Reading Haggai

Haggai is only known outside this small prophetic work in the history of Ezra (5:1-2; 6:14). Along with Zechariah, Haggai encourages the rebuilding of the temple which is completed in 515 B.C.E. The oracles of Haggai are specifically dated to the second year of the Persian Emperor Darius which is 520 B.C.E.

The Persian context is important. Cyrus (d. 530 B.C.E.) defeated the Babylonian Empire in 539 B.C.E. who then employed a religio-political strategy that permitted exiled peoples to return to their homelands and rebuild their religious sanctuaries. Judah, exiled in Babylon, was given permission to exercise this option in 539-537 B.C.E. When Cyrus died in battle, his son Cambyses became Emperor. After securing his position, he also conquered Egypt in 525 B.C.E. which was his father’s dream. While away in Egypt, Babylon revolted and Cambyses died en route to quell the rebellion. Darius, his leading general, assumed the reins of Emperor and put down the revolt in 522-521 B.C.E. In 519-518 B.C.E., Darius would put down another revolt in Egypt. This is the same Darius whom the Greeks would defeat at Marathon on the plains outside of Athens. Darius’s son, Xerxes (486-465 B.C.E.), would also attempt an occupation of Greece in 480-478 B.C.E. but he was defeated at Salamis.

This history is the setting in which Haggai prophecies. World powers are quaking—a revolt the year before his oracles in Babylon and a revolt in Egypt the year after. Judah is like a small province caught between competing world powers—a mouse between two cats. Judah is a powerless, backwater Persian province little larger than many US counties. The world powers surround them, and we wonder what a prophet of Yahweh might say in such a situation.

Haggai’s favorite name for God is “Yahweh of Hosts” (used 14 times). Yahweh has his own armies; he commands the cosmic armies that rule the earth as the messengers of Yahweh. The Persian Emperor may think he reigns over the earth, but the Hebrew prophet knows it is actually Yahweh who does.

Haggai’s oracle calls Judah to their vocation as worshippers of Yahweh, promises blessing in the execution of their work, and calls for purity as Yahweh’s people, priests and king. Haggai’s four oracles focus on their present circumstances of failed harvest and contrasts that with the blessing of a rebuilt temple which will become again the instrument of God’s presence among them. The four dated oracles, plus a narrative response to the first, are:

  1. Oracle One, dated August 30, 520 B.C.E. (1:1-11).
  2. Narrative Response by Judah, dated September 21, 520 B.C.E. (1:12-1:15).
  3. Oracle Two, dated October 27, 520 B.C.E. (2:1-9).
  4. Oracle Three, dated December 18, 520 B.C.E. (2:10-19).
  5. Oracle Four, dated December 18, 520 B.C.E. (2:20-23).

Boda (NIV Application Commentary on Haggai) argues that each of the oracles comes on a festival day in Judah when one would expect assemblies, sacrifices and celebration. But since there is no temple, there are no festivals. This may even be reflected in Haggai’s name which derives from the word for “feast” (hag).

  1. Oracle One: first day of the month, a New Moon Offering, anticipating the harvest of grapes and figs.
  2. Oracle Two: the twenty-first day of the month is the “penultimate [seventh]day of the Feast of Tabernacles” (Boda, 118) which celebrates the ingathering of the harvest.
  3. Oracles Three & Four: a temple rebuilding ritual three months after the beginning of the work common in the Ancient Near East.

The public festivals were occasions for Haggai’s preaching. But they were also moments within the rhythm of Israel’s calendar and life that pointed toward blessing and hope. Israel will yet again celebrate the redemption of God at the temple festivals just as they had done in the past. God seeks to renew his relationship with his people and give them a future despite the recent ugly past.

Haggai assures Judah that God has not forgotten them and God intends to bless them even as the world powers around them contest each other’s reigns. Despite the chaotic surroundings of the world powers, God will reign in Judah. Ultimately, God will restore honor and glory to Judah, the dwelling-place of God, and to the Davidic house. God is not finished with Israel.

If Judah was wondering God yet loved them as they returned from exile, Haggai provides a resounding “Yes.” At the same time, Haggai calls them to their covenantal responsibilities as the people of God.

With the people of Judah, we must ask ourselves, “Will we heed the call of God for renewal, worship and life in covenant with Yahweh?”

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