Zerubbabel was a leader of a group of a returning exile. The man whose name may mean “seed of Babylon” was anything but that Zerubbabel , who came from Israelite stock—indeed, he was of royal blood.
Together with a high priest named Joshua, Zerubbabel led a group of Jewish exiles returning from Babylon to their homeland. It must have been a bittersweet journey for Zerubbabel. Despite the honor of leading his people toward home—he was the last known member of the royal family to be entrusted with any kind of political authority—the painful fact remained: Zerubbabel and the nation he represented were not in control of their own destiny.
Even though Zerubbabel could not restore Judah’s sovereignty, he was determined to restore its relationship with God. Once settled in Jerusalem, he and Joshua the priest set about building a new altar. The people were understandably afraid—the last temple complex had been razed as a sign of Israel’s subjugation to Babylon. Would the Persian authorities that now controlled the region see the rebuilding of their religious headquarters as an act of sedition? True, King Cyrus had personally approved the rebuilding project, but kings were known to change their minds—and perhaps worse, what if a new and less agreeable king came to the throne?
Zerubbabel persevered, bravely rebuffing a disingenuous offer of help from Israel’s enemies. When that failed, his enemies lobbied Cyrus’s successors, who forced a ten-year hiatus on building. However, with the encouragement of prophets like Haggai and Zechariah—and eventually the blessing of Persia’s King Darius—Zerubbabel and the people got back to work. The temple they built would not be as grand as the one that preceded it, but Zerubbabel completed his task, faithfully leading the people to restore the house of worship.
Zerubbabel received personal encouragement from God through the prophet Zechariah. “Not by might nor by power” would Zerubbabel fulfill his mission, according to God, “but by my Spirit” (Zechariah 4:6).