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Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers Ellicott's Commentary
by Charles John Ellicott
THE REV. A. C. JENNINGS, MA
The Author.—Haggai is in point of time the first of the prophets of the Post-Captivity period. Of his tribe and parentage nothing is recorded in Scripture. It is not even known whether he was born before or during the exile, nor whether his birth took place in Judæa or in Babylon. Ewald infers from the comparison adduced in Haggai 2:3 that the prophet had himself seen the first Temple. In this case he must have been advanced in years at the time of his delivering these prophecies. The passage, however, does not at all necessitate this inference. On the other hand, a worthless Patristic tradition records that Haggai was born at Babylon, and delivered his prophecies in youth, that he survived the completion of the Temple (B.C. 516), and was interred with honour close to the burial-place of the priests. (See Pseudo-Dorotheus, in Chron. Pasch. 151 d.) The Jewish legend makes Haggai a member of the Great Synagogue of one hundred and twenty elders established by Ezra. To this is attached an absurd account of his surviving till the visit of Alexander the Great to Jerusalem.
All that we certainly know of the personal history of the prophet is gathered from Haggai 1:1; Haggai 2:1; Haggai 2:10; Haggai 2:20, compared with Ezra 5:1; Ezra 6:14. (See below, on Occasion of Writing.) The LXX. prefixes the names of Haggai and Zechariah to Psalms 138, 146-148; the Peshito Syriac to Psalms 126, 127, 146-148. Psalms 146:0 is the first of a group of Psalms known among the Jews as the “five Hallelujahs,” and probably composed for the services of the second Temple. Pseudo-Epiphanius records that Haggai was the first to chant the Hallelujah in this Temple. This he apparently regards as the explanation of the LXX. inscription, since he adds the comment, “Wherefore we say Hallelujah, which is the hymn of Haggai and Zechariah” (de Vitis Proph.). The name Haggai is certainly connected with the substantive Chag, “a feast.” It is uncertain whether it means “My feasts” or “feasts of Jehovah;” or is to be regarded as an adjectival form, “festive.”
The Occasion of Writing.—Haggai began to prophesy in the second year of Darius Hystaspis, i.e., in B.C. 520. (Comp. Haggai 1:1 and Ezra 5:1.) The object of his mission was to rouse the restored exiles from a condition of religious torpor, and induce them to complete the restoration of the Temple. To understand the circumstances under which Haggai began this work we must cast a glance backward at the history of the preceding fifteen years. The favourable edict of the first year of Cyrus (B.C. 536) had brought up to Judæa a congregation of some 42,360 freemen, besides 7,337 male and female slaves. In the seventh month of this year these restored exiles had set up an altar to Jehovah, and had observed the Feast of Tabernacles according to the ancient ordinance. The next year witnessed the foundation of the second House. We read that the joy appropriate to this occasion was damped by the regrets of the aged men who had seen the Temple of Solomon in its magnificence (Ezra 3:12). This form of discouragement is found operating again, after Haggai had persuaded his countrymen to resume the work of building. (See Haggai 2:3.) A more direct obstacle to the business of restoration was the antagonistic attitude of the Samaritans. The semi-idolatrous character of the Samaritan religion had induced Zerubbabel and Joshua to decline the co-operation of their brethren of the north. Irritated at this slight, Rehum and Shimshai incited the heterogeneous tribes who had settled in Samaria, and “weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and troubled them in building.” In order to obtain legal sanction for their proceedings, these adversaries secured the assistance of certain counsellors at the Persian court. This was in the reign of “Ahasuerus” (Cambyses), the successor of Cyrus. Their intrigue, however, did not come to a head till the accession of “Artaxerxes” (the usurper Pseudo-Smerdis, B.C. 522 or 521). In reply to a Samaritan petition alleging that Jerusalem had always been “a rebellious city, and hurtful unto kings and provinces,” Artaxerxes issued an edict forbidding the rebuilding of the city. The prohibition made no mention of the Temple. It was easy, however, for Rehum and Shimshai to extend its scope, and stop the “work of the house of God” “by force and power” (Ezra 4:23-24).
It does not appear that the Jews themselves cared to have it otherwise. The usurper’s reign lasted less than a year, and the accession of Darius Hystaspis (B.C. 521) might well have been regarded as an opportunity for obtaining an abrogation of the adverse decree. But the duties of religion were now regarded with indifference. The wealthy citizens availed themselves of the change of dynasty to commence building private mansions not void of pretension to magnificence (Haggai 1:4; Haggai 1:9). But the dwelling-place of the Most High lay neglected. The work had progressed but slowly during the thirteen years preceding the accession of Artaxerxes. For at least a year and a half it was entirely suspended. It was at the close of this period that Haggai and Zechariah came forward and “prophesied unto the Jews that were in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel” (Ezra 5:1). The mission of both prophets dates from the middle of the year B.C. 520, the second year of Darius. Haggai’s earliest utterances. occurred in the sixth and seventh months of that year (Haggai 1:1 to Haggai 2:9). Zechariah next takes up the strain with an exhortation to repentance, dating from the eighth month (Zechariah 1:1-6). Haggai delivers his final address on the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month. Exactly two months later begins Zechariah’s series of visions (Zechariah 1:7 seq.).
Haggai’s first utterance was exclusively one of rebuke, its theme being his countrymen’s neglect of the Lord’s house. The effects of this utterance appear to have manifested themselves almost immediately. Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest, “with all the remnant of the people,” turned a willing ear to his exhortation, and the prophet was able to change the accents of reproof for those of comforting assurance (Haggai 1:13). Before the end of the month which witnessed the opening of Haggai’s mission, the work of building had been resumed. The prophet was now able to extend his consolatory assurances, the prompt obedience of his hearers being rewarded by a twofold promise:—(a) the curse that had hitherto rested on all agricultural pursuits was to be removed; henceforth the labours of their hands should be blessed (Haggai 2:15-19); (b) the Temple they were rearing was to be connected with a great diffusion of religious knowledge. The old paths of this world’s course were to be broken up; earthly powers were to be brought low; the Gentiles were to glorify Jehovah with worship and precious offerings; the royal line of Judah, now represented by Zerubbabel, was to be exhibited as the object of Jehovah’s choice (Haggai 2:6-9; Haggai 2:21-23).
The Christian reader hardly needs to be informed when and how this latter promise was realised. Its connection with the New Dispensation is obvious and undeniable. The Saviour derived His man’s nature from the royal line of David, and Zerubbabel’s name is accordingly included in the pedigrees handed down by St. Matthew and St. Luke. The effect of His Dispensation has been indeed a “shaking of nations,” a subjugation of the “kingdoms of the heathen.” To the Jewish system and its Temple, His Advent imparted a glory hitherto unknown. It may be said, indeed, that the very presence in the Temple of “God manifest in the flesh sufficiently illustrates the promise of Haggai 2:9 : “There Christ, the Son of God, was as a child offered to God; there He sat in the midst of the doctors; there He taught and revealed things hidden from the foundation of the world.” Such a presence was indeed a glory greater than that of the Shechinah.
To press the details of Haggai’s prediction more closely than this appears impossible, and unnecessary. The transference of the glory of the Temple to the Messianic Church does not come under treatment. Nor can it be supposed that the second Temple was regarded by the prophet as in any way a type or a material counterpart of the Messianic Church. The commentators have forced ideas of this kind into Haggai 2:9, but they are quite foreign to the prophet’s subject. The Hebrew term for the “House of God does not admit of that variety of meaning which belongs to the Greek ἐκκλησία. It must be interpreted strictly of the material building, and the idea of an ecclesiastical organisation must be carefully excluded. Misinterpretations of another kind may be noticed in connection with the passages Haggai 2:6; Haggai 2:21-22. Excess of literalism has introduced in these passages actual phenomena of nature such as Christ declared should precede the completion of His Dispensation; or, finding the interpretation in præ-Christian times, the commentators instance actual revolutions, and overturnings of particular dynasties, those of Persia, Syria, and Greece. But the verses in question really admit only of an ethical interpretation. They are to be expounded in accordance with the language of Old Testament prophecy elsewhere. The details are such as belong to the Hebrew idea of the Theophany of Messianic times, and therefore recur repeatedly in the Prophets and Psalms. It may be doubted whether they had any literal force in the conception of the poets. Certainly their historical counterpart must be found in the moral, not in the material sphere.
The “House,” finally, though the material Temple, is not necessarily the Temple of Zerubbabel. The substantial identity of God’s Holy Place in all periods is assumed. The present building is represented as identical with Solomon’s as well as with the Temple which is to be filled with glory. Thus the question whether Herod’s was not a third Temple rather than a development of the second, need not come into consideration. In this connection we notice that the right rendering in Haggai 2:9 is “the latter glory of this house,” &c., not “the glory of this latter house.”
We have pointed out the leading features in this portraiture of Messianic times. It is proper to observe that, like many other Old Testament prophecies, it appears defective if subjected to minute analysis. We feel that the Temple fills in the prophetic delineation a far larger space than in the historical fact. It seems as if Haggai conceived of the religious influences of the Messianic age as all radiating from a material Temple. Yet the Temple at Jerusalem passed away shortly after the Saviour’s Advent, and had neither successor nor counterpart in the New Dispensation. It is an inconsistency which admits of large illustration, the conversion of the Gentiles being represented repeatedly by the prophets as if an accession to Judaism. The nations “flow to the mountain of the House of the Lord” (Micah 4:1-2; Isaiah 2:2); they receive a new birth at Jerusalem (Psalms 87:0); they even go up to Jerusalem to keep the Feast of Tabernacles (Zechariah 14:16). Such are the figures under which the extension of God’s kingdom is almost always (see Zephaniah 3:10, note) represented. Instead of “beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47) it leads men to Jerusalem. Instead of a Christian dispensation superseding a Jewish, the Jews invite the Gentiles into their own body. It is possible that, in some cases, the full significance of such prophetic language is yet to be revealed to the Church of Christ by the course of history. In Haggai’s case, however, we believe we need not look beyond the event of the Saviour’s first Advent. Obscurity will appear natural if we bear in mind that the facts which have been revealed to us in material historical shape were only presented to the vision of the Hebrew prophet “as in a glass darkly.”
III. Division of Contents.—The Book of Haggai presents five distinct utterances, all included within the brief period of four months:—(a) In the first, Haggai rebukes his compatriots for their neglect of God’s House. Their religious apathy is treated as the cause of the prevalent dearth (Haggai 1:1-11). (b) Rulers and people showing signs of repentance, the prophet utters a comforting assurance—“I am with you, saith the LORD.” The work of building is now actively resumed (Haggai 1:12-15). (c) In view of a tendency to contrast the humble proportions of the new building with the grandeur of Solomon’s Temple, Haggai promises that Jehovah’s House shall hereafter have a glory to which the whole universe shall bear witness (Haggai 2:1-9). (d) Haggai’s fourth address reverts to the prevalent dearth, and shows that the labours of men’s hands have hitherto been cursed, because defiled by the sin of religious apathy. Though no signs of better times are visible, the prophet is empowered to utter the assurance, “From this day will I bless” (Haggai 2:10-19). (e) The prophet’s final utterance attaches the promise of Haggai 2:1-9 to the line of Zerubbabel, When the powers of this world are overthrown, this line shall be selected by Jehovah for special honour (Haggai 2:20-23).
IV. Character and Style.—In the prophecy of Zephaniah the extension of Jehovah’s kingdom was treated as the climax to which all political changes and catastrophes should tend. Haggai, with the same bright hope before him, treats it almost exclusively in its relation to the restored Temple. Between the two prophets there intervenes the whole period of Chaldæan ascendency. The final warnings of Habakkuk and Jeremiah—the battle of Carchemish—Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion—the sack of Jerusalem—the exile—the restoration—these are the steps which lead us upward from the level of the prophet of the Judgment to that of the prophet of the Temple’s glories. The “day of wrath “is past. In fulfilment of Zephaniah’s prediction the captivity of Judah has been turned; and in the midst of Jerusalem there survives a people “afflicted and poor” (Zephaniah 2:7; Zephaniah 3:12). It is natural that the first prophecy of the new period should bear on internal reform, and that the restoration of the national religion should occupy the place hitherto filled by great political crises.
The character of the composition necessarily changes with the change of theme. Haggai’s discourses are concentrated primarily on one particular phase of religious duty. They embrace details of a commonplace character, and of short-lived interest. High aspiration is not wanting, but it is almost exclusively associated with a theme which, at first sight, appears prosaic. In Haggai’s utterances, in fact, the functions of a reformer and practical homilist are combined with those of the prophet. They necessarily lie open to the charge of being deficient in poetical ability. It must be admitted, moreover, that the style of the preacher is not such as recommends itself to a critical taste. Repetitions impair the vigour, anomalous constructions the smoothness of his discourses. His frequent use of interrogation and answer robs them of all rhythmical beauty. He is wont, as has been said, to “utter the main thought with concise and nervous brevity,” but it is only after “a large and verbose introduction.” Figures and tropes are altogether wanting, except in the predictions of Haggai 2:6-7; Haggai 2:22. He is the most matter-of-fact of all the prophets. These defects are the more conspicuous in that his utterances are linked together by historical passages of the plainest prose. This composite character may nevertheless serve to explain the literary deficiencies of the book. We have here, it must be remembered, not a continuous outburst of prophetic inspiration, but five inspired utterances welded into one historical book. We do not know that this book proceeded from the pen of Haggai. On the contrary, it is at least as probable that this framework in which the prophet’s discourses have been preserved is the work of some contemporary chronicler. In this case it would be natural that something of the eloquence and impressiveness of the preacher should be lost in the annalist’s reproduction. It is even possible to suppose that the discourses of Haggai, as they now stand, are only a résumé or summary of what the prophet actually uttered.