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1. THE CALL TO BUILD
It was to this situation, upon an autumn day, when the colonists felt another year of beggarly effort behind them and their wretched harvest had been brought home, that the prophet Haggai addressed himself. With rare sense he confined his efforts to the practical needs of the moment. The sneers of modern writers have not been spared upon a style that is crabbed and jejune, and they have esteemed this to be a collapse of the prophetic spirit, in which Haggai ignored all the achievements of prophecy and interpreted the word of God as only a call to hew wood and lay stone upon stone. But the man felt what the moment needed, and that is the supreme mark of the prophet. Set a prophet there, and what else could a prophet have done? It would have been futile to rewaken those most splendid voices of the past, which had in part bean the reason of the people’s disappointment, and equally futile to interpret the mission of the great world powers towards God’s people. What God’s people themselves could do for themselves-that was what needed telling at the moment; and if Haggai told it with a meager and starved style, this also was in harmony with the occasion. One does not expect it otherwise when hungry men speak to each other of their duty.
Nor does Haggai deserve blame that he interpreted the duty as the material building of the Temple. This was no mere ecclesiastical function. Without the Temple the continuity of Israel’s religion could not be maintained. An independent state, with the full courses of civic life, was then impossible. The ethical spirit, the regard for each other and God, could prevail over their material interests in no other way than by common devotion to the worship of the God of their fathers. In urging them to build the Temple from their own unaided resources, in abstaining from all hopes of imperial patronage, in making the business one, not of sentiment nor of comfortable assurance derived from the past promises of God, but of plain and hard duty-Haggai illustrated at once the sanity and the spiritual essence of prophecy in Israel.
Professor Robertson Smith has contrasted the central importance which Haggai attached to the Temple with the attitude of Isaiah and Jeremiah, to whom" the religion of Israel and the holiness of Jerusalem have little to do with the edifice of the Temple. The city is holy because it is the seat of Jehovah’s sovereignty on earth, exerted in His dealings with and for the state of Judah and the kingdom of David."
At the same time it ought to be pointed out that even to Isaiah the Temple was the dwelling-place of Jehovah, and if it had been lying in ruins at his feet, as it was at Haggai’s there is little doubt he would have been as earnest as Haggai in urging its reconstruction. Nor did the Second Isaiah, who has as lofty an idea of the spiritual destiny of the people as any other prophet, lay less emphasis upon the cardinal importance of the Temple to their life, and upon the certainty of its future glory.
"In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month and the first day of the month"-that is, on the feast of the new moon-"the word of Jehovah came by Haggai the prophet to Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, Satrap of Judah, and to Jehoshua, son of Jehosadak, the high priest"-the civil and religious heads of the community-as follows:-
"Thus hath Jehovah of Hosts spoken, saying: This people have said, Not yet is come the time for the building of Jehovah’s House. Therefore Jehovah’s word is come by Haggai the prophet, saying: Is it a time for you-you-to be dwelling in houses ceiled with planks, while this House is waste? And now thus saith Jehovah of Hosts: Lay to heart how things have gone with you. Ye sowed much but had little income, ate and were not satisfied, drank and were not full, put on clothing and there was no warmth, while he that earned wages has earned them into a bag with holes."
"Thus saith Jehovah of Hosts: Go up into the mountain"-the hill-country of Judah-"and bring in timber, and build the House, that I may take pleasure in it, and show My glory, saith Jehovah. Ye looked for much and it has turned out little, and what ye brought home I puffed at. On account of what?-oracle of Jehovah of Hosts-on account of My House which is waste, while ye are hurrying every man after his own house. Therefore hath heaven shut off the dew, and earth shut off her increase. And I have called drought upon the earth, both upon the mountains, and upon the corn, and upon the wine, and upon the oil, and upon what the ground brings forth, and upon man, and upon beast, and upon all the labor of the hands."
For ourselves, Haggai’s appeal to the barren seasons and poverty of the people as proof of God’s anger with their selfishness must raise questions. But we have already seen, not only that natural calamities were by the ancient world interpreted as the penal instruments of the Deity, but that all through history they have had a wonderful influence on the spirits of men, forcing them to search their own hearts and to believe that Providence is conducted for other ends than those of our physical prosperity. "Have not those who have believed as Amos believed ever been the strong spirits of our race, making the very disasters which crushed them to the earth the tokens that God has great views about them?" Haggai, therefore, takes no sordid view of Providence when he interprets the seasons, from which his countrymen had suffered, as God’s anger upon their selfishness and delay in building His House.
The straight appeal to the conscience of the Jews had an immediate effect. Within three weeks they began work on the Temple.
"And Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, and Jehoshua, son of Jehosadak, the high priest, and all the rest of the people, hearkened to the voice of Jehovah their God, and to the words of Haggai the prophet, as Jehovah their God had sent him; and the people feared before the face of Jehovah. (And Haggai, the messenger of Jehovah, in Jehovah’s mission to the people, spake, saying, I am with you-oracle of Jehovah.) And Jehovah stirred the spirit of Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, Satrap of Judah, and the spirit of Jehoshua, son of Jehosadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the rest of the people; and they went and did work in the House of Jehovah of Hosts, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month, in the second year of Darius the king."
Note how the narrative emphasises that the new energy was, as it could not but be from Haggai’s unflattering words, a purely spiritual result. It was the spirit of Zerubbabel, and the spirit of Jehoshua, and the spirit of all the rest of the people, which was stirred-their conscience and radical force of character. Not in vain had the people suffered their great disillusion under Cyrus, if now their history was to start again from sources so inward and so pure.
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Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Haggai 1". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany