Haggai and Zechariah worked together in Jerusalem during the period that followed the Jews’ return from captivity in Babylon. Two hundred years earlier the former northern kingdom Israel had been conquered by Assyria and the people taken captive into foreign countries (722 BC; 2 Kings 17:1-6). Some time later people of the former southern kingdom Judah suffered a similar fate when they were conquered by the Babylonians and taken captive to Babylon (605-587 BC; 2 Kings 24:1-25:12). People of the former northern kingdom were largely absorbed by the nations among whom they lived, but not so the people of the former southern kingdom. They retained their national identity, and these were the ones who returned to reconstruct the ancient Israelite nation.
Though there was no longer a division between northerners and southerners, most of those who returned were from the former southern kingdom, Judah. These were once known as Judeans, but this was shortened to ‘Jews’, which now became a common name for Israelites in general.
The event that made the Jews’ return possible was Persia’s conquest of Babylon in 539 BC. When the Persian king Cyrus gave permission for captive peoples to return to their homelands, a large group of Jews migrated to Jerusalem. Though under the overall control of Persia, they were allowed to
establish their own leadership in Jerusalem. Their early leaders were the governor Zerubbabel and the high priest Joshua (or Jeshua). These were still the leaders when Haggai and Zechariah began their ministry (Ezra 2:1-2; 5:1-2).
The preaching of Haggai and Zechariah
Soon after arriving in Jerusalem, the Jews showed their desire to rebuild the temple on Mt Zion. They set up an altar of sacrifice, and in the second year they started to lay the foundation of the temple (Ezra 3:1-3,8-10). However, local people began to oppose the builders, with the result that the work stopped (Ezra 4:1-5,24).
For about sixteen years no work was done on the rebuilding of the temple. Because of this, God raised up the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to work among his people. They began preaching in 520 BC, their job being to stir up the people to get on with the job and not stop till it was finished (Ezra 5:1-2; Hag 1:1; Zech 1:1).
People blamed opposition from local enemies and hardship from famine as the reasons for not building. The prophets saw that these were not the real reasons. The problem lay with the people themselves. They were not willing to work for God, though they were quite energetic when working for themselves. The problem was spiritual, not political or material (Hag 1:2-4,9-10).
This opinion of the prophets was soon proved to be correct, for when the people restarted the work and opposition broke out afresh, the Persian king encouraged the Jews. He even issued a second decree to confirm the decree of the former king Cyrus. In addition he gave financial assistance to make sure the work was finished satisfactorily (Ezra 5:3; 6:6-12).
The early preaching of Haggai and Zechariah was designed to get the Jews started and encourage them through their early difficulties. This ministry lasted almost six months and, according to the record preserved in the Bible, consisted of four messages from Haggai and two from Zechariah. Two years later Zechariah delivered his third message. Zechariah’s remaining two messages seem to come from a period much later in his life.
Characteristics of the two books
While Haggai’s preaching was straightforward and easy to understand, Zechariah’s consisted largely of vivid accounts of unusual visions and dramatic messages given to him by God. As a result, his preaching required more thought on the part of his hearers. This type of preaching (or writing) was known as apocalyptic. (Concerning characteristics of apocalyptic writings see background to Daniel.)
Haggai was mainly concerned with rousing the people from their spiritual laziness to get them working on the rebuilding of the temple. Zechariah supported Haggai in this urgent ministry, but went on to give further teaching. He wanted to see a lasting spiritual change in the lives and outlook of the people, so that they would be better equipped to serve God in the future.
Through Zechariah, God was further preparing his people for the purpose for which he had chosen them. That purpose would find its fulfilment in the coming of the Messiah, the establishment of his kingdom, and the salvation of people worldwide. The latter half of Zechariah’s book (consisting of two messages delivered probably later in his life) shows that the Jews’ task would not be easy. There would be bitter conflicts with the forces of evil, but in the end God’s kingdom would triumph.