606BC First captives of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar  
597BC Jehoiachin taken captive to Babylon  
586BC Final invasion by Nebuchadnezzar

Temple destroyed

Seraiah put to death

 
560BC Jehoiachin released from prison  
566BC? Zerubbabel born? 0 yrs
536BC Decree of Cyrus

First return under Zerubbabel

Altar built in Jerusalem

30
535BC Temple foundations laid

Help from Samaritans refused

Letter from the king

The temple building work suspended

31
533BC? Death of Daniel 33
522BC Darius the Great becomes king 44
521BC Haggai & Zechariah stir up people

Temple building recommences

Tatnai writes to Darius

Darius writes allowing work to go on

45
516BC Temple completed

Ezra travels to Jerusalem

50

 

506BC? Death 60

Determining dates for this period in Israel’s history is not without difficulty. In particular, the births and deaths of some of the people shown here are not recorded and are estimates only. This timeline is based on the assumption that Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes were titles of Darius I, for which there is some evidence. But it is also acknowledged there are other equally valid views.

Zerubbabel and Joshua led the children of Israel out of Babylon, just as Moses and Aaron had led them out of Egypt. Not quite as famous as the original—theirs was an event on a much smaller scale—but it resurrected a nation and began to lay the foundation for the eventual arrival of its greatest king.

So where did they come from?

Zerubbabel was of royal blood born in captivity after his parents had been exiled to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. The son of Shealtiel, he was the grandson of Jehoiachin, the king of Judah when the Babylonian conquest really began in earnest. Jehoiachin was just 18 years old when he was locked in prison on arrival in Babylon, and there he remained for the next 37 years. Then, amazingly, he was released, and he found favour in the court of the king for the rest of his life. Somewhere along the way a new grandson arrived, and his name reflected the new hope in a family that had appeared doomed to disappear. Zerubbabel means ‘sown of Babylon’, a new life born out of certain death. It’s likely that the young prince-in-exile benefited from his grandfather’s favoured status, growing up in Babylon’s royal court and being educated in the learning of the Chaldeans. He also developed strong roots in the Jewish faith. Daniel, also of the “king’s seed”, was a relative. Zerubbabel was destined never to be king of Judah, but to be a great leader nonetheless.

History marched on.

When Persia overthrew the supposedly invincible Babylon, Zerubbabel was in a potentially dangerous position, but instead he found favour with the conquering king, Cyrus II. He was given a Persian name, Sheshbazzar, and called the “prince of Judah” by Ezra. Under orders from the victorious Persian ruler (himself also influenced by his chief adviser, Daniel), Zerubbabel, was appointed governor over Judah and sent back to Jerusalem to lead the effort to rebuild God’s temple there. Cyrus sent with him 5400 items from what had been Solomon’s temple. Valuable vessels, some centuries old and made of pure gold and silver. In addition, he awarded to Zerubbabel a royal grant to cover the cost of rebuilding the temple in the splendour the Persian king deemed it to be worthy of. Overwhelmed by the character and faith of Daniel, Cyrus was mightily impressed by Yahweh, the God of Israel.

Zerubbabel set off with the birthright of a prince, the sponsorship of the king, the reassurance of Daniel and his own faith in God. Fifty thousand people trusted him enough to follow. He should have arrived triumphantly in Jerusalem and been met with a prince’s welcome, but he wasn’t. Though 70 years in the making, when the actual return came it was somewhat underwhelming. For a nation that had numbered in the millions in their glory days, only around 50,000 men returned with Zerubbabel. These returning exiles found Judah a wilderness and Jerusalem a wasteland. The descendants of those who had escaped captivity were now a mixed race hostile to the newcomers, fearing that these Babylonian exiles might try to recover their former family estates. The Jews were outsiders and outnumbered, and instead of joy at being back in Jerusalem their feelings quickly turned to mounting anxiety. They were terrified. The faith they had shown in being willing to uproot their lives in Babylon to return to the promised land was immediately being severely tested.

It is at such times that leaders must find the strength to overcome their own doubts and fears, to decide on a clear direction and then convince their followers to trust and follow. In this case the direction was to trust in God. Zerubbabel was the governor, but he was ably assisted by Joshua the high priest.

Joshua was the man for the moment, and he too had spent a lifetime in preparation. He was the son of Josedech, who had been taken captive to Babylon when Neduchadnezzar had first invaded Judah 70 years before. Joshua’s grandfather Seraiah, the high priest at the time, had been captured and taken to Riblah, north of Israel, where he had been executed—together with 70 other court temple officials—before the ruthless young Babylonian general. Josedech grew up in Babylon but remained faithful to the God of Israel. Joshua, like Zerubbabel, developed strong roots in the Jewish faith. Ezra the scribe was his uncle.

Joshua and Zerubbabel probably grew up together in Babylon. Their fathers, Josedech and Shealtiel, were young children when taken into captivity. Josedech was fatherless, and Shealtiel was virtually the same since his father, Jehoiachin, was securely locked away for 37 years. They were related to Daniel and Ezra in Babylon and their characters must have borne, in some way, the imprint of those two great men of faith. Certainly, Daniel made them aware when Jeremiah’s prophecy decreed it was time for the Jews to return to Jerusalem. The 70 years had expired, as Cyrus also decreed. It inspired these two faithful young men to be part of the return and they ended up leading it. They were involved, energetic and motivating, to say nothing of faithful and brave. But well begun is only half done, and their characters were to be sorely tested before the building of a new temple was finally completed in Jerusalem—20 years after they first set out from Babylon. They would learn a lot about themselves too, not always good, but sometimes overwhelmingly majestic too. They were to be used in a unique way to be living signposts of what the Son of God himself would ultimately do for the world. Wow, that was a long way from a killing ground in Riblah and a dungeon in Babylon!

But for now, they were leading 50,000 frightened people. It was the start of the seventh month, the Jewish ‘holiday month’. When they had first arrived in the land the people had dispersed somewhat to the towns and districts their grandparents had once inhabited but at the start of the seventh month they came back to Jerusalem “as one man”. United by fear, they wanted to put God first—and Joshua showed the way. Their very first act together was to build the altar of burnt offering, followed by commencing the daily burnt offerings each morning and evening, as the nation had formerly done from the time of Moses. The Feast of Tabernacles came next—that great time of rejoicing that retold the story of deliverance from Egypt. Very fitting for a group of newly returned exiles.

The first winter back in the land passed, and with spring came time for more action. The work of rebuilding the temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem began. No mean feat! It was a huge task and one that would test all of them before it was finished. But it began well. Cyrus’ generosity had ensured the project would be well funded and Zerubbabel set about organising things.

From the beginning they realised they were rebuilding an ecclesia, not just a building, and so the work proceeded in a unique way. Well, not quite unique. They borrowed extensively from the building policies of the temple of Solomon, 400 years before. Labourers, tradesman, Levites and priests were assigned their specific tasks. Within a short time, the foundation of the new temple had been laid and this achievement was deservedly celebrated. But not with any old party. The dedication of the foundations was based on the ceremony at the inauguration of Solomon’s completed temple. Joshua ensured everything was done decently and in order. Priests were dressed in the appropriate garments, the trumpets were sounded, cymbals crashed. The sons of Asaph sang together in beautiful harmony the exact words used when Solomon dedicated the temple in his day, and when David brought the ark to Jerusalem in his.

They sang praise and thanks unto Yahweh “because He is good, for His mercy endureth forever”.

Seventy years of captivity over; a dangerous 1600km journey from Babylon behind them; full support and funding from Cyrus himself for the rebuilding project, and the foundation finished. What a celebration it must have been!

But the euphoria didn’t last long. The new ecclesia that had been welded together by fear was about to be divided by success. Unity had brought rousing results, but division would quickly slow the work to a halt. The Samaritans needn’t have worried. The Jews divided and conquered themselves!

It was initially along age lines—as ecclesial divisions can sometimes be. The younger ones amongst them, with Joshua and Zerubbabel at the forefront, cheered with a great shout of joy. The older ones shouted out too, but theirs was a cry of weeping. What on earth was the problem? It can be part of growing old unfortunately. They couldn’t see very far ahead, but they could remember a long way back. They remembered the temple of Solomon. They conveniently forgot the horrible corruption that led to its destruction, but with the rosy glow of nostalgia, all they remembered was the glory of its buildings. Gold—everywhere then—and so much silver that it all but lost its value. Ah, those were the days! Cyrus had been generous, but he wasn’t going to fund a temple like that one. So they wept, baying aloud in what they no doubt felt was a righteous lament. So the sound of rejoicing and the sound of weeping merged together in a cacophony of uncertain sounds. Zerubbabel and Joshua must have been thoroughly exasperated but had no answer.

The discordant voices were just so much noise in the ears of the Samaritans—who felt they had a problem. The Jews were would-be usurpers of their power, property and prestige. They were adversaries who had to be stopped. But they had to be careful. Zerubbabel had the backing of Cyrus, and any hint of treason would be severely dealt with. So they devised a shrewd plan. Instead of direct confrontation they would try infiltration.

“Let us build with you”, was the ‘generous’ offer of the Samaritans. They coupled it with a claim that they worshipped the same God as Israel and had done so ever since Israel had been taken into captivity. It wasn’t the first time false religion had been weaponised against the people of God, and it wouldn’t be the last. Not entirely ‘false’ either—and that was the trap. There was enough truth in what they said to make it appealing to some—there always is. When this mixed race had been brought to the land 150 years before to live amongst what was left of Israel, they faced a hostile environment they didn’t really understand. Lions, for example, terrified them, and so much else about the place was foreign and threatening. Their superstitious solution demonstrated what they were like. They sent for a Jewish priest to come and teach them how to worship Yahweh, the God of the Jews. Not instead of their existing pantheon of gods, but as well as.

Just enough truth to make it tempting.

But Zerubbabel and Joshua weren’t fooled for a moment. In this, at least, they showed great discernment and leadership. The Jews had left idolatry behind in Babylon and they weren’t about to become involved with false religion again, though the invitation may have sounded tempting. The answer to the Samaritans was short and sharp.

No!

‘Your religion has nothing to do with ours, we will build the house of God ourselves, and we have the full support of Cyrus the king. Thanks, but no thanks!’ The Samaritan leaders were understandably annoyed at this snub, insulted even, and from then on tried to frustrate the building work in whatever way they could. Legal challenges; letters to and from the royal court in Persia; threats of violence, whatever idea they could think of. And it worked. Ecclesial division, combined with outside opposition, meant that within months of the rousing celebration at the laying of the temple foundation, the work stopped. For 15 years!

To be continued…