It had been 70 years since Solomon’s temple was destroyed, but there were some “left” in Israel (v.1) who remembered it. We know they were discouraged that the new temple wasn’t as big because they “wept” when they saw the foundation (Ezra 3:12).
They were also discouraged by the king’s order to cease building the temple. But Zechariah, who was raised up with Haggai to encourage the Jews (Ezra 5:1,2), predicted the “mountain” of Persia’s king would flatten before Israel’s governor Zerubbabel (Zech. 4:7) — and he did!
But Zerubbabel didn’t level that mountain by lifting his hand against the authority of the king. He just reminded him that a previous king had ordered the temple built, and when the king checked, he found that it was true (Ezra 6:1-3), and knew that that command couldn’t be altered (Dan. 6:8).
That’s why Zechariah went on to predict that Zerubbabel would finish the temple (Zech. 4:8,9). But for that to happen they would have to learn not to despise “the day of small things” (v.10), and instead “be strong” (Hag. 2:4). That’s the secret to overcoming discouragement!
“The people of the land” (v.4) is a phrase that appears 52 times, and refers to the land of Canaan. Jews and Arabs fight over which people are the people of the land, but God promised it to Abraham and his seed “for ever” (Gen. 17:8).
But Abraham took his time about going there (Gen. 12:1), and by the time he got there, Satan had filled the land with his people — and Moses called them “the people of the land” three times (Gen. 23:7-13). Moses knew God promised the land to Abraham, but he knew God recognized the “squatter’s rights” of the Canaanites. People who occupy a land have legal right to it until the rightful owner evicts them.
But Joshua served an eviction notice when he led God’s people into Canaan and God enforced His promise to Abraham to give him the land. After that, the phrase “the people of the land” referred to the Jews — until they were taken away captive to Babylon. Then some new squatters moved in, and we know God recognized their rights because He called them “the people of the land” (Ezra 4:4; 10:2,11).
The land still belongs to Israel, but God won’t enforce His promise to them until the Lord returns, any more than He’ll enforce His promise that Jews should rule the world until then. So until then, we should be concerned with who owns the Jews’ hearts, not who owns their land (Rom.10:1).
By the way, Haggai called the Jews “the people of the land” at the same time Ezra called the Canaanites by that name to remind them they are the true owners of the land and had the right to build a temple on it. Plus, this chapter is a type of the kingdom. The chapter began on the day of Tabernacles (2:1 cf. Lev. 23:39), a type of the kingdom. It was the last of Israel’s feasts, like the kingdom is the last thing on their program. It’s called the feast of “ingathering” (Ex. 23:16), and that’s how the kingdom will start (Mt. 24:31).
God’s command to “be strong” was not for them to defy the king’s order, but to be strong in faith (cf.Rom. 4:19,20 cf. Josh. 1:6). To be strong and know that the king’s order wouldn’t be overturned by their might or power (Zech. 4:6,7) but by God. But the people would have to shout grace to the headstone (4:7), i.e., the cornerstone of the temple (cf. Ps. 118:22). The word “shout” should remind you of how some “shouted” when the temple foundation was laid (Ezra 3:11-13). It was their shouts of praise and thanksgiving that would bring the foundation forth to a temple (Zech. 4:7). Grace is God doing for us what we can’t do for ourselves, and that’s what their shouts were asking God to do — overturn the king’s order. Shouts also brought down Jericho’s walls (Jer. 6:5-20), God doing it for them!