Commentary on Haggai 1:15b-2:9
The co-temporal prophets Haggai and Zechariah mark a shift in how the exiled community of Judah sees itself.
For the first time, they measure time through a foreign monarch, Darius of Persia, because there are no ruling Davidides in Judah (which has now become the Persian province of Yehud). The last phrase of 1:15, “in the second year of King Darius,” link chapters 1 and 2. The first nine verses of chapter 2 make up the bulk of the lectionary reading.
In this passage, the exiles have now returned to Jerusalem with the blessing of Cyrus to rebuild their temple including some building supplies. (The story of the return and rebuilding of the temple is told in Ezra 1-3.)
The date formulas in Haggai (and Zechariah) are precise. The word of the LORD comes to Haggai on the 21st of Tishri (the seventh month), corresponding to the seventeenth of October in 520 BCE. The context is the disappointment of the people who have done all that they can to return their world to the way things were (and were supposed to be) but have found themselves far short of their vision.
Prophets like Isaiah (43:5-6; 48:20-21), Hosea (11:10-11), and Ezekiel (37:12-14) had prophesied a Second Exodus in which God would lead Israel back to the Promised Land. The day had come, and now about a month later, they have come face to face with a reality that does not live up to their dreams.
Zerubbabel is a descendent of David (in a round-about way), but he is not a king; he is only governor as long as it pleases the Persian overlord, Darius, the true king. They have a high priest, Joshua, and the temple has been rebuilt, but it is not the same. Ezra 3:12-13 records the people who were old enough to have seen the glorious Solomon temple broke down and cried when the saw its shabby successor. (All of the Israelite construction efforts were ridiculed as being so unstable that the local wildlife would demolish them by bumping into them, see Nehemiah 4:3.)
To these disheartened and disenchanted people, God spoke through Haggai:
How many of you remember the good old days? Does this new temple hold a candle to the previous one? Buck up Z! Hold your head up Josh! Everyone, keep working! You have nothing to fear, I am here and I am with you all. And it won’t always be like this. I will bring resources – treasure – from far away lands and in its final form, this holy house will be even better than the one Solomon built!
In some ways, each successive generation of Israelites tried to live into this promise by continually expanding and renovating the temple, as did Herod in the New Testament. (This is one thread underlying the synoptic story in which the disciples swell with pride when they show Jesus the fancy work on the perpetual temple project and their horror when he says the whole thing will come tumbling down, see Matthew 24:1-2; Mark 13:1-2; Luke 21:5-6.)
It is easy to focus on the material promise: one day the returnees will be more prosperous. There is more to this word of consolation. God is satisfied with their best efforts. God has not compared their labor with that of their ancestors and found it lacking. God knows they are feeling insecure about the temple they have recreated for God. Perhaps most importantly, God is with them, temple or no temple.
God is with them and God has been with them. God was with the Israelites in the glorious days of the united monarchy. God was with the Israelites on both sides of the border when the nation fractured – even though the Judeans claimed that God was with them and not the northern Israelites. God was with the deported and resettled Samarians as they intermarried other deported peoples and became known as the Samaritans and were no longer recognized by some as Israelite. God was with the Judeans and Jerusalemites when the Babylonian war machine leveled their temple and obliterated their government. God went with the Judean Israelites into exile and remained with the poorest people of the land who were left behind. And God was with those who ran the other way and found themselves self-exiled in Egypt. God was with each river of returnees streaming back into Jerusalem and Judah.
And in the days to come, God’s presence will be marked by not mere prosperity as it is translated in the NRSV, but shalom – peace, well-being, security, wholeness, and restoration.