Haggai: A Message About Priorities

| Haggai 1:1-9; 2:3-9, 18-23

Lesson Focus:  This lesson will urge you to find hope by reordering your priorities, conforming them to God’s agenda.

A Question of Priorities:  Haggai 1:1-9.

[1]  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: [2]  "Thus says the LORD of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD."

[3]  Then the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, [4]  "Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? [5]  Now, therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. [6]  You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes. [7]  "Thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. [8]  Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD. [9]  You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? declares the LORD of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house.  [ESV]

[1-2]  Haggai’s message strikes right to the heart of the matter. No time is wasted with nonessential asides or lengthy introduction. Nor is the message presented simply as an expression of the prophet’s opinion or advice. Instead, Haggai boldly announces, Thus says the Lord of hosts. This is the first of fourteen occurrences in Haggai of the phrase Lord of hosts. It is the most frequent designation for God in this book. The expression is used some 265 times in the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew word for hosts in the Old Testament often means ‘army’, either in reference to human armies prepared for conflict or in reference to heavenly gatherings of angels. In the Book of Haggai the expression serves to remind the prophet’s audience of God’s transcendence and control over all human affairs. The Lord’s remarks begin with the expression these people. There is a notion of contempt and disparagement in the words. The Lord does not refer to them as ‘my people’, although in light of earlier covenantal promises extended to their ancestors He might have done so. Instead He calls them these people. The word signals at the outset of this message that something was wrong in the relationship between the Lord and the inhabitants of Judah. The problem is more specifically identified in the people’s confident words, quoted here by the Lord. Their explanation for failure to rebuild the temple is that the time was not yet right for such an undertaking. In the view of the people it was not apathy or selfishness that had caused delay in this important project. They would eventually get around to restoring the temple. It was a question of timing. According to them the time was not yet right for the rebuilding of the temple. In this section Haggai repeatedly pictures the temple as a house in which the Lord resides. This notion of the temple as the house of God is thus important for understanding the urgency Haggai attaches to this structure. To leave the Lord’s dwelling in a state of disrepair was to show disrespect to its occupant. The fundamental problem to which Haggai points is that the people were concerned about the wrong house – they were looking after their own homes while neglecting the temple. In this chapter Haggai repeatedly points to this contrast between indulgent concern over matters of personal comfort on the one hand and callused disregard for spiritual responsibilities on the other hand.

[3-9]  The claim of divine authority made in verse 1 is now repeated in verse 3 in essentially the same terms. By repeating this formula the prophet stresses the belief that his message did not originate by his initiative, nor was its harsh analysis the result of his personal reflections. The prophet’s audience is exhorted to hear the voice of the Lord in His words to them. In these verses Haggai shows that the difficulties the people experienced were not simply coincidental. Their problems were the result of the Lord’s discipline directed against them due to their misplaced priorities. Because of their religious failures they were undergoing physical suffering and deprivation. These problems would not disappear until their underlying causes were corrected, the prophet warns. Haggai’s point with his question in verse 4 is that it is repulsive to suggest, as some of them have done, that it is not yet time to rebuild the temple while at the same time suggesting that it is time to undertake building projects that contribute to their personal security and comfort. The question invites reflection on priorities. Whose interests were most important to them – their own or those of their God? If a choice is to be made with regard to which of the two “houses” should be built first, does it not stand to reason that the Lord’s wishes should take precedence over their own? Such is the logical basis of the prophet’s complaint. From the prophet’s point of view the Lord had demonstrated His covenantal faithfulness by bringing the Jews into favor with Cyrus, who permitted them to return to their homeland. Now the time had come for the people to demonstrate their covenantal faithfulness to the Lord by seeing to it that His temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem. Yet this is precisely where they had failed. Once again, in verse 5, the prophet stresses the divine origin of the prophetic word. He urges the people to give careful thought to their ways, suggesting that it is their religious failures that have triggered their economic misfortunes. The expression suggests that their way or paths have deviated from behavior characterized by integrity and obedience. As described in verse 6, the people were caught in a web of diminishing return for their dogged efforts to provide life’s necessities. Five areas of economic failure are singled out in this verse. First, abundant planting has produced only a meager harvest; second, the food supply has been of insufficient quantity to satisfy hunger; third, drink is in such limited supply as to fail to quench thirst; fourth, clothing is of inadequate quality and quantity to keep the wearer sufficiently protected from the elements; fifth, wages have such meager purchase power that it is as though they are placed into purses riddled with holes, quickly falling through and disappearing from sight. The impact of such dismal conditions as Haggai describes had clearly taken a huge toll on the outlook and perspective of the people. Not being able to provide for even the basic necessities of life, how could they be expected to underwrite the significant financial costs and labor demands of an expensive project such as the temple? Once again the prophet calls attention to the fact that it is the Lord who is speaking through the prophetic message [7]. And once again he urges the people to consider their ways. The implication is that proper reflection on their past course of action should lead to a change of behavior for the future. In verse 8, the people are urged to go up to the hills to secure the necessary timber for construction. As a result of their efforts, the Lord assures them, he will take pleasure in the rebuilt structure and will be glorified in it. In verse 9 the prophet focuses on two things: first, there is the painful reminder of unrealized expectations on the part of the people. They had expected much in return for their hard labor and sustained efforts, but their anticipations had not come to fruition. Instead, the return for their work had been poor agricultural conditions resulting in failed crops, spiraling inflation accompanied by miserably low incomes, and a standard of living that plunged many of them into despair and depression. No doubt some of them were led to ask, as people of faith have often asked with regard to disappointing circumstances, “Why has the Lord not prevented all of this?” Many of the returnees would have found it difficult to understand the absence of prosperity in the land and the incredibly difficult times that the residents of the country were experiencing. After all, the return to the land had been undertaken in the belief that the Lord was finally bringing to an end the disciplinary hardships of the exile and was at long last renewing His magnanimous blessing upon a restored covenantal people. But those optimistic expectations were not being realized in any tangible sort of way. Instead of prosperity there was economic depression; instead of abundance there was deprivation; instead of joy there was frustration over present difficulties and anxiety with regard to the future. A heavy cloud of discouragement cast its darkening shadows over the people. Haggai’s reply was not that the Lord had somehow been passively removed from their plight or had carelessly failed to notice what was going on. Rather, according to Haggai, it was the Lord who had actually caused their misfortunes. In a vivid anthropomorphism Haggai says that what little advantage the people were able to collect from their labors the Lord Himself blew it away. And why had He done so? It was because of their decision to leave the temple in ruins while they expended tremendous efforts on their own dwellings. According to verse 9 what little they could gain they brought to the wrong house – their own house rather than the house of the Lord. The Lord had therefore scattered to the wind the meager results of their hard labors. The logical connection between their religious choices and the difficulties that had befallen them is made apparent in Haggai’s argument by the because clause in verse 9. There was a cause-and-effect relationship between the actions of the people and the crushing events that had transpired.

A Word of Encouragement:  Haggai 2:3-9.

[3]  ‘Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes? [4]  Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, declares the LORD. Be strong, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the LORD. Work, for I am with you, declares the LORD of hosts, [5]  according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not. [6]  For thus says the LORD of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. [7]  And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts. [8]  The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the LORD of hosts. [9]  The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the LORD of hosts.’"  [ESV]

[3-9]  Haggai begins his message in chapter 2 by tackling the source of the people’s discouragement, namely, the unimpressive condition of the present temple as compared to the wonder of Solomon’s temple. He makes two main points. First, the prophet acknowledges that the present temple is in an unenviable condition. Concerning this there was no basis for dispute. This structure was but a faded and dim shadow of that former one that had been the pride of a nation. Second, the prophet indicates that the antidote to discouragement lies in reflection on the Lord’s continued presence, as evidenced in His prior salvific deeds in behalf of His people. Persistent obedience to God’s calling for them would be accompanied by the enabling blessing of His presence for the accomplishment of things greater than they could imagine. They should forge ahead with their work, drawing strength from the Lord’s invigorating presence with them. The tone of the message shifts in verse 4 as indicated by the adverb now. This word calls attention to the crisis of that moment. Decisions made at a crucial juncture in time often determine the outcome of the future. Haggai counters the people’s discouragement with a thrice-repeated imperative: be strong. The people are called upon to allow God’s Spirit to renew their determination and moral courage for the task ahead. The repetition of declares the Lord indicates the prophet’s perception of himself as the intermediate agent through whom the Lord’s message reached this audience. The words for I am with you renew the promise expressed earlier in 1:13. Their repetition here underscores the certainty of the Lord’s presence with them. Just as the Lord’s presence with His people made possible the completion of Solomon’s temple [see 1 Chr. 28:20], so it would be His presence that would make possible the completion of Haggai’s temple. Haggai’s audience could draw strength from the realization that they were not alone in their work. The Lord was indeed with them. Haggai’s point in verse 5 is that just as the Lord covenanted to be with Israel as far back as the exodus event, and just as His presence had been evident throughout their prior history, so now the community should confidently face their difficulties in the enabling power of the Spirit and free from the paralysis of fear about the future. In verse 9 the prophet now underscores the anticipated glory of the rebuilt temple. Haggai does not explain exactly how this promise of greater glory will come to fruition. Haggai’s second sermon concludes with a promise that in this place I will give peace. The statement in part is an explanation of the earlier part of the verse, showing why the latter glory of this temple will be greater than its former glory. By peace is meant more than the mere absence of conflict and strife. The Hebrew word peace speaks of wellness and soundness in a holistic way. The ultimate fulfillment of this promise was the Incarnation.

A Promise of Protection:  Haggai 2:18-23.

[18]  Consider from this day onward, from the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month. Since the day that the foundation of the LORD’s temple was laid, consider: [19]  Is the seed yet in the barn? Indeed, the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree have yielded nothing. But from this day on I will bless you." [20]  The word of the LORD came a second time to Haggai on the twenty-fourth day of the month, [21]  "Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying, I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, [22]  and to overthrow the throne of kingdoms. I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders. And the horses and their riders shall go down, every one by the sword of his brother. [23]  On that day, declares the LORD of hosts, I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, the son of Shealtiel, declares the LORD, and make you like a signet ring, for I have chosen you, declares the LORD of hosts."  [ESV]

[18-19]  Again Haggai calls on the people to consider or give careful thought to the day. The repetition of this word consider in verse 18 underscores the urgency of the prophetic call for repentance. Appearing both at the beginning and end of the verse, the appeal for careful reflection brackets a threefold reference to the specific day of the oracle. The reference to the date of the message (the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month) is repeated from verse 10. Haggai’s reference in verse 18 to the day suggests a significant event or turning point. The lack of seed in the barn reminds the people of the still desolate conditions they are facing. The barns lacked the seed normally stored at this time of the year. What exactly had caused the barns to be empty of grain is not clear. The agricultural staples of this society had not yielded the essential harvests the people depended on annually. Without a successful yield of these agricultural staples there would be major disruptions to everyday life. Each of these products was essential for maintaining the lifestyle with which Haggai’s audience was familiar. All of these hardships – brought about by the failure of the people to seek a right relationship with the Lord – remained as painful reminders of their short-sighted choices. Though conditions might seem insurmountable, the prophet holds out hope for the future. The sermon concludes on a surprisingly optimistic note of promise. The prophet sees in the people evidences of genuine repentance and turning to the Lord, in light of which there is the prospect of great hope for the days ahead. The people could take comfort in the promise of the Lord’s renewed blessing and the attendant reversal of conditions of economic hardship. The final words of verse 19 indicate this promise: from this day on I will bless you. This blessing refers primarily to renewed productivity of the land as a result of the Lord’s lifting the agricultural and economic curses that had come due to the people’s disobedience. But their future was brighter than their past.

[20-23]  Haggai’s fourth and final message is the shortest of the four sermons recorded in this book. In form it is an oracle of salvation, announcing the Lord’s salvific purposes to be achieved through restoration of the Davidic line. The main purpose of the sermon is to announce the Lord’s intentions to raise up a new leader for His people. Following an introduction that specifies its origin and date [20], this oracle sets forth the Lord’s twofold intention for the future. First, the oracle warns of an overthrow of human power and government [21-22]. Repeated use of the first person in this announcement underscores the Lord’s direct involvement in these events. Second, the oracle proclaims the Lord’s choice of Zerubbabel as the agent for accomplishing His purposes [23]. Here too there is an emphasis on divine initiative, as indicated by the repeated use of the first person in speech attributed to the Lord. This final verse of the book bristles with language of divine selection that emphasizes Zerubbabel’s role as a Davidic successor. Haggai’s final message looks beyond the stark conditions that characterized the restoration community to a time of apocalyptic interruption of human history signaled by the Lord’s choice of a new leader. The setting of verse 23 is established by the phrase on that day. This phrase is frequently used with an eschatological nuance in Old Testament prophetic literature. The language of verse 23 is characterized by terminology emphasizing unilateral divine selection, such as I will take you … my servant … I have chosen you. The piling up of such language in a short space signals that unusual events are being described. The Lord will take Zerubbabel in the sense that He has chosen him for a unique role in connection with the momentous events described in this passage. The term servant is often used of those whom the Lord has appointed to a particular task, whether from among His people or the pagan nations. This term is especially used as a designation of David as king, either in reference to the historical person of David or an eschatological figure who will be David-like. In his use of the word servant Haggai is invoking Davidic associations. His point is that Zerubbabel represents a restoration of the Davidic line of promise. The verb I have chosen underscores the notion of intentional divine selection with a specific function in mind. The passage holds out unusual promise for the future, although the language is somewhat guarded. Neither the detailed circumstances nor the precise timing of the fulfillment of the promise is indicated. Haggai likens Zerubbabel to a signet ring that is emblematic of divine approval. By introducing imagery of the signet ring as symbolic of Zerubbabel’s special relationship to the Lord, the prophet reinforces his point concerning divine selection and investiture of authority. The signet ring was a common emblem of ownership and authority in the ancient Near East; it was used for the authentication of such things as royal directives or legal documents. The signet ring figuratively portrays Zerubbabel as one who uniquely represented divine authority and who appeared as the Lord’s coregent. Haggai’s use of the ring metaphor suggests a sovereign reversal of fortunes for Israel’s monarchy and a renewal of the Lord’s blessing upon a people that He previously disciplined through the trauma of the exile. The reliability of the divine promise concerning Zerubbabel is underscored by the threefold repetition of the solemn words declares the Lord of hosts. Haggai attaches no conditions to the promise made to Zerubbabel. Its fulfillment depends only on the ability of the sovereign Lord to bring it about. Like many other Old Testament promises, these predictions had both a near dimension and a more distant one. Haggai’s promises given to Zerubbabel, while true of him in a limited way, find their ultimate expression in a greater Zerubbabel who was to come. it is not surprising that in the genealogies of Jesus provided by Matthew and Luke, Zerubbabel is mentioned as part of the messianic line.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What is the meaning of the name Lord of Hosts? Why is Haggai’s repeated use of this name significant for his message to the people?

2.         Why did the people delay in building God’s temple? According to Haggai, what did this delay show concerning their attitude toward and relationship with Yahweh? How did God react to their delay?

3.         Three times in 2:4 Haggai exhorts the leaders and the people to be strong. He gives two reasons for his exhortation: for I am with you and my Spirit remains in your midst. Then Haggai proceeds to describe God’s sovereign actions, not just with Judah, but with all nations. Reflect upon how this is true for every believer: our strength lies not in ourselves nor in earthly circumstances, but only in the presence of God and His sovereign actions in our lives.

4.         Four times in these verses Haggai calls upon the people to consider [1:5,7; 2:4]. They are to give careful thought and reflection upon their sin and the need for repentance. This exhortation to consider your ways is something every believer should take seriously. Take time this week to consider the what and why of your actions. Ask yourself why you did or said that, what was your motivation, your intent. What was the outcome of your actions? Use this as a means for confessing and repenting from your sin, seeking God’s forgiveness, relying upon His mercy and grace.

5.         Haggai ends in 2:20-23 with a fourth sermon which focuses on God’s faithfulness by emphasizing God’s initiative in worldly events. Note the sense in this sermon of how God is in control of all things: God will shake … overthrow … destroy … overthrow … take you … make you … chosen you. Note the threefold repetition in 2:23 of declares the Lord which emphasizes the reliability of the divine promises. As is normal in prophetic literature, we see a partial fulfillment of these promises in the time of Haggai but the ultimate fulfillment occurs in the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension and second coming of Jesus Christ.


Haggai, Richard A. Taylor, NAC, Broadman.

Haggai, J. Alec Motyer, Baker.

Haggai, James Boice, Kregel.

Haggai, Pieter Verhoef, Eerdmans.