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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary

- Haggai

by Daniel Whedon



The Prophet.

OF the personal life of the prophet Haggai scarcely anything is known. He is mentioned again only in Ezra 5:1; Ezra 6:14, as encouraging, in conjunction with Zechariah, the rebuilding of the temple. In some of the ancient versions he is named as the author of a number of psalms (LXX., 137, 145-148; Vulgate, 111, 145; Peshitto, 125, 126, 145-148), but little confidence can be placed in these traditions.

The meaning and etymology of the name is uncertain. Some render it festival or festive, and they infer from this that the prophet was born on a feast day, while others think it to be indicative “of the joyous character of the predictions which he delivered.” Others consider the name in its present form an abbreviation, and they give its original meaning as feast of Jehovah, or Jehovah hath girded; however, the derivation and significance of the name are still doubtful. It is worthy of note that it has been found on a tablet from the fifth century B.C. unearthed at Nippur.

Haggai appears upon the scene suddenly about 520 B.C. and disappears just as suddenly. Nothing is known of his life before or after his preaching. Chiefly on the basis of Haggai 2:3, it has been suggested that he was born in Judah before the catastrophe of 586, and that he was one of a small company that had seen the former temple in its glory. If so, he must have been an old man when he prophesied, and this supposition agrees with the brevity of his public activity; a short time after 520 Zechariah appears as the leading prophet in Jerusalem (Zechariah 7:1 ff.).

Later tradition has it that he came from Babylon when a young man, that he prophesied concerning the return, saw the temple built, died in Jerusalem, and was buried near the priests. Hesychius of Jerusalem expands this tradition and says that he was born in Babylon of the tribe of Levi, and that the latter fact accounts for his being buried with the priests.

Little value can be ascribed to these extra-biblical traditions; hence we must be content with the few hints given by the Book of Haggai itself, and the only information that we get there is that he delivered four prophecies in the second year of Darius, king of Persia, and that his supreme interest lay in the rebuilding of the temple of Jehovah.

The Time of the Prophet.

1 . Date. The four prophecies of Haggai were uttered in the second year of Darius Hystaspis, king of Persia, that is, in 520 B.C. During that year he spoke on four occasions, on the first day of the sixth month (Haggai 1:1), on the twenty-first day of the seventh month (Haggai 2:1), and on the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month (Haggai 2:10; Haggai 2:20).

2 . Historical Situation. In considering the historical situation out of which grew the utterances of Haggai and Zechariah it may be well to begin with the first return from exile. Babylon fell into the hands of Cyrus in 538; soon after he gave permission to the Jews to return to their former homes, and in the spring of 537 a large company, between forty and fifty thousand, started on the homeward journey. On reaching Jerusalem they immediately set up the altar of burnt offerings (Ezra 3:2 ff.; compare Haggai 2:14), and according to Ezra 3:8-13, they laid, in the second year, the foundation of the temple.

Ezra 3:8-13, is not a contemporaneous document; on the other hand, the utterances of Haggai and Zechariah and Ezra v are thought to come from a period near the occurrence of the events recorded there. These last-mentioned writings seem to place the laying of the foundation of the temple in the year 520; they say nothing, directly or indirectly, about an earlier undertaking of the same sort. As a result many scholars hold that the statements in Ezra 3:8-13, concerning the laying of the temple foundations are not historical (see further below). But this is not a necessary conclusion; the silence of the two prophets may be purely accidental. During the sixteen years of inactivity the foundation must have gone to ruin, so that in 520 there was nothing left to build upon. Why should the prophets refer to the former undertaking, which ended in failure, and thus remind the people of the obstacles which compelled them to desist from the work? There certainly is nothing either in Haggai or Zechariah to disprove the laying of the foundation at the earlier date.

But if the foundation was laid in 536 the cessation of the work may easily be accounted for: (1) During their stay in Babylon the exiles had learned to do without the temple; only the religious zealots, always in the minority, would miss it. (2) The opposition of the Samaritans and other surrounding tribes would furnish a ready excuse to the indifferent Jews. (3) The nonfulfillment of the earlier prophecies concerning the glories of the restored community would develop religious indifference and skepticism. (4) Limited resources and poverty resulting from the failure of the crops (Haggai 1:6) and from the devastation wrought by the Persian armies on their way to Egypt could and would be urged. It is not difficult, then, to see how building operations begun in 536 might come to a complete standstill.

While the postexilic community was struggling against great odds to establish itself in and near Jerusalem, important events were taking place in the outside world. Cyrus died in 529, leaving to his son Cambyses an empire extending from Lydia in the west to India in the east. Cambyses, who reigned from 529 to 521, added Egypt to his possessions. He was followed by a usurper, Gaumata, who pretended to be Smerdis, the son of Cyrus, but after a reign of seven months he was assassinated, and Darius Hystaspis was raised to the throne. He found the empire in a state of extreme restlessness; rebellions broke out everywhere; province after province revolted; in Babylon two pretenders attempted, in rapid succession, to throw off the Persian rule. The whole empire was shaken from one end to the other.

Haggai and Zechariah, like their predecessors in the prophetic office, read the signs of the times. To them the widespread rebellions were an indication that the doom of the Persian empire was at hand (Haggai 2:6-7; Haggai 2:22), and that the seventy years (Jeremiah 25:11) were drawing to a close; they were also convinced that, with the hostile world power removed, the way was clear for the establishment of the kingdom of God. But in the thought of the two prophets the establishment of the Messianic kingdom was closely connected with the rebuilding of the temple and the exaltation of a descendant of David. Hence the earnest exhortations to resume building operations and the promises to Zerubbabel, the chosen servant of Jehovah.

At least a brief reference must be made to an entirely different view of the progress of events during the latter part of the sixth century B.C. a view first presented with great skill by Koster, and accepted by Cheyne, at least in part, by H.P. Smith, and others. These scholars believe that the compiler of Ezra Nehemiah misunderstood the course of history in two important points: 1. The return from exile and the building of the temple; 2. The date of Ezra’s mission. The latter is thought to have taken place if ever either in connection with the second visit of Nehemiah, about 432, or subsequent to it, perhaps as late as the beginning of the fourth century; and it is denied that in 537 a general return from Babylon occurred, or that the temple was rebuilt by returned exiles. Persons left behind in 586, or their descendants, are thought to be the temple builders exhorted by Haggai and Zechariah. Cheyne would admit that a few exiles did return in 537, but he denies that they had any appreciable influence in the days of the two prophets.

The chief argument in favor of this view is the silence of Haggai and Zechariah concerning a return. This leaves as the only source of information the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, compiled about 350 B.C. by the compiler of the Books of Chronicles. But, the argument continues, a comparison of Chronicles with Kings reveals the unreliability of the former, and this involves the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which come from the same author. Koster then subjects Ezra Nehemiah to a minute critical analysis and reaches the conclusion that the sections which contain the references to the return of 537 are so late that their testimony cannot stand against the silence of the two prophets who prophesied so soon after the alleged date of the return.

Limited space does not permit a lengthy discussion of the subject; it may be sufficient to say here that the arguments are by no means conclusive, and that they have failed to convince the great majority of Old Testament scholars. In the words of G.A. Smith, “We must hold that the attempt to discredit the tradition of an important return of exiles under Cyrus has not been successful; that such a return remains the more probable solution of an obscure and difficult problem; and that therefore the Jews who with Zerubbabel and Joshua are represented in Haggai and Zechariah as building the temple in the second year of Darius, 520, had come up from Babylon about 537.”

Little can be gathered either from Haggai or from Zechariah concerning religious and moral conditions in Jerusalem in 520 B.C. The one outstanding feature seems to be religious indifference, due to the causes already mentioned, especially to disappointment. The great prophet of the exile had pictured the future in the brightest colors, and thus had raised the hopes and expectations of the exiles to the highest pitch; but when the years passed without bringing a realization of these hopes, indifference and skepticism settled upon them. Why serve Jehovah, who failed to fulfill the promises made by his prophets? For this reason the people looked after their own comforts, while they neglected the interests of the sanctuary (Haggai 1:9), excusing themselves by saying that the time for the building of the temple had not yet arrived (Haggai 1:2). On the other hand, they did bring sacrifices and offerings (Haggai 2:14), and the ritual law was observed in other respects (Haggai 2:11-13). Zechariah 7:8 show also that feasts and fasts were kept (compare Haggai 1:1). Otherwise we are left in the dark concerning conditions in Judah at this time, for the abuses condemned so severely by Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malachi seem to have developed subsequently to Haggai and Zechariah (see introduction to Malachi).

The Book of the Prophet.

1 . Contents. The attempts of a few recent writers, such as Boehme and Andre, to prove that Haggai 2:10-19, or Haggai 2:20-23, come from a writer other than the author of the rest of the book, cannot be considered successful; indeed, there seems no reason for questioning the integrity of the book. On the other hand, it is quite probable that we have in the two chapters only summaries of Haggai’s utterances, put in their present form either by Haggai himself or by a contemporary who desired to give an account of the prophet’s efforts toward bringing about the rebuilding of the temple. The latter alternative accounts more naturally for the presence of the historical section, as well as for the arrangement of the entire book.

The book contains four separate utterances, Haggai 1:1-11; Haggai 2:1-19; Haggai 2:20-23, each one dealing more or less directly with the rebuilding of the temple, and an historical section (Haggai 1:12-15), which describes the effects of the first discourse.

The first address (Haggai 1:1-11) was delivered on the first day of the sixth month of the second year of Darius, king of Persia, and was intended primarily for Zerubbabel and Joshua, the civil and ecclesiastical heads of the community (Haggai 1:1). The prophet rebukes the religious indifference of the people, which has caused them to erect comfortable houses for themselves, while they have neglected the house of their God (Haggai 1:2-4). He urges them to stop and consider the disappointments and calamities of the past, which have been divine visitations for their religious apathy. If they would find relief they must restore speedily the dwelling place of Jehovah (Haggai 1:5-11).

The preaching of Haggai stirred the consciences of leaders and people, so that “they feared before Jehovah” (Haggai 1:12). When the prophet saw the revival of interest he changed his message of rebuke to one of encouragement, promising that Jehovah would be with them (Haggai 1:13). Whereupon, on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month, the people began to make preparation for the rebuilding of the house of Jehovah (Haggai 1:14-15).

The second address (Haggai 2:1-9), a message of encouragement for the builders, was delivered on the twenty-first day of the seventh month. When the first enthusiasm had died down the people became aware of the difficulties confronting them. Their numbers were small, the building material was costly and had to be brought, from a distance, their resources were meager, and, to make matters worse, the surrounding communities did all in their power to prevent the completion of the work. Under these circumstances the religious fervor of some grew cold, and all were in danger of losing heart. To the discouraged builders Haggai addresses himself, “Be strong,… for I am with you, saith Jehovah of hosts” (Haggai 2:1-4). The present outlook may be dark, but there is no ground for discouragement, for the covenant made at the time of the Exodus is still in force, and Jehovah will be with his people. In the end the new temple, enriched by the wealth of the nations, that are about to be shaken violently, shall be more glorious than that of Solomon (Haggai 2:5-9).

The third utterance (Haggai 2:10-19) also is a message of hope, spoken on the day on which the foundation of the temple was laid, three months after the first steps toward the rebuilding had been taken. New questions had arisen among the people. Were they really as bad as Haggai had tried to make out in his first discourse? And if not, how much truth was there in his statements that their calamities were due to neglect of the temple, and in his promise that, if they would build the temple, the divine blessings would be restored? These doubts and questionings the prophet seeks to silence by propounding to the priests certain questions concerning the relative power of infection possessed by clean and unclean things. The priests reply that the unclean is more contagious than the clean (Haggai 2:10-13). This answer the prophet applies to the case in hand. True, they offer gifts, but they are insufficient to overcome the unclean in their lives, especially the indifference toward the temple; on the contrary, their uncleanness makes even their sacrifices an abomination in the sight of Jehovah (14). Once more he discusses the relation between their calamities and their neglectfulness, and shows that the former are the direct result of the latter; then he closes with the promise that henceforth the divine favor will rest upon them (Haggai 2:15-19).

The fourth utterance (Haggai 2:20-23) is Messianic in character. It was delivered on the same day as the preceding, and promises the exaltation of Zerubbabel, the prince of David’s house. In the second discourse the prophet announced the shaking of the nations of the earth (Haggai 2:6-7); this announcement he repeats, and he promises that the shaking will pave the way for the establishment of the kingdom of God under the rule of the Messianic king, Zerubbabel, the servant and chosen one of Jehovah (Haggai 2:20-23).


1. The people’s selfishness Haggai 1:1-4

2. The divine judgment for religious apathy Exhortation to resume building operations Haggai 1:5-11


1. The people’s fear Haggai 1:12

2. Promise of divine co-operation Haggai 1:13

3. Beginning of the work Haggai 1:14-15


1. Jehovah’s presence with the builders Haggai 2:1-4

2. The temple’s future glory Haggai 2:5-9


1. The unclean more contagious than the clean Haggai 2:10-13

2. The people’s offerings cannot atone for their neglectfulness Haggai 2:14

3. Indifference calamity; Zeal prosperity Haggai 2:15-19


1. The overthrow of the nations Haggai 2:20-22

2. The establishment of the kingdom of God and the exaltation of Zerubbabel Haggai 2:23

3. Teaching. Haggai was, in a very real sense, a man of one idea. From beginning to end he urged, with simple words of warning, promise, and exhortation, without conventional eloquence or poetic flights of the imagination, the speedy restoration of the dwelling place of Jehovah; and the success which attended his exhortations sufficiently justifies the use of what has been called a “meager and starved” style. “One does not expect it otherwise, when hungry men speak to each other of their duty.”

Of the truths emphasized by the prophet the following deserve special notice: (1) The unique place assigned to the temple in the religious life of the Jews. The pre-exilic prophets also considered the temple the dwelling place of Jehovah, but their teaching dwelt almost exclusively upon weightier spiritual and ethical matters. With Haggai the rebuilding of the temple is of primary importance; it does not follow, however, that his religious capacity was inferior to theirs. The change in emphasis was due rather to a change in conditions. The Hebrew prophets were raised up primarily to meet the problems of their own day and generation. Now conditions in Jerusalem after the exile were far different from those in the eighth century B.C.; as a prophet of Jehovah, Haggai must adapt himself and his message to the changed conditions; he must interpret religion “in accordance with the needs of a new age.” The supreme need of the hour was a visible, earthly temple. True, some prophets speak of a time when a house made with hands will be needed no longer (Isaiah 66:1-2), but the Jews of the latter part of the sixth century were not yet prepared to grasp this lofty conception of the presence of Jehovah. As the ark in the ages gone by, so now the temple was the outward symbol of the presence of Jehovah, and if the Jews were to continue the worship of Jehovah they still needed a material temple. Besides, with the central national government gone, a new bond was needed to draw together the different elements in the community itself as well as the exiles scattered among the nations. In a religious community what could serve this purpose better than a common center of worship, a place to which might turn the hearts of the faithful Jews, even from the uttermost parts of the earth, assured that there they could meet their God? Is it, then, too much to say that, humanly speaking, the very existence of the Jewish religion was dependent upon the rebuilding of the temple? But if this is true, Haggai, by pleading so persistently for the restoration of the temple, did a service of incalculable moment. Surely he cannot be held responsible for the illegitimate exaggeration of his teaching by subsequent generations. (2) Haggai calls attention to the covenant relation between Jehovah and Israel, and to the former’s continued care for the latter (Haggai 2:5); this covenant he declares will continue forever (Haggai 1:13; Haggai 2:4). (3) He agrees with the pre-exilic prophets in declaring that sacrifice is not the essential thing in the sight of God (Haggai 2:14). (4) He shares the older prophets’ ideas concerning calamity and prosperity. The former he considers an expression of the divine wrath, a punishment for sin; the latter an expression of the divine favor, a reward for piety (Haggai 1:6-11; Haggai 2:15-19). (5) He expects a great world judgment which will result in the overthrow of the nations; this overthrow to clear the way for the establishment of the kingdom of God upon the earth (Haggai 2:6-7; Haggai 2:21-22). (6) His Messianic hope centers around an offspring of the dynasty of David, Zerubbabel, who is the servant of Jehovah, his chosen one, the object of his affection (Haggai 2:23); he also thinks of Jehovah as ruling forever in the temple (Haggai 2:9). (7) Of great significance is the universalism of Haggai. In Haggai 2:7, he expresses the hope that the nations of the earth, overawed by Jehovah’s majesty and power, will recognize his supremacy and will bring their precious things as offerings to him.

The presentation of these truths is highly colored by the prophet’s one idea. He alludes to the covenant only to encourage the people to greater zeal in their building operations; sacrifice he mentions to show that it cannot atone for their neglect of the temple. Their calamity or prosperity is determined by their attitude toward the restoration of the house of God, the overthrow and conversion of the nations will result in the enriching of the temple; the establishment of the kingdom of God and the exaltation of Zerubbabel will be the supreme manifestations of the divine favor, but they will be theirs only on the condition that they build speedily a dwelling place for Jehovah.

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