BIBLE STUDY: Zerubbabel
This excellent article by Brett Burrowes was originally published several years ago. We thought it worth reprinting.
Zerubbabel was a person like us. He was given a commission by God, but he became discouraged by all the obstacles and opposition he encountered. How many times have we thought we were pursuing Gods will in our lives only to experience frustration after frustration? We start to think: Whats the point? If God were really behind this, why arent things working out? Why does God allowthis? Doesnt He hearmy prayers?The temptation is to give up in the face of obstacles and just to try and live out a comfortable life without getting too many people around us upset. After all, isnt living at peace with our neighbors an admirable goal? Just let nothing disturb our comfort, least of all some commission from God. But God has a way ofmaking things uncomfortable for us ifwe disobey.
Zerubbabel was the descendant of David who was appointed to be leader of the Jews who returned to Jerusalem (1 Chr. 3:19; Ezra 2:2). He had been commissioned by God to rebuild the temple (Ezra 3-6,Haggai,Zech. 4:6-10).This was no small task, since the temple was no ordinary building, not even like an ordinary place of worship, but the place in which Gods glory came down and dwelt among the people. The temple was the place where heaven came down and touched the earth, where God communed with human beings, the place to which prayers were directed and from which they were answered. Under the old covenant, the temple was the place Gods Spirit dwelt; it was the visible sign that the Jews were the chosen people of God. So to build a house suitable for God to dwell in was no small task. It must have felt overwhelming, especially since the other nations dwelling in the land around them far outnumbered them, and they opposed the rebuilding of the temple. In fact the Scripture says that they felt a dread of the peoples around them (Ezra 3:3). Dread is not simply a passing fear or anxiety, but an intense paralyzing fear of what will happen, combined with the sense that you are powerless to prevent it.When you dread something, you justwant to put it out of your mind and not think about it and pretend its not there. Theres a gnawing in your stomach, a tension in your shoulders, and a feeling of impending doom that doesnt go away. This is how Zerubbabel and the Israelites felt about their neighbors around them.
But it is precisely in these situations thatGod calls us to trust Him. Facing the fact that these nations (and as we shall find out,enemies) were farmore numerous and powerful than they were, Zerubbabel nevertheless chose to put his trust in God, and he built an altar to the Lord and began to lead the people to worship Him (Ezra 3:2-3). He feared the Lord more than He feared the nations around them. He moved from mere soul feelings to spirit, from a feeling of dread and panic to an attitude of trust and obedience toward God.Of course his feelings probably did not change, but his actions did: he chose to obey God, build the altar, and begin work on the foundation of the temple.
When the foundation of the temple was built (Ezra 3:8-13), however, Zerubbabel and the people became discouraged. Although many rejoiced at the completion of the foundation, those who had been alive when the first temple was still standing wept openly (3:12) because it was obvious that this second temple would not even approach the splendor and beauty of the first. They were deceived by what their own hands had produced, impressed not by what God was accomplishing through them, but by the outward appearance of the temple. Had they been concerned with the things of the Spirit, theywould have realized that no matter how beautiful the first temple had been, it had been filled with the sin and idolatry of the people, which had driven Gods presence from it in the first place (Ezek. 8-10).
This new temple, as unimpressive as itmay have appeared,would be the new place of Gods dwelling, which is the true and only glory of any temple. In fact, speaking through the prophet Haggai, the Lord agreed with the people that the second temple was unimpressive outwardly: Does it not seem to you to be nothing? (Hag. 2:1-3). Instead God promises that His presence will be in their midst,which is whatHe had promised in the first place when they had left Egypt almost a thousand years before (2:4-5). It is Gods presence, not the outward trappings, that makes the temple glorious.
But the people also became discouraged because the peoples around them began to oppose the rebuilding of the temple (Ezra 4). At first they offered to help, but the offer was not entirely genuine. These peoples around them had been moved by the king ofAssyria to the land of Israel several hundred years before and it was customary for people to begin worshipping the gods of that land in addition to ones own when moving into a new land. So they were not lying when they said they worshipped and sacrificed to the God of Israel (Ezra 4:2). More likely, however, is that by joining in with the Jews in the building of the temple they would overwhelm the Jews by their sheer numbers and the Jews would loose their distinctiveness as a people. In other words, remove the threat that the Jews posed to them by absorbing them. In our culture, it is not so much the threat of persecution and torture that threatens Christians, but the temptation to allow oneself to be absorbed into the world and accept its standards. Instead of seeking to have our moral standards transformed and renewed by Gods Word, we passively accept the standards of society around us, because everyone else is doing it. But once we choose Satans way, we dont know where he will take us. If we give ourselves over to him, he will begin operating us and we will begin doing things we didnt dream we could do. By giving ourselves over to Satan and his ways,we become vessels unfit for Gods use and become weapons in the enemys hands (Rom. 6:12-13).
Fortunately, Zerubbabel and the people refused the help of the nations around them, telling them that they have nothing in common (Ezra 4:3),obeying Gods command to come out and be a separate and holy nation (Exod. 19:6; Isa. 52:11; Ezek 20:34, 41). Zerubbabel perceived that God and Satan have nothing in common, and that there can be no agreement with the temple of God and the temple of idols (2 Cor. 6:15-16). Fortunately Zerubbabel and the Jews were not deceived and did not allowthe purity of Gods people to be mixed with the idolatrous Satan-operated peoples around them. If Zerubbabel had allowed them to help, then the temple would have been just another building, for God will not dwell in the midst of a nation of idolaters.
Had these people been true worshipers of the God of Israel, Zerubbabel would have welcomed them, but he knew their real motives, which were exposed when they tried to discourage and frighten the people into discontinuing work on the temple and when they bribed the Persian officials to hinder the work (Ezra 4:4-5). As long as you dont cross Satan in a nice person, you wont see how nasty he can be. Once you do, however, the nicest person will pour out all sorts of venom that comes from the evil spiritwhich operates from within. These people revealed the true spirit of their hearts when they falsely accused the Jews of being rebellious and seditious in a letter to the Persian rulers (Ezra 4:6-16). That this was Satanically motivated cannot be doubted, since it is Satan who is the accuser of the brethren (Rev. 12:10; Job 1-2; Zech. 3:1-2). But if this mistreatment comes from Satan manifesting himself through people, why does God allowit? IsntGod more powerful than Satan? Hasnt God promised to crush Satan under out feet (Rom. 16:20)? Why do we have to go through such troubles at all? Why doesnt God just take care of these sinful people? Of course we are such basicallygood people thatwe wouldntwant God to take their lives,just remove them to a safe distance so they dont bother us anymore. We need to remember that apart from the blood of Christ and His Spirit,we would be just as sinful as they are. Maybe we were the difficult people once that others had to put up with patiently and trust God in spite of us.
Zerubbabel and the Jews did not press on rebuilding the temple. Rather than trust God and oppose the opposition, workon the temple stopped for ten years (4:24). One could say they stopped because of a decree from the king, but then a fewyears earlierDaniel defied the king ofBabylon ratherthan disobeyGod, a fact thatmany of these Jews mayhave witnessed personally. But this time they allowed the dread they had felt earlier to overpower them. Although they began with the desire to obey God, they allowed themselves to be mastered by a fear ofwhatmen could do to them.They were willing to obey God to a point, but they were not yet willing to risk the wrath of the Persian rulers. They knew what kind of response they would get, but theywerent yetwilling to trust God completely. As the old hymn goes: Those who trust Him wholly, find Him wholly true. By not trusting Him wholly, they did not experience the faithfulness of God to deliver them out of their troubles.
But despite their lack of faith, God was faithful, and He sent the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to call them back to obedience (Ezra 5:1). Haggai rebuked the people for living in luxurious paneled houses while Gods house remained in ruins (Hag. 1:3). Because of the opposition they had experienced, the people had given up hope and were saying to themselves: it is not yet time for the temple of the Lord to be rebuilt, despite Gods command to the contrary (Hag. 1:2). They focused on making their own lives comfortable with paneled houses instead of doing the hard thing and obeying God. Their own comfort became more important than rebuilding Gods temple. Deep down Im sure many of us have thought that doing Gods will was too hard: Ill do what I can but if I run into difficulty, it is obviously not yet time to do whatever it is that God has commissioned us to do. But that is just a spiritual excuse to cover up our unbelief and disobedience.
What Zerubbabel and the Israelites failed to realize, however, is that these difficulties were really Gods opportunities to manifest His power and strength. Driven to the end of their own abilities and strengths, they ought to have looked to God to be their strength instead of wallowing in self-pity, self-comfort, and despair. The frustrations and the obstacles are no obstacles to God, after all. He is the Lord of the universe; He can get a tiny little building in Jerusalem built in no time. The real obstacle was never the enemies outside them but rather their unbelief, their failure to believe that all the resources they ever needed were in God Himself and not in themselves and their puny little efforts to build the temple. The opposition of Satan through the peoples around them was Gods calling card to faith, Gods opportunity to reveal His glory in a way that exceeded anything in the first temple. So the Lord tells the people through Haggai: I am with you and stirs up the spirit of Zerubbabel and Joshua the high priest and the spirit of the people and gets the job done (Hag. 1:13-15). Through the prophet Zechariah, the Lord tells Zerubbabel that it is not by might nor by force, but by My Spirit, says the Lord that the temple will be rebuilt and completed by Zerubbabels own hands (Zech. 4:6, 8), no matter how impossible the task might seem. After all, greater is the spirit within Zerubbabel than the spirit which is in the peoples opposing him (see 1 John 4:4). The obstacles and opposition which appeared like a mountain before Zerubbabel will become like a level ground (Zech. 4:7). So when we step out in faith and obey in what God has commissioned us to do, trusting that His Spirit in us is the real Doer in us and through us, we can believe that every obstacle we encounter is simply His opportunity to manifest His glory in overcoming it. The obstacles are simply there to get us to despair of trusting in our own (Satans) puny efforts, and to trust that the power of God is in us to accomplish the task He has set out for us.
So Zerubbabel really was a person like us. He struggled with the same doubts and fears as the rest of us, even if he was the royal descendant of David. He endured the same temptations, obstacles and opposition from others, as we do. And just like us, he needed to depend upon the supernatural power of God to rebuild the temple, the task which God had commissioned him to accomplish. But today God has commissioned us in an even greater task than that of Zerubbabel. That task is to build the temple of Gods people: In Christ the whole building is joined together to become a holy temple in the Lord, and in Him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit (Eph. 2:21-22). The new temple is the body of Christ in todays world. God now dwells not in a building made by the hands of men (Acts 7:48) but in the hearts and lives of His people (1 Cor. 6:17, 19). But like the temple in biblical times, our temple can be defiled by disobedience, unbelief and compromise with the world. When we disobey, we allow Satan to contaminate us and misuse us, not only as individuals, but as whole communities. So God commands us: Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God (2 Cor. 7:1). In such an evil and sin-obssessed world, the task of rebuilding and purifying Gods temple from Satanic misuse might seem hopeless, but we must remember the words of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord Almighty (Zech. 4:6).
Brett has an M.A. in New Testament and a Th. M. in Biblical Theology from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is finishing his doctorate at the University of Durham in England. He is also teaching at Nyack College in Nyack, New York, and is a Teacher-Sharer.