The captivity is now past. It is the time of restoration and rebuilding. The remnant, who are the descendants of the twelve tribes that were taken into both the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities, now begin the process of restoring themselves as Israel in the land of Palestine. It is the time for the fulfillment of the promise of God that a remnant of all twelve tribes would return. The freed captives thus begin the process of restoring the identity of Israel in Palestine in order that the promises concerning the Blessing that would come into the world would be fulfilled (See Gn 12:1-4).
A. Historical/social background:
The Medes and the Persians eventually overthrew the Babylonians, and subsequently took possession of all the previous territory that was ruled by the Assyrians, and then by the Babylonians. This vast territory extended from Ethiopia to India. All the territory was now the governing possession of the Medo-Persian Empire.
What is significant is the fact that the territories to which the ten northern tribes of Israel were taken in the Assyrian conquest were now under the control of the Medes and Persians. When King Cyrus of the Medo-Persian Empire followed his humanitarian policy that people would better serve the Empire if they were in their own homelands, he allowed those who were taken in former captivities to return to their original homelands. In the case of all the Israelite captives that were taken in both the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities, it was time to go home. Therefore, a remnant of Israelites from both the former northern and southern kingdoms of Israel were allowed to return their homeland of Palestine.
It is significant to understand the above because some have wrongfully concluded that those of the northern ten tribes of Israel were lost among the nations of the world, and thus, never returned as a remnant to the land Palestine as God had promised through the prophets. It is assumed by some that there are still ten tribes of Israel still lost among the populations of the world who will somehow make their way back to Palestine in a presumed millennial reign of Jesus on earth.
If there were ten lost tribes yet to be returned to Palestine, then the prophets lied to the people, both in reference to the promise of a return of the remnant, as well as in the fact that representatives of all twelve tribes of Israel were in Palestine at the time of the incarnation of the Son of God.
The prophets stated that only a remnant of all the twelve tribes would return. Hosea prophesied that Judah would come with Israel back to the land (Hs 1:11). All the children of Israel would return and seek the Lord (Hs 3:5). Isaiah prophesied that a remnant would come from Assyria, Egypt, Pathros, Cush, Elam, Shenar, Hamath and the islands of the sea (Is 11:11; see 19:23,24). Jeremiah prophesied that God would restore Judah and Israel (Jr 23:5-8; 29:14). Ezekiel prophesied that God would take His people from among the nations and bring them again into the land (Ez 36:10,24). The whole house of Israel would be united and returned (Ez 37:11,12,16).
In the context of Haggai and Zechariah, both prophets announced that the house of Judah and the house of Israel had been rescued from their former captivity of the Assyrians and Babylonians (Zc 8:13). It was a time now for the Israelites to be strengthened in the land (Zc 9:13-16). Zechariah reminded the people of God’s promise of restoration:
I will also bring them again out of the land of Egypt and gather them out of Assyria. And I will bring them into the land of Gilead and Lebanon, until no place will be found for them (Zc 10:1).
This was what was happening in history at the very time the first captives returned in 536 B.C. Haggai and Zechariah began their ministry of exhortation on the basis that the people had not yet completed the purpose of reestablishing the identity of the people of God in the land. This particular purpose was to signal to the world that Israel was back. And the best signal the remnant could give to the world was that their temple was rebuilt.
Haggai and Zechariah had been in Palestine for about sixteen years, but the temple still remained in ruins. They were probably very young men in 536 B.C. when the first captives returned to the land. God, therefore, waited until 520 B.C. to stir up the people by calling the two prophets into action. God gave the people time to act on their own, but they failed to act. Now it was time to get on with the work. It was time that the temple be rebuilt in order to establish the restored identity of Israel in the land.
If the identity of Israel was not restored, then the promises to the fathers could not be recognized as fulfilled when the Messiah came. God, therefore, raised up both Zechariah and Haggai to stir the people into action. Haggai stood up first to inspire the people to rebuild the temple. The date was 520 B.C. Within a month after the encouragement of Haggai, the foundation of the temple was completed. Soon after, Zechariah added his encouragement to the voice of Haggai (Zc 1:1-6). Of these events, Ezra recorded,
Then the prophets, Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them (Ez 5:1).
This was the time when Zerubbabel “rose up and began to build the house of God that is at Jerusalem” as a result of the encouragement of the prophets (Ez 5:2). Zerubbabel was the leader of the first captives who returned in 536 B.C. Once he was encouraged by the prophets to accomplish the rebuilding of the temple, things started to happen.
After the initial captives returned to Palestine, they established the altar and sacrifices. But because of opposition from the locals, they stopped their work of rebuilding the temple. In the meantime, however, they built lavish houses for themselves (Hg 1:4). During this lapse in rebuilding the temple, the kings of the Medo-Persian Empire changed. Cyrus II, who allowed the first captives to return to the land, died in 530 B.C. (See Is 44:28; 2 Ch 36:22). He was succeeded by his son Cambyses II (“Ahasuerus” in Ez 4:6), who reigned from 530 to 522 B.C. Then came Darius I who encouraged the Jews to continue their reconstruction of Jerusalem (See Ez 4 – 6; Hg 1,2; Zc 1–6). It was in the second year of the reign of Darius I that Haggai and Zechariah stood up to both rebuke (Hg 1) and encourage the people to accomplish the mission of rebuilding the temple (Hb 2).
The construction on the temple had stopped because of opposition and confusion in authorization. Sheshbazzar had been appointed governor of Palestine by Persia (Er 5:14). But then some confusion concerning confirmation of the rebuilding was brought into question by those local residents who opposed the rebuilding of the temple (Er 5:16,17). A message was then sent to Babylon to the king in order to search for the original commission of Cyrus to rebuild the temple. Though the foundation of the temple had been laid, the people procrastinated in waiting for confirmation from Babylon. It was not until 520 that God had to raise up Haggai and Zechariah in order to spur on the people to get the job done. Though the records were found in Babylon that authorized the rebuilding, lethargy had already set in and the people lost their enthusiasm to rebuild (Er 6:1,2).
Procrastination and indifference had delayed the process too long, and now, it was time to move on with the work. Knowing what must be done, but failing to do it, is not good enough in the eyes of God. It is work well done that will be rewarded, not good intentions (See Mt 25:21,34-46).
[Don’t miss Haggai’s messages tomorrow.]