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Old Testament: Haggai

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JerusalemThe prophet Haggai, in 520 B.C.E., urges those who have returned from Babylonian exile, including Joshua the high priest and Zerubbabel the governor, to rebuild the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. Haggai blames their lack of prosperity on the fact that the temple still lies in ruins while they themselves live in paneled houses. The people are moved by Haggai's prophecy to start rebuilding the temple. Through Haggai, the Lord promises to be with the people and to make this second temple greater than the first. Haggai's book ends with a prophecy for Zerubbabel, a descendant of David. When the Lord defeats the nations, Zerubbabel will become like a "signet ring" on God's hand; he will be the Lord's chosen ruler.

So What?

Haggai gives us a glimpse into a critical period in Jewish history, when those who have returned from exile are struggling to reshape their identity as a people in the land of their ancestors. To help in forming that identity, Haggai looks to the past, evoking the Exodus from Egypt (2:5), and to the future--the vision of a glorious rebuilt temple (2:9) and a new Davidic ruler (2:23). Hope for the future rests on God's faithfulness in the past.

Where Do I Find It?

Haggai is the thirty-seventh book of the Old Testament. It is the tenth of the so-called "minor" (or shorter) prophets, the twelve books that make up the final portion of the Old Testament in Protestant Bibles.

Who Wrote It?

We don't know who compiled Haggai's prophecies into the book that bears his name, but the dominant "voice" in the book is that of Haggai himself. He was a prophet who lived in Judah in the years after the Babylonian exile. We don't know whether he was one of those who returned from exile in Babylon or whether he had remained in Judah during the exile. In any case, he was a figure of great influence in rebuilding the temple. Outside of the book of Haggai, he is referred to in Ezra 5:1 and 6:14 as a prophet.

When Was It Written?

The book of Haggai can be dated very accurately. According to several chronological notes in the book itself, Haggai prophesied in the latter half of the year 520 B.C.E. His prophecies must have been written down shortly thereafter.

What's It About?

The prophet Haggai in 520 B.C.E. exhorts the leaders and people who have returned from Babylonian exile to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, and they obey.

How Do I Read It?

Perhaps more than any other prophetic book, Haggai is based in a particular time and place: Judah in the latter half of 520 B.C.E. For that reason, it is necessary to know the historical circumstances of the book in order to read it with understanding. One should also pay attention to Haggai's focus on the future, his vision of a restored temple and a Davidic ruler. Such a vision inspired hope and a renewed sense of identity for a people newly returned from exile.

AUTHOR: Kathryn Schifferdecker, Associate Professor of Old Testament

I. A Prophetic Call to Rebuild the Temple (Haggai 1:1-11)
In the second year of King Darius, the sixth month, the first day of the month (August 29, 520 B.C.E.), the word of the Lord comes to the prophet Haggai, and he calls on Joshua the high priest and Zerubbabel the governor to rebuild the temple. The former exiles have not prospered, and Haggai blames the poor yield of the land on the fact that the temple still lies in ruins eighteen years after the end of the Babylonian exile.

II. The People and Leaders Obey (Haggai 1:12-15)
Joshua, Zerubbabel, and the people are stirred to obedience by Haggai's words, and they begin work on the temple. Haggai prophesies again to promise that the Lord will be with them.

III. Promise of a Glorious Second Temple (Haggai 2:1-9)
The word of the Lord comes to Haggai again, and he reassures the people that the second temple will be more glorious than the first. The Lord will "shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land" (2:6) and the nations, so that their treasure will come to Jerusalem and will fill the temple with splendor. The Lord will also grant prosperity to the people.

IV. A Ruling from the Priests (Haggai 2:10-19)
Haggai asks the priests for a ruling about what makes something clean or unclean. He then uses the ruling as an analogy to the present situation. Though the Lord had previously punished the people with agricultural disasters (blight, mildew, and hail) because the "work of their hands" was unclean, now that the foundation of the temple is laid, the Lord will bless them with economic and agricultural prosperity.

V. Zerubbabel, the Chosen One (Haggai 2:20-23)
On the day when the foundation of the temple is laid (December 18, 520 B.C.E.), almost four months after Haggai first prophesies, he speaks the last oracle recorded in his book. This oracle concerns Zerubbabel, the Davidic governor of the province. The Lord has chosen him to be a "signet ring," the future ruler on the day that the Lord defeats the nations.

AUTHOR: Kathryn Schifferdecker, Associate Professor of Old Testament

Haggai prophesies to a group of people who had returned to Judah from Babylonian exile. After Cyrus of Persia defeated Babylon, he allowed the exiles to return to Judah in 538 B.C.E. Those who first returned from exile, however, did not have an easy time of it. They met resistance from Samaritans who were living in Judah (Ezra 4:1-5). They also experienced economic hardship and agricultural losses (Haggai 1:6; 2:15-17). By 520 B.C.E., when Haggai prophesied, a second wave of exiles had returned to Judah under Joshua, the high priest, and Zerubbabel, the Davidic governor appointed by Persia. The temple, however, still lay in ruins, destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. The book of Haggai spans less than four months in the latter half of 520 B.C.E., when Haggai urged the leaders and people to rebuild the temple. His prophecies seem to have been effective, as over the course of those few months the foundation of the temple was laid. Within five years, the temple was finished and rededicated. Haggai is a contemporary of another prophet, Zechariah, whose prophecies also begin in 520 B.C.E. and continue until 518. Zechariah shares Haggai's concern for a rebuilt temple.

AUTHOR: Kathryn Schifferdecker, Associate Professor of Old Testament

Haggai and Zechariah. The book of Haggai is closely linked with Zechariah 1-8. The prophecies of Zechariah date from 520 B.C.E. (the year Haggai prophesies) to 518 B.C.E. Zechariah is a contemporary of Haggai and shares his concern for a rebuilt temple and a new messianic age under the leadership of Joshua and Zerubbabel. Haggai and Zechariah are named together as prophets in Ezra 5:1 and 6:14.

Priestly ruling. In Haggai 2:10-14, the prophet asks the priests for a ruling concerning ritual purity, then uses the ruling as an analogy for the people's current situation. Biblical scholars disagree as to what is meant by the analogy. Some argue that the people who are referenced as "unclean" in verse 14 are the Samaritans; others assert that it refers to the Jews. In any case, the meaning of the following verses is clear: while the temple lay in ruins, the Lord was displeased and struck crops with blight, mildew, and hail. From the day that the temple's foundation was laid, however, the Lord promises to bless the people with prosperity.

The temple. Haggai is an important book for understanding the centrality of the temple in Jewish life and faith. The exiles have returned to the land, planted crops, and rebuilt homes for themselves; but as long as the temple still lies in ruins their identity as a people remains unformed. Haggai promises prosperity only when the temple is rebuilt.

AUTHOR: Kathryn Schifferdecker, Associate Professor of Old Testament

Judgment and hope. Haggai gives the people a word of judgment and a word of hope. The returned exiles struggle with many challenges, including economic hardships and agricultural blights. The prophet provides a reason for the hardships: the Lord's temple still lies in ruins while the people live in houses (1:9). The remedy, then, is clear: the people must rebuild the temple; then the Lord will bless them with prosperity. Not only that, but the Lord will defeat the nations around them and will reestablish a Davidic ruler on the throne. The people will be as they once were, worshiping at the temple and ruled by a descendant of David. Such is the promise Haggai gives the people, and it inspires them to rebuild the temple.

The promise of prosperity. Haggai promises that rebuilding the temple will usher in an era of prosperity for the people. This should not be seen as proposing a bargain with God that will ensure immediate divine favor, since that is explicitly rejected by biblical theology (Deuteronomy 10:17-18; Psalm 50:12-15). A rebuilt temple will be the place of God's presence, and God's presence brings the fullness of God's promises. The promise of prosperity rejoices in God's good gifts in the present, but also looks to the future ("On that day"--2:23) in which finally all things will be transformed into what God intends them to be. The greater splendor of the new temple and the overthrow of all competing nations are poetic visions of God's perfect rule to come. The assurance of that promise brings hope and life in the present, despite the real difficulties experienced by the returning exiles.

AUTHOR: Kathryn Schifferdecker, Associate Professor of Old Testament