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A generation of Jews had come and gone while in captivity in Babylon. Just as Babylon rebelled against the Assyrian Empire, so the Medes and Persians revolted against the Babylonian Empire. As Isaiah had prophesied more than 150 years earlier (Isaiah 44:24-45:7), King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and in 538 B.C. passed an edict allowing Judah (the Israelites) and all the other captives to return home (2 Chr. 36:22–23; Ezra 1:1–4).

This restoration to the land was due to God’s graciousness to the Jewish people according to His promises to Abraham and David. God had promised them they would always be His people and that a son of David would always rule in Jerusalem (Ezek. 37:15–28; Mic. 7:19–20). The people returned to the land repentant. They would never break the covenant again because of idolatry. But the nation still had to trust the Lord wholly before God’s promises could be completely realized.

Into history comes Zerubbabel. an aristocrat born in captivity after his parents had been exiled into Babylon. He was the son of Shealtiel and the grandson of Jehoiachin, the last king of Judah before the Babylonian conquest. Although Jehoiachin was imprisoned at first, Scripture indicates that in his later years he was shown uncommon favor from a new king:

(Kings 25:29) 1 – “So Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes and for the rest of his life ate regularly at the king’s table.”

It is most likely that Zerubbabel benefited from his grandfather’s favored status, growing up in Babylon’s royal court and being educated in politics and military affairs as well as gaining strong roots in the Jewish faith. When Persia overthrew the seemingly invincible Babylon empire around 539 BC, he apparently found new favor from the conquering king, Cyrus II. Under orders from the victorious Persian ruler, Zerubbabel was appointed “governor” over Judah and sent back to Jerusalem in 538 BC to lead the effort to rebuild God’s Temple there (Ezra 2:1-2 ; Haggai 1:1).

His return to Jerusalem, however, did not go well. The people who had remained in Jerusalem and were not exiled,  but had escaped captivity. They were hostile to any newcomers, fearing that their long-lost Babylonian brethren might try to recover their former family properties. There was deep distrust. Zerubbabel was a Babylonian name. Literally translated meaning the “seed of Babylon.” The existing citizens of Jerusalem also questioned the authority Zerubbabel’s claim to be the governor over their land.

Zerubbabel did not help himself upon his return to Jerusalem either. There were many non-Jewish residents occupying the city. They came to him and asked if they could help with the rebuilding.

(Ezra 4:1-2) – “ When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were building a temple for the Lord, the God of Israel, they came to Zerubbabel and to the heads of the families and said, “Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.”

Zerubbabel bluntly refused them, insulting them as he said,

(Ezra 4:3-5) – But Zerubbabel, Joshua and the rest of the heads of the families of Israel answered, “You have no part with us in building a temple to our God. We alone will build it for the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, commanded us.” Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. They bribed officials to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia.

After his insults, the residents in Jerusalem did everything they could to frustrate Zerubbabel and keep the Temple from being built. Apparently, they succeeded. The returning exiles were only able to lay the foundation for the Temple, but nothing else. It was not until about 15 years later, in 520 B.C., that the prophets Haggai and Zechariah were able to convince Zerubbabel to resume construction in earnest. The Temple was finally completed around 516 BC. The functioning Temple, though modest in scope, would stand for centuries, even longer than the Temples of both Solomon and Herod the Great combined.

In the Gospels of both Matthew and Luke, we can find Zerubbabel’s name. This Babylonian-born, Persian-appointed governor of Judah is listed as a forefather of Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus. Yes, here we get to meet a relative of Jesus. The genealogy of Jesus in found in both Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38. With this linkage to our Savior Himself, the question then becomes what to conclude for our lives today from Zerubbabel’s task of rebuilding Jerusalem’s Temple? God’s exile of His people from Jerusalem was necessary to get their attention, but also painful and costly. It is just 70 years Jerusalem was destroyed, and the land was left empty of people and culture. God knows how to get the attention of His people! But to lose this history would be to lose God Himself.

Not all the Israelites in Babylon could make the long trip back to Jerusalem, about 500 miles (800 kilometers). Many were too old or sick to travel so far. Seventy years is a long time and if history and faith are not passed onto the children, there is little meaning in “God’s Covenant.” For those who did not go back, king, Cyrus II told them to: “Give silver and gold and other gifts to the people who are going back to build Jerusalem and its temple.” Many gifts were given to the Israelites who are on their way to Jerusalem. King Cyrus II also gave them the bowls and the cups that King Nebuchadnezzar had taken from God’s temple when he destroyed Jerusalem.

Though the driving force behind the rebuilding of this temple, Zerubbabel, is not mentioned at its completion and dedication in (Ezra 6:13-18), meaning he likely was not there for some reason. The temple, however, would not be enough to change the people. God’s Law had to be placed within the people and written into their hearts before real obedience would ever be achieved. In our next study we will get to know Ezra, the priest who restored worship and the Word of God to the city.

(Jeremiah 31:33) – “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. “

It would not be until the New Testament that this mystery would be revealed to us by Jesus.

(1 Corinthians 3:16) – “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?”

(Revelation 21:3) – “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”

Contemplations

  • How did Zerubbabel’s life help him in his task to rebuild the temple?
    • Ideas to Explore: It would take a faithful person to do the work. He had to the experience to be a good organizer. He was good with politics.
  • In what ways do you think that the knowledge and life of Zerubbabel would have affected Jesus growing up?
    • Ideas to Explore: Jesus did not know him personally but probably had heard the stories of his rebuilding of the temple after the exile. How do stories of our ancestors influence us? The fact that his forefather was of royal blood would have given what kind of feelings to Jesus? The fact that his forefather rebuilt the temple of Jesus’ FATHER, is an interesting point to think about. What about the elaborate circumstances over generations that our God can orchestrate – how does that make you feel?
  • Zerubabbel’s insulting style cost him 15 years of time. How would you have handled the supposed non-believers?
    • Ideas to Explore: By inviting people who do not believe into your own world, does it help or hurt their opinion of God? It joint work together a good way to get to know people? Does exclusion demonstrate arrogance?
  • What purpose do you see in Matthew’s and Luke’s ancestral listing of Jesus’ forefathers?
    • Ideas to Explore: How does ancestry affect our own beliefs and life priorities? Does it help validate the prophets? Knowing the errors and gifts of past generations gives us answers, to what?

Notes:

  1. NIV New International Version Translations
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