Tales of the Nevi'im - Haggai
The Tales of the Nevi’im are the Stories of the Prophets. In Hebrew navi (nah-vee') means prophet and the plural, prophets, is nevi'im (neh-vee-eem'). Israel had many prophets, some of whom we know from the Old Testament, others are lost to us in history. Many of Israel's prophets spoke to the people but didn't write anything down, likely because their message was meant for a specific people and time. Others proclaimed a message meant to instruct us as well. God spoke his word through these men for all people for all times, and we read them today as the books of the prophets in our Bibles. This series will explore their stories and message.
The Story of Haggai
The 6th century BC was an eventful time in the ancient world. In China, Confucius was born. He developed a system of belief and practice that influenced China for centuries. In Persia (modern-day Iran), Zoroaster (pronounced Zorro-as’-ter) founded a religion (Zoroastrianism) that impacted generations of Persian rulers. And in India, Guatama Buddha was born, the founder of Buddhism.
Meanwhile, in Israel, the Babylonians under king Nebuchadnezzar (pronounced Neb-you-kad-nez’-er) destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC. They tore down the walls, burned the temple, and deported a great number of the Israelites to Babylon. With the temple gone, there could be no more animal sacrifices. Sin offerings could no longer be made. The heart of Jewish faith and practice was pierced. The future of the Jewish people was in question. However, the Babylonian kings after Nebuchadnezzar rested on his laurels and became increasingly weak rulers. It was during this time that the Persian people, to the east of Babylon, grew in strength and began to challenge the Babylonian empire.
The Persian rulers were strong and aggressive. Cyrus ruled from 559-530 BC and conquered Babylon in 539, ending the Babylonian empire and establishing the Persians as the dominant power in the world for the next two centuries. You may find it interesting to know that the prophet Isaiah foretold the success of Cyrus 200 years earlier! Isaiah 45:1-4 says, “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him and to loose the belts of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed…For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me.” Amazing! Before Babylon ever came to power God ordained that king Nebuchadnezzar would execute judgment on Israel and that Cyrus the Persian would overthrow Babylon! The year after he conquered Babylon, Cyrus issued a decree (538 BC) allowing the Israelites to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple.
The son of Cyrus, Cambyses (pronounced Cam-bee’-zees), ruled after him from 530-522 BC. Afterwards Darius became king. The twenty-eight year-old Darius ruled from 522-486. He was an enlightened ruler, for his time, who thought that allowing people to return to their lands and worship their gods was the best way to insure peace and prosperity. It was Darius, in 520 BC, who offered funding to help rebuild the temple and sent back the sacred vessels used for worship that Nebuchadnezzar had taken when Jerusalem was destroyed.
It is in this very year, 520, that Haggai spoke to the exiles who had returned to Jerusalem to rebuild their lives and their faith.
Jerusalem in the time of Haggai was a ruined city. The inhabitants had no protective wall. They started to rebuild the temple but the work faltered as they also tried to make a living; they were working hard with little success.
In this short book, a mere 38 verses, Haggai issues a brief, direct, and specific message to the Israelites - “It’s time to rebuild the temple.” The book begins with Haggai addressing the governor Zerubbabel (pronounced Zair-ub-bab’-el) and the high priest Joshua. Because of the precise dating of verse 1, we even know the day he spoke to them – August 29, 520 BC! Haggai relays God’s message, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord.’ Then the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, ‘Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?’ Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Consider your ways’”(1:2-5).
The people did ‘consider their ways’ and responded: “Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, with all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the Lord their God, and the words of Haggai the prophet, as the Lord their God had sent him. And the people feared the Lord” (1:12). They began to rebuild the temple.
God encouraged them with these words,
“Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, declares the Lord. Be strong, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the Lord. Work, for I am with you, declares the Lord of hosts, according to the covenant I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not.” (2:4-5)
God even promises that the temple shall surpass its former glory: “The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts” (2:9).
After much hard work, the temple was completed in 516 BC. As a matter of historical fact, it was not nearly as grand as the original built by Solomon. Perhaps God’s promise referred to the work Herod the Great would do when he refurbished the temple in 20 BC, just before the birth of Jesus. By all accounts, Herod’s temple was indeed greater than Solomon’s. Or perhaps, and I think most likely, God’s promise refers to Jesus. Recall what Jesus said when he was in the temple, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). In the resurrection of Jesus we find true and lasting peace!
The book of Haggai ends with a promise to the governor Zerubbabel that God would turn the nations of the world upside down and that Zerubbabel would receive God’s favor (2:20-23). Zerubbabel did receive God’s blessing. In the short term, he saw success in rebuilding the temple and the faith of the people. In the long term, he became part of the lineage that led to Jesus.
Lessons and Themes
Israel was a nation defined by its God. When you stop to think about it, this is really remarkable and unique. Most nations are defined by ethnicity, or geography, or a particular system of government or a charismatic ruler. When the temple was destroyed and the law given to Moses after the exodus from Egypt (approximately 1400 BC) could no longer be fulfilled, the Jewish people underwent an identity crisis. It suddenly became clear to them that they existed because of their God and they existed for their God. The same is true for the Church. Christians live in many different nations, but we all find our identity in Christ.
The story of Haggai illustrates divine sovereignty and human responsibility. The phrase “Lord of hosts,” a title emphasizing God’s authority and power, occurs 14 times in 38 verses. We get a clear picture that God is the one raising and toppling empires. He is the one sustaining Israel. At the same time, Haggai emphasizes human responsibility to trust God, to work for his purposes, and to rebuild the temple. We will see this theme carried into the New Testament. For example, God is completely sovereign and sufficient for our salvation, we are saved by his grace, and at the same time, we are charged with the responsibility to carry out God’s work in our lives and in our world.
The Messiah will come from the line of David. God’s promise to David - that he would establish David’s throne forever - progresses in the story of Haggai. When Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed, it looked as though God’s promise was in vain. But God orchestrated the return of the faithful to Jerusalem and with Haggai’s encouragement, the temple was rebuilt. The people’s hopes were rekindled.
Questions for Further Reflection/Discussion:
Read 1 Peter 2:9-10. Christians are completely defined by Christ and what he has done. Without him, the church would not exist. Which is a greater part of your identity – being an American or being a Christian?
The theme of God’s sovereignty and our responsibility runs through the whole Bible. Sometimes it seems like a contradiction; for example, when we wrestle with the existence of evil, or oppression, or when we try to determine God’s plan for our future. Are you comfortable with the simultaneous truths that God controls the future and we are responsible to decide and to act? How do you reconcile this when you make decisions about your future?
Look at Matthew 1:2-17 (you can skip pronouncing the names!). Highlight in your Bible the names of David, Zerubbabel, and Jesus. David began the march toward the Messiah, Zerubbabel ‘restarted’ it after the exile, and Jesus fulfilled the promise. It always really strikes me how God foresaw events, sustained his people, and accomplished his purposes. Doe seeing this story from the past affect how you approach a future you cannot see? Do you worry about the future? What specifically?
Terry Feix is the Executive Pastor at Crossings Community Church in Oklahoma City and a regular writer at So We Speak. Follow him @TerryFeix on Twitter.
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