Two Papers On Haggai (1)
Most of us are not attracted to history as a subject. But amazingly enough Bible history is fascinating, illuminating and invaluable. Let us illustrate this from Haggai.
To understand this book we need to know something about the times in which the prophet lived. The references to a king’s reign and a number of different dates point to this. To interpret the book rightly we need to know as much as possible about its setting. Let us prove this. The prophet tells us that “this house lieth waste”, 1. 4. It is simple to gather from the book itself that the house he refers to is the temple. But how did it come to be lying waste? And in any case what is meant by lying waste? The foundation had been laid, and stone had been laid upon stone apparently, 2. 15, 18.
He refers also to this house in her first glory and then asks “how do ye see it now?”, 2. 3. In what sense did this house have a former glory which exceeded that of its present state? What does he mean by saying “that which they offer there is unclean”? 2. 14. The book of Haggai itself does not answer questions like these within its own pages. We need, then, both a general and a more detailed knowledge to understand this short book of Scripture.
Let us draw together some background facts which we need to know in order to grasp the significance of Haggai. Israel, the earthly people of God, were a specially privileged people. God gave them a land “flowing with milk and honey” and promised them peace and plenty if they were an obedient people. The majestic God had deigned to dwell among them and His house at Jerusalem was a monument to this. Solomon, one of their great kings, spared nothing when he built this house. Its material splendour was intended to convey something of the glory of God. A God-appointed priesthood led the people in sacrifice at the altar and worship in the temple.
Yet despite this the people of God sinned. They turned from the true God to idolatry and wickedness and eventually God judged them for this. He raised up enemies about them. The twelve tribes were made subject to foreigners and carried as captives to far-off lands. Their land was ravaged. The temple of Solomon was destroyed. The people of Judah were defeated by the Babylonians and transplanted into the realms of Babylon. Sin always brings judgment!
But God is merciful and history also proves this. He raised up the kingdom of Medo-Persia and used them to overthrow the Babylonians. Through their victory He relieved the distress of His own people. Persian kings were kind to the exiles from Judah and one of them named Cyrus actually initiated their return to their homeland (see 2 Chron. 36. 22-23 and Ezra 1. 1-11).
Now how did the people get on when they came back from Babylon to Jerusalem? We have to read the first six chapters of Ezra to find this out. At first all went well. After a safe arrival at Jerusalem the people of God applied themselves to God’s things first, Ezra 3. They put the altar on its base and offered their offerings to God there. The people then laid the foundation and started work on the reconstruction of the temple. This was a fine start. But Ezra 4 reveals that opposition from petty tribes that surrounded them soon brought the work to a halt. This is the only reason given in Ezra for the stopping of the work.
It was at this time that God raised up two prophets, Zechariah and Haggai, Ezra 5. 1-2; 6. 14-15. Through the preaching of these men, the leaders and the people were stirred to fresh efforts despite the opposition of the tribes around them. This resulted in God’s house being completed and the devil’s attempt to frustrate this was overthrown.
Ezra, Zechariah and Haggai make reference to the same Persian king and the dates mentioned all line up together. The history book of Ezra helps us to get a fuller picture of the times. This in turn helps us to interpret some of the verses in both Zechariah and Haggai.
We know, for example, that some time after commencing the work on the temple the people had given up through difficulties. “It surely cannot be time to be doing this work for God or He would have made it easier for us”, they might have argued. We sense this attitude of mind now when we read “The time is not come”, Hag. 1. 2. Again Haggai refers to the house of God left unfinished when he says “this house lieth waste”, 1. 4. We now appreciate better Haggai’s words when, casting a glance at the altar on its base in the temple court, he says “that which they offer there is unclean”. What is the use of bringing offerings to the altar when we are not right in our heart with God? Prophets are often more penetrating than historians! Both Zechariah and Haggai knew that the deeper reason for the work coming to a halt was the lack of desire for God’s things, cf. Neh. 4. 6. The people found no difficulty in building and embellishing their own homes. God was displeased with them because of this and He added to hostile adversaries the practical difficulties caused by drought and crop failure. It only needed the searching ministry of Haggai as he explained their calamities and traced them to their own sin and failure to stir them up to fresh efforts for God. Do you give up and find it easy to multiply excuses when things are not going smoothly?
There were other difficulties on the way however once the work was recommenced. A poor struggling community composed of exiles now returned to their homeland could easily become discouraged. There had been a former temple, that beautiful and ornate structure built by Solomon. “How do you see this effort of yours now”, asks Haggai. “Is it not in your eyes in comparison of it as nothing”, 2. 3. But God neither demands nor expects the impossible. He wishes us to do what we can with all our might. “Be strong”, says Haggai, “Courage”, “keep at it”, and God will see to it that the silver and the gold which are His will eventually adorn His house, 2. 8-9.
A knowledge of the background or setting of a book is invaluable for the understanding of its teaching. Reference has been made in this lesson to Bible books other than the one we are “studying” and in these we have found facts which have helped us gain a clearer idea of Haggai’s message. It may seem almost impossible to you to know how to get facts like this together. Well the more books of the Bible we study, the more aware we shall be of the many helpful links there are. This should encourage you to keep searching the Scriptures! The more widely we read and study, the more light we shall find cast on what we have already studied!
There are other helps to an appreciation of background and other basic information however. It is quite possible that one of these has been ignored by you, though it is “under your very nose” on the page of your Bible. Have you ever looked up the references in the margin of your Bible? In my Bible the phrase “the second year of Darius” in Haggai 1. 1 has a reference to it in the centre margin. This refers me to Haggai 1. 15; 2. 10 and then Ezra 4. 24; 5. 1 and Zechariah 1. 1, 7. So immediately I am pointed to other Scriptures which may be more or less important toward an understanding of that particular time in history. If you have a reference Bible be sure to look up the passages quoted as these may help considerably. Great help can be gained also on the setting of books and many other points from certain Bibles which have “explanatory notes” added. Examples are the “Scofield Reference Bible”, the “Thompson Chain Reference Bible”, “The Newberry Bible”. *
There are also a number of helpful introductory books written about the Bible. Bible Dictionaries, for instance, list Bible subjects in alphabetical order. Half an hour spent looking up and noting anything said about “Haggai” in such a Dictionary would prove profitable. A very simple but useful book which introduces and outlines every book in the Bible is called “The Outlined Bible” and is written by Robert Lee. “Know your Bible. Analytical.” by Dr. W. G. Scroggie and an even more detailed course through the Bible called “Explore the Book” by J. Sidlow Baxter are very helpful too. But remember that these are only helps and they must not replace your own careful and prayerful Bible reading and study.
* To this list may be added “The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge”, (Bagster) consisting of five-hundred thousand scripture references and parallel passages. Eds.