Zerubbabel: The Not So Great Non-King (Dr. Trey Benfield)

Scripture Readings:

Jeremiah 22:24-23:6
Matthew 1:12-16
Haggai 2:20-23

Today is our sixth and final sermon in our study of the book of Haggai.  A little recap before we look at today’s text.  Haggai was a prophet for about three and half months in 520 B.C.  Haggai’s message was for the community of Jews who had returned from exile in Babylon about 18 years earlier after the decree of King Cyrus of Persia.  The decree was a big deal, a fulfillment of prophecy, and a source of hope and inspiration that God would at last redeem His people, right all the wrongs or world, establishing a new age of peace and justice over the whole earth.  The expectation of these people was nothing less than this and yet the reality was far from it.  Haggai urges the demoralized people to rebuild the temple but as we learned a few weeks ago, its appearance was far from glorious.  Even Haggai calls the temple nothing.

Nevertheless amid this depressing situation Haggai promises that God is present and at work.  The people are to be strong and work because God is with them.  Though they are a defiled and ruined people after suffering the trauma of defeat, conquest, slavery, and exile, God declares that He will bless them.  Haggai’s message is then hope in the face of hopelessness because God is at work and is directing all things to His ultimate purposes.  The people then have no reason to fear because their God is still working to bless them.  

Our text today takes place on the same day as Haggai’s last message.  While all of Haggai’s previous messages were directed to the community as a whole, this message was addressed directly to Zerubbabel.  So in order to understand Haggai’s message to Zerubbabel we are going to have to look at a little history so we can learn exactly who Zerubbabel was and his significance to the story of Israel.

What I want to do is giving you some idea of the political situation in the last years before Jerusalem was destroyed by Babylon so you know how Zerubbabel fits into the picture.  The difficulty for us as we read a text like Haggai is we are not familiar with the context.  The people who Haggai addresses though are very familiar and so we are always playing a little catch up in order to understand.  So I am going to start with the last years of Israel before the exile.  

The kings of Israel had realized the rising power of Babylon and in response began to ally themselves with Egypt.  After the death of King Josiah, Egypt installed his son Jehoiakim as a puppet king, believing they could rule through him.  Jehoiakim was an oppressive tyrant, who spent lavishly on himself as the people suffered under the taxation required to pay the heavy tribute owed to Egypt.  Jehoiakim even attempted to have the prophet,Jeremiah executed when the Jeremiah spoke out against him but was unsuccessful.  

After the Babylonians crushed the Egyptian army at the Battle of Carchemish, Jehoiakim formally submitted to the authority of King Nebuchadnezzar.  Jehoiakim’s policies and practices did not change and Jeremiah condemned him.  Jehoiakim responded by having Jeremiah’s prophecies burned after they were read to him.  Later though, Jehoiakim sensing a moment of weakness in Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, withheld tribute leading Nebuchadnezzar to place Jerusalem under siege.  Jehoiakim died during the siege and after the city was taken, Nebuchadnezzar took the new king Jehoiachin, who was 18 and ruled for about three months,  along with much of the nobility to Babylon in chains.  This is when Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abendego were taken to Babylon.  Jehoiachin’s uncle Zedekiah was placed on the throne by Nebuchadnezzar.  

Eventually Zedekiah would join with Egypt to rebel against Babylon.  However, this time Nebuchadnezzar would show no mercy, crushing Jerusalem.  Zedekiah’s sons were put to death before his eyes and then Zedekiah was blinded and taken prisoner in Babylon.  Meanwhile the king’s palace, the temple, and any other structure of significance was burned and the wall around Jerusalem was torn down.  The people were enslaved and many taken to Babylon.   

So if you are keeping score at home.  Jehoiakim died during the first siege of Jerusalem.  His son Jehoiachin and brother Zedekiah are prisoners in Babylon.  Zedekiah would die shortly thereafter in Babylon.  The family of David has reached a devastating conclusion.   God had promised David about five hundred years earlier way back in 2 Samuel 7 that God would raise up David’s seed as kings and God would use these kings to establish God’s kingdom.  God says He would build a house for His name and establish the throne of David’s kingdom forever.  That promise is not looking so good at this point.

Worse than that though, look at our passage from Jeremiah.  Jeremiah’s words are directed to Coniah another name for King Jehoiakim, the 18-year old who ruled for 3 months and was taken in chains to Babylon.  God calls Jehoiakim a signet ring on His right hand but tears it off and gives Jehoiakim to the hand of King Nebuchadnezzar.  A signet ring was a personalized symbol on a ring that was used to stamp officials documents.  It was like a signature used to sign legal documents and so is often used as a metaphor for power and authority.  In this case God is saying that He is removing the power and authority He had granted Jehoiakim.  

However, the text goes on to say in verse 30, “Write this man down as childless, a man who shall not succeed in his days, for none of his seed shall succeed in sitting on the throne of David and ruling again in Judah.”  So not only has God removed the power and authority symbolized by the signet ring from Jehoiakim, but God has said that none of his seed will sit on the throne of David.  That is despite the fact that God had promised David that He would establish the throne of David forever.

This is where Zerubbabel fits into the story.  Zerubbabel is the grandson of Jehoiakim.  We learn in 2 Kings that Jehoiakim was freed from prison by the new king of Babylon, Evil-Merodach, and given a position of honor at the king’s table.  This story is contained in the last verses of Kings and it is given as a a picture of hope that the story of Israel is not yet at an end.  Zerubabbel then becomes the great hope of Israel and here in Hggai we find Zerubbabel back in Jerusalem.  Later we learn in Matthew that Zerubabbel’s line continues and leads directly to Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ will be the ultimate fulfillment of the prophecy to David.  Jesus is given all power on heaven and earth and His reign will truly have no end.

So what happened?  Why did God tell Jehoiakim that none of his descendants would ever sit on the throne and yet in Haggai we have God declaring that He has chosen Zeubbabel and that He is being made God’s signet ring.  Then we learn that Jesus Christ himself is a descendant of Jehoiakim.  Did God change His mind?  

The answer is not clear cut because we are dealing with God and God and God’s actions and God’s decision cannot be so easily made to fit in our normal language.  So I cannot give you a nice, rational explanation for how this works out.  Much ink has been spilled and theologians engage in all sorts of mental gymnastics to try to rationalize this - I’m not going to do that, mostly because I find the explanations unsatisfying.  However, I do want to make a couple of points that I think give us some idea of the character of God.  

The fact is that there are several passages that specifically state that God changes His mind.  Let me give you a three examples.  In Exodus after the Israelites build the golden calf to worship in place of God, God says that He will consume the people and make a new nation starting with Moses.  Moses asks God to remember His own character and the covenant He made with Abraham.  We are told that God relented from the disaster He had spoken to His people.  In other words, God changes His mind.  In Amos twice the Lord declared judgment against Israel and after Amos argues on Israel’s behalf, God relents and says, “It shall not be.”  God told King Hezekiah that he would not recover from an illness, but after Hezekiah pleaded with God, God added 15 years to Hezekiah’s life.  I could go on - there are plenty more.  

However, the point I want to make is that there is a common thread to all of these examples of God changing His mind.  Everyone of them has God turning from away from wrath.  In each of the examples I just gave you, God’s judgment is turned toward mercy.  So God does change his mind and on its face that statement may bother of us. How can we have an inconsistent God?  However, God changes in a consistent way completely in accord with God’s character.  

“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will be no means clear the guilty visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.” I go back to this statement describing God’s character again and again because it recurs throughout the Old Testament.  Notice that the words describing mercy and forgiveness outnumber the words about punishment.  Steadfast love abounds for thousands while iniquity lasts only three to four generations.  

Both judgment and mercy are there but they are highly asymmetrical.  We find other evidence for this in the Old Testament.  Psalms 30:5, “His anger is but for a moment, but His favor is for a lifetime.”  Isaiah 54, “For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you.  In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you.”  So in a way God is always changing His mind, but the change is always away from wrath and toward His people and His promises.  So in today’s text God is turning away from His judgment against Jehoiakim and toward Zerubabbel and the promises He made to David.  Far from a problem with God’s sovereignty, this a beautiful picture illustrating to us the character of God - a God who is in a real relationship with His people limiting Himself in order to fulfill His promises.  It is why I think the Bible allows this and other obvious contradictions to remain.  

I am sure Haggai knew of the prophecy to King Jehoiakim.  Jeremiah was a big deal and he and Ezekiel were the last prophets that spoke to Israel.  Haggai would have known what was said to Jehoiakim.  The signet ring is a prominent image in this passage just as it was in Jeremiah - I think the repetition is supposed to be jarring.  I think we are supposed to take note of this.  The contradiction is drawn out for us not because of an oversight, but to teach us something about God.  There is a mystery to God’s anger and it is this - God may change a word He proclaims.  God is greater even then His own decisions and His anger is instrumental, conditional, and also completely subject to His will.  God’s anger is never automatic or deterministic because God is not a force but a person and God is a person in relation with His people.  The mystery here in God’s changed mind, is that beyond justice and anger lies the mystery of grace and compassion.   

Now let us turn our attention to Zerubbabel.  We actually do know very little about Zerubbabel.  We do know that Zerubbabel never becomes king of Israel.   Haggai seem to go out of his way, to let you know this.  Zerubbabel is always referred to as governor.  On three occasions, Haggai tells us the date and the date given is always with reference to the reign of the Persian King Darius.  Despite being a descendent of the royal line of David, Zerubabbel was not a great king.  You know who was a great king - Darius.  At this time the Persian Empire stretched from Egypt to India.  The Persian Empire was one of the greatest empires in history and now it was at its greatest extent and King Darius stood at its head.  

Zerubabbel had no real power, he was poor, and he had no army.  In the ancient world the qualities that were most admired were wealth, wisdom, and military power.  Yet God says this man is going to be part of something great.  Again God tells the people that He is going to shake the heavens and the earth.  I made the point that this language is used by the prophets to describe the day of the Lord when God would at last return to Israel and restore His kingdom.  The whole world would be flipped up side down.  It is end time language.

Haggai then speaks of overthrowing the chariots and their riders and the horses and their riders going down.  Again this language would have been familiar to Haggai’s audience.  It is from Exodus 15, the song of Moses, when Moses composes a song after Pharaoh’s army had been defeated at the Red Sea.  Let me read some of that poem, “I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider He has thrown in the sea.”  Then a little further on in the song, “Pharaoh’s chariots and his host, He has cast into the sea, and his chosen officers were sunk in the Red Sea.”  This is exciting language, Haggai is intentionally using these phrases to let us know that an event as decisive as the Exodus is coming again.  

In Jeremiah right after stating that none of Jehoiakim’s descendants will sit on the throne of David, God promises that He will raise up for David a righteous Branch who would reign.  This king would deal wisely and execute justice and righteousness.  He will save Judah and Israel will dwell securely.  God here anticipates that He is going to change His mind returning the signet ring to Zerubabbel, Jehoiakim’s grandson, who God calls His servant and declares that He has been chosen.  

Zerubabbel though is like the temple, pathetic.  We could look at him and say the same thing Haggai said of the temple - is he not as nothing.   His name means, “seed of Babylon”  Babylon the name used throughout the Bible as a metaphor for all that is wrong and evil and unjust and cruel in the world.  Zerubbabel’s very name is a reference to the greatest tragedy of Israel.  Zerubabbel is the walking embodiment and reminder to everyone of defeat and crushed hope.   Yet God honors Zerubbabel with a dignity and majesty that goes beyond his appearance and what he does.  He has been given Zerubbabel a new identity and a role to play just as God gives the people a new identity calling them the remnant.  I cannot name one great thing Zerubabbel does.  He is not a great hero of the Bible.  

I think that should be a lesson to us who are also not great heroes.  We who are also ones who lack wisdom, wealth, and might or other attributes that our society values.   Here is the mystery of God’s plan and something God has been trying to teach us throughout the Old Testament.  God uses the exact opposite of those people because God’s kingdom is a different kind of kingdom.  Its why God uses scoundrels like Jacob, weaklings like Gideon, a despised, desperate, Moabite woman like Ruth, people like Rahab, women like Deborah and Hannah, David, the youngest, smallest and most insignificant of Jesse’s sons, it is why God is always subverting birth order in Genesis.  Many more examples will come to mind when you stop and look back through the Old Testament.  

When Jesus stood before Pilate and Pilate asks if Jesus is the king of the Jews, Jesus responds by saying, “My kingdom is not of this world”  meaning Jesus kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world.  It is not a kingdom characterized by wealth or power. Jesus says, “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews.”  Christ’s kingdom is a kingdom with a different ethos radically different from the worlds.  Its why fishermen like Andrew, Peter, James and John are chosen, tax collectors, and sinners, its why Jesus’ birth is announced to shepherds.  Its why the kingdom comes about on the cross in the most humiliating, scandalous form of execution reserved for slaves and other nobodies.  

According to Matthew when Jesus dies on the cross defeating sin and death, the forces that had imprisoned humanity since the fall, the earth shook.  The cross was the moment when God  shook the heavens and the earth and defeated the power behind the thrones and kingdoms of the earth.  The greatest and ultimate weapon of tyranny and oppression, death was defeated absolutely.  

In a way though its easy to read these verses in Haggai and to be somewhat disappointed.  Zerubabbel is told He is the signet ring.  As I said earlier the signet ring would have had an image representing the authority and power of the king.  As a signet ring, Zerubbabel would have been a picture of God to the world.  Zerubabbel is called God’s servant and told that He is the chosen one.  Zerubabbel would never live up to this promise.  Everyone reading Haggai would have known Zerubabbel never amounted to anything.  He was a promise that never seemed to live up to expectation.  

Yet in the end as the ancestor of Jesus we see all of this reach fulfillment in a more glorious and greater way than could have possibly been imagined.  Hebrews tells us that Christ is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature, and He upholds the universe by the word of His power.  Its no too much of a stretch to imagine that the author of Hebrews has something like a signet ring in mind when He describes Christ as the exact imprint of God’s nature.  All power and authority in heaven and earth was given to Christ.  The Jews mocked Jesus at the cross saying, “let Him save Himself if indeed He is the chose one.” Jesus who on the cross takes the role of the suffering servant.  It is this image of sacrificial on the cross by which God wanted to be known.  Not as great conquering king, but as one who gives Himself for humanity.  

It is here at the cross that the prophecy of Zerubabbel is fulfilled.  It is here at the cross that Zerubabbel identity as signet ring, chosen one, and servant is fully revealed.  Zerubabbel’s identity is changed forever from seed of Babylon, a name reminding everyone of humiliation and defeat.  Now Zerubbabel’s identity is fully realized in Christ who suffered humiliation and defeat on the cross.  This example of Zeruababbel and his strange importance and non-importance leads me to a few points that I think speak directly to us and to our lives.

First, like Zerubabbel we can only find our identity in Christ.  Zerubabbel was an insignificant puppet ruler of an insignificant province of the Persian empire that we know next to nothing about.  History is really long and a lot of stuff happens and there are a ton of people in the world and even Zerubabbel will likely outshine our fame and accomplishments.  In the book of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher wonders why he has struggled to be so wise, “for of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten.”   The fact of the matter is that according any sort of earthly measure, even compared to someone as insignificant as Zerubbabel, we are insignificant.  Yet Zerubabbel is given great significance chosen by God, God’s servant because of his relationship to Christ.

As the church, the bride of Christ, and Christ’s followers we identify with Christ, calling ourselves after the name of Christ.  Labeling ourselves with the name Christian.  In Christ, we are called children of God, sons of God, heirs to God, the body of Christ, God’s special possession.  Listen to how Colossians 2 puts it, “For in Christ the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in Him, who is the head of all rule and authority.”  If we look for any measure of significance in this world we will find nothing but disappointment, “there is no enduring remembrance … all will be long forgotten.”  In Christ though we share in the hope of the world to come and the power and authority of the King of all creation.  

Second, as I talked about earlier not only was Zerubbabel not someone important, he accomplished very little.  Yet Zerubabbel had a role to play in the great drama that God was composing.  A few weeks ago I spoke of the how God called the people the remnant and gave them a part to play and made the point that we to have a part to play.  It is part of what makes our identity in Christ an important concept.  Our identity in Christ means we have an important role to play in God’s drama of redemption

Third, when I read the Bible I know one thing - I am not a hero of the story like Abraham, or Moses, or Joshua.  I am not someone who speaks truth to power like the prophets.  I do not perform great miracles like Elijah and Elisha.  I don’t arrange contests with secular humanists and call fire down from heaven.  That’s the great thing about Zerubbabel - neither does he and yet God chooses Zerubbabel.  The Bible is filled with people whose name is only mentioned in passing.  Many people play a part other than the Peters and the Johns.  Yet God uses them and I think this part of the point.  Paul tells the Corinthians, “Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not may were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God choose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God choses what is week in the world to shame the strong.  God chose what is low and despised in the world, even thing that are not, to bring to nothing thing that are.”  Haggai looks at the pathetic temple the people had just built and asks, “is it not nothing?”  God says the latter glory of this house shall be great than the former.  Christ looks at Zerubbabel and says you are my signet ring.  

Fourth, the signet ring is the image of the king.  As the church who shares in Christ’s identity who are considered sons and heir along with Christ to the father, we are the image of God.  This is the role we play in the drama to show the world what God looks like.  Not by our wealth, or wisdom, or power.  That is not what the kingdom of God is about, but by sacrificial love for others.  As the hands and feet of Christ it our part of identity to show the world the character of God.  

So the lesson from Haggai and the lesson of Zerubbabel, is that we have an identity that goes beyond all appearances.  An identity that is derived not from our accomplishments, but from Christ and Christ crucified.  That identity means that we have a status greater than ourselves.  God does not simply love us and have a wonderful plan for our lives.  God loves the world and has a wonderful plan for all of creation and we are part of that.  It is our role in this plan, to make God known to the world not according the ways and means of this present, evil age that is dying, but that of the very Kingdom of God.