An Introduction To the Book of Haggai
I believe the primary message God wants to communicate to us through this prophetic book is that it’s time to build again. He wants to use this book to realign our priorities with his, to erase our excuses so we get on with his work, to motivate us by reminding us of his presence and to encourage us with a vision of the future.
Before we really get into the text of this book it’s important we understand the context in which the four messages of this book were written. It’s important we understand the people, the history, the emotions, the circumstances, the reasons this book were first written to address. This in turn helps us see what God desires to communicate to his people in every place & generation, including us today. It helps us clearly see how it is relevant for us today as we seek to build the kingdom of God in Sligo. Therefore the aim this morning is to show the bigger story this book fits into. As we do this I’ll briefly throw out some possible application, some of which we’ll return to & address more fully following weeks.
Most of the prophetical books of the OT belong to a more difficult period in the history of Israel. The period of the prophets (as it is called) covered 500 years from the tenth to the fifth century BC. After this period the prophetic voice fell silent until the silence was broken by John the Baptist. There are 17 prophetical books in the OT delivered by 16 prophets. These are commonly divided into major & minor prophets. These terms are not given because of differing importance but simply because of their length. Of the 16 prophets just two prophesied during the exile, three after, eleven before. Haggai along with Zechariah & Malachi prophesied after.
The history of Israel began in Genesis with a man & his family hearing and obeying God’s call to go. Abraham and his descendents – Isaac, Jacob & Joseph – led their families to worship God. Over time they multiplied & became a nation. Exodus tells the story of Abraham’s extended family becoming a nation enslaved by Egypt. God then raised up Moses to deliverer the Hebrew people from bondage. After the plagues on Egypt & Passover sacrifice, Israel escaped Egypt & was entrusted with the Law of God at Mt. Sinai. This Law included the 10 Commandments, rules for civil order, regulations about holy days & sacrifices & general instructions for creating a holy nation that would shine like a city on a hill in a dark world.
After wandering in the desert for 40 years because of disobedience, Moses’ successor Joshua, led the Hebrew people into the Promised Land. They won great victories & learned important lessons, but then they began to stray from God’s ways & adopt values & practices of the nations around them. The same nations they were have supposed to fully overcome, but didn’t. Therefore God raised up leaders from among them called Judges who helped restore order and correct waywardness. After this Israel began to take shape as a nation & crowned Saul as their first king... Other kings followed, some good many bad, who established Israel as a military power in the ancient Near East. Israel’s second King, David, set up a precedent as a leader who, although imperfect, genuinely had a heart after God. His son Solomon built the great temple in Jerusalem where Israelites could come to worship God. However after Solomon, things went downhill. Fighting between tribes began and the kingdom divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. The kings of the two nations, bar a few exceptions, were often wicked. Therefore the people often turned to idols & other God’s. It’s during this time that God began to send his prophets to challenge the Hebrews and warn them of coming judgement if they didn’t change.
Then, sure enough, in 722 BC, Assyria destroyed Israel & carried people into exile. In 586 BC, Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and carried the people of Judah into exile. The Assyrians were then conquered by the Babylonians, who were soon overthrown by the Persians around 539 BC. During this time, the Jews had grown used to living in exile, but King Cyrus the Great permitted, in fact encouraged, the return of Jews to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. Amazingly 200 years before this happened the prophet Isaiah wrote; “Cyrus, He is my shepherd and he shall fulfil all my purpose; saying to Jerusalem , She shall be built,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid” (Is 44:28). Even Bible skeptics should be amazed by that! Under the decree of King Cyrus a remnant returned with the newly appointed leadership of Judah – Zerubbabel the governor & Joshua the high priest. The people settled near Jerusalem and began restoration. Other books that were written during this period include Ezra, Nehemiah & Zechariah. These books help us see the full picture of what was happening.
The very first thing the remnant done when they returned was clear away the rubble from the temple court & restore the altar for daily offerings, so they could get back into the pattern of worship (Ezra 3:1-6). It was in the autumn of 536 BC that they got the required worship routine going again.
Do you know that God is a God of routine as much as he is a God of surprise & spontaneity? It’s not that he is one & not the other, he is both! Sometimes especially if we come from a strong religious background, were we feel we used to just go through the motions every week; we can wrongly react against any sort of routine in worship. But look at God’s creation; it is full of routine... Look at worship throughout the whole of Scripture; it is full of routine & order. Routine is good as long as we don’t let it become dry or empty. Routine is good as long as the living God is at the centre of it. (Routine doesn’t mean...) In fact it is often in the middle of the routine of life & worship that God surprises us with his presence, with revelation from his Word, with an overwhelming sense of peace or joy. He brings spontaneity into the routine. It’s when we get out of the routine that we begin to drift & end up missing out on such special times.
So the first thing these people done when they got back to Jerusalem, before they rebuilt anything they got rid of the rubble so they could get the daily routine of temple sacrifices going again. Is there any rubble we need to clear out of our lives so we can get back into the pattern of daily worship? Throughout the book of Ezra we see over & over how these people got back into the rhythm of worship. It’s when they were in the rhythm of worship that things prospered (Ezra 3:1-6, 10-13; 6:16-22).
By the spring of the next year they had the foundations of the temple laid. When they completed the foundation they got out the trumpets & cymbals to praise the LORD (Ezra 3:10-13). It says in Ezra 3:11: “And they sang responsively, praise and giving thanks to the LORD, For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever towards Israel.” Highlighting again that there was order & rhythm to their worship... Of course the older people who could remember the former temple thought it wasn't as good as the good old days; & it wasn't YET. However it was the first significant step towards building a temple that would be filled with greater glory than ever before! A temple people could come to & receive peace, life & healing (see Hag 2:9 & Ezek 47:12).
In verse 13 of Ezra 3 it says “the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.” Maybe they shouldn't have shouted so loud because when their enemies heard all that was happening they didn't like it one bit. In Ezra 4 we learn of their opposition & scheming. This resulted in Israel’s enemies sending a deceptive & cunning letter to the new king of Persia who likely new little about the decree Cyrus had given Israel. The result being that the king ordered the work to cease. The result of this was that the people became discouraged & over a period of fourteen years their attention drifted from building the LORD’s house to building houses for themselves, & the temple remained incomplete.
Sometimes we can be too easily discouraged by opposition & difficulty. But when we allow ourselves to become discouraged we fail to see that often the solution is already there, because God never leaves his faithful people in a dead end situation! You see there’s something I don’t get. I suppose it’s easy for us to see because we’re not in the situation these people were in, & because we have the advantage of being able to read the whole story. But there was a solution all along, but sadly it took 14 years for someone to see it. You see the whole opposition to the work was based on lies & deception (the work of the enemy of God is always based on lies & deception) but the truth was sitting in a scroll in Babylonia all along (6:1). All someone had to do was point that out. There’s always going to be opposition to the work of God, but at the same time, in the providence of God, there are always going to be solutions! Sometimes in the midst of disappointed & difficulty we let ourselves get into such a negative frame of mind that we fail to see the solution God has ensured! These people had been through years of exile. Then when they had finally settled to life in a new place they heeded the call to go back to Jerusalem. Most of the exiled Jews remained in Babylon, because they had settled & prospered there... But this remnant had a heart for God & his work so they left the comfort & security of Babylon & made the long journey back to Judah. They are to be admired for their devotion to God & their zeal for his house. These people in spite their becoming discouraged, negative, distracted & apathetic were still the right people in the right place and the right time, because deep down they had the right heart...
When Haggai came along the people responded quickly, because it was in their heart to build the temple of God. These were not rebellious people; they were the good & faithful remnant who had simply got discouraged because of yet more difficultly & opposition on top of what they’d already been through. And this discouragement over time turned them inward... We need to understand this as we approach this book. This not a book of judgement, this is not a book where God is coming down hard on his people. This is a book of gentle rebuke & powerful encouragement for a discouraged & side-tracked people, who deep down still have hearts that beat for God & his kingdom.
When they responded to the messages that came by the hand of Haggai & got on with the work the other things simply worked out. In fact things worked out even better than expected... Not only did Darius find the decree given by Cyrus in the first place he added his own too. Ezra 6:8-12: “Moreover, I make a decree regarding what you shall do for these elders of the Jews for the rebuilding of this house of God. The cost is to be paid to these men in full and without delay from the royal revenue, the tribute of the province from Beyond the River. And whatever is needed—bulls, rams, or sheep for burnt offerings to the God of heaven, wheat, salt, wine, or oil, as the priests at Jerusalem require—let that be given to them day by day without fail, that they may offer pleasing sacrifices to the God of heaven and pray for the life of the king and his sons. Also I make a decree that if anyone alters this edict, a beam shall be pulled out of his house, and he shall be impaled on it, and his house shall be made a dunghill. May the God who has caused his name to dwell there overthrow any king or people who shall put out a hand to alter this, or to destroy this house of God that is in Jerusalem. I Darius make a decree; let it be done with all diligence.”
So not only were they allowed to continue but they actually got everything paid for & everything they needed for worship was provided. Amazingly, even though opposition came, even though his people fell into discouragement & apathy, God was still in control working things out perfectly for his people. So that when they responded to his Word everything fell into place. “And we know that for those who love God...” Romans 8:28 says (not for those who are perfect, not for those who never get discouraged or apathetic...) but “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Ezra 6:14 then says; “And the elders of the Jews built and prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. They finished their building by the decree of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus and Darius and Artaxerxes; and this house was finished on the third day of the month of Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of Darius the king.”
Almost four years after they began working again! I once heard someone say; “Don’t overestimate what can be accomplished in a year, but don’t underestimate what can be accomplished in five...” Interestingly when you count up the actual time the people worked on the temple, including rebuilding the alter & laying the foundation (before stopping for 14 years), & then the four years it took to rebuild the temple itself after it would have worked out at almost five years. However notice that it was around the year mark when they let the enemy discourage them to the point they stopped... for 14 years.
If they hadn’t have stopped all the work would have been completed within five years, but amazingly God turned it all around for their good anyway! After all didn’t God promise his people through another prophet (Joel 2:25); “I will restore (pay back) to you the years that the locusts have eaten.” But the lesson remains: We should not to allow ourselves to be quickly discouraged. We need to expect opposition & sets backs to the work of God. However more than that we need to remind ourselves that there is always a solution (even though it may take us a while to see it). Also we can be confident that God is working things out for our good in spite of circumstances & in spite of our wrong attitudes at times.
In the rest of Ezra 6:16ff we see the people getting back into the swing of worship again & celebrating the Passover. It verse 22 it says “for the LORD made them joyful”. This fulfilled verses like Jeremiah 31:13; “I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.” God desires to make his people joyful!
Finally who is this prophet Haggai who’s preaching awakened God’s people to action & led them to such joy? Where did he come from? Who were his family? Truth is we don’t really know. We know his name means “my feast” or “festal” but that’s about all we know of him. We know nothing about his past, nothing about his family. He only prophesied for four months, yet he was the first voice to be heard after the exile. We can trace his contemporary Zechariah because Ezra tells us he was the son of Iddo, but he simply calls Haggai the prophet.
In the summer I heard a Bible-teacher say that he’d been to a conference where one of the other speakers went on about how his dad, his granddad & his great granddad etc were all preachers. He boasted of coming from a long line of preachers. The Bible-teacher I heard then declared; “Well I’m the son of a drunk... But you know what? I’m just as important to God!” Here’s the point: It doesn’t matter what Haggai’s family background was, what mattered is that he was God’s man... And you know what? It’s doesn’t matter if you’re the son or daughter of preacher or a king or a drunk. What matters is that because of his mercy & grace we are God’s men or women... For that reason we are the right people in the right place at the right time. The Spirit of God is going to come & renew our hearts through these ancient messages because God’s word to us this year is: It’s TIME TO BUILD AGAIN.