One of the marvelous aspects of the Word of God pertains to its nature as narrative of historical events. The Bible is not a book of esoteric and abstract philosophy, and it is not a collection of moral aphorisms. Instead, it comes to us as a record of events that took place on the world stage, significant events ordained by God to accomplish His purposes within His created world. Because of the Bible’s nature as a historical record and divine interpretation of God’s works and words, readers sometimes find it difficult to understand how to apply what happened in the past to what is happening in the present. Perhaps no book in the Minor Prophets exemplifies this difficulty more than the second shortest book in the Old Testament, Haggai.
The book of Haggai presents a detailed historical record, with information on the date of the oracles Haggai preached that is specific to the day. Haggai 1:1 tells us that the first sermon was delivered by Haggai in the second year of Darius the king, on the first day of the sixth month. Based on archaeological discoveries that have helped us understand ancient dating systems based on a lunar year, we can trace this prophecy back to August 29, 520 BC. Haggai remarkably notes the specific day of each of his prophecies, revealing a man who was profoundly impacted by the revelation of God’s Word directly to Him for God’s people. His second oracle (Hag 2:1-9) was received on October 17, 520, while his third and fourth oracles (2:10-19; 2:20-23) were received on the same day, December 18, 520.
Because Haggai took pains to give us a detailed list of dates concerning his prophecies, we must conclude that there was some significant reason for this information. As we read the book of Haggai, we realize that it is written to a group of people in a very specific context facing a very specific problem: their failure to rebuild the temple and the resulting divine chastisement they are receiving for their errant ways.
The history behind this book is chronicled in the book of Ezra. Ezra opens with the decree of King Cyrus, who commissions the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple in 538 BC (Ezra 1:1-4). A contingent of Israelites totaling 42,360 people return from their Babylonian captivity to the Promised Land (Ezra 2:64). Two years later, the people begin the work of restoring the temple (Ezra 3:8), which would place the initiation of the building project in 536 BC. However, not long after the Jews begin rebuilding the divine dwelling, they faced fierce foes who would oppose them for nearly a century (Ezra 4:6-23). The first enemies discouraged the people from building through intimidation tactics that caused dread throughout the city of Jerusalem among those who had returned from exile (Ezra 4:4). The work ceased until the reign of Darius (Ezra 4:5), who assumed the throne of the empire in 522 BC.
Sorting out the background of this time period is difficult because of the way ancient writers often interrupted their narratives to give the larger historical background as well as the tendency of multiple rulers to have the same name. For example, Ezra 4:6 brings up Ahasuerus (also known as Xerxes), whom we know from the book of Esther, and who reigned from 486-465. His son Artaxerxes (464-424 BC) is mentioned in Ezra 4:8. Then, in Ezra 4:24, the narrative returns to Cyrus and the years spanning his reign until that of Darius. To add to the confusion, many readers are familiar with the narrative of Daniel in the lion’s den (Daniel 6), and the king in that account is named Darius. We might assume that Darius in Daniel and Darius in Haggai and Ezra is the same person, but in fact these are two different men. Darius in Daniel 6 was an older man when he assumed the throne, and he began to rule immediately after the reign of the last Babylonian emperor Belshazzar (Dan 5:30-31). However, we also know that Cyrus was the one who controlled the Empire after he deposed Belshazzar (2 Chronicles 36:21-22). The solution to this apparent discrepancy is found in how Cyrus organized his kingdom, with various rulers throughout the Empire, including Darius, who would have reigned in the vicinity where Daniel lived. To understand these narratives aright, these two kings named Darius must be kept distinct.
After letting the temple lie in ruins for another sixteen years, what motivated the Jews to begin rebuilding it again? Ezra 5:1 tells us that the Jews were encouraged and equipped to build the temple by the prophesying of Haggai and Zechariah. Haggai most likely was an older prophet who had lived in Jerusalem before the Babylonian exile and therefore had seen the original temple (Hag 2:3). Zechariah, whose ministry seemed to continue years after Haggai’s, was probably Haggai’s young protege, called by God to follow in Haggai’s ministry of preaching the Word to those who returned from exile so that they might live in accordance with God’s commands. Haggai, along with Zechariah, was mightily used by God to motivate the people to complete the temple, which they did four years later (Ezra 6:13-15).
When we consider all of the history behind the book of Haggai, what relevance does it have for contemporary Christians who live over 2,500 years later? We are not called today to rebuild the Jerusalem temple, but when we read the New Testament, we learn that there is a temple we are called to build. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 explains that the temple of God under the new covenant is not a physical structure but rather the body of Christ, the church. As Christians, we are called to build on the foundation, which is Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11), and to examine our work to ensure we are building with gold, silver, and precious stones rather than wood, hay, and stubble.
The Jews of Haggai’s day were rebuked because they put building the temple of God as a low priority, if it made their list of priorities at all. Throughout the New Testament we are called to edify the body of Christ, which should not be considered an abstract command but a command related to the temple, to build the temple of God, which is His church, through using our time, talents, and resources to the honor and glory of Christ. Yet how many Christians today place such temple-building as the top priority of their lives? How many Christians spend much more time and money on building their own homes, dabbling in their own hobbies, or pursuing their private interests while neglecting the ministry of the church of Jesus Christ?
The book of Haggai is a call to consider our ways (1:5, 7), to evaluate our priorities, to see how engaged we are in building up the church by serving other believers and telling unbelievers the good news of Jesus Christ. This little book was well summed up by the Lord Himself when He said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matt 6:33). Haggai poses the vital question: What do you seek first in your life, not in sentiment, but in tangible action?