Historical Background... Haggai and Zechariah


Some time ago I addressed in a blog the historical time of Daniel in the Old Testament. I quoted extensively from a book that I read recently with the title An Introduction to the Old Testament written by Longman lll and Dillard. In this blog I want to quote more on the historical background of the two Old Testament prophets, Haggai and Zechariah.

When I read the historical background of the book of Daniel, I thought that it was outstanding. Also I felt the same about the historical background of the books of Haggai and Zechariah.  I came to the conclusion that this is a valuable resource that I should read repeatedly in the future, so I decided to include it in this blog as I did sometime ago in another blog.
Here are some questions that came to mind as I was reading Longman's and Dillard's book on this period of history.  

1. When the opportunity opened for the exiles in Babylon to return to Jerusalem, what was it like in Babylon and how many of the exiled Jews returned?

2. What was the situation like in Jerusalem? Did they find their houses waiting for them? Were there tensions between the returnees and the lower class Judeans who were left in the land?

3. Who were those who opposed the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple and why?

4. Why did God raise up in 520 BC the two prophets Haggai and Zechariah? What is the relevance of their message to us today?

5. King Cyrus died in battle in 530 BC. What did his successors do?

6. How did the turmoil and instability in the Persian empire stimulate hopes for a Davidic rule?

7. Ezekiel depicted that the glory of God will return to the city of Jerusalem and that the Gentiles' wealth will pour into the city? How did that happen?

Here is the extensive quote from An Introduction to the Old Testament.

"One might have anticipated a mass exodus of Jews from their captivity in Babylon once Cyrus issued his decree (539 BC; 2 Chron. 36: 23; Ezra 1: 2– 4) authorizing their return. After all, who would not want to “ go home” from a period of captivity and deportation? But this was not to be the case. The exiles had followed the advice of Jeremiah to “ build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters” (Jer. 29: 5– 6), and they had prospered as Babylon prospered (v. 7).

Almost fifty years had passed since the destruction of Jerusalem. Most of the generation that had been carried into exile had died; the generation born during the exile only knew Babylon as home. So rather than joining a mass return to Jerusalem, most of those in Babylon chose to keep the financial security and comfort they had built up during the exile. Almost fifty thousand of the exiles chose to make the return trip (Ezra 2: 64; Neh. 7: 66). When they arrived, they faced a number of difficulties: (1) Land had lain fallow, and ancestral homes were in disrepair; there was much work to be done. (2) The lower classes of Judeans who had been left in the land (Jer. 52: 15– 16) had taken over the holdings of those who were deported (Ezek. 11: 3, 15). A complex legal situation arose, requiring reconciliation of the rights of the returnees with those of the population that had remained. Tensions developed between the returnees and those who had remained, tensions that would still be felt a century later (Neh. 5: 6– 8). (3) The rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple also faced external opposition from neighboring peoples and Persian officials appointed in the area (Ezra 4: 1– 5; 5: 3– 5). After the initial restoration of the altar in the temple courtyard and efforts to lay the foundation for the building itself (Ezra 3: 2– 10), little work appears to have been done. (4) Initial efforts to begin construction on the temple were also met with discouraging remarks and onerous comparisons with the grandeur of the first temple on the part of those who had been alive to see it (Ezra 3: 12– 13; Hag. 2: 3; Zech. 4: 10).

With these and other issues pressing, it is no surprise that the returnees felt comparatively little urgency about rebuilding the temple but instead poured their energies into reconstructing their homes and restoring agricultural production (Hag. 1: 3– 11). Years passed until finally, in 520 BC, God raised up two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, who urged the people to get their priorities straight and to build the temple. The people responded to the preaching of both prophets, and the temple was completed in 516 (Ezra 6: 15).

Although the prophecy of Ezekiel has a larger number of dates than the book of Haggai, of all the prophetic books, Haggai has the greatest “density” of dated material. Each of the four oracles that make up the book is introduced with a notation concerning the date on which it was announced (Hag. 1: 1; 2: 1, 10, 20; cf. 1: 15). All are set in less than a four-month period in the second year of Darius I ( 522– 486 BC). Cyrus had died in battle in 530; he was succeeded by Cambyses ( 530– 522). When Cambyses came to the throne, he assassinated his brother Bardiya in order to consolidate his hold on the kingdom and eliminate a potential rival. Cambyses appears to have taken his own life, and Darius arose from the royal entourage to secure the succession for himself.

At the time of Darius’s accession to the throne, rebellions broke out in various parts of the Persian Empire. The major rebellion was led by a figure who claimed to be Bardiya; Darius crushed this pseudo-Bardiya by the end of September 522. It is not clear how soon Darius was able to quell the uprisings elsewhere in the empire. Many scholars have interpreted various utterances by Haggai and Zechariah as reflecting this turmoil in the Persian Empire early in Darius’s rule (e.g., Hag. 2: 6– 7; Zech. 1: 11– 15; 2: 7– 9). It may be that instability in the Persian Empire stimulated hopes for freedom from foreign domination and the restoration of Davidic rule (Hag. 2: 20– 23). The restoration community lived with the hopes of a glorious future as proclaimed by Isaiah (e.g., 40: 9– 10; 41: 11– 16; 43: 1– 7; 44: 1– 5, 21– 23); Cyrus was to inaugurate the new era (Isa. 44: 28– 45: 4, 13)."

Longman III, Tremper (2009-05-26). An Introduction to the Old Testament: Second Edition (Kindle Locations 11266-11298). Zondervan. Kindle Edition. 

"In the Old Testament, God’s acceptance of a sanctuary or a sacrifice was often signified by the appearance of fire, more particularly the pillar of fire and cloud that the rabbis came to call the “ Shekinah glory” (Ex. 40: 34– 38; Judg. 6: 21; 1 Kings 8: 10– 11; 18: 38; 1 Chron. 21: 26; 2 Chron. 5: 13– 14; 7: 1– 3). The same word “glory” could also refer to wealth and riches. In line with the expectation and hope of Isaiah (Isa. 66), the restoration community looked for a time when the wealth of the nations would flow into Jerusalem.

Haggai appears to be making use of this ambiguity in the term “glory” by using it in both senses in 2: 3, 7– 9 (Wolf 1976). Yet, although the Persians would underwrite the construction and ritual of the second temple (Ezra 1: 6– 7; 6: 7– 10; 7: 15– 18), this fell far short of prophetic descriptions of Gentile wealth pouring into the city. In spite of Ezekiel’s depiction of the glory of God returning to the city (Ezek. 43: 1– 7), there is no hint or suggestion that the pillar of fire and cloud ever appeared above the second temple. So too, although the Jews of Judah would enjoy a measure of autonomy under Persian rule, the power of foreign nations was not broken (2: 22), and Judeans would continue to serve a variety of foreign masters.

A new era had been inaugurated with the decree of Cyrus, the reconstruction of the temple, and the administration of the Davidic prince Zerubbabel. But it was only a provisional step anticipatory of events yet to come. The visible presence of God would finally appear at the second temple, when Jesus “ tabernacled in our midst and we beheld his glory” (John 1: 14, author’s translation), for he was “ the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb. 1: 3). The wealth of nations comes to Jerusalem in the gifts of Gentile wise men (Matt. 2: 1– 12) and in a new temple made of living stones, Jew and Gentile alike (1 Cor. 3: 16– 17; 1 Peter 2: 4– 10). A new kingdom— one not of this world, one that transcends and rules all others— is introduced by another son of David; he rules now and is putting all things under his feet. These things too are but a step toward the consummation, when all things will be new and the dwelling of God will be with men in a city rich beyond description, where all tears are wiped away (Rev. 21)."

Longman III, Tremper (2009-05-26). An Introduction to the Old Testament: Second Edition (Kindle Locations 11356-11374). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Dr. Nabeel Jabbour