As we have discussed, the return of the Hebrews to Judah following the Babylonian captivity occurred in 3 phases. The first group, led by Zerubbabel and Joshua, returned around 538 BC and they were commissioned to rebuild the temple. The second and third waves of exiles came many years later. The second group came back around 458 BC, led by Ezra, who was intent on renewing the worship of the Jews. The third group returned around 445 BC, under the leadership of Nehemiah, with the goal of rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls thereby reviving the city.
Over the course of this sermon series, we will explore all three of these occurrences. Together they make up the framework for these messages - "rebuild, renew, and revive". This morning we will conclude the first chapter of this series, as we take a final look at the first wave of exiles. We will be reading from Ezra chapters 5 & 6.
The Jews who had returned from Babylon under Zerubbabel had begun rebuilding the temple, just as King Cyrus had decreed. But the ambitious king was killed in battle, and was followed by others who were less sympathetic. Samaritans living in Jerusalem lobbied to prevent the exiles from continuing to rebuild and they were successful. And so, despite having already rebuilt the altar and relaying the foundation, the temple reconstruction was abruptly halted. It remained for suspended for 16 years.
Around 520 BC God raised up two prophets, each quite different from the other, but both with the same message. These two men, Haggai and Zechariah, encouraged Zerubbabel, Joshua, and the Jews to complete the work of rebuilding the temple that had been dormant for so long. They appealed to the people of God, urging them to go back to work and finish the task that they’d started.
This morning we will study the people’s response. Would they disregard the prophets exhortation, or would they finally finish rebuilding the temple? Our message has 4 points - The Work Resumes, The Work Is Allowed, The Work Is Approved, and The Work Is Finished.
I. THE WORK RESUMES (Ezra 5:1-4)
Motivated by the ongoing encouragement of Haggai and Zechariah, the people of God arose and began to rebuild. Sometimes in life we need a little motivation to spur us forward. It may come in a variety of ways, and through different sources. Sometimes it is a spoken word, other times a pending deadline or consequence, and still others a difficult situation. Whatever the motivator may appear to be, ultimately it is God who is calling us back or pushing us on to be the people He has called us to be.
The governors of the region were still leary of the Jews rebuilding the temple. They asked, “Who gave you permission to start working again?” While Cyrus had originally commissioned them to rebuild, Artaxerxes had order them to stop. Which king had more authority? The answer is simple - the King of kings has supreme authority. When God tells us to do something, we don’t need man’s permission to do it. They people proceeded based on God's authority. Caution - this is not a blanket excuse to do whatever we want to do “in the Lord’s name”. It is permission to do whatever He wants us to do, regardless of the opinions of men.
The exiles openly listed the names of the people who were involved in the rebuilding. This reveals that they had overcome their fear. If it was determined that their rebuilding was a willful and knowing violation of the king’s order, they could be in danger. Still they boldly and publicly gave out their names. They were hiding no more, confident in God to see them through to the end.
II. THE WORK IS ALLOWED (Ezra 5:5-17)
The governors of the region did not immediately attempt to stop the exiles from rebuilding. They allowed the work to continue while they sought the counsel of King Darius. They were not as hostile as the Samaritans had been previously. God was blessing the efforts of the workers, just as He had promised.
The first letter (recorded in Ezra 4) had been written to King Artaxerxes. It accused the Jews of planning to incite revolution. It was extremely slanderous in nature, and resulted in the king’s suspension of the temple reconstruction. This second letter, however, was quite different. Written to King Darius, it presented the Jew’s position and then asked the king to determine whether or not what they said was true. In other words, the exiles defended their actions rather than going down without a fight. They stood up for God and the mission He had given to them.
III. THE WORK IS APPROVED (Ezra 6:1-12)
By order of King Darius, a search is conducted and the original decree issued by Cyrus is found. It reveals that the Jews had been commissioned to rebuild the temple, and provides funding from the Persian treasury for the relaying of the foundation.
In light of this new evidence, Darius instructs the governors to leave the Jews alone and allow them to rebuild the temple. He gives his stamp of approval. In addition he decrees that the full cost of the reconstruction project be paid from the royal treasury, that the exiles be provided with whatever they need, and that those who try to stand in the way of their work be punished severely. Again, this is evidence of God’s blessing on the Jews.
IV. THE WORK IS COMPLETED (Ezra 6:13-22)
The governors allowed the work to continue along with all the new provisions that Darius had made. The prophets continued to encourage the builders. After 4 years of work, in approximately 516 BC, Zerubbabel’s Temple was completed. This is exactly 70 years after the original had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, just as Jeremiah had prophesied almost a century before.
Upon completing the new temple, the people dedicated it to God and to His service. They appointed priests and began utilizing the temple as a place of worship and sacrifice.
With the temple now finished, the Jews reinstituted one of their most significant observances - the Passover. Just as God had delivered their fathers from the hand of the Egyptians and brought them to the Promised Land, so also had He delivered them from the Babylonians and had allowed them to rebuild His temple.
22 years had passed from the time that the first wave of exiles returned until the time that they finished the temple. As we have seen over the past few weeks, it had not been an easy process. Nevertheless, God was faithful and the temple was finally rebuilt. When God starts something, He finishes it - nothing gets left undone.
After this chapter, nothing more is recorded in the Bible about Zerubbabel the leader or Joshua the high priest. We can assume that they continued their lives, living for the LORD until the day they died. We know that Zechariah continued prophesying to the people for sometime after the temple was completed.
We will not study it during this series, but scholars tell us that the story told in the book of Esther takes place in Persia sometime between the days of Zerubbabel and the return of Ezra (likely between 480-460 BC). It is a short book, very easy to read, and full of adventure. I’d encourage you to read it this week if you can.
In closing, when I think about Zerubbabel and what he accomplished, I am reminded that the building used to worship God matters. It needs to be nice, useful, and appealing. Our church building is important, and I am convinced that one of the priorities of rebuilding our church is renovating and updating this facility. It may take us years to complete, but it is absolutely necessary.