Haggai, whose name derives from the Hebrew word for “feast” (hag), delivers this first oracle on the first day of the sixth month in the second year of Darius the Persian Emperor, that is, August 29, 520. The significance of this date is that it is the monthly New Moon festival; this was a holy day in Israel’s calendar (see Numbers 28:11-15). Every new moon, a burnt offering was offered to God as well as a sin offering along with grain and drink offerings. It was a day of assembly in Israel. It also appears to be a day when prophets were often consulted (see 2 Kings 4:23).
We might envision Haggai’s first message delivered to an assembled people who cannot offer sacrifices without a temple. It is New Moon but there is no temple. Haggai addresses this predicament. The text, more specifically, addresses the message to Zerubbabel, the governor and Joshua, the high priest. They represent, however, the people as a whole. They are Judah’s covenantal representatives.
The one for whom Haggai speaks (or, better, the one who speaks through Haggai) is “Yahweh of hosts”—a name that appears fourteen times in this brief book. Originally referring to “Yahweh of armies,” its common usage in the post-exilic period may reflect a strong contrast between the Persian Emperor and Yahweh. It is Yahweh who is Almighty and the ruler of all rather than Darius. Yahweh of hosts reigns, not Darius.
Haggai’s message easily divides into two halves as each section begins with “Thus says Yahweh of hosts” (1:2, 7). The first section (Haggai 1:27-6) begins with a description of the situation (no house for Yahweh but paneled houses for the leaders) and ends with a call to “consider your ways.” The second section (Haggai 1:7-11) begins with a call to “consider your ways” and ends with a description of the situation (a drought upon their land). Each section has a dialogue, that is, Yahweh responds to what the people are saying (1:2; 1:9b), an exhortation to “consider” (1:5, 7), and a description of the impoverished condition of the people (1:6, 11).
Whose house lies in ruins (1:2-4)?
Consider your ways (1:5-6).
Consider your ways (1:7-9a).
Whose land experiences drought (1:9b-11)?
Just as God’s house lies in ruins (hareb), so also the land lies under a drought (horeb). The two are connected; so, “consider your ways.”
“These people,” Yahweh says, don’t think it is time to build “the house of Yahweh.” It is significant that Yahweh does not say “my people” but “these people.” This is a common expression in the prophets when God distances himself from the orientation of Israel (cf. Isaiah 7:16; 8:11). Yahweh feels dishonored and ignored because the temple still lies in ruins even after it was begun in 537 B.C.E. Over sixteen years later it is as if the work has not yet even started. We might imagine the divine tone here with the opening “these people…”
“These people” think that is not yet time to build the temple of God. Throughout history, and in our own lives, we have procrastinated answering God’s call because we have thought it better to wait. “It is not yet time,” we tell ourselves. God hears the dialogue of the people and rejects it. It is not a matter of timing, God notes, but one of priorities.
Haggai contrasts the house of God with the houses of (presumably) Zerubbabel and Joshua since it is unlikely that the common folk would have paneled houses. Haggai contrasts the luxury of the leader’s homes with the ruins of Yahweh’s house. This attention to their own homes rather than God’s says something about their priorities. The leaders enjoy luxury at the expense of God’s own dwelling. One might hear in this the echoes of David and Solomon who thought it a shame that they would have a house and God did not. Zerubbabel, from the house of David, is called to emulate his ancestors and rebuild the temple.
When Haggai calls them to “consider,” he uses a verb unique to him in the Hebrew Bible (and he uses four times—1:5, 7; 2:15, 18). We may variously translate it as mediate, ruminate, reflect. The word calls for introspection and consideration of the circumstances in which they find themselves. In the words of Aretha Franklin, “you better think about what you are trying to do me?”
If they consider their circumstances, they will recognize that everything is woefully inadequate. Their wages are insufficient for their spending. They wear clothes but are still cold. They plant but harvest little. They eat but are still hungry. They never have enough. God, in effect, says, “How’s that working for you?” No temple, no serenity; no temple, no satisfaction. Why? Because God has been placed on the backburner of your lives.
In the second section (1:7-11) the echoes of David and Solomon become clearer as Yahweh calls Judah to action. Rebuild the house. No doubt this involved using the stones of the ruins but explicitly they are told to replace the wood that was burned in the Babylonian destruction of the temple.
Significantly, Yahweh tells them why the temple is important. They should build God’s house “so that” Yahweh “may take pleasure in it and be honored” or glorified. Temple is not about stroking God’s ego. Rather, it is about God’s pleasure. God enjoys the communion, the fellowship, the gathering of his people. Going to temple—going to “church” (assembly)—enriches God’s joy as God communes with his people. In this God is glorified and honored. God is no mere spectator when his people assemble but a participant in the active communion among the gathered.
Consider what you are doing, Yahweh says. You expect much but receive little. Build the temple and enjoy God’s presence once again. Build the temple, honor God and God will renew the land. For just as the house of God lies in ruins (hareb),, so your land lies under a drought (horeb).
Palestine depends on fall and spring rains to plant and harvest the crops, but the summer crops would die without the morning dew. Judah presently experiences a drought because there has been no morning dew throughout the summer. While they had hoped for a rich harvest (“much”), they will harvest little because of the drought (horeb). Why? Because the house of God lies in ruins (hareb),.