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Bridgeway Bible Dictionary
When Persia conquered Babylon in 539 BC, the Persian king Cyrus released the captive Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild Jerusalem. The original leader of the Jews was Sheshbazzar (Ezra 1:8; Ezra 5:14), but his leadership was soon replaced by the joint leadership of the governor Zerubbabel and the high priest Joshua (Ezra 2:2; Haggai 1:1). (An alternative view is that Sheshbazzar was another name for Zerubbabel.)
Rebuilding the temple
The year after they arrived in Jerusalem, the Jews began rebuilding the temple. Within a short time they met opposition from the local non-Jewish people, with the result that they became discouraged and the work stopped (Ezra 4:24). For about sixteen years no work was done, though the people still had time and money to build costly houses for themselves. It seems that Zerubbabel was as much at fault as the common people in this. Only when Haggai and Zechariah began their stirring preaching in 520 BC did Zerubbabel, Joshua and the rest of the people get to work again (Ezra 5:1-2; Haggai 1:1-6; Haggai 1:14-15).
Much of Haggai and Zechariah’s preaching was designed to challenge and encourage Zerubbabel and Joshua (Haggai 2:4). Zerubbabel, having control of the work, was told that through God’s power he would overcome the mountain of obstacles he faced. As his hands had begun the work on the temple, so his hands would finish it (Zechariah 4:6-10). The promise was fulfilled four and a half years after the prophets began their preaching (Ezra 6:15).
Ancestor of the Messiah
Zerubbabel was a direct descendant of David in the line of kings that had reigned in Jerusalem before its destruction by Babylon (Matthew 1:6-12). He was entitled to the throne of Israel, but since Israel was still under Persian rule, he could be no more than governor. When the Israelites held a symbolic coronation ceremony during the rebuilding of the temple, they were careful to avoid any suggestion of treason. They therefore placed the crown on Joshua instead of on Zerubbabel; but the words used in the ceremony referred to Zerubbabel. As a descendant of David, Zerubbabel was like a new ‘branch’ springing from the ‘tree’ of David’s dynasty, a ‘tree’ that Babylon had earlier ‘cut down’ (Zechariah 6:11-13; cf. Isaiah 11:1).
‘The Branch’ was a name that Israelites used of the great descendant of David who would come as their Messiah (Isaiah 4:2; Isaiah 11:1; Jeremiah 23:5; Jeremiah 33:15). The name was freely applied to Zerubbabel because, as leader of the rebuilt nation, he was part of the fulfilment of the promise given to David. Through him the Messiah would come (Haggai 2:21-23; Zechariah 3:8-10; Matthew 1:6; Matthew 1:12; Matthew 1:16; cf. 2 Samuel 7:16).
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Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Zerubbabel'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/bbd/z/zerubbabel.html. 2004.