In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest:
Haggai 1:1 ESV
The book of Haggai begins with few names, titles, and dates that can be a bit intimidating at first glance. Who is Darius, and who is Zerubbabel? Over which kingdom is Darius the king? Why does Judah have a governor instead of a king? To best answer these questions and to provide important context for the remainder of our study through Haggai, we will spend this prologue in the book of Ezra which recounts the narrative backdrop for the prophet’s messages.
THE BABYLONIAN EXILE
The date of Haggai 1:1 is August 29, and most scholars agree that Darius’ second year as king was 520 BC, which places Haggai during the post-exilic period of Israel. Given the significance of the Babylonian Exile, let us take a few moments to refresh our memories over this section of biblical history.
When Solomon turned his heart away from the LORD, God promised that much of Israel would be stripped from David’s lineage; however, for David’s sake, the LORD would withhold His judgment during Solomon’s day and He would ensure that a remnant of Israel remained faithful to the throne of David. Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, brings about God’s promise through his own foolishness. Ten of Israel’s tribes reject Rehoboam, instead making Jeroboam their king, while the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remain loyal to David’s grandson.
The history of Israel and Judah, the two kingdoms of Abraham’s children, is largely negative. Many of Judah’s kings fail to follow the LORD their God, though kings like Hezekiah and Josiah are notable exceptions. Israel, however, did not yield a single king who walked uprightly before the LORD. God, therefore, struck Israel first. Using the Assyrian Empire as His instrument of judgment, the capital city of Samaria was defeated, and many Israelites were deported throughout the empire.
The LORD preserved Judah for a little longer. They endured the threats of Assyria, but before long, God raised up the Babylonian Empire to discipline His people. Under King Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and deported many people back to Babylon (Daniel and his friends being among the most well-known of these exiles). In accordance with the prophesies of Jeremiah, the exile in Babylon lasted for seventy years.
The Babylonian Exile began to end whenever the Persian Empire defeated the Babylonians, and King Cyrus issued a decree permitting the Jews to return to their homeland and instructing them to rebuild the LORD’s temple. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah chronicle the rebuilding (and opposition to that rebuilding) of Jerusalem’s temple and walls. Ezra 1-2 record Cyrus’ proclamation and lists those who returned to Jerusalem and Judah. We will turn, therefore, to Ezra 3 as we study how they began to rebuild.
REBUILDING THE ALTAR & TEMPLE // EZRA 3
When the seventh month came, and the children of Israel were in the towns, the people gathered as one man to Jerusalem. Then arose Jeshua the son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel with his kinsmen, and they built the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. They set the altar in its place, for fear was on them because of the peoples of the lands, and they offered burnt offerings on it to the LORD, burnt offerings morning and evening. And they kept the Feast of Booths, as it is written, and offered the daily burnt offerings by number according to the rule, as each day required, and after that the regular burnt offerings, the offerings at the new moon and at all the appointed feasts of the LORD, and the offerings of everyone who made a freewill offering to the LORD. From the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the LORD. But the foundation of the temple of the LORD was not yet laid. So 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 Cyrus king of Persia.
Now in the second year after their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem, in the second month, Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak made a beginning, together with the rest of their kinsmen, the priests and the Levites and all who had come to Jerusalem from the captivity. They appointed the Levites, from twenty years old and upward, to supervise the work of the house of the LORD. And Jeshua with his sons and his brothers, and Kadmiel and his sons, the sons of Judah, together supervised the workmen in the house of God, along with the sons of Henadad and the Levites, their sons and brothers.
And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the directions of David king of Israel.Ezra 3:1-10
The seventh month marked the Day of Atonement and the Feast of Booths; thus, Ezra is recounting how the returned exiles on their first year back assembled together in Jerusalem to fulfill the sacrifices and feasts that the LORD had commanded in the Torah. To do these things, they built a new altar in the place of the old. Since the foundation of the temple was not laid, they began to gather resources for such a task. During the second year, the Levites were appointed, and the foundation of the temple was laid.
These things are significant because they display the people of Judah being obedient to the LORD. God sent His people into exile as an act of discipline because of their constant sinning against Him. Their time away from their homeland was intended to cause their hearts to long for the life that they had forsaken through their disobedience. The LORD used their defeat at the hands of the Babylonians to turn their hearts back to Him.
And from these verses, it seems to have worked. Like Noah after exiting the ark, the people worshiped the God who delivered them safely to their land. They made sacrifices for their sins and obeyed the laws of the LORD. The remainder of chapter three describes their worship around the temple’s foundation:
And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD,
“For he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.”
And all the people shouted 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 fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, 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 with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.Ezra 1:11-13
Together, the people turn to the Psalms (136 is cited), and they shout for joy that the temple’s foundation is laid. Yet notice that the cries of joy are mingled with the weeping of those who were old enough to remember the temple when it still stood.
Such is the reality of worship. Within this sin-scarred world, joy and sorrow rarely stand apart exclusively from one another. Indeed, we are commanded to be a people who are sorrowful yet always rejoicing, both celebrating with our joyous brothers and sisters and weeping with those who weep. Yet the greatest meeting of joy and sorrow is the cross of Christ, where we see (as Isaac Watts poetically reflected) “from His head, His hands, His feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down!”
WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH // EZRA 4
Even though Ezra 3 presents the people of Judah as walking in obedience to the LORD, a small foreshadowing of Ezra 4’s problems is present. In verse 3, Ezra notes that the established the altar out of fear. Given the purpose of their exile, we would presume this to be their fear of the LORD, but instead they are motivated by the fear “of the peoples of the lands.” Of course, their act of turning to the LORD with their fear is proper, but as we will now read in the fourth chapter, their fear of men quickly usurps their fear of God.
Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the LORD, the God of Israel, they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers’ houses and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here.” But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of fathers’ houses in Israel said to them, “You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the LORD, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us.”
Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build and bribed counselors against them to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.
And in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.Ezra 4:1-6
Here in chapter four, Ezra describes the continuous threat from “the adversaries” to hinder the people of Judah from completing the temple and the rest of the city. The conflict begins with “the peoples of the lands” asking to aid the Jews in the rebuilding of the temple. Such a request seems harmless enough, yet these are not people with pure intentions to worship the LORD. In Ezra 6:21, we are told that the Passover was eaten by both the people of Judah “and also by everyone who had joined them and separated himself from the uncleanness of the peoples of the land to worship the Lord, the God of Israel.” Therefore, those who truly wished to worship God alone as the one true God were not forbidden from doing so. Instead, these are like the people of 2 Kings 17 (in fact, they claim to have descended from them) who “feared the LORD and also served their carved images” (v. 41). They are rightly, therefore, called adversaries because their attitude of worship is in defiance of the First and Second Commandments. They claim to worship the LORD, but their worship is not. Thus, it is not actually worship.
The leaders of Judah justly deny the adversaries’ request, which is then met with blatant hostility to the point of bribing counselors against them. Ezra notes that this opposition lasted until the reign of Darius (v. 5) and mentions further adversity during the reigns of Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes (vv. 6-7). Yet in verse 24, he returns to discussing the reign of Darius.
A quick primer on ancient Persian monarchs is needed for making sense of this chapter’s chronology. The four kings mentioned in Ezra 4 are the most notable of the kings of the Persian Empire. Cyrus the Great reigned first, as we’ve noted, from 559-530 BC. Two kings of little importance reigned from 530-522. Darius I then ruled from 522-486 (recall Haggai’s setting during the second year of Darius). Ahasuerus, also known as Xerxes I, followed Darius from 485-465, while Artaxerxes I’s reign lasted from 485-424.
For biblical context, Esther was the queen of Ahasuerus, who is probably most famous now for defeating three hundred Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae, and both Ezra and Nehemiah lived during the rule of Artaxerxes. Ezra’s account, therefore, of the letter to and from Artaxerxes (vv. 7-23) was probably inserted into the narrative to remind the people of his day that such opposition was the norm from the very beginning of their return from exile. And it had continued for nearly one hundred years from Cyrus to Artaxerxes.
As I said, verse 24 is return to Ezra’s historical narrative: “Then the work on the house of God that is in Jerusalem stopped, and it ceased until the second year of the reign of Darius.” Work on the temple then resumed at the prompting of Haggai and Zechariah (5:1). This means that when Haggai called the people to begin rebuilding the temple in 520 BC, the foundation remained alone as it was laid for about fifteen years.
This context is crucial to understand as we study Haggai’s oracle to finish the temple next week. If we read Haggai alone, we might be tempted to think that the people of Judah neglected completing the house of the LORD because they were lazy, slothful, and self-focused. While self-focus certainly applies, they primarily ignored the temple out of fear, specifically the fear of men. They worshiped God in chapter 3 so that the LORD would protect them from their enemies, so when those very enemies opposed them, their devotion also began to melt away.
Like the people of Judah, we too are a people returning from exile. Our banishment is not one of seventy years nor is it a matter of being deported to a foreign country. This exile began in Genesis 3 with our ancestors being cast out into the east of the garden-paradise called Eden, an ejection from the presence of God as a consequence of our sin. And although Cyrus is called “the Great,” the true and everlasting King of Kings has brought us home. Through offering His own sinless life in our place, Jesus Christ paid the penalty of our sins and returned us to communion with our Father.
But also like the exiles’ homecoming, our story is not yet complete. We are both home and not yet home. The kingdom of God has come and is even still arriving. Jerusalem is ours, but it is not yet rebuilt. We are fully justified, being sanctified, and not yet glorified. Our sin is defeated, but we continue to wrestle against its grasp each day. By Christ’s blood, we are free to worship our God freely, yet many adversaries threaten to keep us from doing His will, from seeking first His kingdom and righteousness.
The primary message of Haggai to the people who had forsaken God’s house is a call to fear God more than men, to place His glory and interests above their own, or, to borrow use Jesus’ words, to seek first His kingdom. Oppositions to this task may indeed be simple selfishness or laziness, but they are just as often what appear to be reasonable justifications.
What, therefore, are your adversaries to seeking God and His kingdom?
Perhaps before you can answer that question, you need to know how to seek God’s kingdom. Without a physical temple to rebuild, how do we pursue God’s glory above all things? We can begin by turning to His Word, the spiritual discipline of reading Scripture. Psalm 1 describes the blessed man, the one who is favored by God, a citizen of heaven’s kingdom, as one who delights in God’s law and meditates upon it day and night. A love of God must inevitably be connected to a love of His Word. Thus, a saturation in the Scriptures is means of seeking God’s kingdom.
Being January, I am sure that many of us have resolved to spend more time in the pages of the Bible. Yet how have those resolutions unfolded so far? What adversaries or oppositions keep you from meditating upon the Word of God? Is it a lack of discipline? Or laziness? What about busyness? Perhaps it is distraction? Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Netflix, or just regular ol’ TV? Or maybe it is fear, the fear of failing to understand or the fear of your faith wavering? As the peoples of the lands kept the Jews from rebuilding the temple, these seemingly harmless trifles keep us from walking in fellowship and obedience to our God.
Of course, this isn’t to suggest that our salvation is dependent upon our own works. By no means! God fully returned the exiles before they ever had a chance to build the temple. He rescued by His grace and only then did they both obey and worship. Likewise, our entrance into the kingdom of God is through faith in the finished work of Christ alone to forgive our sins. Yet we are now called to obey, to seek His kingdom above all things, to place His interests above our own.
Therefore, as we study Haggai, we too should consider our ways, what adversaries are hindering us from seeking God’s kingdom and righteous before all other things. And as we begin to seek His kingdom, let us be encouraged that “all these things will be added to you.” Our God is with us. His Spirit indwells us. His reign is absolute. Let us, therefore, be strong, fearing only the LORD, and though it cost all we have, let us seek first His kingdom.