Ezra-Nehemiah, week 2: Zerubbabel
Ezra, chapter 3
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service as Main Street Community Church over the Internet. The talk, including the reading of Ezra chapter 3, is long.
Play in browser
MP3 (11.2 MB) (64kb/s constant rate)
Ezra 3When the seventh month came, and the Israelites were in the towns, the people gathered together in Jerusalem. Then Jeshua son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel with his kin set out to build the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt-offerings on it, as prescribed in the law of Moses the man of God. They set up the altar on its foundation, because they were in dread of the neighbouring peoples, and they offered burnt-offerings upon it to the Lord, morning and evening. And they kept the festival of booths, as prescribed, and offered the daily burnt-offerings by number according to the ordinance, as required for each day, and after that the regular burnt-offerings, the offerings at the new moon and at all the sacred festivals of the Lord, and the offerings of everyone who made a freewill-offering to the Lord. From the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt-offerings to the Lord. But the foundation of the temple of the Lord was not yet laid. So they gave money to the masons and the carpenters, and food, drink, and oil to the Sidonians and the Tyrians to bring cedar trees from Lebanon to the sea, to Joppa, according to the grant that they had from King Cyrus of Persia. In the second year after their arrival at the house of God at Jerusalem, in the second month, Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and Jeshua son of Jozadak made a beginning, together with the rest of their people, the priests and the Levites and all who had come to Jerusalem from the captivity. They appointed the Levites, from twenty years old and upwards, to have the oversight of the work on the house of the Lord. And Jeshua with his sons and his kin, and Kadmiel and his sons, Binnui and Hodaviah along with the sons of Henadad, the Levites, their sons and kin, together took charge of the workers in the house of God. When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel; and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, ‘For he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever towards Israel.’ And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.
Martin, thank you, and Moira, thank you for leading us so far in our service too. Very Old Testamenty, hey? It sounds very Old Testamenty, doesn’t it? The Book of Ezra records two separate time periods directly following the 70 years of Babylonian captivity. Ezra 1–6 covers the first return of the Jews from captivity led by Zerubbabel, who we’ll be talking about later. A period of 23 years beginning with the edict of Cyrus of Persia, the king, and ending at the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem in the early stages of the 500s BC. That’s the first part.
The second part is Ezra 7–10 and picks up the story more than 60 years later when Ezra leads the second group of exiles to Israel in around 458 BC. I’m just giving you a bit of a historical overview quickly. These events are set in Jerusalem and the surrounding area. The Book of Ezra provides a much-needed link in the historical record of the Israelite people. It’s in the Old Testament. When their kings were dethroned and captured, and the people of Israel were exiled to Babylon, Judah as its own nation, ceased to exist.
The Book of Ezra then provides an account of the Jews’ regathering, of their struggle to survive and to rebuild what had been destroyed. Through this narrative, Ezra declared that they were still God’s people and that God had not forgotten them. There are two main bits in Ezra. Firstly about the returning exiles and the struggle to restore the temple, and then secondly the need for spiritual re-formation or reformation.
As we think about this long road to freedom day from COVID restrictions, we think about returning perhaps more as a full worshipping community back here in the worship area. I’ve wondered there’s something that we can take from the Book of Ezra and Nehemiah and the particular characters. Whilst we’re not physically rebuilding a structure there’s a sense of perhaps restarting. (Dick, there’s a little bit of feedback. Could you turn the volume down a little bit, please? Thank you. Grand. Thank you, perfect.)
Whilst we’re not all in this building right now, there is a sense of somehow restarting. A sense that the foundations of who we are are still here, but how we are going to be able to build forward into the next season of life after COVID. Over these next three weeks or so we’re going to do an overview character study of the more important names found in Ezra: Zerubbabel, Ezra himself, and Nehemiah. Although they didn’t work together all at the same time their purpose was very similar: to glorify God through their rebuilding of the temple and restoring of the whole city of Jerusalem.
Today we’re going to have a quick look at the work and the life and the times of Zerubbabel because he appears first in the Book of Ezra. Next week we’ll look at Ezra and then we’ll finish off in a couple of weeks’ time with Nehemiah. The second exodus, the captivity into Babylon was far less impressive than the first one when everyone was taken into Egypt. The first exodus totalled between two and three million people, and the remnant was very small by comparison. The Bible tells us that there were precisely 49,897 Jews taken into Babylon.
It might be surprising to learn that not everyone was taken. Most of those who were were skilled and learned. They were in high-ranking positions so as to help the Babylonian empire expand with educated people. If you read somewhere like the Book of Daniel, you’ll remember that they were good-looking, they were intelligent people like me, really to serve the king. Now, I know every one of the Israelite community was eager to return to Jerusalem, though 70 years later.
It’s important to understand that most of the Jews taken captive to Babylon weren’t imprisoned as such, they were allowed to settle with the Babylonian communities and cultures. Many of the conquerors of the past would import those conquered to increase the size of their kingdoms. It was believed that as they were immersed into their new culture, often given new names, again like in Daniel, the captives would forget their homeland and become part of that society.
Now, some years later a new generation of Israelites have begun to feel at home in Babylon. Many had homes and owned businesses. Some had even married into Babylonian families. Many, of course, hadn’t even visited their homeland of Israel, and generations below them were kind of just settling into the land. Israel and the homeland that God had promised them was in every sense far away. There was this small group, however; a small group whose life was never quite the same in Babylon. They longed for the homeland where the worship of God at the temple, where the place God existed and dwelt, was. Those were willing to leave that relative comfort of Babylon.
They were willing to make a difficult and long, dangerous trek of some 900 miles, and then deal with further hardship in an attempt to rebuild a destroyed temple and city at Jerusalem. This first return was made by a man called Zerubbabel. His name probably means something like born in Babylon, and he was a descendant of the family of King David. He’d been commissioned the governor of Judea by King Cyrus while he was still captive in Persia. Following that he became one of the leaders of the first groups, as I said, of people to come back to Jerusalem.
Once the people arrived back in Jerusalem, he and Yeshua the high priest promptly began to lead the Jews in the work of the restoration of the temple. Now, Zerubbabel is maybe not a name that you know very much, but he’s named in a number of Old Testament books and New Testament as well. Of course here in Ezra, in Zechariah, and Haggai–we’ll come to those a bit later–and in the New Testament genealogies of Luke and Matthew, he’s mentioned being in the family of Judah, the line of David, of which Jesus is also a part. Even within this story, he’s chosen by God. He’s chosen by God for a purpose, and even perhaps as a prototype Messiah if you like.
I guess that anyone who’d come back from exile in Babylon with a real desire to rebuild the temple where God was might have been seen as some form of saviour. The centrality, the most important bit of Judaism, apart from God was the temple. That’s where God lived. So important. If Zerubbabel was of the kingly line and he worked in partnership with Yeshua the high priest, then work on the temple needed to begin because the worship of God needed to be established in the place that God had promised their ancestors.
Interestingly he didn’t begin by laying the foundation or erecting the walls and then putting the roof on the temple. That would seem to be the most logical thing to do, right? But what he did do was start at the core of what the temple was all about. First, he put together an altar and reinstated the sacrifices that God had previously prescribed through Moses. He didn’t start at the altar walls and work his way in, he began at the heart of the temple and worked his way out.
You see, the altar was always central to temple life, just as the cross and the salvation that it offers us today is central to our relationship with Jesus. Today’s church only exists because of the sacrifice of Jesus. Jesus’ altar was the cross. It became the ultimate place of sacrifice. As we understand his sacrifice and the resultant forgiveness of sin, we become a family of believers who come together, maybe even in a church building, to meet with God. It’s a visible representation of God and His people at the centre of the community, and that’s precisely what the temple was designed to be. A tangible place where God’s presence always lived.
We have the altar. Next, Zerubbabel reinstates religious festivals and feasts. The word feast in Hebrew means appointed times because God knows that as humans we need times to reflect and to remember. We need those reminders to take time to turn aside, to meditate upon the hope of the coming Messiah. These times were mandated by God, and they were established for Jewish people to observe and to ponder.
The altar is now in place, and the feasts and the festivals have begun. Only now does Zerubbabel lead the people to begin the work on the foundations of the temple itself. The erecting of an altar and reinstating these feasts had little to do actually with the commitment of people. Just as we could come to church and not have a relationship with God, so people could bring their sacrifices and never deepen their relationships with God.
Those who came to work on building the foundation of the temple, however, represented the people who were really, really committed. They were willing to do more than just the basics. Since the rebuilding project wasn’t actually a commandment of God, it demonstrates people’s love for Him. It’s a reminder for me of the commitment that I would make to the God who loves me and gave Himself for me. What a humbling thought it is that hundreds of people decided to give their all for the worship of the one God in rebuilding the temple. How important a step it was to re-establish the presence place of God right in the midst of Jerusalem.
What comes next in the story is what comes naturally to humanity though: opposition and sadness. Sadness because those who remember the first temple now know that the second temple isn’t going to be as glorious, it’s not going to be as palatial, and this is a cause for much weeping. When opposition came in the form of other nations putting pressure on the builders to stop, eventually Zerubbabel and the others succumb for 16 years, and for 16 years nothing happens with the building of the temple. During this time the people begin to build decent homes for themselves. Settle back into life instead of rebuilding that temple. As Revelation says, they’ve forgotten their first love.
Yet in all of this, Zerubbabel was chosen by God and received great encouragement from Him to rebuild the temple. If we look in somewhere like Haggai, Haggai comes forward as a prophet and he says, “And the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel.” In spite of all the internal and external pressures and opposition, it’s amazing to see Zerubbabel actually persisting again. Making himself available again for the task of rebuilding the temple. It’s a really important job. God was able to finish the work that Zerubbabel had started because God doesn’t forget. God is there to remember and to encourage, and to stir up our spirits.
In Zechariah4 we have these words. “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel. ‘Not by might or by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord. ’Who are you, O great mountains?’” i.e., you people, you neighbours around. “’Before Zerubbabel you should become a plain. And it shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ’Grace, grace to it.’” Whether or not Zerubbabel becomes despondent, the prophets Haggai and Zechariah come to his rescue.
The work becomes finished in Ezra 5:2. It talks about Zerubbabel and Jeshua the high priest completing things, and the prophets of God were there supporting them. God had encouraged Zerubbabel the prophet by Zechariah that he would indeed finish the rebuilding of the temple. Zechariah 4 says, “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house. His hands shall also complete it. Then you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you.” What Zerubbabel and the Israelites failed to realize in this whole story, the ups and downs, is that these difficulties were God’s opportunities to manifest His strength, His power.
The frustrations and the obstacles that they had were no obstacles to God. He is after all the Lord of the universe. He can get a little tiny building in Jerusalem built in no time. The real obstacle was that the enemies outside prompted their unbelief. Their failure to believe that all the resources they ever needed were in God. When God uses Haggai and Zechariah to remind Zerubbabel of his calling and his work, he gets up, he continues. Where are we with God’s love with us today? What do we need to be reminded of about God’s love for us today?
I really like it that the altar on which to offer the sacrifices was built first. To offer oneself is of primary importance, the building was always of secondary importance. And so with us today as we consider returning to our place of worship. The sacrifices and the offerings we make to God in offering ourselves to Him are of utmost importance. We have proven that we don’t actually need a building, although it’s really, really helpful. Offerings and sacrifices were always the way to put one another first. To look at the sacrifice that Jesus made for the whole created order, and to imitate it in various ways by showing God’s love. The building was always secondary. Commitment to God was always, always primary.
Of course, you might be thinking about returning physically to our place of worship if you’re at home. Right now we’re still a little bit restricted to about 34 people. Right now we can’t sing here in this place of worship, but as you’ve seen and perhaps experienced here, we can take communion. As we begin to meet together in bigger numbers, we will want to have those familiar job roles again, just like Zerubbabel had and others. They had a particular job role to do.
Maybe you’ll want to come back and welcome people. Perhaps prepare communion, or lead worship, or sing, or preach. Perhaps help in Sunday Clubs. If you are thinking about returning to help, that would be wonderful. Please let me know as we plan to build forward.
In closing, I’m pleased to have introduced Zerubbabel. He worked hard alongside Yeshua. He had a whole army of people, who like him worked hard and yet fell aside, but it wasn’t any real matter to God because God knew that he was up for the task to build and to restore. He stirred up his spirit through others, through Haggai and Zechariah, to help get the job done. As we are stirred up, and as our spirits awaken from a potential slumber of not being able to worship in our familiar ways, how are we going to respond? What’s God saying to you, to us as a community? How can we help to build the Kingdom of God in this new era?
May God bless and encourage the thoughts of our minds and the meditations of our hearts as we ponder what part we play as we build forward in these days.
References and sources
This talk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Scripture quotations marked NRSVA on this page and in the audio are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.