Haggai—along with Zechariah and later Malachi—preached to the post-exilic Jewish community who had returned to the land of promise after 70 years of expatriation (Ezra 5:1; 6:14). The Babylonian captivity was one of the lowest points in Israel’s checkered history. Almost every prophet before Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi warned the nation that this judgment would come unless they repented and turned back to the Lord. They did not repent, and the judgment came, resulting in a ruined city and razed temple. But now the 70 years of retribution had been accomplished, and a new day was dawning.
In 537 BC Zerubbabel, a descendant of David and ancestor of Jesus, led the first wave of expatriates back to Israel in response to the decree of Cyrus, the Persian king that God used to reverse the curse of the captivity and restore the people to the land of their inheritance (Ezra 1:1–4). Cyrus even subsidized their journey and plans for revitalization. Hope was high that God would bless with restoration and revival.
The physical restoration of the city was a crucial component in the development of God’s unfailing purpose of redemption in preparing the way for the coming Christ. According to prophecy, there had to be a Jerusalem and temple in place when the Messiah came (Mal 3:1). Therefore, the first order of business for Zerubbabel and the hopeful remnant was to rebuild the fallen temple. The book of Ezra records that at first progress on the project was good. The people were excited, unified, and hopeful. But soon there was external opposition, beginning with misunderstandings, and escalating to rumors, accusations, and threats. The opposition became so intense that the worked ceased. That led to internal problems as apathy and carelessness replaced the initial enthusiasm and diligence. The worked had ceased, and worse yet, nobody seemed to care. Involvement with the issues of life took precedence over work for God’s kingdom.
In 520 BC (the second year of Darius, the Persian king) God raised up two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, to address the apathetic and self-absorbed community, inspiring them to a renewed dedication and resolve for the work of the kingdom. Haggai, whose name means “festal one,” was anything but festive as he preached to this people with skewed priorities. His reference to the glory of the pre-exilic temple (Hag 2:3) suggests that he was among those who had seen it, thus putting him most likely in his seventies when God used him to preach this short series of messages. Nothing is known about him or his ministry before this occasion, but in fulfilling this divine commission he wasted no time and minced no words. In four short sermons, he got right to the point. These sermons, that he dated, spanned a period of four months, and nothing is known about him or his ministry after this occasion. His sermons were dated, but they are not outdated. Haggai impressed upon his congregation who had lost their vision that there is nothing more important than kingdom work. That message remains relevant today. He, indeed, “spoke to the people with the LORD’s message” (Hag 1:13).
Who Wrote Haggai?
Little is known about the prophet, but Haggai (“festal one”) is the undisputed author of the book that bears his name.
When Was Haggai Written?
Haggai dates his prophecy to the second year of Darius, the Persian king. In addition, he specifically dates his individual sermons by month and day. The written prophecy spans a four-month period (roughly corresponding to September through December) in the year 520 BC.
What Is the Primary Theme of Haggai?
The central emphasis of the book is the rebuilding of the temple.
Haggai was written to motivate the people to regain the vision of God’s kingdom and to convince them to put God first.
“For thus says the Lord of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the Lord of hosts. 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.”
— Haggai 2:6–9 ESV
Based on the structural markers of dates and claims of the Word of God coming on that date (1:1; 2:1; 2:10; 2:20). Note that 1:15 and 2:18 specify dates but make no claim of God’s Word coming on that day.
I. Loss of the Vision: Rebuke and Response (1:1–15)
II. Focus of the Vision: Encouragements about the Temple (2:1–9)
III. Renewal of the Vision: Reasons for Rebuilding (2:10–19)
IV. Reality of the Vision: Assurances about the Future (2:20–23)
Loss of the Vision: Rebuke and Response (1:1–15)
Chapter 1 records Haggai’s first sermon (1:1–11) and the people’s response to it (1:12–15). He sternly rebuked them for their loss of vision in failing to be engaged in the work of rebuilding the temple, and the people responded positively in obedience to the “voice of the Lord” and “the words of Haggai” (1:12).
The Rebuke (1:1–11)
On the basis of Ezra’s history that chronicles the remnant’s return to the land in response to Cyrus’s degree (538 BC), the initial work on the temple, the opposition that led to the work’s cessation, and the beginning of Haggai’s preaching in the second year of Darius (520 BC), a conservative estimation would be that there was no temple construction work done for ten to fifteen years. During that period, priorities shifted from taking care of God’s work to taking care of self. Haggai’s first sermon directly addressed the problem of skewed priorities.
Even the timing of Haggai’s message on the first day of the month made a salient point. According to the divinely revealed liturgy, special sacrifices and trumpet music were to be offered on the first day of the month as a memorial before the Lord (Num 10:10; 28:11–15). But without a temple, the celebration was impossible because sacrifices could not be offered. So, on a day when the temple was needed, Haggai rebuked the people because there was no temple. A reevaluation of priorities was in order. Twice in this short sermon, Haggai told the people, “Consider your ways” (Hag 1:5, 7) or more literally, “Set your heart upon your ways.” This is a Hebrew way of referring to thoughts (the mind), feelings (the emotions), and behavior (the will).
Work on the temple had ceased through no fault of their own, but the forced delay gradually caused the people to lose their vision and sense of mission. With his prophetic insight, Haggai identified two errors that marked this loss of vision.
First, the people reinterpreted God’s Word by saying it was not time to rebuild the temple (1:2. A common and comfortable resolution when experience clashes with creed is to tweak the creed to make it consistent with experience. They assumed that if God really wanted them to build the temple, opposition could not have hindered the project. Since nothing can frustrate God’s will (their creed), the only feasible explanation was that it was not God’s will—notwithstanding how clear the evidence (their reinterpretation; see Isa 44:28; Ezra 1:1–4). Redefining doctrine to make it correspond to experience makes it easier to believe. If it really was time to rebuild, there would be no opposition or struggle. There was opposition, so it was not the time after all.
A common and comfortable resolution when experience clashes with creed is to tweak the creed to make it consistent with experience.
Second, they redirected their efforts to personal survival and comfort (Hag 1:4–6, 9–11). The Lord’s house remained in ruins, but they had paneled their houses with cedar planks, perhaps even with the planks that had been stockpiled for temple construction (1:4). Priorities shifted from kingdom work to personal concerns. Verse 6 vividly describes the consequences of these misplaced priorities. Investments were not profitable (much sowing, but little harvest); the necessities of life (food, drink, and clothing) were never enough; they lived “paycheck to paycheck” (wages were put in bags with holes). Haggai made it clear that putting self first is always self-defeating. Even more to the point, the prophet declared that this frustration (looking for much and finding little) was due to Lord’s blowing on their efforts because they had abandoned the temple work (1:9).
Ironically, even though these people were residing in the Promised Land with all of its potential blessing, their disobedience subjected them to the curse. The conditions of drought described in verses 10 and 11 echo Deuteronomy 28:38–40 in detailing the kind of chastisement inflicted upon covenant breakers. Not having God and kingdom-work as the main priority in life is serious. Putting God first equates to obeying the greatest of all the commandments to love God totally (Deut 6:5). Not putting him first equates to the greatest sin.
The experience of the curse conditions, however, could be reversed if they redirected their efforts back to the Lord. In verse 8, the Lord assured them by his solemn declaration that he would be pleased and glorified if they returned to the work of rebuilding the temple. Haggai’s rebuke contains a word of hope.
The Response (1:12–15)
The Babylonian exile occurred because the pre-exilic people did not respond properly to the prophets who consistently warned them about the coming judgment (see Jer 7:13; 26:3). The response of the post-exilic community to whom Haggai was preaching was happily different. Zerubbabel, the civil leader, and Joshua, the religious leader, led the people to respond positively to Haggai’s pointed sermon in three ways. First, they obeyed. They equated Haggai’s words with the very words of the Lord just as the Thessalonians later regarded the words of Paul (1Thes 2:13). Obeying God equates to loving God, and loving God evinces correct priorities. With their priorities realigned, self-interests would give way to the kingdom work.
Second, they feared the Lord. Consciousness of the Lord’s presence (Hag 1:13) warranted their fear. Fearing God is living in the reality of God and factoring him into all the issues of life. It affects both attitude and action. Fearing the Lord puts things in the proper perspective and corrects skewed priorities, providing a strong motive to the kind of action that pleases the Lord—in this case temple construction.
Fearing God is living in the reality of God and factoring him into all the issues of life.
Third, they became doers of the word. Haggai was the preacher, but it was not his eloquence that persuaded the people to act. The Lord stirred them up. He aroused them, causing them to put into motion Haggai’s convicting word. Haggai’s preaching was the means God used to achieve his purpose (see Phil 2:13). Through Haggai’s preaching and God’s empowering, the people regained the lost vision and gave themselves once again to the work. This is a vivid reminder that sermons without the accompanying activity of God’s Spirit are powerless.
Haggai preached this message on the first day of the month (Hag 1:1), but it was not until the twenty-fourth day of the same month that the people actually returned to the work site (1:15). Their conviction and resolve to obey was most likely concurrent with the sermon, but the work had been idle for so long that some time and preparations were required to gear-up for the work. But the sermon had the desired effect; the temple was coming.
Focus of the Vision: Encouragements about the Temple (2:1–9)
Haggai 2:1–9 records the prophet’s second sermon on the twenty-first day of the seventh month, almost a full month after the commencement of the temple reconstruction. The people’s response to Haggai’s first sermon was positive and prompt. Happily, the work was progressing, but discouragement began to overshadow the progress. Although the people retained their vision for the temple project, the vision had blurred and needed refocusing. Haggai’s first message to this congregation was a rebuke, but this a time a word of encouragement. Three thoughts sum up this reassuring message.
The Problem (2:1–3)
According to Ezra 3:11–12, the initial reaction to the laying of the temple’s foundation was mixed: some rejoiced and others lamented. That was the dual reaction before the Samaritan opposition that led to the cessation of the work, and the discouragement component apparently resurfaced once the work resumed—at least among those old enough to remember what Solomon’s temple looked like. That this encouraging sermon dates to the seventh month is appropriate since it was in the seventh month that Solomon dedicated the first temple (1Kgs 8:2). That anniversary coupled with the sight of what was obviously an inferior structure exasperated the sense of disappointment—it was nothing in comparison. Instead of looking forward they were looking backward, and everything became out of focus.
When they put themselves first, the work suffered; when they put themselves down, the work seemed pointless.
Whereas Haggai’s first sermon concerned the problem of skewed priorities, he now addresses the problem of a skewed view of service. They estimated the value of their service by comparing it with someone else’s: Solomon’s. Undisputedly, what they were doing would not come close to matching the grandeur of what Solomon had constructed. When they put themselves first, the work suffered; when they put themselves down, the work seemed pointless. Comparing self with others is never wise (2Cor 10:12). The value of service is not to be determined by comparison with others but by conformity to God’s will. God’s will for them was to build this second temple; that needed to be the point of focus rather than what used to be.
The Promise (2:4–5)
God encouraged and exhorted the people to fix their focus on the work of rebuilding by twice pledging his presence with them. In verse 4, the Lord says, “I am with you.” In Hebrew this is a verbless clause which does not designate the tense of the implied verb. The temporal ambiguity would reinforce the promise: “I have been, am, and will be with you.” His presence had been and would continue to be constant. The second assurance of his presence suggests the same thought. Verse 5 says literally that “my Spirit is standing in your midst.” In Hebrew, “is standing” is a participle which underscores the continuance of the verbal action: Without interruption, God’s Spirit had been with them, and nothing could or would disrupt that special communing relationship.
The Lord backs up this promise with the thrice repeated statement in verse 4, “the utterance or oracle of the Lord.” This is a technical expression that assures the absolute certainty of the declaration, and its repetition further heightens assurance. Even more significant is that God vouchsafes his abiding presence on the basis of the covenant he initiated with the nation at its inception when he delivered them from the bondage of Egypt (Hag 2:5). See Exodus 29:45–46 where God assured the generation commissioned with building the Tabernacle (itself a symbol of God’s presence) that he would dwell among them. Now, many years later, the Lord confirms to the generation commissioned with rebuilding the Temple (a symbol of God’s presence) that nothing had changed. He is still with his people. That the New Testament refers to believers as the temple of God (2Cor 6:16; 1Cor 6:19) should encourage the church that God is still with his people.
Based on the fact of his presence, God issues three imperatives to the people that will keep their focus on the work at hand: be strong, work, and do not fear. Consciousness of God’s presence affects both attitude and actions. The first command, “be strong” occurs three times, personally to Zerubbabel and Joshua and then to all the people. Referring to mental rather than physical strength, the idea is to be courageous or to have courage. This attitude is not the expression of self-confidence but of faith that God’s presence would guarantee success. The second command was to work. They were to be doers of the word; God expected them to act in response to his promise. The third command was a prohibition against fear. Invariably, when God tells his people not to fear, they are in circumstances that are dangerous or threatening; from every natural perspective they would have every right to fear. But faith is not a natural response. In one way or another what is feared determines behavior. Fearing God or being aware of his presence dispels every other reason to fear. Focusing on the Lord blurs everything else.
The Prospect (2:6–9)
The last point in Haggai’s sermon is the main point. Haggai’s first point addressed the problem of looking back, and his last point directs their vision forward. They assumed the best was behind them; Haggai declared the best is yet to be. In appearance, the temple-under-construction was not going to match the splendor of Solomon’s, but in reality, the glory of the rebuilt temple was going to surpass the former (Hag 2:9). The declaration of the Lord of Hosts guaranteed it. This title of the Lord puts in bold his power and authority; he is Commander-in-Chief of all the armies of creation that are at his disposal to do his will.
Indeed, he was about to interrupt all of creation to accomplish his special purpose of filling this temple with glory (2:6–7). Such cataclysmic events often accompany special manifestations of God’s presence (see for instance Isa 64:1–2). Nothing remains the same when God appears. Hebrews 12:25–28 provides a divinely inspired clue as to the specific expression of this divine presence when it alludes to verse 6 in the context of rejecting Jesus. Indeed, Haggai is about to reveal the most stupendous descension of God in history: the incarnation of the Son of God. Nothing remained the same when Jesus came.
Haggai links God’s filling the temple with glory with the coming of “the treasures of all nations” (Hag 2:7). The interpretive question is whether the word “treasure” or “desire” refers to the desirable things or wealth of the Gentiles or to Christ. Parallel texts reveal that Gentile wealth will indeed come to the coffers of God’s kingdom (Isa 60:5; 61:6; Zech 14:14). But it seems that in this context, the glory that fills the temple has nothing to do with silver or God. Verse 8 says that all the silver and gold belong to the Lord, so he doesn’t need help to bankroll the project.
It is better to see Christ as the desire, whose presence will come suddenly to this temple (Mal 3:1) and who will fill the house with glory. The Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple were engulfed in the Shekinah glory cloud of God’s presence. But this temple, though outwardly inferior, would be graced with the physical presence of Immanuel. That would be incomparable glory and accomplished peace (Hag 2:9). The main point of the second sermon is that God has a purpose for his people greater than their perceptions and expectations. The second temple would have greater glory because it would be the temple to which the Prince of Peace would come. Having a vision of the coming Christ would keep their focus sharp.
Renewal of the Vision: Reasons for Rebuilding (2:10–19)
Haggai preached his third and fourth sermons on the same day (2:10; 2:20). These sermons marked the end of his inspired career and the beginning of a special administration of God’s blessing. Construction on the temple recommenced in response to Haggai’s first sermon, but there were a couple of things that Haggai wanted them to consider (literally, “to set the heart upon,” 2:15, 18) as reasons to keep on building.
The Consequences of Sin (2:10–17)
Haggai describes the infectious nature of sin by referring to some of the Levitical laws of cleanness and uncleanness (see Lev 11–15; Deut 14). These laws, though complicated, taught the vital lesson that fellowship with God demands purity. To be unclean precluded participation in the ceremonies of worship. Therefore, God’s people were to be vigilant in avoiding whatever would produce uncleanness. Haggai focuses particularly on the contagious consequences of sin. Something clean that touches something unclean does not render the unclean clean (Hag 2:12) but something unclean contaminates the clean (2:13). His principal application is a warning to deal with sin before it spreads to others.
In verses 14–17 Haggai applies this sin principle to the experience of the nation before his first sermon as a reminder to how bad things were before they obeyed. Verse 14 should read, “So was this people, and so was this nation before me . . .” to make it clear that this refers to their previous status. The similarities between 2:16–17 and 1:6–11 are too close to be coincidental. Everything they did to get ahead proved to be futile (2:16), and their failed labors traced directly to God’s chastisement (2:17) in keeping with the covenant curses (Deut 28:22). The message is clear that it does not pay to disobey. Happily, they responded well to the first sermon. But human nature is such that it is easy to revert back to the old ways when things do not go as expected. Remembering how bad sin and its consequences are was a key reason for renewing the vision to continue the work.
The Anticipation of Blessing (2:18–19)
Construction of the temple was not complete, but it was in progress (Hag 2:18). In the light of that progress, the people had every right to expect things were going to get better. If disobedience brought God’s curse, then certainly obedience would bring his blessing. Enjoying God’s blessing was their expectation as much as enduring the curse had been their experience (Deut 28:1–14). Haggai reinforced that expectation with the closing words of this third sermon: “from this day on I will bless you” (Hag 2:19).
What blessing looks like, however, is sometimes contrary to expectation (see Hab 3:17–18). Haggai 2:19 describes a barren condition. There was neither seed in reserve to plant nor fruit on vines or trees to harvest. But in the midst of what appeared to be barrenness, the Lord declared the certainty of blessing. Divine blessing is not to be defined in terms of tangible things, but rather with the assurance of the Lord’s favor. The announcement itself commenced the blessing: to know that God is pleased is beyond words to express. What makes the blessing good is the Lord himself.
Reality of the Vision: Assurances about the Future (2:20–23)
Haggai’s final sermon (Hag 2:20–23), the second of the day, sounded a note of triumph. His first sermon of the day announced the beginning of blessing; his final message declared its consummation, the ultimate reality. The prospect of blessing was good, and the best was yet to be.
Up to this point, Haggai’s focus has been on the completion of the temple, a crucial component in God’s redemptive plan leading to the fulness of time when Christ would come in what we know to be his first advent. In this last address, he details events that we know accompany Christ’s second advent. We have a time advantage over Haggai’s congregation enabling us to make that distinction. But awareness of the time gap was not essential to grasping the significance of the message: The success of Christ’s kingdom was certain.
Like his other sermons, this last one was short and to the point. Unlike the others, this was addressed directly to Zerubbabel (2:21). Zerubbabel was the civil leader and the chief supervisor of the temple reconstruction. He was the civil authority and even of the tribe of Judah and descendant of David, but he was not the king. David’s throne was still vacant, and there was no immediate prospect of a sitting king as the nation was still under foreign domination even though the exile was past. Babylon gave way to Persia, and then there would be Greece and Rome. It appeared there was no hope for a messianic kingdom, and that situation potentially could jeopardize the temple construction yet again. So, God gave them a look at the future to encourage them for the present. Haggai declared that the kingdoms of this world would fail, and that the kingdom of Christ would prevail. Two thoughts prove his point.
Divine Conquest (2:21–22)
Repeating the divine declaration from 2:6, Haggai points to that time when God will shake the heaven and the earth. This is the language of theophany, when God interrupts the normal course of circumstance. The meaning and form of the verb indicates that God with unhindered and uninterrupted activity will cause all of creation to shudder. The consequences of this shaking are unavoidable and inescapable. The Lord will turn upside down the thrones (authority) of the nations and with irresistible determination destroy their strength. He will decimate their armies (horses and chariots), causing such panic and confusion that they fight against themselves. The bottom line is clear that when God fights against his enemies, they cannot stand. God’s people should take courage, knowing they are on the winning side.
The Divine Certitude (2:23)
After announcing the fall of earthly kingdoms, Haggai pointed to the certainty of the coming Messiah. The reign of Christ was the guarantee of the fall of every other kingdom. This certitude is heightened because it comes from the Lord of Hosts, the Commander of all armies who has all of creation at his disposal to accomplish his will. There could be no doubt: Messiah was coming.
Haggai makes the point, however, by referring to Zerubbabel whom God designates as a type or picture prophecy of David’s greater Son, the Messiah. In his capacity as God’s servant in the role of leadership, Zerubbabel pictured the Ideal Servant to come. The signet was a symbol of authority and privilege belonging to the royal office. When God removed the signet from Jehoiachin (Jer 22:24), it appeared that hope for a Davidic kingdom was gone. God stripped Jehoiachin of honor and excluded any of his descendants from inheriting the throne (Jer 22:30). Since Zerubbabel was a descendant of Jehoiachin (1Chr 3:17–19), he could never himself sit on the throne. But the Lord’s making him a signet was the guarantee of the unconditional certainty of God’s covenant promise that David’s greater Son would rule. Kingship was transferred to another line of David, vouchsafing the promise that was realized in Jesus.
There could be no better way for Haggai to end his series of sermons than with the assurance that Christ was coming. Over 500 years remained before he would come, but he was coming, and the best was yet to be.
Michael P. V. Barrett, The Next to Last Word: Service, Hope, and Revival in the Postexilic Prophets (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015).
J. Alec Motyer, “Haggai” in The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary Vol. 3 ed. Thomas E. McComiskey (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998).
Michael Stead, “Haggai” in ESV Expository Commentary Vol. VII (Wheaton, Illinois, Crossway, 2018).
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright © 2000; 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
The text of this commentary has been adapted from The Next to Last Word: Service, Hope, and Revival in the Postexilic Prophets and The Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible with permission from Reformation Heritage Books.
The Command to Rebuild the Temple
1:1 In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest: 2 “Thus says the LORD of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD.” 3 Then the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, 4 “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? 5 Now, therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. 6 You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes.
7 “Thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. 8 Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD. 9 You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? declares the LORD of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house. 10 Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. 11 And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the ground brings forth, on man and beast, and on all their labors.”
The People Obey the Lord
12 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. 13 Then Haggai, the messenger of the LORD, spoke to the people with the LORD’s message, “I am with you, declares the LORD.” 14 And the LORD stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people. And they came and worked on the house of the LORD of hosts, their God, 15 on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month, in the second year of Darius the king.