What is the book of Haggai about?

The book of Haggai is certainly not the best-known book of the Bible. It only has two chapters and is about rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, which is not a major topic of interest for present-day Christians. But when we read carefully and attentively, this book contains valuable lessons for believers from all centuries and from all over the planet.

Historical background

The first verse of Haggai’s book says it was written in the second year of the Persian king Darius. This was the year 520 BC. This was a special time for the people of Israel, for they had just returned from exile.

When God gave the Israelites their own territory, the land of Canaan, He warned them not to turn away from Him. For if they did, God would remove them out of His sight. They would be exiled from their promised land to foreign countries. The people promised to serve the Lord wholeheartedly. But over the next centuries, they did turn away from God repeatedly and served idols instead. As a consequence, they were carried into exile.

However, God did not leave them forever. In the year 538 BC, the Persian king allowed the Israelites to return to their country. A remnant of the people started to rebuild their country, including the temple in Jerusalem. But although they were allowed to live in their own land again, they were still controlled by the Persians and heavily dependent on king Darius. This is the background of Haggai’s book.

Outline of the book

The book of Haggai consists of a series of sermons:

  • In the first sermon, God calls the people to rebuild the temple. When they first returned from exile, they had started to build. But they met resistance from neighboring people groups, and after a while, they lost the motivation to take up the work again. Now about sixteen years had passed and the temple still lay in ruins. That is a clear sign of the people’s poor spiritual state. Their lack of progress is not due to difficult circumstances anymore but to their different priorities. They claim that “the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord”, but find ample time to embellish their own houses! God tells them that the poverty and misfortune they suffer, is his judgment on their negligence. He calls them to start building again.
  • The people obey God’s words. Then God speaks again to encourage them: “I am with you, declares the Lord.” (Haggai 1:13).
  • Four weeks after the people started building, God speaks again to them by the hand of Haggai. Some of the Israelites who returned from exile, saw Solomon’s temple before it was destroyed. They remember how great it was, and the new temple is “nothing” in comparison. No matter how hard they try, they will never be able to match up to the splendor of this former temple. That makes them sad and depressed. Therefore, God assures them once more that He is with them and promises: “I will fill this house with glory … And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts.” (Haggai 1:7-9) No matter how insignificant the building work might look, God will bless it and will make it part of His glorious future.
  • Haggai’s next message is three months after the first exhortation to rebuild the temple. This time, the Lord addresses the people’s half-heartedness. He refers to familiar rules about ritual purity to explain that good deeds cannot make the people’s hearts clean. Outer obedience does not replace inner devotion and sincere love. God’s “solution” for their half-heartedness is not to punish the people again. On the contrary, He says: “I struck you and all the products of your toil with blight and with mildew and with hail, yet you did not turn to me, declares the Lord. Consider from this day onward … from this day on I will bless you.” (Haggai 2:17-19) God is going to shower the people with his mercy to prove to them how good He is.
  • The last sermon is addressed at Zerubbabel, the governor. God promises that the oppression by foreign nations will come to an end and Zerubbabel will receive royal authority. At first glance, these verses are problematic since the promise seems not to have come true! We know from other sources that even 500 years later, in Jesus’ day, the people of Israel were still oppressed by a foreign empire. Zerubbabel never became a king. But the gospel of Matthew draws our attention to Zerubbabel’s descendants and shows that Jesus Christ was born from his royal line (Matthew 1:12-16). He is the King of Glory who will rule the nations and whose reign will never end (Luke 1:30-33).

Some lessons for us

  • The people in Haggai’s day knew that God wanted them to rebuild the temple, but they neglected their calling because they considered the improvement of their own houses more important. Take a moment to reflect on your life. Are you setting right priorities, or are you neglecting your calling?
  • Sometimes God might call us to do something difficult. But He assures us that He is with us, see Matthew 28:20. He encourages and strengthens us to carry out the work He commands us to do.
  • God corrects and educates His children step by step. He does not require us to be perfect before we can have a relationship with Him – if that were possible, we would not need a Savior at all. We can come to God as we are, but just as the Israelites received ongoing correction about their half-heartedness, God can confront present-day believers with patterns of sin in their lives that need to be dealt with.
  • God encourages us with visions of His glorious future. We do not always know when these will come true, or how exactly they will be fulfilled. But reading Haggai’s book in the context of the whole Bible strengthens our faith that God will do what He has promised.

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