On arrival in Jerusalem, Zerubbabel and Joshua withstood the initial challenges bravely but they couldn’t, or didn’t, overcome the difficulties that followed; not for 15 years anyway. How sad. Too soon, the ongoing trials wore them down. In the end, it seems a letter from Persia demanding suspension of the work finally brought things to a grinding halt. Armed with this written mandate, the Samaritans demanded nothing less, threatening military force would be next.

But the Jews were already well on the way to stopping anyway. The last straw was when the people found an excuse they could all unite behind (or divide behind, however you want to say it). Bible prophecy! Jeremiah had told them they would be in Babylon for 70 years from the start of the captivity before they returned. These 50,000 were the fulfilment of that. One prophecy fulfilled. But wait, there was more. They had also been told the temple would lie in ruins for 70 years. It hadn’t finally been destroyed until 20 years after Nebuchadnezzar’s first captives. They still had 20 years to finish it! No need to take risks; settle in a for a while and wait to see what happens. Technically correct maybe, but spiritually disastrous. When did God ever tell His ecclesia to stop working in His service for a while? The wait lasted 15 years and would likely never have ended if God hadn’t intervened.

What were Zerubbabel and Joshua doing? Great leaders both, but it seems they went missing for a time. The tumultuous division, the ongoing Samaritan opposition, letters from the king, and the time thing, must have added up to a persuasive argument. Or a draining one anyway.

So, what did they all do when faced with all this?

They decided to “occupy”. To get busy doing something else. When David was told he couldn’t build the House of God, he spent the rest of his life preparing for Solomon to do so. He “occupied” by working for God’s temple, even though he knew he wouldn’t be working in it. Good decision. But the returned Jews decided on a different ‘occupying’. It seems they settled on some nice farmland, raided the building material that Cyrus had provided and set about building some very nice, comfortable, timber panelled housing for themselves. Zerubbabel and Joshua were unable to convince them to do otherwise and, in the end, probably joined in, to some extent. Those 15 years certainly weren’t their best, but better was yet to come.

The temple foundation lay undisturbed for all that time. Our two leaders must have visited from time to time and agonised over what should have been happening. All they had to show for their dreams was a large slab on the temple site being overgrown with weeds. To top it all off, the whole resettlement project was coming off the rails. The refocusing by the Jews on materialism was proving to be a failure. At first it seemed the people had plenty, but as the 15 years went by, eventually, they couldn’t even get enough to live on. Extravagant spending and indulgence gave way to cold winters and failing crops. In the end, famine intervened where plenty once had been. With only five years left until the scheduled completion date of the temple, they had forgotten all about it and were focused merely on survival. Zerubbabel and Joshua had no answers. Perhaps they even prayed on their knees at the foundation of the temple that should by now have been taking shape.

If so, the answer came in the form of two great prophets, Haggai and Zechariah. It was now the second year of the great king Darius, and the project came back to life through the brief, simple words of these two prophets, spoken initially over just a five-month period. Simple, but electrifying—cutting like a sharp two-edged sword:

“Consider your ways” from Haggai.

“Despise not the day of small things” from Zechariah.

For Zerubbabel and Joshua, it was as if they had been awakened from a long sleep—a nightmare even. They immediately leapt back into action, agitated, energised, and inspired all over again by the prophets of Yahweh. A leader is a dealer in hope, and their dreams had been restored, their spirits re-energised, their faith a reality once again. Such was the change in them that within days it infected the other Jews and nearly 15 years of spiritual stupor almost overnight became a frenzy of building activity. There was a brief hiccup when the by now very elderly again nostalgically lamented the old days. Zerubbabel and Joshua faltered, but Haggai intervened. He reminded them that the spirit of the workers is what matters to Yahweh, not the grandeur of the work. And he gave them a tantalising glimpse of the future when there would be another temple more glorious than this one or Solomon’s, where the glory of God would reside forever, constructed not so much with bricks and mortar as much as with faithful men and women.

It was enough and they got back to work with renewed gusto, even the elders became workers, not whingers. This new unity of mind and purpose was not going to be stopped, even though the Samaritans tried again. The new Persian governor of the province, Tatnai, a reasonable man, asked why they had re-commenced the building work. This time Zerubbabel and Joshua were not going to be dissuaded. The implied threats were no doubt genuine, but the determination to keep building more so. They took the time to explain to Tatnai the history behind this work. It was a summary of Israel’s history and an introduction to the Truth if the governor wished to pursue it. In particular, the role the decree of Cyrus had played in starting the project was emphasised. Once they had explained all this they didn’t wait for the answer from the “other side of the river”, which would be months away, but kept on building. They simply trusted in God and He didn’t let them down. Tatnai sent to Darius seeking further instructions and, in a library in far off Ecbatana, the scroll of Cyrus was found showing his original decree. What a moment it must have been when a letter from Darius arrived in Jerusalem, not only allowing the work to continue but providing money and merchandise to ensure it could be completed. Four years later the temple was finished. During that time, the rains returned and the famine ended. When they turned to Yahweh, He turned to them.

For Zerubbabel and Joshua, their work was done. They moved out of the Bible record and Ezra arrived soon after in Jerusalem to continue the work. At the actual dedication of the completed temple, Zerubbabel and Joshua are not mentioned. It was the people themselves, “the children of Israel, the priests and the Levites” who joyfully organised the dedication of the House of God, as the governor and high priest would no doubt have wanted. It’s what any great leader truly hopes for. They were two leaders who certainly had their ups and downs. A captive childhood, a huge high when they led the first return, next over a decade of spiritual twilight and then an inspired return to complete the work. They had set out on a great work and persevered to the end, despite their own failings, knowing in the end it was the work of God.

But God had used them in another very special way, and what an amazing experience that must have been. Zechariah called them “men of sign”. For all their failings during that 15-year building hiatus, they were ready to get to work again when the time came. And they became types of a much greater leader, and a much greater temple.

First, Joshua the high priest. Interesting name, that. Moses led Israel out of Egypt, but Joshua the son of Nun led them into the Promised Land. Joshua the son of Josedech helped lead them back from Babylon to Jerusalem. Jesus (actual name Joshua), the son of God, is leading all who will follow out of mortality and into eternity. Zechariah was instructed by God to arrange for Joshua to be clothed with freshly cleaned priestly garments topped off with a crown of gold.

Then there was Zerubbabel the governor. He was the prince, but he wasn’t crowned. Nor would he have expected to be. Ezekiel had said the throne of his great uncle Zechariah would remain overturned until the one came “whose right it is”, and Zerubbabel knew that wasn’t him. But he, too, fulfilled a special role. Zechariah told him specifically that his hands would finish the temple. And there was more. Jeremiah had likened his grandfather, king Jehoiachin, to a signet ring which God had thrown away to Nebuchadnezzar. His childhood was lived in the fulfilment of that. But, said Haggai, Yahweh says that you, Zerubbabel, “I will make as a signet; for I have chosen thee”. Wow again! The man “sown in Babylon” was a type of “The Branch”, who would build the temple once more and sit on the throne as king. Yes, it would finally be restored, and this king would be high priest as well. Zerubbabel and Joshua must have listened in wonder and awe.

Zerubbabel’s temple was totally renovated by king Herod around 500 years after it was finished, but it was basically the same temple that Jesus Christ walked in. It was destroyed finally by the Romans in AD70. It had lasted longer than Solomon’s temple, but really all that was destroyed was a building.

The people who worked bravely to build it were the real house and Haggai called them “the desire of all nations” whose glory would surpass all former temples, because it will be the glory of God. People are still working on it with the same faith as Zerubbabel and Joshua. And when they read the Bible, their spirits are still stirred up by the prophets, just like those two faithful men. The message that electrified them is a message for all ages:

“Consider your ways”

“Despise not the day of small things”