Turmoil at the Beginning of Darius' Reign (Ezra 5:1-2; Haggai 1) June 19-21
The Samaritan resistance to the Jews of Judea had taken its toll. The Jews quit the rebuilding of the temple and went about their own affairs. This resulted in a period of national punishment, as the prophet Haggai explains. Yet rather than seeing events in this way, the people looked on their "misfortunes" as simply more reasons to not resume the construction. As time went on, the orientation of the people changed until the rebuilding of the temple perhaps seemed like something that would never happen.
"The reconstruction project may have faltered also because of the unstable political situation that followed the death of Cyrus in  B.C. [His son] Cambyses came to the throne and reigned for seven years. His major accomplishment was his bringing Egypt under Persian control. The passage of his armies through the land of Israel may have worked a hardship on the native population. Demands for food, water, clothing, and shelter may have greatly diminished the meager resources of a people engaged on a building project well beyond their means" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, introduction to Haggai).
Ezra 4:24 gives the time frame for the first two verses of Ezra 5: the second year of the Persian king Darius (ca. 520 B.C.). His accession was a time of major change in the empire. An overview of this period provides us with a context for events in Judea described in our current and subsequent readings.
John Bright's A History of Israel states: "Beginning in 522, the Persian Empire was racked by a series of upheavals that bade fair to rend it asunder. In that year, as Cambyses was en route through Palestine on his return from Egypt, news reached him that one Gaumata had usurped the throne and been accepted as king in most of the eastern provinces of the empire. This Gaumata gave himself as Cambyses' own brother Bardiya [Smerdis], whom Cambyses had had secretly assassinated some years previously. Cambyses thereupon, under circumstances that are obscure, took his own life. An officer in his entourage, Darius, son of the satrap Hystaspes, and a member of the royal family by a collateral line, immediately claimed the throne. Accepted by the army, he marched eastward into Media, brought Gaumata to heel, and executed him" (2000, p. 369).
The Encyclopaedia Britannica notes, "Some modern scholars consider that [Darius] invented the story of Gaumata in order to justify his actions and that the murdered king was indeed the son of Cyrus" ("Darius I," Micropaedia, Vol. 3, 1985, p. 887). Yet this is mere conjecture, as there is no way at present to really know.
Bright goes on to say: "But Darius' victory, far from establishing him in his position, set off a veritable orgy of revolt all over the empire. Though Darius in his great trilingual inscription on the cliff of Behistun sought to belittle the extent of the opposition to him, it is clear that unrest exploded from one end of the realm to the other. Rebellions broke out in Media, Elam and Parsa, in Armenia, all across Iran to the farthest eastern frontier, while in the west both Egypt and Asia Minor were affected" (p. 369).
The Encyclopaedia Britannica further explains, "In Susiana, Babylonia, Media, Sagartia, and Margiana, independent governments were set up, most of them by men who claimed to belong to the former ruling families" (p. 887).
Continuing in Bright's account: "In Babylon, one Nidintu-bel, who claimed to be—and possibly was—a son of [the last Babylonian king] Nabonidus, set himself up as king under the name of Nebuchadnezzar III and managed to maintain himself for some months before Darius seized him and executed him. The following year saw another rebellion in Babylon, the leader of which likewise called himself Nebuchadnezzar [IV] and claimed to be a son of Nabonidus. He, too, made trouble for some months until captured and impaled by the Persians, together with his chief supporters. Throughout his first two regnal years Darius had to fight without cessation on one front after another in order to win through. It was probably not until late in 520 that his position was actually secure.
"Meanwhile, it must have seemed that the Persian Empire was literally flying to pieces. As nationalistic feeling exploded everywhere a tense excitement was created from which the little community in Judah was by no means immune. Dormant hopes were awakened. Perhaps the awaited hour, the hour of the overturn of the nations and the triumphant establishment of Yahweh's rule, had come at last!" (2000, p. 369).
For those focused on the world scene at the time, certain statements in the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah, who then preached to the people of Judea, could easily have been interpreted in that way. This might well have played a part in the positive response of the people to their exhortations. Moreover, it was less than four years until the end of the 70 years since the destruction of Jerusalem and the first temple (586-516 B.C). It was time to get busy and get the job done. Through world events, the inspired preaching of His prophets and directly stirring the hearts of Judah's leaders and people, God provided the needed motivation to ensure the fulfillment of His promises.
Introduction to Haggai (Ezra 5:1-2; Haggai 1)
As Ezra 4:24-5:1 makes clear, in the second year of Darius (ca. 520 B.C.), two prophets came on the scene in Judea exhorting the Jews who had returned from Babylonian captivity to resume work on the temple of God. These two prophets were Haggai and Zechariah. Recall that in the Hebrew Bible, the 12 "Minor Prophets" constitute a single book of Scripture—concluding the Prophets division of the Old Testament. Haggai is the 10th book of the Minor Prophets. It is the first of the last three—Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi—which together are known appropriately as the Postexilic Prophets.
The name Haggai means "Festive," "Festal One" or "My Feast"—the Hebrew hag, the word for festival, coming from the concept of moving or dancing in a circle. "It has been suggested that the name was given him because he was born on some feast" (Charles Feinberg, The Minor Prophets, 1952, p. 237). Some think this name might be a shortened form of Haggiah (a name borne by another individual in 1 Chronicles 6:30), which means "Feast of Yhwh" (see Expositor's Bible Commentary, introduction to Haggai). It is interesting that the prophet Haggai's mission was to call on the Jews to restore the temple and its worship—making it once again the center of Jewish festivity and of God's sacred feasts in particular. In any event, as Expositor's states in a footnote to Ezra 5:1, Haggai "was a popular name. It was borne by eleven individuals at [the fifth-century-B.C. Jewish community at Aswan in Egypt on the Nile island of] Elephantine and by four in the Murashu texts [of Babylon] ([Michael] Coogan, [West Semitic] Personal Names [in the Murašû Documents, 1976], p. 23)."
Nothing else is known about Haggai apart from his short book, the two occurrences of his name in the book of Ezra (5:1; 6:14) and an allusion to him in Zechariah 8:9. Some have seen Haggai 2:3 as an indication that the prophet himself saw the earlier temple of Solomon, which would put Haggai in his 70s or older. His old age is given as the reason for the brevity of his work and writing—cut short, it is presumed, by death. Yet the verse in question does not actually say that Haggai saw the former temple. Perhaps he merely knew of its dimensions—or was afforded a glimpse of it in inspired vision. So we really have no clue as to the prophet's age. He could well have been a young man. The placement of Haggai before Zechariah in Ezra and of Haggai's book before Zechariah's in scriptural arrangement could indicate that Haggai was older, but that is not really telling of age as Zechariah himself was young (see Zechariah 2:4). Moreover, the book placement could simply signify the fact that Haggai's book began first (see Haggai 1:1; Zechariah 1:1).
Haggai's book was meant for the people of his own day but its scope clearly goes far beyond this. "He begins with the rebuilding of the temple, but goes on to speak of the shaking of all nations, the coming of the Lord, and the glory of His millennial reign" (Feinberg, p. 237).
The word Haggai consistently uses for the temple in His book, as in many other places in Scripture, literally means house, as the King James Version renders it. The idea is that of a dwelling place for God. Of course, since God is in heaven, we realize that it is through His Spirit that He dwelt in the temple Solomon had built. We should consider that the temple of God today is His people, the New Testament Church in which He now resides through His Holy Spirit (see Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 1 Timothy 3:15). And so the book of Haggai has much to say to true Christians. Indeed, there have been times over the centuries where the temple-building tasks God has delegated to His servants—preaching the gospel as the means by which He calls new members and nourishing those members to steady and strengthen them in the structure—has been neglected. And yet God has always stirred some to resume the work. Even now, we must realize that God is still in the process of building His spiritual temple, adding people to it. We must be careful, then, not to neglect participating in God's work of building His temple today. In fact, we should consider that God considers each of us individually as His temple (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). So part of our work is to, with God's help, take care of ourselves—body, mind and spirit—cooperating with Him in His work of spiritually building each of us up personally, growing and overcoming with His help to become the kind of temple He desires. And in that light we must also work to serve and help the interests of every individual in whom God's Spirit dwells.
God's Word through Haggai today is the same as it was to the people of the prophet's own time: "'...Build the temple, that I may take pleasure in it and be glorified,' says the Lord" (Haggai 1:8). This is the message of the whole book.
"Wages...Into a Bag With Holes" (Ezra 5:1-2; Haggai 1)
The date on which Haggai's first message commences corresponds to August 29, 520 B.C. It is immediately directed to the leaders of Judea—Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua or Jeshua the high priest (Haggai 1:1). Yet it is evidently also announced to all Jews of the land (see Ezra 5:1).
The people maintained that it was not the appropriate time for reconstruction (Haggai 1:2). We can look at this in two ways. First, circumstances did not appear "ideal" to them. They had given up the reconstruction in the face of the Samaritan antagonism. That antagonism had probably not abated. God had not seen fit to remove the Samaritans from the land and replace them with people friendly to the Jews and their efforts. The Persian overlords had not quashed the Samaritan resistance and given new declarations of support and provided financing for the Jewish rebuilding effort. The Jews were waiting for some forthcoming miraculous circumstances. But God had already given them the task and provided miraculous assistance in the past. Their responsibility now was to step out in faith to continue in obedience to God—and He would continue to see them through.
If we wait until circumstances are "ideal" to obey God, we will never obey Him. Our faith is tested through adversity. God wants to see how we will handle His commands even in the hard times. Moreover, we must never put off obedience to God until some later, more "propitious" time. Consider when a person has a new job and learns that his employer expects him to work on the Sabbath. He might think, "Well I'd better not try to take off on Saturdays now. My supervisors won't go for that. I'd better wait until I've been here a few more months or a few more years and then press my case." This attempt to "work matters out to obey God," thereby delaying obedience, is still disobedience—sin against God. In such a situation, the person should immediately inform his employer, politely and respectfully of course, that he henceforth will be unable to work on the Sabbath—and then stand by his convictions. This is the attitude God will bless, not an attitude of compromise and faithlessness.
The second sense of it not being time to renew work on the temple involves the idea of there not being enough time. "How modern an objection!" notes The Bible Reader's Companion, "Sorry, there just isn't time right now for prayer. I'd like to read my Bible, but I have to get up so early for my work. And at night I'm too tired to do anything but read [or watch] the news [or some relaxing entertainment]. The people of Judea were also busy: too busy with their own affairs to have time or money to invest in rebuilding the temple of God. As a result they lost out!" (note on verse 2).
In verses 3-4 and 9, the Jews are chided for somehow finding enough time and money to build up and adorn their own houses—running to serve themselves—while letting God's house lie in ruins. He tells them to take stock of their situation (verse 5). All of their efforts produce little income. Their food and drink is not enough to satisfy them. Their clothes are not sufficient to keep them warm. Their wages seem to go into a "bag with holes" (verse 6). The reference here is to a money sack, which people carried before pockets and purses came into use. The people's income seems to leak away. The harder they work, the further they get behind.
"Haggai rebuked the people with a...play on words.... He proclaimed that because the Lord's house had remained 'a ruin' (hareb, Hag 1:4, 9), the Lord would bring [or, rather, had already brought] 'a drought' (horeb, Hag 1:11) on the land" (Expositor's, note on Ezra 5:1). Indeed, God had cursed the people's efforts because of their failure to honor and obey him (Haggai 1:7-11; see also 2:16-17). "There's a lesson here for us. God is the one who makes any effort bear fruit. We need to put Him first. When we do, the Lord will bless" (Bible Reader's Companion, note on 1:5-6).
The irony is that the reason the people did not have the time or substance to expend on the work of God is that they did not expend time and substance on the work of God first. People often feel that they "cannot afford" to support God's work. Yet they have it backwards. The truth is that they cannot afford to not support it. They cannot afford to not take time to pray, to study God's Word, to meditate on His laws and to obey Him and support His work. If we put God first, devoting ourselves to His service—in our hearts and minds, in our time and energy, in our finances, in every area of our lives—God will take care of us. If we support His work through our time and means, He will see to it that our remaining time and means are sufficient for the rest of our needs. God promises this in regard to His command about tithing in Malachi 3:8-12—and in regard to proper prioritizing of life's demands in Matthew 6:25-34.
After presenting God's rebuke, Haggai has the distinction of being one of the few prophets in the Bible whose words were positively heeded. The leaders and people, with an appropriate fear of further neglecting their relationship with God, determine to now obey Him and renew work on His temple (Haggai 1:12). God then encourages them with the wonderful news that He will be with them (verse 13)—a necessity for their success in this and every spiritual venture. Verse 14 reveals that God Himself has inspired the national recommitment. The work recommences a little more than three weeks from Haggai's initial message (same verse). Perhaps the intervening time was "spent in taking inventory of their supplies, assessing and assigning jobs, and completing plans" (Expositor's, note on verses 13-15). It seems likely from the wording of Ezra 5:1-2 that Zechariah had also preached to the people prior to their renewed work even though his book does not actually begin until afterward.