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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

- Haggai

by Editor - Joseph Exell



It is marvellous how much light has been thrown by recent discoveries in the East upon many passages of Old Testament Scripture. The bricks and inscriptions, the tablets and monuments, of Assyria and Babylonia, after having been hidden from the knowledge of men for thousands of years, have at last disclosed their secrets to us. They carry us back through the long dark vista of centuries. It is possible for us now to frame some adequate idea of that “great Babylon” which Nebuchadnezzar boasted that he had built for the house of the kingdom, and within whose walls many of God’s captive people found a home when they were carried away from Judah and Jerusalem. It must have been one of the most splendid cities which the world has ever seen. In the centre Of it rose the temple of Baal, towering stage above stage towards the sky, with a gigantic image of the god adorning its summit. The palace of the king stood not far distant, with its courts and corridors and famous hanging gardens. Round the city ran a wall, pierced by a hundred gates of bronze, and itself so broad that two chariots could pass one another without difficulty on the roadway which crowned it. And the great river Euphrates flowed through the midst of the houses and palaces and temples, with handsome quays and frequent drawbridges, and boats plying constantly up and down. Such was the golden city against which Isaiah and Jeremiah hurled their threats, the chosen home of luxury and refinement, and of a people who cared only for their own gratification. Its renown filled the earth. It exalted its throne above the stars of God. There was no other city half so proud or glorious. But it was doomed to shame and defeat, as more than one Hebrew prophet had foretold. Men have loved to think of Cyrus, whom the Lord raised up to do His own work of humbling Babylon and of liberating His captives from thraldom, as a worshipper of one God only. They have imagined that the chief motive which prompted him to attack the great city was his burning desire to destroy its idols. They have said that he allowed the Jews to return to their own land because, like them, he had but one supreme deity--the Ormazd, or good spirit of the Zoroastrian creed. But just as science, according to the poet, has withdrawn “the veil of enchantment” from creation, and has forced its visions of beauty to yield to “cold material laws,” so the tablets and inscriptions have robbed Cyrus of this great honour with which succeeding generations had crowned him. He was a devotee, we are compelled now to believe, of the many gods of Babylon. His first care, after making himself master of the town, was to restore some of these gods to the shrines from which they had been removed by Nabonidos. He prayed for their help and blessing on all his enterprises. Bel and Nebo and the countless divinities of the Chaldean pantheon were revered by him with implicit faith. £ But he was tolerant, too, of other creeds. Moreover, he was anxious to ingratiate himself into the favour of the Jews, who formed no inconsiderable part of the population of the city. Therefore he dealt kindly with them. He published the decree which permitted them to go back to their native land and to rebuild the ruined Temple of Jehovah. He gave them many privileges which they had not previously enjoyed. The prophet Haggai was in Babylon, we may be sure, that day when Cyrus marched into it “with banner and with music, with soldier and with priest.” No doubt he had more than once looked the great conqueror in the face. He lived in the period of the Exile--lived to see its ending, and to witness the dawning of the time appointed by the Lord to favour Zion. He is the earliest of those three prophets whose work lay after the long Captivity.

I am to try to sketch the prophet’s surroundings. He was one of those who had known from personal experience what banishment and exile mean. He had remembered Jerusalem by the rivers of Babylon. And he had rejoiced with all the best souls in the nation when God stirred up the spirit of Cyrus to perform His will. We can picture him journeying homeward across the bleak desert with the caravans of pilgrims. At times the only feeling of the travellers was one of overflowing joy. It was all like a dream to them, too good to be true--like the rush of the waters in the rainy season into the dry torrent-beds in the south of Palestine; like the reaper bearing on his shoulder the sheaves in summer which he had sown in the dull days of winter. But at other times there was grief mingled with the gladness. Tears of penitence and words of prayer broke freely forth. They came “with weeping and with supplications,” as Jeremiah says, asking the way to Zion with their faces thitherward. Full of such thoughts as these, he and his companions made the long journey of four months’ duration across the stony and arid desert. Guarded by God, they escaped the perils of the wilderness and the perils of robbers. They arrived safely in Jerusalem, the city of their fathers, the home and seat of their Lord. These pilgrims were not the whole of Israel. They were but forty-two thousand men, with their dependants. £ The great majority of the Jews preferred to remain in exile. Many of them had gained high positions in the state which they could not easily resign; others had acquired property or had formed connections from which they were unable or unwilling to part; numbers were charmed and detained by the glory and greatness of Babylon--its streets, its pleasure-grounds, its storehouses, its busy river. They found it hard to prefer Jerusalem, a town grass-grown and desolate, to this splendid city. So the company of travellers who faced the desert, and made their way to the fatherland which held their hearts captive, was by no means so large as it might have been. And their souls must have been like to fail them when they saw Jerusalem itself. Its walls were crumbled into ruins. Its houses were mere wrecks, blackened with smoke and fire. Its Temple was demolished. Yet, saddening though all their surroundings were, they refused at first to be discouraged. This was the city, they reminded themselves, where David and Solomon had reigned; the city in which God had chosen to put His name. They began by erecting the altar of burnt-offering; and then they made preparations for rebuilding the Temple and the walls. But now trouble came. They had righteously refused to permit the Samaritans to aid them in what was really a holy work--the Samaritans who joined to their worship of Jehovah the worship of heathen gods. Thus they turned those Northern neighbours of theirs into bitter enemies, who annoyed them perpetually, who strove to thwart all their undertakings, who maligned and slandered their character at the Persian Court. The intrigues of these unscrupulous foes were only too successful. They persuaded Cambyses and Smerdis, who held the throne after Cyrus, to forbid the prosecution of the Temple works. For fifteen years everything came to a standstill. Worse still, during the long delay the zeal of the people for the sanctuary of God grew cold. They submitted to what appeared to them inevitable. They looked on the unfinished work and said, “The time is not come, the time that the Lord’s house should be built.” They turned aside to selfish objects and pursuits, erecting rich and comfortable homes for themselves, and decorating them with that wainscot of cedar which had been reckoned hitherto the peculiar ornament of the sanctuary. It was a sad declension after the hopeful start which had been made. What Haggai thought during this time of retrogression we can have little difficulty in guessing. Surely it cut him to the heart. Surely he mourned for the lukewarmness of his friends. But at length a fresh morning broke and a happier day. Darius Hystaspis £ ascended the throne of Persia--Darius, who was a Zoroastrian and a worshipper of one God. His sympathies were entirely with the Jews. He promulgated a new decree, bidding them resume the building of the Temple, and giving them revenues for the purpose. And, contemporaneous with the king’s accession, came the prophetic activity of Haggai. After long silence the Spirit of the Lord impelled him to speak. It was the autumn of the year 520 b.c.--the month of September, we may say--and by December of the same year Haggai’s work as a prophet was finished. But he accomplished a great deal during these few weeks. God gave him a reward which is often denied to men and women whose labours extend over a much longer period of time.

Remembering that these were the circumstances in which he commenced to speak on God’s behalf, let us pass briefly in review his prophecies themselves. There have been some who have thought that, when he stood up to deliver his message to the people, he was already an old man. He refers in his words to the glory of the former house of the Lord, the magnificent Temple of Solomon which Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed. And it has been argued that he was speaking from his own recollections of that fair and noble structure. It may be a slender foundation on which to base an assertion of any kind, indeed, we can have no certainty about the matter; but I for one like to think of this prophet as going forth to do God’s work in the twilight of life, with feeble steps and a face furrowed by age and trouble and hair white as the snow, yet with a childlike faith and a firm and resolute heart. Let this be as it may, however, we know that he appeared at a most critical juncture in the history of the people; and we know, too, that whether young or old, he justified the choice which God had made of him. £ Four times over in this autumn of the year 520 the burden of the Lord was laid upon him. Four times over he went out to deliver his short and pregnant messages to his countrymen. The earliest occasion was on the first day of the month Elul, when the harvest had been quite gathered in. Then Haggai broke the silence, addressing himself directly to Zerubbabel, the Hebrew ruler of Jerusalem, and to Joshua the high-priest, but intending to reach through them the whole body of the people. In the name of the God of Israel he summoned his fellow-citizens to arise and work, encouraged by the manifest favour with which the new king regarded them. He did not spare their faults; like a skilful surgeon, he probed the wounds of the little commonwealth to the bottom. Let them look the facts, unwelcome as they were, in the face, Haggai said. Let them return to their first love and their first zeal. Let them resume without further delay the holy Temple work which they had laid aside so selfishly and sinfully (Haggai 1:2-11). A month later, on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles--the most joyous and gladsome of all the Hebrew solemnities--Haggai spoke again. This time his words were full of good cheer; for his former message of stern rebuke had had an immediate effect, and had roused the people from their lethargy. Some of the builders, he felt, might contrast the new Temple with the old, to the disparagement of that about which they were now busy. There were among them grey-haired men, laudatores temporis acti, who passed slighting comments on each feature of the growing structure, and who told with fond regrets of the “exceeding magnifical” house that had once been there. Therefore the prophet urged the workmen to pursue their toil with unflagging earnestness, because God was with them in as real a sense as He had been with their fathers. He went further still. He assured them that the glory of the new Temple would outshine that of the old. It might not ever be so splendid outwardly. But the new sanctuary was to be invested with a spiritual majesty to which its predecessor could not lay claim. God was to do wonders of grace and power within its courts. Yet again, having performed his errand and uttered his brief message, Haggai was silent--on this occasion for rather more than two months. Then he spoke a third time. A new fear had arisen among the people--the fear that God was not about to bless them, even although they had given themselves afresh to Him. Dearth and blight and disappointment were still dogging their footsteps; the sky seemed as dark and stormy as before. The prophet of the Lord had a solemn lesson to teach his hearers now. By a reference to the Levitical law, and by a question put to the priests, he reminded the citizens that, while a holy thing did not communicate its holiness to whatever might touch it, a thing which was unclean contaminated all with which it came into contact. The speck within the garnered fruit moulders the whole basketful; the hand that is stained with blood incarnadines the multitudinous seas, “making the green one red.” Just so it had been with the Jews. Their good deeds had not compensated for their lukewarmness; but on the contrary, their lack of zeal for God, their sin in neglecting the Temple, had spread its moral pollution over every work of their hands. But yet they must not despair. God would not deal with them in mere righteousness and unbending justice. Nay, He would forget all their ingratitude. Because they were now seeking to serve Him, He would commence among them a new era of prosperity. “From this day--the four-and-twentieth day of the ninth month--will I bless you”--such was His pitiful and loving assurance. It had been all failure hitherto; it was to be only peace and joy and strength and fruitfulness henceforward (Haggai 2:10-19). Once more Haggai spoke--a little further on in the same day. God bade him tell Zerubbabel that he need feel no alarm about the civil liberties of the people in the future. Disturbances and commotions of no ordinary kind were impending, but through them all the Jewish prince and those committed to his care would dwell secure. The grand words of the 91st Psalm would be realised in their history: “A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee. Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked. Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the Most High, thy habitation, there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling” (Haggai 2:20-23). That was Haggai’s latest utterance.

There was no need why he should remain longer in the public view. He had finished the task which God assigned him, and had finished it successfully. Critics have sometimes found fault with his style. They have said that there is little eloquence or poetry in it--that it is bald and rugged and uninviting. But work that is sharp and stern requires weapons of a similar sort. Haggai’s short emphatic sentences are exactly what was best suited to the occasion. They compelled attention, and not attention only, but obedience too. They pricked men to the heart. They kindled within them that godly sorrow which needeth not to be repented of. The best results followed the ministry of Haggai. He had no sooner uttered the first of his prophecies ere he saw it bear fruit. Moved with holy fear, Zerubbabel and Joshua and the people obeyed the call of God’s messenger. They flocked to the work which had been so long and shamefully neglected. Within a month the building of the Temple was being vigorously pressed forward. Few, indeed, of His ambassadors have had a harvest so speedy and so copious as Haggai had. Haggai is in truth one of the “last” who shall be “first.” How long he had to wait before God called him to utter a single word I How few his opportunities were even after his ministry had commenced! How very quickly his time of speech and action was drawn to a close! Yet he did a mighty and far-reaching work. He quickened a backsliding people to repentance. He restored their souls, and led them again in the ways of truth and holiness.

Finally, let us draw from Haggai’s prophecy one or two truths suitable for ourselves, who live at such a distance from him.

1. It seems to me that here we get no little insight into the cause and the cure of dull times. The Jews of the prophet’s day had to complain of depression and hardship. Their harvests had been poor; they could earn little, and what they did earn leaked imperceptibly away. And the preacher told them plainly why. It was because they had forgotten to give to God--to give Him their time and their thought and their substance. Let them contribute heartily to His cause, and their troubles would vanish; from that hour He would bless them and make them prosperous. Do not we require the reproof?

2. Haggai teaches us, too, not to despise our own generation and the work that is being done in it. He condemned the men who spoke of the glory of Solomon’s Temple as if it surpassed altogether that of the later house; he told them that God would do greater things in the new sanctuary than in the old. The tendency which he combated lives among us yet. We remember the deliverances of the past; but we question whether there can be any such deliverances in the present. We are proud of the faith and struggles and achievements of our fathers; but we doubt whether their descendants can ever come within sight of them. And it is good to recall the years of the right hand of the Most High--years long since fled. But it is wrong to speak as if God had departed from the earth today. He is active still. He is in intimate relations with mankind even now. He fainteth not, neither is weary.

3. This prophet tells us also that no amount of holy services will cleanse and renew us if we be ourselves unholy. The parable which he drew from the ancient Levitical law has this for its moral. Men are always prone to imagine that, if only they render to God an outward religion, it will atone for the blemishes and shortcomings and selfishness and sin of their lives. -It is a fatal and wicked error. Our God looks beneath the surface into the inner man. He demands that we should rend our hearts and not our garments. He asks from us a simple and true and earnest faith in His crucified and risen Son. He bids us welcome His Holy Spirit into our souls. He will not bless us unless this is our attitude and character. Can we say that it is yours and mine? (Original Secession Magazine.)

Chapter 1

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