry Halley put it like this: “National adversity is due to national disobedience to God.” God has the last word about a person’s prosperity.
God’s people needed to rethink their priorities. First they were to immediately go up into the mountains and bring down timber. When the building supplies were available, the people were to start again on the project of building the Lord’s house. Haggai reminded them of what had taken place when they failed to follow God’s direction: “You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little.” The people had evidently been thinking, “We’ve just had bad luck with our crops this year.” That’s not what happened, the prophet asserts. “What you brought home, (God) blew away.” Their problems did not come because of “bad luck,” but rather served as evidence that God punishes the disobedient. Haggai urged self-examination.
God cared about having his temple completed. James E. Smith explained, “In that rebuilt house the sacred rites of Mosaic faith would be performed . . . The temple furnishings and the rituals associated with them were designed by God to set forth continually the greater glories of the Church Age. Thus the rebuilt temple was a preparation for the coming of Christ.”
The Jewish people had suffered times of drought as God rendered judgment on a nation that turned away from his Word. If they were willing to do the Lord’s will, however, they would see just what true prosperity could be like. Haggai promised they would see the difference. In actual experience they could watch failure be changed to success by the Lord’s hand (see 2:18, 19; also John 7:17). Those who disobey God face frustration and punishment; those who faithfully follow him are assured his grace, mercy, and blessing.
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.