The Bible is full of names most of us would instantly recognize, like Noah, Moses, David, Mary, or Peter. But here’s one person you probably won’t hear about in Sunday school anytime soon: Zerubbabel. I know, I know, that name doesn’t exactly conjure up images of divine heroism, but Zerubbabel actually plays quite an important role in the overarching story of redemption. His historical contribution, his bloodline, and his salvific foreshadowing all make this man with the zany name quite the herald of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Kingly Descendent of David
In 2 Samuel 7:12-16 God promised King David that one of his own descendants would be the special, Messianic ruler of God’s kingdom. Almost five hundred years later that royal line was jeopardized when Babylon captured Jerusalem and hauled off King Jehoiachin, David’s offspring, into captivity (2 Ki. 24:15). It would have been customary for the king of Babylon to kill Jehoiachin as a sign of victory, but for some reason, he didn’t. He threw him in prison instead, and for decades the flame of God’s covenant seemed ready to be snuffed out at any moment. Finally, after thirty seven years of imprisonment, Jehoiachin was mysteriously freed by the new king of Babylon. He was treated kindly, he was given a place of honor, and he was taken care of for the rest of life (2 Ki. 25:27-30).
Jehoiachin went on to have a son named Shealtiel, and Shealtiel had a son named, you guessed it, Zerubbabel. He was living proof that God would not let the Davidic line go extinct. In Zerubbabel’s blood he carried not just the royalty of Israel, but the hope of the entire world. After King Cyrus allowed Israel to return to their homeland, Zerubbabel was leading the way. The prophet Zechariah proclaimed that God would use Zerubbabel to lay low the mountains (Zech. 4:6-8), while the prophet Haggai announced that God would vanquish the kingdoms of the world and Zerubbabel was the “signet ring”, the chosen sign, of this promise (Hag. 2:21-23). Zerubbabel carried the torch of God’s covenant. God was about to do a great work in Israel, one that would ripple through all mankind, and He would use Zerubbabel to play a vital part.
Many years later, when the promised King of kings was finally born, the Gospel writers provided the genealogies of both His biological mother and legal father, both of whom were descended from David. And there on both sides, smack dab in the middle of the Messianic family tree, blazes a name we should now be very familiar with: Zerubbabel (Mt. 1:12-13; Lk. 3:27).
Leading the Exiles
God’s people had been dispersed through Babylon, and then Medo-Persia. Their sin had resulted in captivity. Their rebellion against the law of God had separated them from the land, city and temple that God had promised as a reward for their obedience. They were no longer a people. They were slaves. But in God’s perfect timing He raised up Zerubbabel to lead them back to the Promised Land (Ezra 2:2; 3:1-2). He was the conquering hero who led the captives back into their heritage as God’s people.
Similarly, all mankind has broken God’s law (Rom. 3:9-20), has been banished from the land of paradise (Gen. 3:23-24), and has gone into the captivity of sin and Satan (Jn. 8:34; Titus 3:3). We are not a people (1 Pet. 2:10), but a fractured, scattered, desolate race of rebels who are cut off from the presence and holiness of God. But in God’s perfect timing (Gal. 4:4) He sent the offspring of Zerubbabel, Jesus Christ, to free the captives (Lk. 4:18), reassemble them as a people (1 Pet. 2:10), and lead them as a conquering hero (Eph. 4:8) away from the spiritual whoredom of Babylon (Rev. 17:4-6) and into the freedom of the true Jerusalem (Gal. 4:26; Heb. 12:22).
Rebuilding the Temple
The first priority of Zerubbabel’s mission was to rebuild the temple that had been smashed to pieces (Ezra 3:8; 5:2; Hag. 1:1-11). That was where God’s holiness dwelled, where sin was atoned for, and where men met with God. But this new temple couldn’t measure up to the glory of Solomon’s original temple (Ezra 3:12-13; Hag. 2:2-3), so God promised that another, better temple was still to come (Hag. 2:6-9).
Jesus also came to repair the temple, the middle ground between man and God. But He surpassed Zerubbabel by establishing the true temple that had been promised: Himself. In His broken body, Christ offered a once-and-for-all sacrifice to atone for the sins of men by shedding His own blood (Heb. 9:11-14). The pierced, slaughtered temple was raised again in His resurrection (Jn. 2:19-21) so that man can once again fellowship with the Creator through the living temple of the risen Christ. For all eternity, the earthly temple is done away with and is replaced by Jesus Himself, mediating God’s glory and God’s presence to us (Rev. 21:22).
Protecting the Purity of God’s People
In Ezra 4, as Israel began to work on the temple, they were approached by the people who had taken up residency in the land during their captivity. These residents seemed friendly at first, professing to worship the God of Israel and offering to help build the temple (Ezra 4:2). Yet Zerubbabel quickly declined the offer and ran them off (4:3). Why the harsh response?
Because even though these inhabitants had indeed learned to worship the Lord (2 Ki. 17:24-28), they had also continued in their former idolatry (2 Ki. 17:29-41). They didn’t repent of their false religion and turn to the living God; they simply incorporated Him into their diet as one of many gods. If Zerubbabel had accepted their offer, he would have put Israel into an alliance with the very idolatry, paganism and false doctrine that had gotten them exiled in the first place. By driving them away, Zerubbabel protected the flock of God from spiritual and moral compromise.
Similarly, Jesus is the great Shepherd who drives away the wolves in sheepskin. The church has been historically bombarded with an onslaught of teachers, sects, cults and religions that try to claim an alliance with Christianity. Jesus is the one who not only builds His church but protects it from the volleys of hell (Mt. 16:18). It’s through His lordship, teaching, Spirit, doctrine, and discipline that all imposters are called out and chased away (Acts 8:18-23; 20:28-30; Rom. 16:17-19; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Cor. 11:3-4, 12-15; Gal. 1:6-9; 2 Pet. 2:1-3; Jude :4-23) in order to present the church to Himself as a pure and spotless bride (Eph. 5:25-27).
When we read about Zerubbabel in the Old Testament we’re not just learning a dry history lesson; we’re seeing a picture of God’s story for mankind—our own story—which finds its climax in the gospel of Jesus Christ. He is the descendent of David who brings back the rebellious exiles, who establishes the temple where the sacrifice is made to reconcile God and man, and who protects His people until the very end. He is our King, our Savior, our Mediator, and our Shepherd.
Soli Deo Gloria!