The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary. I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.
Many of the final books of the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament), the so-called “minor prophets,” are very short, and Haggai is no exception. It’s only two chapters long. Unlike most of the prophets, Haggai is written in prose, instead of poetry. Also, Haggai is very specific about dates. His prophecy begins “In the second year of Darius (of Persia), in the sixth month, on the fist day of the month.” By our calendar, that is August 29, 520 B.C.E.
Under King Darius of Persia, some Jews had been allowed to return to Israel and begin rebuilding their lives and community there, under a Persian-appointed governor named Zerubbabel, and a high priest named Joshua. In the early years of the returned community, life was hard. Jerusalem, including the temple, had been pretty much destroyed.
During this time of struggle, a lot of people were looking to their own self-interest, rebuilding their own houses and individual lives. They were struggling with a nation in ruins, and not faring well as individuals. Haggai acknowledges this: “Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.” In other words, life was hard.
Haggai’s solution is to bring the people together as a community, and the most powerful symbol of community in ancient Israel was the temple. So, Haggai encourages the people to re-build the temple. Unlike with other prophets, the people actually listen to the prophet, and commence building the temple.
This re-building of the temple gives the people hope for the future, and God promises blessing. I find the book of Haggai to contain a profound truth about human survival in times of struggle: as individuals, we can’t make it. We need community. We need other people. If our philosophy is “every man for himself,” the situation seems bleak, lonely, and hopeless. But if people work together, even struggle together, there are relationships formed, and shared purpose, and hope for not just survival, but flourishing.