The First Day of the Sixth Month
The Word of the Lord came by Haggai
Zerubbabel, Governor of Judah
The Lord of Hosts
These two verses not only open the Book - though the introductory words are similar to what precedes the prophecies throughout the Book and are not, therefore, introductory words that introduce the Book’s entire contents - but record for us the first prophecy that the Lord spoke through the prophet to the nation of Israel while they busied themselves with their own concerns and neglected the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.
There are a number of points that need dealing with here that are repeated throughout the Book but it is best to get them out of the way now and refer to them where necessary in the subsequent pages.
Though many commentators prefer to group these two verses with the passage which runs through to the end of 1:11 or 1:15, there is a distinct break after the close of verse 2 and the context, to me, favours the interpretation that the one verse addressed to the two Israelite leaders, Zerubbabel and Joshua, remained a personal word before Haggai went on from 1:3 onwards to broaden his delivery to the entire nation.
As such, the twin verses need to be dealt with separately.
The First Day of the Sixth Month
In the introduction, I noted that the precise date of the first prophecy given by Haggai was, in our time scale, 29th August in the year 520BC. Although this date helps us to think about the significance of the prophet’s words in the context of the agricultural calendar, we need to initially stick to the dating given in 1:1 as
‘...the sixth month, on the first day of the month...’
That is, the first word through Haggai came to the nation of Israel on the day when the new moon festivities would have been taking place - when there appears to have been a special day set aside for feasting and merriment for, in those days, the sighting of the new moon fixed both the end of the old month and the start of the new.
I have detailed the importance of this time of the calendar in my notes on the Feast of Trumpets which can be found here (see especially part 1c) and there I showed that, far from it being only in NT times that festivities took place, the occurrence stretched back well into the early history of the Israelite nation, there even being prophetic words to speak of God’s action in removing the mirth of them through judgment (Hosea 2:11).
The important point to realise here, though, is that God’s word first came to Haggai at the time when the nation of Israel were enjoying themselves as they had been doing at the start of each and every month since their return to the land some seventeen years previous. God’s word came not to a people who were too busy to hear the message that was to be proclaimed but was brought to them at a time when they had ceased from the majority of their labours at a kind of public holiday (literally a ‘holy day’ as there are specific sacrifices mentioned concerning the first day of the months - again, see my notes on the Feast of Trumpets).
But, more than this - translated into our Gregorian calendar, we get the date of 29th August, the time when a lot of the harvest would already have been gathered in. As Baldwin notes, it was
‘...the time of year when grapes, figs and pomegranates were being harvested’
but after both the barley and wheat harvests (the staple crops in Israel) had been reaped and gathered in to the store houses to feed the nation. Haggai’s words from verse 6 through to 11 have specific relevance in the context of the date.
Had the prophet been prompted to give them any time from November onwards, even to as late as April, the farmers would still have been ploughing, sowing and tending the ground in hope of a great harvest. But, as it was, in late August it could be plainly seen what quantity of produce the harvest was to yield (not only by looking at what had been harvested but at the fruits that were still to mature, ripening on the trees and bushes) and, judging by the prophet’s words, it was extremely small.
We shall comment on those verses on another page, but it is important to note that the date on which Haggai is prompted to give his first message has specific relevance in the life of the nation and is an example of how a message from the Lord needs to be given at the appropriate time to get its full effect.
One of Haggai’s later prophecies (Hag 2:1-9) is also given on a significant day, the seventh and greatest day of the Feast of Tabernacles when, in the NT, the hopes of the coming Deliverer, Messiah, came to their height. Just how much of this is attributable to the festival immediately after the exiles’ return is difficult to determine but, like Haggai’s first prophetic word, the message to the nation is given on a day when the entire nation should be present in Jerusalem and rejoicing in the Lord’s goodness.
The final two prophecies - each given on the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month - have no significance to a known event in the Israelite calendar but that this was the time when most of the sowing would have been done now that the former rains had begun to fall and softened the ground that it might be ploughed is significant because the Lord says that ‘from this day onward’ the harvests would be bountiful.
All the more significant because Haggai has no way of knowing what that year’s harvest would be like - only God can know when the seed has yet to germinate and to grow.
Apart from the final message to Zerubbabel (2:20-23) all the dates on which the messages were given to the Lord’s people through Haggai have significance and relevance, more so than the messages given through his fellow prophet Zechariah.
The Word of the Lord came by Haggai
‘the word of the Lord came by Haggai’
occurs in the Book at 1:1, 1:3, 2:1 and 2:10 and is a rare formula used in the prophets to denote the movement of God upon a follower for the delivery of a message for the people, the only other occurrence of the use ‘by’ being Malachi 1:1 where the verse provides a brief introductory verse to the entire Book.
The usual phrase
‘the word of the Lord came to’
is used in Haggai in 2:20 so it is not that the phrase was shunned by the prophet, but its usage is somewhat striking. The word ‘by’ implies the movement of an object from a source via an intermediary through to a destination, whereas ‘to’ simply speaks of the delivery of something to a recipient without inferring that the word was passed on from that recipient.
As such, the word ‘by’ underlines the function of the prophet as a channel only, one who passes on messages to God’s intended recipient and it removes any thought of elevating the prophet himself over and above the word that is being delivered through him.
Having said that, we shouldn’t think that there is a great deal of difference intended in the two different phrases that are used in the prophets. Each one of them was charged to pass on the messages of God to His people as He spoke and, though the formula which includes ‘to’ may not imply continued movement and delivery, this took place repeatedly.
It is just Haggai who appears to want to make the emphasis to his readers that he was merely the channel through whom God spoke His word to the nation of Israel and, as such, refuses to elevate himself over and above the word that is being delivered by him.
Later, Haggai is spoken of as ‘the messenger of the Lord’ (1:13), a title used in Malachi also of the priests of God (Mal 2:7) and, without the suffix, is the prophet’s own name. By implication, the title was applicable also of John the Baptist (Mtw 11:10), being the one sent by the Lord to prepare the people before Jesus was made known to the nation of Israel.
Smith notes that
‘Jerome mentions that some people in his day thought that Haggai, John the Baptist and Malachi were really angels and possessed bodies in appearance only...’
but the phrase ‘the messenger’, even though it is the word used to indicate angels sent by God to serve and minister to mankind, is employed not to indicate hevenly origin but to emphasise the nature of their ministry. That is, that they were just the deliverers of messages which came directly from God, in the same manner as our modern day postmen are intermediaries through whom a message is brought to the recipient.
What is important to note, then, is that there is a consistency here in the Book of Haggai which asserts that the prophet is merely the mouthpiece through whom God chose to speak, rather than the shrewd political schemer who contrived a situation that prompted the nation to recommence the work on the Temple.
Zerubbabel, Governor of Judah
In Ezra, in two specific places (Ezra 1:8-11, 5:14-16), we read of a character called Sheshbazzar who is associated with the return of the exiles under Zerubbabel and Joshua some 17 years previous to the opening prophecy of the Book of Haggai.
Sheshbazzar is an important character, Ezra calling him ‘prince of Judah’ in Ezra 1:8 (though the phrase need not imply any royal associations and can be used more generally of any type of leader) and ‘governor’(Strongs Hebrew number 6347) in Ezra 5:14. This last title is significant for, in Haggai 1:2, the same root word is used (Strongs Hebrew number 6346) where, this time, Zerubbabel is labelled as ‘governor’.
There is another similarity here between the two characters, that of laying the foundation the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. Both individuals are accredited with achieving this work, Sheshbazzar in Ezra 5:16 and Zerubbabel in Zech 4:9.
This has led some scholars to propose that Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel are one and the same person, the former name being a specifically Babylonian one that was given to him for his official capacity as governor while the latter his birth name given by his parents. Though there is much to be said for this identification, it is not without its difficulties and it would seem better to take Sheshbazzar as being a person appointed by Cyrus to oversee the work in Jerusalem and to make sure that the large treasures that were being taken from the centre of his new Kingdom were not wasted on items for which they had not been intended.
Sheshbazzar would necessarily have had to have had some knowledge of the ways of the Jewish people if the word ‘governor’ is used of him in Ezra 2:63 where he forbids certain Israelites to partake of the holy food until the day when the Urim and Thummim might be consulted to ascertain their genealogical claims to the Levitical priesthood. If he was a Persian, then he must have been well read and studied but he could equally well have been a respected Jew who served the Median king in his royal court.
When we read in different passages of both Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel laying the foundation of the Temple, we shouldn’t be put off seeing them as separate people, for the former, being the governor of the area, would naturally have taken the credit for the work done even though it would have been Zerubbabel who would have inspired and directed the returned exiles to carry out and complete the work.
More significantly, however, is the content of the letter that Tattenai and Shetharbozenai wrote to Darius the king when they discovered the Jews rebuilding the Temple after the sixteen year delay (Ezra 5:6-17). Here, although Zerubbabel is present with them, leading the people to return to the work of God (Ezra 5:1-2), Sheshbazzar is spoken of as just a ‘someone’ who the writers do not recognise as being the same person as the current leader.
For instance, they write that the vessels that were taken out of the Babylonian Temple for return to Jerusalem (Ezra 5:14)
‘...were delivered to one whose name was Sheshbazzar, whom [Cyrus] made governor’
and that ‘this Sheshbazzar’ had laid the foundation of the Temple (Ezra 5:16). If the Jews had been able to positively identify this appointed governor of Judea as being none other than Zerubbabel who was still amongst them and working on the Temple by word of the previous king, the Jews’ hand would surely have been strengthened and the letter may never have needed to have been written but, as it was, both Tattenai and Shetharbozenai have no official Persian representative of the previous kingdom to consult and must, therefore, refer the matter to Darius for his decision in the matter.
Therefore, it would seem best to take Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel as being two separate individuals, the former being the official governor of Judea upon the exiles return to the land in 537BC while the latter was the leader of the people who ruled over the returned Israelites but under the authority of the former.
It is only in texts which refer to the period which occurred some sixteen years after the Temple’s foundation had been completed, that Zerubbabel is now called governor (Haggai 1:1, 1:14, 2:2, 2:21, Ezra 6:7) probably when Sheshbazzar had already passed away and some of the leadership responsibilities had been taken up by Zerubbabel.
In Ezra 6:7, he is probably being referred to when Darius speaks of the ‘governor of the Jews’ and the phrase on the lips of the king is significant. By speaking the way he does, Darius recognises a specific function for Zerubbabel as the governor over the people that are now resident in the land of Canaan who, naturally, would have been lower in rank than both Tattenai and Shetharbozenai but who, nevertheless, was seen to have the oversight and responsibility for the welfare and prosperity of the children of Israel.
This is not the first occurrence of the title in connection with Zerubbabel, however, if we accept that the text of Haggai was compiled as the prophet spoke the words out to the Israelites, for it would have been some months before the reply would have come to the nation after having been sent to Darius and, in Haggai 1:1, he is already being labelled as governor.
Concluding, then, Zerubbabel at this time seems to have been acknowledged as being the governor over the Jewish people though Media had its own governors over the entire province named ‘Beyond the River’ (Ezra 5:3). Though the name need mean no more than he was the leading elder who watched over the nation, being the head of the Jews and descended directly from the line of the kings would have been especially significant for the nation (see my notes on the Genealogy of Christ for comments on this here where I have dealt with the problems that some of the Scriptures raise).
That Zerubbabel never tried to enthrone himself as king in Jerusalem is certain but that there were certain implications in the minds of the people concerning the relevancy of having David’s son over them is equally certain, made more so by the final prophetic word recorded for us as coming from Haggai (2:20-23) where there are implications that the line of Zerubbabel will be used to bring the Messiah to the nation at the appointed time.
The Lord of Hosts
The title for God, ‘the Lord of Hosts’, occurs 14 times in Haggai in chapter 1 in verses 2,5,7,9 and 14 and in chapter 2 in verses 4,6,7,8,9(x2),11 and 23(x2). and is the main title used apart from the obvious ‘Lord’.
It has often been wondered what the phrase actually means and implies and we skip over it often in reading without thinking about the implications of the title (in much the same way as we skip over the word ‘Lord’ - that is, YHWH - thinking that it means much the same as our English word ‘lord’ when it is actually only a word inserted to prevent the Bible translators from having to either guess at the name or to use the Tetragrammon previously cited).
The actual phrase occurs first late on in the Bible and in the history of the lineage of Abraham in I Sam 1:3 where we read
‘Now [Elkanah] used to go up year by year from his city to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh...’
but, before this verse, the word for ‘Hosts’ (Strongs Hebrew number 6635) has occurred in numerous places and contexts and it would seem logical, in order for us to arrive at an understanding of what the phrase actually meant, to look at these usages - that is, before it was used as an appendage to the name of God.
Even this is not without it difficulties but, though it has a range of meaning, there is an underlying meaning that gives us a general interpretation that holds true for most of the word’s occurrences.
Gen 2:1 uses the word to denote the summation of Creation having been brought into existence and the thought is again repeated in Ps 33:6 (see also Deut 4:19, 17:3) but, as TWOTOT notes,
‘When referring to [the Creation], the word is always singular...’
so that it is unlikely that Creation is in mind when we consider the title of the Lord (Is 47:4 actually speaks of ‘the Lord of Hosts’ as being God’s name).
The word naturally means the multitudes of the nation of Israel and is used both in Ex 12:41 in this way and throughout chapter 2 of the Book of Numbers where the RSV uses the word ‘companies’ to translate it.
Going on from this, and still referring to a multitude, the word is translated ‘armies’ in such places as Gen 26:26, Judges 4:7 and 8:6 and, when the Commander-in-chief is encountered near Jericho (Joshua 5:14-15), the phrase probably refers to the angelic multitudes that are shortly to fight ‘behind the scenes’ in the Israelites’ march round the city for seven days though a more difficult interpretation is that it refers to the armies of Israel now gathered near the city. This latter interpretation is the more difficult to accept because the army of Israel never actually fight in the battle so there would be no need for a Commander-in-chief to lead them into victory in this campaign.
The RSV translates the word as ‘service’ in Num 4:3,30,35,39,43 where the first cited verse reads, together with the preceding one
‘Take a census of the sons of Kohath from among the sons of Levi, by their families and their fathers’ houses, from thirty years old up to fifty years old, all who can enter the service, to do the work in the tent of meeting’
The phrase can still naturally refer to a multitude here, though, meaning the total number of individuals who have been set apart to wait upon the Lord within the Tabernacle and ‘service’ is, perhaps, a misleading word to use.
TWOTOT summarises the occurrences of the word well when it tries to encapsulate the intention of the phrase ‘the Lord of Hosts’ when it says that
‘...it affirms [God’s] universal rulership that encompasses every force or army, heavenly, cosmic and earthly. Now that Israel was emerging as a nation with international relationships [in the time of David], the language which exposed the theology of its God needed to keep pace. It was important to affirm that Yahweh was not merely one warrior god among the leading warrior gods of the nations, but that He was the Supreme God. Particularly for Israel, located on the landbridge between three major continents which was constantly crossed by the armies of the great world powers, it became essential to emphasise that Yahweh was King even of the armies of these mighty empires’
Therefore, the phrase seems to have been coined to denote God’s Sovereignty over all the multitudes and groups of the world, whether they be nations, tribes or armies. Instead of the nation of Israel looking at their God and seeing Him purely as a ‘local’ god who was over themselves alone, they envisaged Him being supreme over the nations (and angelic hosts) even though the nations may not be recognising it.
How much of that meaning was contained within the use of the title every time the Jews used it is open to interpretation. Certainly, an often repeated revelation becomes widely accepted with time but the intention of the words tend to get softened and forgotten.
But, in both Haggai and Zechariah (where it’s used 53 times), the title has its relevance in proclaiming God as Sovereign and in control of all things - so much so that He is able to order the Israelites’ destiny regardless of (or, sometimes, because of) the way that the nations’ armies react to them. As such, it is the ideal title to use for God when He speaks into their situation proclaiming what He requires the people to do when there is likely to be opposition to the work from those who are their closest neighbours and, further afield, Babylon itself.
Readers may be wondering why I’ve marked a division after the first two verses and not continued the section to at least the end of verse 11 when it appears that the first prophetic word draws to a close. This is because there is a break in the narrative and verse 3 opens with the words
‘Then the word of the Lord came by Haggai the prophet...’
which denotes a time that is distinct from what has preceded it.
What we need to determine is why there should be a break between the short statement of verse 2 and the following nine verses.
Baldwin, commenting on verse 3 (my italics), notes that
‘When the reader is expecting to hear a comment on the attitude of the people, the repetition of the messenger formula in this verse is an anticlimax. If, however, the spokesmen of the people had been heckling the prophet, the emphatic introduction is understandable. What follows is the master-stroke that carried the day. The dialogue between the Lord and His people has reached its climax’
Baldwin seems to envisage a setting for the first announcement where the people are gathered round the prophet as he delivers the message direct from the Lord only to find himself being verbally abused by a leader (or leaders) of the people, the ‘spokesman’ (whatever that might mean), before taking up his discourse again with a repeat of the authority of the words that he’s about to speak. But this ‘messenger formula’ does not appear ever to have been delivered to the people (it is a prefix to the written record, not a phrase that was used in proclamation to the recipients) and, indeed, the people wouldn’t have needed to hear (as they didn’t before verse 2 was delivered) that
‘...the word of the Lord came by Haggai the prophet’
which is a sentence included only to make the reader - not the listener - understand better the passage.
The reason for the break, however, seems to concern who both respective messages were to be given to. Verse 2 begins with the subscription that the word of the Lord came to both Zerubbabel and Joshua and that it was simply a statement that they would no doubt already have been aware of. Namely, that the people were saying amongst themselves that the time was not yet to turn to rebuilding the Temple of the Lord that continued to lie in ruins within the city of Jerusalem.
The declaration need be taken to be no more than an introductory statement to the two leaders to cause their minds to focus on the details of the next announcement that was shortly to be delivered.
Verses 3-11, however, instead of being given just to the two leaders of the Israelites, Zerubbabel and Joshua, appear to have been directed at the people in general and this seems the best reason for the break in the narrative. There is a change of recipient here and the extra introductory sentence breaks with the first in order to begin the new.
It’s difficult to conceive of how the two leaders received the word directed to them (1:2) when it was no more than a statement of fact that they were probably already aware of. They would have known (and may have been individuals who had furthered the belief) that the time had not come to turn their attention to what they had begun to do 16 years previous, but there was no word of repentance that came with the message or a word of rebuke that the statement was incorrect - the words of the prophet were just a simple statement that repeated what the leaders already knew.
Besides, it must have seemed like a logical statement to them that the time to rebuild the Temple hadn’t come - we know from the words of God through Haggai which follow that there was a lack of adequate and abundant provision in the land and all hands would certainly have been needed to produce what little the earth would yield for the harvest. How could the returned exiles realistically devote time to God’s Temple when they were struggling just to survive?
Indeed, having heard the message, both leaders could have justly been wondering ‘So what?’ or ‘What’s new about the statement that we don’t already know?’ but, in a short space of time, Haggai will stand up - probably amongst the congregation - and proclaim the alternative view of the Lord who has come to call them to face up to their present circumstances and why they are finding that the provision of the work of their hands is so meagre.
What the statement shows us, though, is that men and women prefer to say
‘It is not time to do God’s work’
‘I don’t want to do God’s work’
because the former sounds more religious and spiritual, that we have His interests at heart and are trying to capture the right time for the work. But God’s use of the opening phrase ‘This people’ rather than ‘My people’ showed the 2 leaders what God thought of what the people had been saying.
That phrase is probably the only thing that could have made both Zerubbabel and Joshua sit up and take notice for, in it, there was the implication that, through the attitudes of the people, God’s people had simply become ‘another’ people rather than God being eager to proclaim that they were still close to Him and in covenant relationship with Him - and this would have been proclaimed had the Lord called them ‘My people’.
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