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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Commentary on Haggai

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( 1:1–11 ) Build the House

Haggai addresses two individuals, both of whom were Yahwists sent to Judah by the Persian authorities (cf. Ezra 2:2 ). Zerubbabel held the political title of governor, while Joshua bore the religious title, high priest. They symbolize a new governance structure in Israel. Both offices were new ones. Zerubbabel may have been a member of the Davidic house, though this matter is the subject of scholarly debate (see Berquist 1995 ). He was governor of or for Judah, which means he was a Persian official. Both Joshua the high priest and Zerubbabel are mentioned by Haggai's contemporary, Zechariah (Zech 3:1–10; 4:6–7 ). Joshua's grandfather was chief (but not ‘high’) priest just before the defeat of Jerusalem in 587 BCE (2 Kings 25:18–21 ). Zerubbabel and Joshua are harbingers of a religious and political pattern attested also in the later Persian period, one in which major leadership and power are exercised by those who had been in, or could trace their roots to, the Exile. The genealogies provided for both these individuals enable them to affirm this exilic heritage.

Although it begins with the formulaic ‘thus says the LORD of Hosts’, thereby suggesting that a divine speech will follow, the text itself provides a report about what people are saying, questions based on such talk, and admonitions. Everything focuses on ‘the LORD's house’, the temple in Jerusalem. For whatever reason, the populace has demurred at rebuilding Yahwism's central shrine. Worship was taking place, so they may have found the status quo acceptable. Haggai's question (v. 4 ) implies, though does not state explicitly, that the people have worried about their own houses, and not YHWH's house. This indictment is made specific in v. 9 . The imperative admonition, ‘Consider how you have fared’ might be translated literally, ‘Set your heart upon your ways’, a phrase repeated in v. 7 . Haggai challenges the people to reflect about their material existence, which must have been meagre (v. 6 ). The language is that of a fulfilled futility curse (cf. Deut 28:38; Hos 4:10; Petersen 1984 ). v. 8 challenges the people to rebuild the temple. But immediately thereafter the prophet resumes his analysis of the current plight. The people now learn that their difficulties are not due to simple crop failure but to YHWH's punitive action, namely, a drought. (In the ancient Near-Eastern flood story, the angry deity calls for a drought before summoning the deluge.)

( 1:12–15a ) They Worked on the House of the Lord

This prose section chronicles the impact of Haggai upon those who heard him. That group is, however, larger than his initial audience. Along with Zerubbabel and Joshua, the text refers to ‘all the remnant of the people’ (vv. 12, 14; 2:2 ). The word ‘remnant’ requires comment. By implication, the author claims that not everyone in Judah participated in the work of temple rebuilding. But who did? Based on texts such as Zech 6:9 and Ezra 2:1 , both of which highlight the special role exercised by those who had been in Babylon, one may theorize that the remnant refers to those who had only recently returned to Jerusalem (cf. Wolff 1988 ). Such an inference is consistent with Ezra 3:8 , ‘and all who had come to Jerusalem from the captivity’, and the more general prominence of ‘the congregation of the exiles’ (Ezra 10:8 ) or ‘returned exiles’ (Ezra 8:35 ). The chronicle is stylized using traditional religious vocabulary: ‘the people feared the LORD’ (v. 12 ), ‘the LORD stirred up the spirit of…’ (v. 14 ). The date formula in v. 15a has vexed scholars. Such formulae in Haggai normally occur at the beginning of a section in the book. Hence some have suggested that v. 15a be relocated to precede 2:15–19 , which is prefixed by no such formula (so initially Rothstein 1908 ). However, one may read the formula in its canonical position with benefit. The formula at this place indicates that some time elapses between the utterance of Haggai's words and the actual work on temple reconstruction. The people do respond, but it takes time, a little over three weeks. This is no utopia in which the prophet's words are immediately efficacious. Still, Haggai ranks as a ‘successful’ prophet, since his words inspire the people to rebuild the temple.

( 1:15b–2:9 ) Take Courage

Almost a month passes before Haggai's next utterance. His public is the same as that in the previous chronicle: Zerubbabel, Joshua, and the remnant. Moreover, he uses interrogative rhetoric as he did earlier ( 1:4, 9 ). 2:3 presents questions that surely explore the sensibilities of those who were in a position to compare the emerging Second Temple with the Solomonic Temple. The new structure must have seemed a pale copy. Ezra 3:12 notes that reaction was mixed to the dedication of this rebuilt temple; some shouted for joy while others ‘wept with a loud voice’. Haggai is addressing the latter audience and their apparent concerns about the glory (kābôd) of the temple. 1 Kings 6–7 make clear that the ‘glory’ refers to the ritual ornamentation of the temple. After offering general admonitory language ‘take courage’ (v. 4 ). Haggai avers that YHWH is with Israel even now, before the temple has been completed: ‘I am with you … My spirit abides among you’. Allusion to the Exodus tradition is apt (v. 5 ), since that too was a time when YHWH was with Israel, but not with benefit of a temple.

vv. 6–7 strike a new note, YHWH's forthcoming action on behalf of the temple. The scale is cosmic, as the diction of heavens and earth, sea and dry land suggest. However, the shaking of the nations will prove pivotal, since it is from them that riches to endow the temple will come. (The word kābôd, variously translated as ‘glory’ and ‘splendour’, occurs in vv. 3, 7, 8 .) Haggai defines such splendour through the symbolism of various metals, though the silver and gold are ambiguous. They might signify the use of these metals in the decoration of the temple (cf. 1 Kings 6 ). They might refer to ritual objects made from these metals (e.g. Ezra 1:6–11; Zech 6:9–11 ). Or they might signify the wealth of the temple treasury (cf. Ezra 2:68–9 ). Whatever the case, Haggai promises greater glory for the second temple than there was in the Solomonic version. As if to modify the language of precious metals, Haggai concludes by proclaiming that šālôm, the Hebrew word translated by ‘prosperity’, will be present in this place, presumably the temple.

( 2:10–14 ) Holy—Unclean

A little over two months passes before Haggai speaks again as prophet. Now the audience is limited to the priests. Haggai makes use of questions again, and of a sort that requires special knowledge about Israel's ritual norms. Haggai asks for a priestly ruling (tôrâ). Offering such rulings was one of the basic tasks of priests, cf. Deut 33:10; Lev 10:10–11 . However, Haggai's questions are odd. He asks whether something is holy (v. 12 ) and then whether something is unclean (v. 13 ). One normally thinks about holy v. profane, and clean v. unclean. In any case, the first question (v. 12 ) involves the power of the holy. Does holy food make a garment holy, i.e. is holiness contagious in this case? The priests negative answer is appropriate, given what we know about Israelite ritual. However, the second case is different. v. 13 broaches corpse uncleanness, cf. Num 19:13 . Here the uncleanness is more powerful than the aforementioned holiness. Haggai uses this dialogue with the priests to make a point. The people are now worshipping at the temple site. However, it had been profaned and hence is unclean. Without the purification of that holy place, all that the people of Judah now offer is, from Haggai's perspective, unclean (cf. Unger 1991 ). Rebuilding the temple would solve the problem, since the rebuilding of a holy site involves rituals of purification (see HAG 2:15–19 ). (This text does not condemn Samaritans or any other particular group for their participation in the work of temple construction, e.g. Rothstein 1908; Wolff 1988 .)

( 2:15–19 ) A Stone in the Lord's Temple

If the book of Haggai has a climax, it occurs in this section. These verses attest building activity of a special form, the laying of a foundation stone (vv. 15, 18; see Petersen 1974 ). Texts from other ancient Near-Eastern cultures describe a ritual (kalû), which was used for the rededication of destroyed sanctuaries. At one point in the ritual—‘this day’ (vv. 15, 18 )—a foundation stone or deposit was placed in the building being purified or rededicated (cf. Zech 4:9; Ezra 3:10–11 ). Haggai takes this ritual moment as an occasion to ask more questions (vv. 16, 19 ). The first question, ‘how did you fare?’, refers back to the discourse in the first section (vv. 1–11 ). But Haggai again reminds the people (though they are not so identified) of the specific agricultural problems that they have encountered (v. 16 ) and that YHWH caused these misfortunes (v. 17 ). Their cursed existence is destined to change after ‘this day’. The second question (actually two questions) alludes to the day when there will be seed in the barn and the various vines and trees will yield abundantly. A time of blessing rather than curse will ensue due to the rebuilding and rededication of the second temple.

( 2:20–3 ) Zerubbabel, my Servant

The twenty-fourth day of the sixth month in 520 BCE was doubly important, as this second oracle from that day signifies. Whereas earlier oracles had been delivered to both Zerubbabel and Joshua, this one is addressed only to Zerubbabel. The oracle begins with language very similar to that in 2:6–7 . However, the consequences of the ‘shaking’ of the nations are now made more concrete. The nations are to be destroyed. v. 22 picks up the traditional imagery of YHWH's holy war, in which the enemy self-destructs (‘every one by the sword of a comrade’). Just as the shaking of the nations in 2:6–7 had an impact on Judah—the provision of material wealth—so too the shaking in v. 22 has an effect: the creation of a power vacuum that will allow for a political leader to arise in Israel. v. 23 commences with the enigmatic ‘on that day’, a phrase that elsewhere in late prophetic literature refers to what YHWH will do at an eschatological moment, cf. Zech 14 . However, in Haggai, with all its references to specific days, this phrase bears special import. It cannot be too far off. Moreover, unlike all the previous days in Haggai, this one will not be a day of Darius; it will be YHWH's day.

Zerubbabel, as an apparent member of the Davidic line, is heir to promises of a lineage that many Israelites believed would last forever. The book closes with language redolent of Israel's monarchic traditions. Kings could be called ‘servant’ (see 2 Sam 6:5; Ps 132:10 ), the ‘signet ring’ could refer to the special status of the king (see Jer 22:24; Ezek 28:12 ), and the verb ‘take’ (b-ḥ-r) was used earlier to describe YHWH's choosing of both David (Ps 78:70 ) and David's city (Isa 14:1 ). In sum, Haggai appears to propound a special role for the house of David. He does not call outright for the coronation of Zerubbabel, since such an act might have antagonized the Persians as well as Judah's neighbours. Still, Haggai envisions a Judahite polity quite different from the Persian status quo.

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