The Prophet Haggai’s first sermon was delivered August 29, 520 BC.
In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai.Haggai 2:1 (NRSV)
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.
King Darius’ Decree
Cyrus died and his son Cambyses, the new Xerxes (or Ahasuerus) had ascended the throne. The Samaritan people, who had been rebuffed by the returned exiles, successfully sued their case before Cambyses and brought back a “cease and desist” order on rebuilding the temple.
Demoralized and defeated, the people had to leave their seven years’ worth of half-finished work in shambles, with only the altar of sacrifice fully operational. Thirty long years dragged on, a generation of people grew old and died, and a new generation grew up with a half-built temple. It felt normal to go about their lives and make do with a priesthood, an altar, musicians, and no more. They invested in their own lives instead, building their homes, improving their towns, marshalling through droughts and rainy times as the people of that land had been doing for thousands of years.
Then Darius ascended to the throne.
Now the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them.
Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and Jeshua son of Jozadak set out to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem; and with them were the prophets of God, helping them.Ezra 5:1-2 (NRSV)
The surrounding peoples again mounted a vigorous suit, but this time King Darius not only located the original decree written by Cyrus the Great, he adjured the surrounding provinces to support the work!
“I make a decree regarding what you shall do for these elders of the Jews for the rebuilding of this house of God: the cost is to be paid to these people, in full and without delay, from the royal revenue, the tribute of the province Beyond the River.
Whatever is needed—young bulls, rams, or sheep for burnt offerings to the God of heaven, wheat, salt, wine, or oil, as the priests in Jerusalem require—let that be given to them day by day without fail, so that they may offer pleasing sacrifices to the God of heaven, and pray for the life of the king and his children.
. . . May the God who has established his name there overthrow any king or people that shall put forth a hand to alter this, or to destroy this house of God in Jerusalem.
I, Darius, make a decree; let it be done with all diligence.”Darius, Ezra 6:8-12 (NRSV)
Timeline of Events
Word of the Lord to Zerubbabel and Jeshua
All of this should have uplifted the people, filling them with a sense of joy and renewed vigor, that God had again moved in the heart of the king, opened the treasure chests of the empire, and provided abundantly for them to rebuild.
But it did not.
A year had gone by since Darius’ decree, yet only a few people, including their governor Zerubbabel (now a middle-aged man) and their high priest Jeshua (also a middle-aged man) and both their now very aged prophets, rolled up their sleeves for the work. But most did not.
One hot day, after worship, their robes hanging heavily against their perspiring bodies, the fire of the sacrifices crackling behind them, Haggai experienced a jolt running through his body so electrifying it snapped his bent body straight. Startled, Jeshua the high priest turned to him, his eyes round, his hand unconsciously moving to the weighty breastplate of gold and gemstones which had once contained the Urim and Thummim.
Haggai’s hands were stretched out beside him, his neck taut, his mouth open in shock.
“I have a word from the Lord,” he said, then staggered back from the great burning altar. “We must find Zerubbabel. You must come with me.”
Together, the men walked round to the other side of the altar, turning their heads as the wind shifted, moving plumes of dark smoke, ash, and burning embers sideways toward them. And there he was, across the plaza strewn with scattered shards of marble, granite, and jasper, tufts of grasses, broken stone, inscriptions half gone. Both men walked more hurriedly, pulling up the skirts of their garments to free their stride.
“Zerubbabel,” Haggai pulled the tall, well-muscled man aside from the group he was speaking with. They had many years together, leading these people. The governor had always trusted God’s prophets who had accompanied him, though Zechariah most often advised Jeshua.
Now the three of them stood huddled together, the scorching wind tugging at their robes, the molten sun blazing its white heat against the cracked and crumbling pavers of the once-magnificent outer court.
“I have a word from the Lord Most High, for you, and for Jeshua, God’s high priest.”
Both the governor and the priest leaned in, their tired faces drawn with concern. For the past two years, they had been working nearly every waking hour, meals brought to them, sometimes even pallets laid for them as they led the people and worked on the rebuilding of the temple. King Darius’ proclamation had helped, but only a little. Were it not for shabbat, they would have collapsed long before.
“Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.” Haggai’s signature deep voice had grown even deeper, the sound of it vibrating through their skin and stirring their very souls.
Subtly, the prophet’s features settled into a new expression, his eyes taking on a faraway look, the lines of his face softening almost into a trance as he stood still listening to the voice of God. Patiently, the two younger men waited. Wisps of wool-white hair flew across the sage’s face, and his snow-white beard lifted in the wind. Finally, his eyes shifted to focus once again on his listeners.
A few others, some from the group that had been talking with Zerubbabel, priests who had finished with the morning sacrifice, singers who had led the worship, and a number of the faithful who were on the way back to their homes, work, stalls, and fields, had begun gathering nearby, curious.
Haggai lifted his head to address them as well, raising one arm protectively around the governor and the high priest, and the other to indicate the ruins of the temple, with only its foundation laid.
Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?
Now therefore thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared.
1. You have sown much, and harvested little.
2. You eat, but you never have enough.
3. You drink, but you never have your fill.
4. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm.
5. And you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.
Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared.
Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored, says the Lord.
6. You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little.
7. And when you brought it home, I blew it away.
Why? says the Lord of hosts.
Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses.
8. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew.
9. And the earth has withheld its produce.
10. And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the soil produces, on human beings and animals, and on all their labors.Haggai 1:4-11 (NRSV)
As heads bowed low in shame, the people almost immediately moved towards the temple, where small stations had been set, stone masonry, places to carve, another with logs waiting to be stripped and prepared.
Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, and Joshua 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 the prophet Haggai, as the Lord their God had sent him; and the people feared the Lord.Haggai 1:12 (NRSV)
Haggai went among the people of Jerusalem, then traveled to the outskirts, going from town to town with the Lord’s message, and finishing with God’s blessing, I am with you, says the Lord.
And the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua 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.Haggai 1:14 (NRSV)
[Rebuilding of the Temple (illustration by Gustave Doré from the 1866 La Sainte Bible) | By Gustave Doré – Doré’s English Bible, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10717059%5D