The historical background for the little “book” of Haggai is post-exile Jerusalem. A remnant has returned to Jerusalem, and Persian King Cyrus (who destroyed the Babylonians) allowed the Jews to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. All the details are in Ezra and Nehemiah. There are four prophecies, and they are all given on specific dates in 520 BC. Of Haggai:
He began his ministry about sixteen years after the return of the Jews to Judah (ca. 520 BC). The work of rebuilding the temple had been put to a stop through the intrigues of the Samaritans. After having been suspended for eighteen years, the work was resumed through the efforts of Haggai and Zechariah. They exhorted the people, which roused them from their lethargy, and induced them to take advantage of a change in the policy of the Persian government under Darius I.
Near the beginning of the first chapter the Lord rebukes the people for living in their “paneled houses,” while his house “remains a ruin.” Twice (verses 5 & 7) we read that “this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Give careful thought to your ways.'” Then he proceeds to tell them that they’ve done all kinds of other work, but have nothing to show for it. The Lord has not blessed them, or more accurately, withheld his blessing from them.
When I underlined those words my “ways” as a young Christian no doubt I thought of them in terms of morality. As many Christians do, I tended to see the Christian life in moralistic terms rather than a life lived in the reality of God’s presence through what Christ accomplished for me in the gospel. Big difference! This is what I’ve come to call the radical relational reversal. In theological terms it’s called justification. Christ took the wrath of God against me for my sin, and endured the punishment I deserved. He took the wages of sin, death, for me! As a result, once I believed Christ’s righteousness was then given to me, and I went from God’s enemy to his child. Now instead of wanting to hide from God, or trying to gain his favor through obedience to the law (morality), I want to please him as I would a daddy, or Abba Father.
I think the temple in a sense functioned in the same way in the historical context of God’s people. They had been judged for this sin, and he now brought them back to the land. After the exile, he wants them to know that the only thing that separates them from every other people on earth is his presence. And the temple is the symbol and reality of that presence. It is God’s mercy and grace revealed in their midst.
This has definite historical meaning, and eventually eschatological meaning, but it’s instructive for our own lives. When we prosper in a thing, it is a direct result of the Lord’s blessing. All good things come from his hand. Another way to look at giving careful thought to our ways is the Lord’s exhortation to understand who exactly it is that is God (not us!), and that we are contingent, dependent beings that rely on the Lord, as Paul says, for life, breath, and everything else. Or as Solomon said in Psalm 127:1: “Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain.”
Haggai is a unique voice among the prophets because the people did something they never did before: they obeyed! They realized that unless the Lord’s presence was with them, they were nothing, not even a people. Reflecting on 18 years of fruitlessness will do that to you. Obviously what we’re doing isn’t working, so let’s give God a try! And there is no indication that the Lord had sent other prophets prior to Haggai. But when he did they were ready. They are lead by two men, Zerubbabel (who is significant in the lineage of the Davidic King to come), and Joshua. Haggai told the people that that Lord is with them, and
They came and began to work on the house of the Lord Almighty, their God, 15 on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month.