The book of Haggai is a succinct and focused collection of prophetic oracles and short prose narratives associated with Haggai, a key Persian-period figure who was instrumental in the rebuilding of the ruined Temple of Jerusalem. Haggai linked Temple rebuilding with the hope of God's indwelling presence among the people, spiritually transforming them and commencing a new era with a descendant of David again ruling.
“Haggai” means “(born on the) festival” or “festival (baby).” The prophet's parents likely chose the name because his birth coincided with one of Israel's three yearly pilgrimage feasts in Jerusalem (see Exod 23:14–17). Haggai's name proved apt, for his work accomplished the rebuilding of Jerusalem's Temple as the sacred focus of every Israelite's worship and pilgrimage.
Canonical Status and Location.
The book of Haggai is the first of three postexilic works concluding the canonical collection of the Minor Prophets (the “Book of the Twelve”). It is closely tied to the following book, Zechariah, which also emphasizes Temple rebuilding and hope for a new era. The preceding prophetic book, Zephaniah, points forward to Haggai's restoration of pilgrimage worship (Zeph 3:18–20) and his celebration of a faithful “remnant” (Zeph 3:12–13; Hag 1:12, 14). The major prophetic scrolls of Ezekiel and Jeremiah are also prequels anticipating Haggai. Haggai embraces the theological vision of Ezekiel 37:27–28, and he joins with Jeremiah in wrestling with the fate of the Davidic dynasty (Jer 22:24–30; 23:5).
The only explicit information we have about the prophet Haggai himself comes from the book itself and from Ezra 5:1 and 6:14, which connect his efforts at rebuilding the Temple with those of the priestly prophet Zechariah. Haggai and Zechariah do not directly mention each other and may have operated within separate circles. Since Haggai lacks Zechariah's focus on Temple icons and personnel, he may have belonged to one of the traditional ruling families of the Persian province of Yehud (formerly Judah) rather than to its priestly ranks. His mention both of the political office of the governor Zerubbabel and of his Davidic ancestry fits with this suggestion. The Persian crown had interests in supporting returnees from among Judah's former aristocracy as a means of bolstering stability and tax revenues.
Date of Composition and Historical Context.
According to the book's own explicit chronology, Haggai prophesied from August to December 520 B.C.E., within an early restoration-era milieu of international calm and Persian benefaction. The Persian monarch Darius I had quelled revolts, restored security, and established the Davidic heir Zerubbabel in power in the small province of Yehud (522 B.C.E.). “In the second year of King Darius” (Hag 1:1), preparations for God's reign could begin. The poetic dreams attached to Israel's heritage could begin to assert themselves.
By 537 or 536 B.C.E. an initial returnee group from exile in Babylonia had rebuilt the Temple altar, celebrated a resetting of the Temple foundations (Ezra 3:10–13; 5:16), and revived Jerusalem's sacrificial worship. Progress at rebuilding soon ground to a halt, however, and the Temple project stood on hold for sixteen years. In this era Yehud's overall population was small (ca. 10,850), and Jerusalem's tiny (ca. 500), and the community struggled with a reduced territory, insufficient resources, and poor economic conditions (see Hag 1:9–11; 2:17; Zech 7:7, 14). Moreover, the initial returnee circle experienced tensions both with the inhabitants of the bordering territory of Samaria (Ezra 4:1–3; 6:21) and with the non-deported “remainee” population of Judah (Zech 8:10; Isa 58:4; 59:4; Ezra 4:4–5).
In Haggai's time, however, the new stability under Darius and a new influx of returnees from Babylonia suggested new possibilities. More important, the seventy-year period of exile prophesied by Jeremiah (Jer 25:11–12; 29:10) was nearing completion. Hope for God's epiphany in Jerusalem was rising, if only the Temple could be rebuilt (Hag 1:8, 13; 2:4–9; cf. Zech 8:3).
The literary formation of Haggai appears to have been a relatively straightforward process, with the book reaching essentially its present form through only one major redaction. The compilation of the book likely took place before 510 B.C.E., while Zerubbabel still served as governor (see Hag 2:23). The redactional framework contributed by the editors consists of Haggai 1:1, 3, 12, 13A, 14–15; 2:1, 2, 10, 20.
Haggai's editors shared the perspective of their source material, a perspective linked to the theology of the “Holiness School” (HS) writings of the Pentateuch and the prophecies of Ezekiel. Reflecting Ezekiel (e.g., Ezek 37:27–28), the main focus of Haggai is hope for God's presence in a restored Temple, bringing renown and glory to God (e.g., Hag 1:8). Conforming to God's presence, the land must become holy (Hag 2:10–14; see Lev 11:44; 19:2; 20:7, 26). The same HS traditions are signaled by key idioms in the editorial framework: for example, the phrase “by the hand of” (bĕyad) to express intermediation (Hag 1:1, 3; 2:1; cf., e.g., Exod 9:35; 35:29; Num 4:37), the reference to people stirred up to do the “construction work” (mĕlāʾkâ) (Hag 1:14; Exod 36:2; cf. Exod 35:21, 29).
Structure and Contents.
The book of Haggai anthologizes significant oracles of the prophet as a canonical collection, but it also tells a story with several twists and turns. Encapsulating the dual character of the book, John Kessler aptly terms it a “dramatized prophetic compilation.” Precise date formulas organize Haggai into five sections, shaping it as the story of God's authentic, prophetic word overcoming all sloth and launching the Temple's rebuilding in a matter of only four months. Haggai's outline runs as follows:
- I. A Call to Rebuild the Ruined Temple (1:1–11)
- II. The People Begin Work (1:12–15A)
- III. Encouraging the Workers through Apocalyptic Imagination (1:15B–2:9)
- IV. Preparing for Ceremonial and Ethical Wholeness (2:10–19)
- V. Expecting the New Age (2:20–23)
As the five dated sections tick by, God's word through Haggai overcomes various scenarios of resistance, conflict, and discouragement. The story oscillates between reproaches and urgings by the prophet on the one hand and words of comfort and reports of success on the other. The words of comfort in the third and fifth sections of the book uphold God's transcendent perspective and offer an apocalyptic vision that aims to invigorate the people's resolve. Tears in the fabric of creation are opening up, Haggai proclaims, and the light of the messianic era is shining through.
Haggai's vision looked to provoke active responses. He honored a Temple refoundation ceremony and encouraged a discipline of holiness on the part of the people (section IV). He likewise inculcated a spirit of wakefulness on the part of their leadership (section V). Such responses, he believed, would not only help Yehud live into the future but would also begin to transform the present (Hag 2:18–19).
The focus of Haggai's theology is the Jerusalem Temple as the architectural incarnation of God's saving work, the embodiment of God's covenant of holiness. He saw reconstruction of the Temple as the means of living into the new messianic era, which would enjoy the ideals of the covenant. As noted above, the particular covenantal theology of Haggai accords best with the “Holiness School” writings of the Pentateuch and the prophecies of Ezekiel.
The central ideal of the Holiness School and Ezekiel is the indwelling of God's presence, bringing holiness to earth (Hag 2:5, referencing Exod 29:46; cf. Ezek 37:14, 28). God's glory, proximate in the Temple (Hag 2:7), brings an ideal intimate relationship between God, the people, and the natural environment. The Temple becomes a touchstone and springboard of sanctification, opening access to God's elusive ceremonial and ethical wholeness (Hag 2:12), unstopping the flow of agricultural blessings (Hag 1:6, 9–11; 2:19; cf. Lev 26:20, 26), impelling the nations to fall into line (Hag 2:7–8, 22; cf. Ezek 38:21; 39:10), and ushering in messianic harmony (Hag 2:9B; cf. Lev 26:6; Ezek 34:25–28).
For Haggai, the coming to earth of divine glory was to be an apocalyptic event. Just “one moment yet” (NAB), the idiom of Haggai 2:6 specifies, and God will shake the sky and the earth, the sea and the dry ground (also Hag 2:21; cf. Ezek 38:20). The prophet's demographic and economic milieu was gray, but his visions have nothing to do with escapism. Rather, learned study of Jeremiah 25:11–12 and 29:10 left him with little doubt that God's prescribed seventy years of exile were concluding and that God was now coming to Jerusalem (Hag 2:4–7). Rumination on earlier scripture figured centrally in Haggai's radical new imagination about God's imminent work.
Haggai's apocalyptic vision accommodates Persian imperial rule and orients itself on a central shrine and officials in charge. Thus, his action program preparing for God's indwelling belies commonplace modern views of apocalypticism as an ideology of insurrection or an opiate of the powerless. The prophet sees both Temple (Hag 2:1–9) and Persian governor (Hag 2:20–23) as present realities encapsulating God's radical future. Far from an emblem of the status quo, the Temple stands ready to be filled with “glory” (Hag 2:7). The evocative diction here bursts beyond ideas of revolution and riches and echoes specific texts of divine presence (Exod 40:34–35; Ezek 43:5, 9; 44:4).
As God's glory-filled Temple emerges as a reality, excitement about a new ruler mounts (cf. Ezek 34:23; 37:24–25). Temple and Davidic king are a package deal in Zion's promised future (see, e.g., Ps 132), and Haggai insists on holding both together (Hag 2:20–23). To be specific, the materializing of Zion's destiny focuses the prophetic gaze on Zerubbabel, the Davidic governor. On 18 December 520 B.C.E., the veil between mundane history and messianic transcendence parts within Haggai's experience (if only as a fleeting foretaste).
Haggai's allusive language at Haggai 2:23 explicitly reverses Jeremiah 22:24–30. An apocalyptic breakpoint has been reached: the Temple is rising and Zerubbabel, a Davidic scion back in charge, brims with potential. A watershed arrives in his person: transcendence must now overcome the divine moratorium of Jeremiah 22.
Haggai's book presents his apocalyptically oriented program of action as something open and inclusive. From the beginning of the book, the prophet understands the populace as a united entity: “this people” (Hag 1:2). In Haggai 2:4, the prophet addresses “all” the “people of the land” in his call to courage (cf. Zech 7:5). Because he makes no mention of a separate exilic group, Haggai appears to envision a single people of God resident in Yehud. “All” of this people must involve themselves in God's work. As they do so, they become God's faithful “remnant” (Hag 1:12, 14; anticipated by Zeph 3:13).
Haggai's inclusiveness is in keeping with Ezekiel. His key theme in addressing the people of the land, “I am with you, says the LORD” (Hag 2:4), links directly to the concluding verses of Ezekiel 37:15–28, a passage promising the reuniting of all Israelites. Though returnees from exile may have taken a leading role in rebuilding, we have no evidence that Haggai's apocalypticism was narrowly sectarian.
The book of Haggai's brief two chapters have often been of only peripheral interest in Judaism and Christianity, perhaps because of their apparent focus on the circumscribed events of a four-month time frame and on a long-deceased political figure (the governor Zerubbabel). In the modern era, historical critics have disparaged the book for its “arid” preoccupation with Temple, ritual, and past prophecy. Based on Haggai 2:7, some commentators have even made the sarcastic claim that Haggai's chief interest is getting hold of the nation's money. None of this is fair to the book's theology.
Despite the unfair maligning of the book, insightful figures through the history of interpretation have glimpsed something of Haggai's theological depth. Cassiodorus, the fifth-century C.E. monk and statesman, aptly recognized the emphatic power of God's word in Haggai, which cuts through the hardened hearts of the prophet's contemporaries. Augustine of Hippo (354–430 C.E.) appreciated Haggai's ideal Temple shrine as “living stone,” arising alongside profound spiritual conversion, ushering in ineffable peace. Ambrose of Milan, Augustine's teacher, emphasized how God's indwelling of the Temple meant vibrant life and the joy of feasting; after all, he noted, Haggai's name means “the feaster.” Gregory of Nazianzus (b. 329/330 C.E.) and Gregory the Great (ca. 540–604 C.E.) perceived how Haggai's apocalyptic purview bursts beyond his local circumstances (Hag 2:6). The raising of Haggai's Temple is about God's sovereignty dawning over all realms, the two Gregorys observed; it means the advent of what lies unmoved, unshaken, beyond.
Over the last twenty years scholars have devoted considerable attention to the Persian period, and books from that era such as Haggai have received long overdue attention. At the same time, some contemporary scholarship has become more appreciative of Haggai's new form of canon-conscious prophecy, which apparently drew vitality from Israel's emerging collection of holy scriptures. So it is that the premodern respect for Haggai is reemerging in some quarters.
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Stephen L. Cook