The Babylonian army completed its task of destroying Jerusalem and her sacred temple in 586 b.c. From then on, the Jewish people faced years in captivity. Taken to the faraway land of Babylon, the pious Jews wept when they remembered Zion. Without the temple, the center of their life, they experienced a deep sense of loss. As prophesied (Jer 29:10), their exile lasted only seventy years. Around 539 b.c., Babylon fell into the hands of the Persian troops. Unknown to the exiled populace, a new era of Jewish history had begun.
Cyrus, the king of Persia, reversed the deportation policies of the Babylonian empire and paved the way for the return of the Jews to their homeland. In 538 b.c., he issued a decree authorizing the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple, which the Babylonians had plundered. Furthermore, the expense of the project was to be met from the royal treasury (Ezra 6:3-5).
Following the decree, the first Jews prepared to return home, their number amounting to nearly fifty thousand (Ezra 2:64-65). On arrival, they directed their efforts toward the reconstruction of the holy temple, laying the foundation within two years (Ezra 3:8-10).
However, their enthusiasm was soon dampened by the Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, Philistines, and Samaritans, who during their absence had taken over residence of the Judean countryside. They resented the exiles?return, and avidly devised tactics to hinder their construction work (Ezra 4:5, 11-16). Harassed by unfriendly neighbors, the post-exilic community became despondent, and the rebuilding work came to a halt. This dismal state of affairs lasted for about eighteen years.
Alleging that the project was inopportune, the peopleâ€™s priorities changed. They began to establish a livelihood for themselves. Paneled houses were built, fields were ploughed. Godâ€™s temple, however, remained untouched. In the year 520 b.c., God called Haggai to be His messenger, to revive the people and overcome this spirit of lethargy.
The Book of Haggai
Written in 520 b.c., Haggai is the first prophetic work of the post-exilic period. It covers only a four-month span. Within this time, God spoke to His people through the prophet Haggai on five separate occasions with four specific messages. Although the message was different each time, the underlying theme was the same. The Lord desired to stir up His people to a successful effort to rebuild the temple.
The First Message (Haggai 1:1-11)
The first message came to Haggai on the first day of the sixth month (Elul). God instructed Haggai to rebuke the people for failing to rebuild the temple. The Lord rejected their excuse that the time had not yet come. He summed up the plight of the people (1:5-6) and asked them to ponder why, despite their hard labor, their lifestyle remained pathetic and their harvest meager. God then gave the reason for their distress (1:7-11). The economic disaster was the direct result of their neglect of the temple (1:10). He had withheld His blessings.
An important implication from this message is that God wanted these post-exilic Jews to realize that a personâ€™s physical and spiritual prosperity are from God. If they place His affairs as most important, His blessings will come freely to them, without their asking. Conversely, if they do not concern themselves with the house of God, whatever they reap, God will take away.
Unfortunately, the failure to put God first in oneâ€™s life is not confined to the distant past. In our daily living, we may be blinded by our selfish ambitions and pursue our own business, neglecting our service to our Heavenly Father. We misplace our priorities and displace God from the center of our existence. We become like the post-exilic Jews, who had forgotten Godâ€”we sow much but reap little.
We must not follow in the footsteps of the post-exilic Jews. Instead, we must hold true to our initial conviction: seeking first Godâ€™s kingdom and His righteousness. Godâ€™s blessings will then shower upon us when we draw near to Him and let Him lead. Therefore, we must always examine our ways, analyzing our actions and evaluating whether or not they are pleasing in Godâ€™s eyes.
In Haggai, Godâ€™s first message provoked a decisive response. Starting with the leaders, the whole community obeyed the voice of the Lord and took up the challenge (1:12).
On the twenty-fourth of the same month, God acknowledged His peopleâ€™s response with a short yet powerful "I am with you" (1:13). To show divine acceptance, He told them that He would be on their side to help them fight against their enemies. This is the greatest blessing possible. The post-exilic Jews received such assurance because of their united obedience to the message. Likewise, in order to prosper the church and glorify Godâ€™s name, the entire congregation must listen to and carry out the word of God. They must work in unity. God worked mightily among the apostolic church because the early believers served Him with a singleness of mind. They placed God first in their lives and worked with a common objective for the good of the church.
The phrase "I am with you" is also significant in another respect. We note that God did not explicitly tell the post-exilic Jews that He was to bless them. Rather, he informed them that He would be with them. This distinction is important. Many Christians only pursue Godâ€™s material blessings. They forget that it is God whom they should seek, not His blessings. Once they draw near to God, the source of all blessings, He will automatically see to their daily needs and bestow His blessings on them.
The pronouncement of His care greatly encouraged and motivated the post-exilic workers (1:14). Likewise, in our daily service to the Lord, we must always cling to Godâ€™s promise. Because we resolve to serve Him, God will be with us. Paul declares, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Rom 8:31)
The Second Message (2:1-9)
Firmly committed to rebuilding the temple, the people pondered over some difficult questions. How beautiful would the new temple be? How would its glory compare with Solomon's temple? The former temple was magnificent. The whole construction took about seven years, with extensive resources and manpower. Some elderly Jews who could still recall the beauty of the first temple felt that the new temple could never compete with Solomon's. Mixed feelings prevailed. While they rejoiced over the rebuilding, they could not help but feel sad at the same time.
On the twenty-first day of the seventh month (Tishri), God's second message came to the prophet Haggai. Although some had questioned the outcome of the second temple in contrast to the splendor of the first, God encouraged the builders to "take courage" (2:4). He directed these words first to Zerubbabel (the governor), then to Joshua (the high priest), and finally to the masses. This message was then followed by the plural imperative addressed to all three, "For I am with you."
Through this message, God indicated that although the task He had assigned might not be of the same magnitude as that of Solomon's temple, it was just as important for them to complete their assignment. Also, the responsibilities might be different, but the same almighty God would be with them to strengthen them. There may be occasions when we question our ability to fulfill the commission entrusted to us by God. While we acknowledge the need to propagate the gospel and to tend the flock, we are overwhelmed by the immensity of the tasks. However, we must remember that our success comes from God. When He leads us, we cannot fail. We are but the humble servants whose jobs are to plant and water. It is God who gives the increase (1 Cor 3:16).
In His second message, God had also promised that the glory of this new temple would be greater than that of the former, because in it, He would grant peace. The physical magnificence of Solomon's temple during its dedication (2 Chr 7:2) eventually departed. The Israelites failed to worship God in spirit and in truth. Hence, we see the severe reprimand in Isaiah 29:13: "These people draw near with their mouths / And honor Me with their lips, / But have removed their hearts far from Me."
At His temple, they offered the outward act of worship, but in secret, God had declared, they worshiped idols (Ezek 8:6-16). Indeed, God's presence at a church is not dependent on the architectural splendor of the building, but on whether the believers worship Him with sincerity of mind and heart. When a church manifests unity and true worship, God's Spirit, glory, and peace will abide. This is the essence of the second message.
The Third Message (2:10-19)
The third message was given on the twenty-fourth of the ninth month (Chislev), exactly three months after the people, in response to Haggai's initial challenge, had begun the rebuilding project. It would appear that the people's positive response to the call had not changed their economic misfortune (2:16-19). Harvests were pitifully small, and food was scarce. Once again, God instructed His people to consider the reasons for such misfortune (2:15).
First, God directed Haggai to question the priests, the legal experts in the land since the days of Moses, about the contagious nature of sin (2:10-13). The issue concerned the transmission of holiness (2:12; cf. Lev 6:27) and of uncleanness (2:13; cf. Num 19:11-13), both of which received considerable attention in the Pentateuch. Through this reasoning, God pointed out that the power of defilement was far easier to transmit than the power of holiness.
Next, Haggai applied this principle, discussed in 2:12-13, to the nation itself. Although the people were working in the right direction, they were still tainted with sin. To serve God effectively, they had to be holy. And to achieve holiness, each person had to cultivate strong determination. In other words, holiness could not be "transmitted" from person to person. Defilement, on the other hand, could easily pollute a congregation. God wanted His people to understand that their work would only be acceptable if they pursued and maintained holiness at the same time.
Today, we who work for the Lord must pay special attention to this teaching. To receive divine blessing for our labor, our thoughts and our deeds must be sanctified.
The Fourth Message (2:20-23)
Later on that same day, the twenty-fourth day of the month, God's fourth message came to Haggai. Unlike the previous messages, this final message was directed to an individual, Zerubbabel, the governor and leader of the post-exilic community. God promised him constant providential protection. Therefore, Zerubbabel should not be afraid of his heavy responsibilities. As long as he stood firm, God would be with him.
In other words, God acknowledged that He had entrusted a heavy commission to His steward. Such a person was expected to make more sacrifices for the Lord and His flock. He had to be on guard at all times lest Satan comes to attack the Lord's sheep. He had to earn the respect of his charge. Also, he had to set a good example in his daily living and lead the way. The Lord Jesus stated the criteria of a good shepherd in John 10:1-18. A good shepherd, He pointed out, must know his sheep and even be willing to die for them.
All stewards chosen to take care of the congregation of God must appreciate the extent of their responsibilities. God has high expectations for His stewards. They must be strong and courageous, prepared to make sacrifices for His sake. In return, God will always be with them and in their work. Their reward will also be great when their labors are completed.
Spiritual Revivalâ€”Then and Today
The messages of God, recorded by Haggai, were aimed at reviving the faith of the post-exilic community. Through these messages, God wanted to motivate the people to rebuild His temple. However, the teachings of these messages are just as relevant to the Christians of the last days.
The first message awakened the people to consider their ways. Their priorities had to change: God's affairs must come first in their lives. They would then witness the mighty downpour of divine blessings. The people's response met with divine approval, and God empowered them with the promise, "I will be with you." Likewise, if we lead a God-centered life, we too will receive the same providential care.
The second message encouraged and empowered God's people to stand firm when they encountered obstacles in their task. As long as they worked with determination, God's Spirit would remain with them. They had no cause to fear. Similarly, in the last days, we have to fulfill our pastoral and evangelical duties. The commission is heavy, but God is always there to lead us.
Next, the people's thoughts and deeds had to be holy. Their motive in serving God had to be pure. Only then would God accept their offerings. This is the third message. When we resolve to participate in church ministry, we must first eradicate unclean thoughts and unbecoming actions from our daily living. Only then will our offering be acceptable to God.
Finally, in the last message, God acknowledged the heavy responsibility placed on the shoulders of His stewards. Yet as long as they fulfill their commission courageously, God will be with them and reward them.