Zerubbabel: The King Who Wasn’t
Christ the King; November 22, 2020
For over four hundred years the House of David had ruled the Kingdom of Judah. Now, Judah was only briefly an important force in international politics; for most of its history it struggled to maintain its independence and did so mostly because it was a buffer between competing empires. But Judah was the people of God, the place where public life and private life both struggled to be faithful to the ways of God. For us, those who are dedicated to the way of God, Judah is an important symbol.
It all came crashing down when the Babylonians conquered and destroyed it. They tore down the Temple of the Lord, they reduced the city walls of Jerusalem to rubble, and they took the King and his court and all the leading citizens of the nation – possibly as much as ten percent of the entire population of the country – into exile in Babylon. A four hundred-year experiment in building the Kingdom of God on earth had come to an end.
When the Persians conquered Babylon, Emperor Cyrus decreed that the exiles could go home. He said the Temple should be rebuilt and even provided money for it. The sacred utensils that the Babylonians had stolen from the Temple were returned. And Jerusalem was to be rebuilt. Now, some of the story I’m about to tell you is conjecture, because the Bible is not consistent in the details about this. But I will plunge ahead and tell it as seems to make the most sense.
When some of the exiles returned, or their children or grandchildren did, they resettled and rebuilt. They made a start on the Temple, but didn’t get very far. The Governor Sheshbazzar had a lot of opposition to overcome; after he had laid the foundations, the work stopped. Many of the people who had been left in the land during the exile were hostile to the ones who had returned and the surrounding provinces thought of Judah as dangerous and rebellious and didn’t want the Temple or the walls rebuilt. Their political pressure got the work stopped.
After about fifteen years, two things happened that got people going to resume the work on the Temple. One was a prophet named Haggai who spoke in the name of the Lord, telling the people that the reason their crops were failing and the economy was struggling was that they had their priorities misplaced. They had rebuilt their own homes and left the Temple of the Lord in ruins. The other thing that happened was a new administration took over in Ecbatana: Darius I became Emperor of Persia and he appointed a new governor, Zerubbabel.
Now, Zerubbabel is almost more a symbol in this story than a real person. I wish I knew more about him: his wife and children, what he liked to do on a summer afternoon, who his friends were. But the Bible doesn’t find it necessary to tell us these things; what it tells us is what he did and what he symbolized. This much we know: he was the great-nephew of the last King of Judah and so he was the heir to the Throne of David. If Judah were independent, Zerubbabel would have been King.
Instead, Darius followed Persian policy and appointed as Governor the one who would have been King, assuming his loyalty. And it was a fair assumption. After all, Persia had an army. Anyway, Zerubbabel was charged with getting the work going on the Temple again and getting it finished, as well as managing the administration of the province on behalf of the Emperor. He had a lot of work to do.
With Haggai’s encouragement and the support of the people of Judah, he got to it. And, to borrow from a popular Nebraskan, he got ‘er done. As the Scripture reading said, the new Temple was a rather poor substitute for the old one, in the eyes of those who remembered the old one, but it was a Temple and it was there. Haggai said things would be better in the future; that’s another story, but he was right. The utensils for worship that had been stolen and taken to Babylon were restored to the Temple; the priesthood was restored under the leadership of Joshua the High Priest, and that’s about all we know about Zerubbabel.
Except that he became a symbol for people’s hopes. The prophet Haggai went on to say that the Lord God was going to destroy the world’s empires and that Zerubbabel would rule, just as his ancestor David had. The prophet Zechariah told Zerubbabel to have hope, that he would accomplish all that the Lord had destined him to do. Perhaps you have heard the line, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). The Prophet Zechariah said that to Zerubbabel. When you say or hear that line, take courage, and also remember that it was first said to a political official who had a big job to do, against some opposition and in the middle of hopes that were too big for him.
I doubt that Zerubbabel had any interest in becoming King of an independent Judah. He had been born in Babylon, he was a subject of the Persian Emperor. He had a job to do both for the Emperor and for the Lord his God and he set himself to doing it. For many, he symbolized the hope of restoration of what was; do you know any people who constantly yearn for things to be the way they used to be? People made Zerubbabel the focus of that yearning. But the reality is greater: Zerubbabel had a job to do and he got it done. The Temple that he completed stood for almost six hundred years. It would probably still be standing if the Romans had not destroyed it because of a rebellion.
Zerubbabel was the last of the line of King David to hold any position of importance among the people of God. Except for one more. If Zerubbabel symbolizes the hope for establishing the reign of God on earth, then he is a good symbol for that hope. Both Matthew and Luke name Zerubbabel as ancestor to a child born in Bethlehem, named Jesus.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master