The book tells us that Haggai prophesied in the second year of Darius the Persian (i.e., 520 BCE), his recorded ministry spanning a period of only three months, from the sixth to the ninth month of that year. The promises of Ezekiel Second Isaiah, which must have spurred on many of the returning exiles, seemed not to have been fulfilled. A series of brief oracles in chap. 1 reveal the hardship of the situation of the pioneers, who were struggling to rebuild Judah after the Babylonian exile. They had known repeated droughts and failed harvests, with consequent famine, poverty, and inflation.
Haggai challenged the community about their priorities. He replies to their protests that they are too poor to rebuild the Temple (1.2) by saying that it is because they have not rebuilt it that they are so poor (1.4–6, 9–11). He thus draws on the old covenant traditions that had threatened the people, if they broke the Law, with drought, pestilence, famine, and the frustration of all their activity (Deut. 28.15–24). Similarly, the Zion tradition had linked God's presence in his Temple at Jerusalem with peace and prosperity for the land and community (e.g., Pss. 29; 72; cf. 2 Sam. 23.1–7). He therefore calls on them to rebuild the Temple (1.8).
A short narrative section (1.12–15) tells how the whole community under the leadership of Zerubbabel, the governor, and Joshua, the high priest (the Jeshua of Ezra and Nehemiah), was energized by Haggai's preaching to begin work, encouraged by a further assurance of Yahweh's presence by the prophet (1.13).
Evidently some grew discouraged in the work; they were not helped by the cynicism of those who had seen the grandeur of Solomon's Temple (2.3). The following verses show Haggai again encouraging them, not only by assuring them of Yahweh's presence in the task (2.4) but also with the promise that this Temple, once completed, would be the scene of Yahweh's reign as universal king (2.6–9). Earlier prophetic promises are taken up again, together with themes from the psalms that celebrate Yahweh's rule as king (the so‐called enthronement psalms). So God appears, as on Mount Sinai (Exod. 19.16–18), accompanied by earthquake and cosmic upheavals (cf. Isa. 24.18–20; Jer. 10.10; Ps. 97.1–5); the nations come in pilgrimage to Zion (cf. Isa. 2.2–4 = Mic. 4.1–4), bringing tribute to God as king (cf. Isa. 60.6). God will fill the Temple with his “glory” as he dwells there again (cf. Ezek. 43.1–5). That is why the new Temple will excel even the first and that is why it is worth building.
The oracle based on a priestly directive in 2.10–14 (cf. Zech. 7.1–3) shows that the postexilic prophets were seen as serving in a sanctuary setting and yet also were deeply concerned with ethical and moral purity.
In 2.15–19 the prophet describes the marked contrast in fortunes that he believed would be experienced after the Temple was rebuilt. The promises of 2.6–9 are renewed in 2.20–22, while 2.23 shows that Haggai saw Zerubbabel as continuing the line of the preexilic Davidic dynasty, which, it was believed, God had promised would last forever (2 Sam. 7.16). The picture of the Davidic king as God's “signet ring” echoes what was said of Jehoiachin earlier (Jer. 22.24). Haggai thus seems to have centered some kind of messianic hope on Zerubbabel.
We know nothing about Haggai himself. The book shows that he was seen as a prophet who assured the immediate postexilic community that earlier prophecies would be fulfilled and the hopes of the Zion/David theology of preexilic Jerusalem would be renewed. The Temple was completed in 515 BCE (Ezra 6.15), but we learn no more about or from Haggai after his three months of preaching spanning the dates given in the book (Ezra 5.1–2 adds nothing new). The addition of a gloss in 2.5 alluding to the presence of God in terms of the pillar of fire and cloud that accompanied the Israelites at the time of the Exodus (e.g., Exod. 13.21), and the description of the response of Haggai's hearers in terms reminiscent of that of the Exodus community to Moses (1.12–14; cf. Exod. 35.29; 36.2), suggests that his oracles were handed down among those who saw the return from exile as a second Exodus (as Second Isaiah had done) and Haggai as having exercised the ministry of a second Moses.