Though now an old man, Haggai was among those first 50,000 faithful men, women, and children who rose to God’s call to return home. He went as one of two spiritual advisors for Governor Zerubbabel and the priest Jeshua, for these two young men, no older than their thirties, and perhaps still in their twenties, would need the strength of character, spiritual wisdom, and practical guidance of these two middle-aged sages.
Haggai can best be remembered with the bee, for bees build their home for their queen, honey was a symbol of God’s blessing, and as a swarm would do, God promised to drive their enemies away.
Return from Exile
Haggai’s story is all wrapped up in the story of people of Judah, who had been exiled since 586 BC by the NeoBabylonian Empire. The unthinkable had happened. God’s holy city of Jerusalem had been breached, God’s holy mountain of Zion overrun, and God’s holy temple stripped of its splendor, torn asunder, and set afire.
Now, with Cyrus the Great come to the throne of the Achaemenid Empire in 559 BC, the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple had become possible.
In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom and also declared in a written edict:
“Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build [God] a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all [God’s] people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up.”King Cyrus of Persia, 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 (NRSV)
Cyrus’s edict was part of his reform policy to return exiled people groups to their original homelands, support their own unique cultural and religious traditions, and allow them to rebuild. Nevertheless, there were many among the Jewish people who had become comfortably settled and were not eager to uproot their lives once again.
Returning to the ruins of their devasted homes would mean hardship, sacrifice, grueling labor, subsistence living, and almost certainly conflict with those who had moved into the vacuum left behind by mass deportation.
Understanding such reluctance, Cyrus required those who would not return to generously support those who did.
“Let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.”King Cyrus of Persia, Ezra 1:4 (NRSV)
Ezra described how heads of families in the tribes of Judah and Benjamin—upon who ancestral lands sat Jerusalem—as well as the priests and Levites and 200 male and female singers prepared themselves to return to Zion. Those who stayed supplied these pioneers with
- Silver vessels
- Gold (including 61,000 darics of gold to the building fund)
- 5,000 minas of silver to the building fund
- Animals (736 horses, 245 mules, 435 camels, 6,720 donkeys)
- Valuable gifts (along with 100 priestly robes)
in a scene reminiscent of the people bringing to Moses all the riches they had plundered from Egypt, in order to construct the tabernacle. With a show of breathtaking largesse, Cyrus himself
brought out the vessels of the house of the Lord that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods. King Cyrus of Persia had them released into the charge of Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah.Ezra 1:7-8 (NRSV)
The sheer amount of gold and silver must have staggered the people, eliciting shocked gasps and gaping eyes.
Ezra listed in detail the names and clan size of “everyone whose spirit God had stirred” to return to their inheritance, about fifty thousand Israelites all told, including women and children. It was a remnant, to be sure, of the mighty nation they had once been. But this remnant were also moved and empowered by Almighty God, and they were filled with a sense of excited anticipation and great spiritual fervor for what lay ahead.
Once there, the priests, Levites, and some of the people settled among the debris and rubble of Jerusalem and its vicinity. The singers, gatekeepers, and temple servants moved to the smaller outlying towns, and it seems the rest of the people moved back to the homes they had been taken from so forcefully, a generation previously.
Leaders of the People
Two vibrant young men led the people.
Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, born in Babylon in the royal line of David through David’s son Nathan, whose name would one day appear in the genealogy of Jesus. For these reasons, some scholars have thought Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah (to whom Cyrus had entrusted the sacred temple treasure) might be one and the same person with Zerubbabel. However, in both Ezra’s chronicle, and the prophets’ mention, Zerubbabel is consistently referred to as governor rather than prince or king.
Jeshua son of Jehozadak, also born in Babylon, whose father had been taken captive while still young, accompanied Zerubbabel.
Two wise and seasoned prophets advised these leaders, bringing oracles of God to them and to the people: Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo.
The Altar Rebuilt, the Festivals Kept
Imagine the energy! The journey back to Jerusalem must have been exhausting, a nearly 1,700 mile trek (nearly 2,800 kilometers). But, like a second exodus, the people must have relished this fresh start, leaving their captors behind them and following the call of God to their promised inheritance. It seems, when they finally arrived the very first thing they wanted to do was worship.
On the exact same spot where Solomon had dedicated the great altar of sacrifice before the first temple to God, the people now built a new altar that they might once again make offerings. They kept the festivals and they sacrificed daily before they ever picked up even one stone to lay the temple’s foundation. Now, after they had worshipped,
They gave money to the masons and the carpenters, and food, drink, and oil to the Sidonians and the Tyrians to bring cedar trees from Lebanon to the sea, to Joppa, according to the grant that they had from King Cyrus of Persia.Ezra 3:7 (NRSV)
In the second year of their return, every person, young and old, including Levites, priests, even Zerubbabel and Jeshua, Haggai and Zechariah, set their hands to the work. When the foundation was done, the people threw a massive celebration, complete with priests in their vestments, trumpets, cymbals, antiphonal choirs, shouts of the people all praising and thanking the Lord.
But there was also a note of sadness. Seeing the foundation laid, those who remembered the temple’s destruction broke down in heaving sobs, old wounds broken open, old sorrows welling up. And perhaps it was also crushed disappointment, for their best efforts remained only a modest shadow of the magnificent temple Solomon had raised up to Almighty God.
All the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.
But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.Ezra 3:11-13 (NRSV)
And among them must have been the middle-aged Prophet Haggai, weeping loudly, even as he praised and thanked God.
[Cyrus the Great returning the sacred temple treasure to the Hebrew people | By Internet Archive Book Images – https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14784631242/Source book page: https://archive.org/stream/biblepanoramaorh00fost/biblepanoramaorh00fost#page/n200/mode/1up, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42099570%5D