Each of Haggai’s messages is given a precise date (between Aug and December 520 BC), which is a clear indication that we need to read the book with a specific historical situation in mind. Briefly the context is that in 586 BC the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the temple and the people were taken in to exile. In 539 BC the Persians under Cyrus overthrow the Babylonians and became top dog, and the following year Cyrus issued a decree allowing the exiles to return so that they might rebuild their temples (and get their gods behind the empire). The Jewish exiles were allowed to return and about 50,000 did so; they rebuilt the altar and laid the foundations for a new temple in Jerusalem. Life was hard though and there was opposition from the peoples around, so before long discouragement set in and the work ground to a halt (see Ezra 4:1-6). 18 years on, when Haggai begins to preach, it is not so much opposition that is preventing people finishing the job but simple inertia, spiritual apathy and a preoccupation with just trying to get on with life.
It is important to think through the significance of the temple then, and what the equivalent for us is. The temple was a symbol of their covenant relationship with the LORD. It represented his presence among them and was bound up with his covenant promises to them. A careless indifference to the task of rebuilding the temple spoke of a careless indifference to his presence among them and his promises to them. That physical temple was fulfilled in Christ, so the priority of the rebuilding the temple that Haggai urged on his hearers could apply to us in terms of putting Christ before all else. But Jesus is not only the true temple, he is also the true temple builder, and we the church are the temple he is building – a work he calls us to share in and give ourselves to.
There is no indication that the people were rubbishing the temple and saying it didn’t matter, they were just saying “Not yet” (v.2), other concerns were more of a priority, namely trying to make a living in a hard environment. “panelled houses” (v.3) need not imply enormous luxury, it seems rather that life was a bit of a struggle for most – never quite having enough, despite all their efforts. Haggai questions their priorities (v.3) and urges them to reflect on their situation. He exposes their lack of fulfilment and satisfaction, and points to the reason for it: God is disciplining them. Verses 10 and 11 remind them of the consequences God had warned his people about in Deut.28 if they ignored the covenant.
That sense of having purses with holes in, of never being as satisfied as we might hope to be for all our efforts at being “busy with our own house”, might be a warning light to us that we too are getting our priorities wrong, living for the wrong things. Like the pagans Jesus speaks about in Matthew 6, anxiously chasing after material things, when we should “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33). We might not be saying “no” to God and Gospel concerns, just “not yet”.
Very few prophets received a response like this! They recognised God was speaking to them through Haggai, they obeyed and “feared the LORD” – giving him the place and the honour he deserved. God’s promise “I am with you” assures them that building this temple is not a pointless task empty of meaning, and it assures them of his help however difficult the task might seem. So indeed the Lord stirs them up for this work.