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Zerubbabel in the Prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah

Zerubbabel in the Prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah


After Persia conquered Babylon in 538 BCE, King Cyrus II soon released the Judeans from their captivity, allowing them to return to their ancestral homeland and begin the process of rebuilding their society under his rule. Sometime in the decade or two after this, a large group of repatriates traveled to Judah, and among them was a man named Zerubbabel. Ezra and Nehemiah briefly describe how Zerubbabel, appointed as governor over the returning community, led the efforts alongside the high priest Jeshua to build a new temple for Yhwh in Jerusalem.

Ezra 3.2

Then Jeshua son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel with his kin set out to build the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt-offerings on it, as prescribed in the law of Moses the man of God.

One of the more tantalizing mysteries of the Hebrew Bible is the fate of Zerubbabel. Normally, relatively obscure people in the Bible show up only to perform some vital act, just to disappear back into obscurity. The same would probably be the case for Zerubbabel if not for the context around him.

A Summary of Zerubbabel

In Chronicles, Zerubbabel is only mentioned once, in the genealogy which opens the book. He is identified as a grandson of King Jehoiachin (also called Jeconiah or Coniah), making him a descendant of David and so potential heir to the Judean throne.

1 Chronicles 3.17–19a

And the sons of Jeconiah, the captive: Shealtiel his son, Malchiram, Pedaiah, Shenazzar, Jekamiah, Hoshama, and Nedabiah. The sons of Pedaiah: Zerubbabel and Shimei

The carefully laid out, nine-chapter genealogical table in Chronicles identifies Zerubbabel as the son of Pedaiah, leading to a puzzling contradiction with every other biblical text to mention Zerubbabel’s lineage. In all these other cases, Zerubbabel is identified as the son of Shealtiel, Pedaiah’s brother (Ezra 3.2, 8; 5.2; Neh 12.1; Hag 1.1, 12, 14; 2.2, 23; cf. Matt 1.12; Luke 3.27).

Zerubbabel was among the first wave of Judeans released by Cyrus (Ezra 2.2; Neh 7.7). When the community had resettled, Zerubbabel and the high priest Jehoshua (called Jeshua by Ezra and Nehemiah) built a new altar for Yhwh in Jerusalem, and reinstated the sacrifices (Ezra 3.1–7). Because Yhwh’s temple had been looted and destroyed by the Babylonians, Zerubbabel and Jeshoshua began construction on another one about two years after they arrived in Judah (Ezra 3.8–13). Soon after the foundation was laid, their neighbors in Israel to the north offered to help, because they also worshiped Yhwh. When Assyria conquered Israel in 722 BCE, they exiled some of the people and settled foreigners in the land, leading to an ethnically mixed population. Zerubbabel and the Judeans rejected their neighbors’ offer (Ezra 4.1–3), probably for this reason, which led to their new enemies appealing to two subsequent Persian kings, Xerxes I and Artaxerxes I, to halt the temple’s construction (Ezra 4.4–24).

The timeline in Ezra gets muddled here, implying that Xerxes I and Artaxerxes I ruled after Cyrus II (Ezra 4.6–7), followed by Darius I (Ezra 4.24), when Darius I actually ruled before either of them. The chronological order of the contents in Ezra is probably out of order. In any case, the temple’s rebuilding languished until the second year of Darius I (Ezra 4.24). At this time, in 520 BCE, two prophets enter the story and the temple’s construction began again (Ezra 5.1–2; Hag 1.1; Zech 1.1).

Ezra 5.1–2

Now the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them. Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and Jeshua son of Jozadak set out to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem. And with them were the prophets of God, helping them.

From here, the temple took about five years to finish, completing around 515 BCE (Ezra 6.15). However, when Persian authorities learned the Judeans continued rebuilding the temple they sent a governor named Tattenai to investigate (Ezra 5.3–5). Zerubbabel disappears from the story here. His absence is problematic specifically because of the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah.

Haggai’s Prophecy

The Book of Haggai is short, containing five brief units over two chapters, all dated to the same year.

The Book of Zechariah is a little more complex. Zechariah chapters 9–14, called Deutero-Zechariah, appear to come from a different author in a later time period. In fact, Deutero-Zechariah is closely related to the subsequent Book of Malachi, linguistically, thematically, and stylistically. When taken together, the three units of Zech 9–11, 12–14, and Malachi 1–4 each begin with a similar superscription:

Zechariah 9.1

Zechariah 12.1

Malachi 1.1

An oracle. The word of Yhwh concerning the land of Hadrach.

An oracle. The word of Yhwh concerning Israel.

An oracle. The word of Yhwh from my messenger.

Zechariah chapters 1–8, Proto-Zechariah, are attributed to Haggai’s counterpart, and contain three units, dated in sequence to 520, 519, and 518 BCE.

Haggai and Zechariah together address the Judean community at large, and its leaders specifically, in their time of resettling their land and rebuilding their capital. With Deutero-Zechariah separated from Proto-Zechariah, and the close relationship between Haggai and Proto-Zechariah stressed, it could be argued these latter two texts ‘belong together as a composite work’ that was finished between 518 and 515 BCE.1 Together, their eight units are spread over seven dates.2

Hag 1.1–11

29 August 520

Hag 1.12–15

21 September 520

Hag 2.1–9

17 October 520

Hag 2.10–19

18 December 520

Hag 2.20–23

18 December 520

Zech 1.1–6

October/November 520

Zech 1.7–6.15

15 February 519

Zech 7.1–8.23

7 December 518

If Haggai and Proto-Zechariah were meant to be read as a single book, then Haggai’s final two oracles, both on the same day, stand out as the conceptual center. (Chronologically, Zechariah’s first unit follows Haggai’s third.) Haggai’s first oracle from that day (2.10–19) draws attention to why the day was so important.

On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of Yhwh came by the prophet Haggai, saying […] consider what will come to pass from this day on. Before a stone was placed upon a stone in Yhwh’s temple […] Consider from this day on, from the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month. Since the day that the foundation of Yhwh’s temple was laid

This was the day when the second temple’s foundation was laid.3 That day was a visible, tangible demonstration that their community’s life was beginning anew. For Haggai to deliver a second prophecy on this day would indicate it was of equally immense importance.4

The word of Yhwh came a second time to Haggai on the twenty-fourth day of the month: Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying, I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, and to overthrow the throne of kingdoms. I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders. And the horses and their riders shall fall, every one by the sword of a comrade. On that day, says Yhwh of hosts, I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, son of Shealtiel, says Yhwh, and make you like a signet ring, for I have chosen you, says Yhwh of hosts.

Haggai’s previous prophecies addressed Zerubbabel and Jehoshua together, or the community, or the priesthood in general. But here, on the day of the new temple’s foundation ceremony, he singles Zerubbabel out5 to inform him that Yhwh is about to ‘overthrow’ other nations in order to establish Zerubbabel in particular. In the space of a single sentence, Haggai attaches three distinct idioms to Zerubbabel that elevate him from one of many obscure names mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.

First, Haggai (speaking Yhwh’s words) calls Zerubbabel ‘my servant’. King David is called the ‘servant’ of Yhwh upwards of two dozen times in the Hebrew Bible.6 Second, Yhwh calls Zerubbabel his ‘signet ring’. This ring, representing a person’s approval or authority, is mentioned a few times in the Bible, but is only used as a metaphor to describe the ruler himself two other times (Jer 22.24; Ezek 28.12). Third, Yhwh says he has ‘chosen’ Zerubbabel. This verb bāḥar is also used when Yhwh ‘chooses’ Saul to be king over Israel (1 Sam 10.24), followed by David (2 Sam 6.21; cf. 1 Sam 6.6–12). The verb is not used for any Israelite or Judean kings after them.7 For it to be used of Zerubbabel imbues the oracle with royal signifiance.

Zechariah’s Prophecies

Between these three idioms, it certainly looks like Haggai was predicting the accession of Zerubbabel as Judah’s new king, and hence Judah’s independence from foreign rule.8 The foundation ceremony was to be the beginning of this new independent Judean kingdom.9 Zechariah’s prophecies only fan the flame. His first prophecy (1.1–6) warns the returned Judeans not to make the same mistakes as their ancestors, which led to their exile. His second unit (1.7–6.15) consists of ten smaller pericopes. The first three review the end of Babylonian rule over Judah, employing militaristic imagery of men riding horses and chariots (1.7–2.13).

Zech 3 turns its attention to the priesthood, giving the prophet a vision that begins mid-scene: in the heavenly court, Jehoshua is on trial before Yhwh, with the satan as his prosecutor and Yhwh’s angel as his defense. The satan is rebuked and sent away, and Jehoshua’s filthy clothes are replaced with elegant and clean apparel. The angel addresses Jehoshua regarding his appointment as high priest, which includes this tantalizing statement:

I am going to bring my servant the branch.

There is that idiom ‘my servant’ again, this time accompanied by another one: ‘the branch’. In Hebrew this actually lacks the definite article (ʿaḇdî ṣemaḥ), which conveys that this servant is symbolically named ‘Branch’. Astute readers will recognize a connection to other prophecies concerning a successor to King David.10

Isaiah 11.1

A shoot (ḥōṭer) shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch (nêṣer) shall grow out of his roots.

Isaiah 11.10

On that day the root (šōreš) of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples. The nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Jeremiah 23.6

The days are surely coming, says Yhwh, when I will raise up for David a righteous branch (ṣemaḥ), and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

Zech 4 moves on to a vision of a menorah flanked by two olive trees (4.1–5), which the angel explains symbolize Yhwh’s activity on the earth alongside two ‘anointed ones’ (4.10b–14). This vision is interrupted in the middle by two brief oracles about Zerubbabel building the temple. In context, the two ‘anointed ones’ (or, more literally, the ‘sons of [anointing] oil’) represent Jehoshua and Zerubbabel, pointing to their unified roles in leading the community during the reconstruction effort. Zechariah singles out Zerubbabel to draw attention to his exaltation (4.6–7) in connection to Zerubbabel not just laying the temple’s foundation (4.9a), but in completing the temple’s reconstruction (9b).

Zech 5.1–6.8 gives three more visions for the downfall of Babylon, but 6.9–15 gives a second message addressed to Jehoshua, again including a message about the mysterious ‘Branch’:

Thus says Yhwh of hosts: Here is a man whose name is Branch: for he shall branch out in his place, and he shall build Yhwh’s temple. It is he that shall build Yhwh’s temple; he shall bear honor, and shall sit upon his throne and rule. There shall be a priest by his throne, with peaceful understanding between the two of them.

‘Branch’ will be the one to ‘build Yhwh’s temple’, and he will ‘sit upon his throne and rule’. Given the previous several chapters, who could this be except for Zerubbabel?11 Even the symbolic name ‘Branch’ appears to have been chosen because it plays on ‘Zerubbabel’,12 derived from Akkadian Zēr-bābili, meaning ‘seed/branch of Babylon’.13 (He was so-named because he was born in Babylon.) Taking Zechariah and Haggai together, the identification of Zerubbabel as Yhwh’s ‘signet ring’ who will ‘sit upon his throne and rule’ is totally unique except for one other part of the Hebrew Bible.

Jeremiah 22.24–30

As I live, says Yhwh, even if King Coniah son of Jehoiakim of Judah were the signet ring on my right hand, even from there I would tear you off and give you into the hands of those who seek your life, into the hands of those of whom you are afraid, even into the hands of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon and into the hands of the Chaldeans. I will hurl you and the mother who bore you into another country, where you were not born, and there you shall die. But they shall not return to the land to which they long to return. Is this man Coniah a despised broken pot, a vessel no one wants? Why are he and his offspring hurled out and cast away in a land that they do not know? O land, land, land, hear the word of Yhwh! Thus says Yhwh: Record this man as childless, a man who shall not succeed in his days, for none of his offspring shall succeed in sitting on the throne of David, and ruling again in Judah.

Here Jeremiah talks about King Jehoiachin as Yhwh’s ‘signet ring’, and talks about how his descendants will ‘sit on the throne of David’ and ‘rule in Judah’. In the minds of Haggai and Zechariah, Zerubbabel, who will both begin and finish the temple’s rebuilding, will become Judah’s new king. Except, Jeremiah here declares that Jehoiachin is not Yhwh’s signet ring (and would be discarded even if he were), and that his descendants will not sit on David’s throne to rule. This ought to include Zerubbabel, who was Jehoiachin’s grandson. How could Haggai and Zechariah think he would be king, then?

Tempering Expectations

Some scholars cast doubt on such overtly ‘messianic’ interpretations of Haggai and Zechariah’s prophecies for Zerubbabel. Addressing each point one by one, they insist that, although the two prophets had great expectations for what Yhwh would accomplish through Zerubbabel, they did not expect any immediate fulfillment. Instead, like Zerubbabel did with the temple, Yhwh was merely laying the foundations for the restored monarchy for one of Zerubbabel’s descendants in the distant future.14

The phrase ‘my servant’, while of course used for David many times, is also used for people like Abraham, Moses, and Israel as a whole.15 The verb bāḥar is likewise used for Moses and Israel, and while it is used for David, it is not used for any king after him. In fact, both of these are used in Isa 42.1 of the famed ‘suffering servant’.16 Similarly, although ‘signet ring’ is often read in connection to Jer 22.24–30, it simply indicates that Yhwh placed ‘high personal value’ on Zerubbabel without implying Zerubbabel was royalty.17 Song 8.6 refers to the bride as the ‘signet ring’ of the groom’s heart. None of the language used ‘is so specifically royal as to require that Zerubbabel is being addressed as the scion of the house of David’.18

And, notably, neither Haggai nor Zechariah actually use the word ‘king’ to describe Zerubbabel (or ‘Branch’), and never even mention David in connection to Zerubbabel. Hence, they did not expect him to become king.19 Likewise, Ezra and Nehemiah ‘ignore’ and ‘conceal’ Zerubbabel’s Davidic ancestry.20

Some scholars find it doubtful the Persians would have appointed Zerubbabel as governor of the returning Judeans if they had any concern he, as a descendant of David, would bring hope for an independent kingdom. He may have been ‘groomed’ by the Persians to govern under their dominion. Why choose him at all, then, and not someone entirely unrelated to David? Perhaps to lend the sense of continuity, and hence to show that even the dethroned Davidic dynasty was comfortable with foreign rule.21

If Haggai and Zechariah were to come along and openly proclaim that Yhwh was about to restore independence to the Judean kingdom, with Zerubbabel at the head, it ‘would have been sure to engender the hostility of the Persian authorities’.22 With this in mind, it makes more sense to recognize precisely that they never call Zerubbabel ‘king’. Instead, the two prophets ‘postpone’ the reclamation of Judean independence to a far-off future.23 Zerubbabel is just the starting point of this restoration, and he is a ‘proleptic’ and ‘symbolic’ stand-in for a descendant who would one day be crowned as king.24

His actions in rebuilding the temple represent what this future king will accomplish: ‘the building of this temple is a future and probably eschatological event’.25 By not seating Zerubbabel as king, Haggai and Zechariah remain in continuity with Jer 22.24–30, which promised that Jehoiachin’s descendants would not rule. As such, Zerubbabel’s ‘unexplained disappearance […] is a pseudo-mystery’. After all, we’re not told what happened to Jehoshua, but no one wonders about his fate.26

When we read Hag 2.20–23 carefully, we find that Zerubbabel is entirely passive.27 The warrior-type expectations of Israel’s king are transferred to Yhwh; it is he, not Zerubbabel, who overthrows foreign power over Judah. This is seen as well in Zechariah’s symbolic visions, where the horses and chariots correspond to Yhwh’s divine ordinance, not anything Zerubbabel achieves for his country. The two prophets meant for Yhwh to be identified as the king of Judah, with Zerubbabel merely as a viceroy or co-regent.

Rebuilding Expectations

The various idioms used for Zerubbabel find usage in non-royal streams of thought, but it’s a stretch to insist the way we find these streams merging together in Haggai and Zechariah was not meant to show they had royal expectations for Zerubbabel. While all this language does have non-royal usage, they are here concentrated on a single individual who was a known descendant of the royal family, was in a position of authority, and had a direct hand in helping rebuild his nation.

The parallels with Jer 22.24–30 in particular require extra attention. The Book of Kings informs us that Jehoiachin ruled for just three months, and claims that ‘he did what was evil in the sight of Yhwh’ (2 Kings 24.8–9). Babylon invaded Judah and put Jerusalem under siege, and Jehoiachin was taken captive along with his family and court, replaced by his uncle Mattaniah/Zedekiah (2 Kings 24.10–17). Jer 21–22 contains a lengthy prophecy denouncing the Judean kings who ruled after Josiah, beginning with the final king, Zedekiah (21.3–7), followed by Zedekiah’s three predecessors: Shallum/Jehoahaz (22.11–17), Jehoiakim (22.18–23), and Coniah/Jehoiachin (22.24–30). Because Zedekiah is already king, Jeremiah’s criticism of Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, and Jehoiachin is after-the-fact prophecy. Neither Jer 22 nor 2 Kings 24 actually tell us what ‘evil’ Jehoiachin was responsible for; each text reads as a post hoc explanation for his reign coming to an abrupt end with his arrest and deportation to Babylon.

[Jer 22.24–30] contains a very harsh judgment against Coniah, or Jehoiachin, the young king of Judah who ruled for only three months […] it is difficult to understand why Jehoiachin is spoken of so harshly in Jeremiah, especially when the brevity of his reign is acknowledged, and therefore this raises questions as to when the passage originated and when it attained its final form.28

Hag 2.23 and Zech 6.12–13 appear to be ‘a deliberate reversal’ of Jer 22.29 Zerubbabel being called the ‘signet ring’ of Yhwh does bear royal connotations because Haggai took the idiom from Jeremiah, where it was used for Jehoiachin (in a negative context). Yet, the intertextual dependence may go both directions. That is, where Haggai and Zechariah used a copy of the Book of Jeremiah, the text in Jer 22 may in turn have been modified at a later time in response Haggai and Zechariah’s exaltation of Zerubbabel. The Book of Jeremiah had a complex formation that lasted well after the Persian period, most evident in how widely divergent the Hebrew and Greek versions are. Though this is hardly an argument in itself, it is possible Jer 22.24–30 is one such passage that was redacted by an anti-Zerubbabel faction during or after the Persian period. A suggested explanation is that Jer 22.24–27 were original, meant to justify Jehoiachin’s replacement by Zedekiah,30 while 22.28–30 were added in response to Haggai and Zechariah’s prophecies.31 Further, if Haggai and Zechariah had in mind a future descendant of Zerubbabel to remain cohesive with Jeremiah’s prophecy, this hardly solves the contradiction, since any descendant of Zerubbabel would be a descendant of Jehoiachin anyway. (E.g., this problem persists in Matt 1, which identifies Jesus as a descendant of David by tracing his lineage through Jehoiachin and Zerubbabel. Luke 3 manages to avoid this pitfall by identifying Zerubbabel’s paternal grandfather not as Jehoiachin, but an otherwise unknown ‘Neri’.)

It must again be acknowledged that the verb ‘choose’, bāḥar, is not used for any king after Saul or David. The reason for this is that each man was ‘chosen’ to begin a new dynasty. Saul was chosen by Yhwh as king, but his disobedience led to David being chosen instead. From David onward, none of his descendants were ‘chosen’ because they simply inherited the throne by default. Zerubbabel was different, because Babylon had overthrown the Davidic throne. Zerubbabel’s father, though a son of King Jehoiachin, had never sat on the throne. Zerubbabel was not inheriting the Judean kingship, because the royal succession had been broken.32 To begin again, Yhwh was ‘choosing’ the Davidic dynasty anew, beginning with Zerubbabel.

Even the argument that Zerubbabel’s ‘passivity’ in Hag 2.20–23 means kingship was tranferred to God fails to muster. In support of this, comparison is made to Ezek 40–48, which downplays ‘any political role for the Davidide’.33 However, even in Ezekiel the new ‘David’—who takes the backseat as Yhwh orchestrates the restoration of the Judean kingdom after the Babylonian exile—is identified as king (Ezek 37.24). In fact, Zerubbabel is more active than Ezekiel’s successor to the throne; where Yhwh takes credit for building the temple (Ezek 37.26), Yhwh insists it is Zerubbabel who will undertake this task (Zech 4.9). This act is widely recognized as Zerubbabel laying down the foundation stone of the new temple,34 most likely by using a brick taken from the ruin of the old temple to establish continuity between the two.35 In similar temple ceremonies in Mesopotamia, it was the king who typically performed this act,36 another indication Haggai and Zechariah had royal aspirations in mind for Zerubbabel.

There are a variety of scholars who insist Haggai and Zechariah were making predictions about a distant future king and not Zerubbabel, even when it is acknowledged the ‘converging lines of identification within Zechariah and elsewhere make it certain that Zerubbabel is in view’.37 Still others suggest that although it appears the two prophets held Zerubbabel in exaltation, they were actually ‘playing down’ his role in Judah’s restoration, with the true hero being Jehoshua and the priesthood. For instance, Zerubbabel’s royal authority is said to be ‘subsumed’ by the priesthood in Zech 3.6–10,38 while 4.6–10 and 6.12–13 are nested inside prophecies about the priesthood in order to minimize Zerubbabel’s role.38

I find these interpretations to be bending over backwards to avoid the otherwise obvious consequences of Haggai and Zechariah’s predictions. The notion that the prophecies concerning the temple’s construction were about ‘a future eschatological temple’, and that ‘Branch’ refers to a descendant of Zerubbabel centuries later, are ‘forced’.40 The text is not unclear on this point: the Davidic descendant ‘Branch’ would rebuild the temple and rule on the throne (Zech 6.12–13), and Zerubbabel is directly named as the man who would build the temple (Zech 4.6–10a) and who would be exalted in direct consequence of Yhwh overthrowing enemy kingdoms (Hag 2.20–23). While the lack of the word ‘king’ is unusual, the picture the two prophets were painting is not at all ambiguous. There is no indication that the temple either prophet had in mind was a third temple, when they were prophesying while the second temple was under construction. They offer no hint they were looking at a farway ‘eschatological’ horizon rather than what was transpiring right in front of them, nor that they anticipated a fulfillment in the far future even while naming their contemporary Zerubbabel as the object of their predictions.

Zerubbabel’s Mission

In this regard, Zech 4 deserves a closer look, but to get a complete picture let’s read it in context of all the Zerubbabel and Branch prophecies in sequence.

Haggai 2.21b–23

‘I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, and to overthrow the throne of kingdoms. I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders. And the horses and their riders shall fall, every one by the sword of a comrade. On that day, says Yhwh of hosts, I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, son of Shealtiel, says Yhwh, and make you like a signet ring, for I have chosen you, says Yhwh of hosts.’

Zechariah 3.8b

‘I am going to bring my servant Branch.’

Zechariah 4.6b–7

‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says Yhwh of hosts. What are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain, and he shall bring out the top stone amid shouts of “Grace, grace to it!”’

Zechariah 4.9–10a

The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house. His hands shall also complete it. Then you will know that Yhwh of hosts has sent me to you. For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plummet in the hand of Zerubbabel.’

Zechariah 6.12b–13

‘Here is a man whose name is Branch: for he shall branch out in his place, and he shall build Yhwh’s temple. It is he that shall build Yhwh’s temple. He shall bear honor, and shall sit upon his throne and rule. There shall be a priest by his throne, with peaceful understanding between the two of them.’

The ‘great mountain’ which ‘shall become a plain’ in front of Zerubbabel has variously been interpreted as Jehoshua or possibly the Persian governor Tattenai, demoted in status to allow for Zerubbabel to accomplish his mission. Another interpretation, which I think is more likely, sees this ‘mountain’ as the ruins of the first temple, an immense pile that needed to be cleared and paved flat (like ‘a plain’) before construction on the second temple could begin.41 The ‘day of small things’ mentioned in Zech 4 may be ‘puzzling’ at first glance,42 but we see the overall expectations Haggai and Zechariah had for Zerubbabel. Where Haggai’s final two oracles were delivered the day of the second temple’s foundation ceremony, Zech 4.6–10a (just two months later) seems to be reflecting on that same day. The foundation ceremony is a ‘day of small things’ because it may superficially be a minor event, but the act anticipates a greater future: the independence of Judah and the accession of Zerubbabel.

[Zech 4.10a is] a motivating statement that contrasts the relatively minor beginnings of the reconstruction of the Temple with the greatness of its projected outcome.43

The importance the two prophets placed on Zerubbabel is most clearly spelled out in Zech 4.9: Zerubbabel will accomplish these things, therefore ‘you will know that Yhwh of hosts has sent me to you’. In most parts of the Bible there is legitimate debate over how a passage should be understood, so that if a reader’s interpretation of one text turns out to be in error, it shouldn’t automatically result in a ‘house of cards’ mentality where everything they thought they knew crashes down. Zech 4 presents itself as an exception to this approach. Zechariah directly tell his readers (via the angel’s speech) that the legitimacy of his prophecy is contingent on Zerubbabel fulfilling it completely.

if Zerubbabel does not complete this action, then the angel’s credentials as a messenger of YHWH are invalid […] Indeed, the credibility of this oracle, and the entire oracle sequence to Zechariah, is in question at this point.44


Mentioned at the start, Zerubbabel disappears from Judah’s history not long after the foundation ceremony in late 520 BCE. Haggai and Zechariah were written early in the rebuilding process, so they are unable to tell us what happened to him. Ezra and Nehemiah narrate the completion of the temple, and Zerubbabel is conspicuously absent, nowhere involved in the event.45

The most commonly accepted explanation for why Zerubbabel vanished from history is that he was deposed by Persian authorities.46 When the Judeans’ northern neighbors objected to a new temple being built in Jerusalem, the Persians evidently put the project on hold. When Haggai and Zechariah urged Zerubbabel and Jehoshua to begin construction again in 520 BCE, the Persians sent Tattenai, the satrap of the province Eber-Nari (literally ‘Beyond the River’) to investigate.

Ezra 5.3–4

At the same time Tattenai the governor of the province Beyond the River, and Shethar-bozenai and their associates, came to them and spoke to them thus, ‘Who gave you a decree to build this house and to finish this structure?’ They also asked them this, ‘What are the names of the men who are building this building?’

Their questions are pointed, and this is the moment when Zerubbabel goes missing.47 We have the prophecies from Haggai and Zechariah, proclaiming that Zerubbabel—a potential heir to the Davidic crown—would not just build Jerusalem’s temple, but would be installed by Yhwh onto his own ‘throne’ amid the destruction of foreign (i.e. Persian) power. It’s not hard to see why many scholars suspect the Persians removed him, perhaps even executing him.48 Haggai and Zechariah’s prophecies ‘suggest the very real possibility that Zerubbabel was ultimately considered a threat’ to the Persians.49 There are other possible explanations. It could be that Zerubbabel resigned after Persian policies were implemented following revolts in Egypt and Babylon, or perhaps he returned to Persia with a delegation, and stayed behind for another, unknown reason.50

‘The fact that Zerubbabel never reigned as an independent king’51 does not mean Haggai and Zechariah didn’t think he would. They fully expected that Zerubabbel would personally lay the final stone on the temple, that Yhwh (whether supernaturally or by human means) would cast off foreign sovereignty so Zerubbabel could sit on David’s throne. Zerubbabel’s position in the Hebrew Bible’s prophetic tradition is hard to understate. The reason for his disappearance is a riddle we may never find an answer to, but that he disappeared at all before the temple was finished is itself a demonstration that he didn’t succeed in his mission.52 The prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah were left unfulfilled, which, per Zech 4.9’s own insistence, invalidated their legitimacy as prophets.


1 Carol Meyers & Eric Meyers, Haggai, Zechariah 1–8, xliv–xlv.

2 Ibid., xlvi.

3 Ibid., xlvii, 82.

4 Ibid., 66.

5 Greg Goswell, ‘The Fate and Future of Zerubbabel in the Prophecy of Haggai’, Biblica 91.1, 77.

6 Meyers & Meyers, 202.

7 Ibid., 70.

8 Ibid., 68.

9 Ibid., 66–68.

10 Meyers & Meyers, 202; James VanderKam, ‘Joshua the High Priest and the Interpretatio of Zechariah 3’, CBQ 53.4, 561.

11 Mark Boda, The Book of Zechariah, 408; VanderKam, 561.

12 Meyers & Meyers, 202; VanderKam, 561.

13 David Petersen, Haggai and Zechariah 1–8, 45; Marvin Sweeney, The Twelve Prophets, 631.

14 VanderKam, 561.

15 Goswell, 81.

16 Ibid., 82.

17 Ibid., 82–83.

18 Ibid., 80.

19 Meyers & Meyers, 243, 355.

20 Goswell, 86.

21 Meyers & Meyers, 203.

22 Ibid., 202.

23 Meyers & Meyers, 203; cf. Sweeney, 611–612.

24 Eugune Merrill, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, 174; Meyers & Meyers, 203, 243; Petersen, 240.

25 Merrill, 57; Meyers & Meyers, 356.

26 Goswell, 85–86.

27 Goswell, 88; cf. Meyers & Meyers, 82–83.

28 Janet Tollington, Tradition and Innovation in Haggai and Zechariah, 142.

29 Meyers & Meyers, 69.

30 Peter Craigie, Page Kelley, & Joel Drinkard, Jr., Jeremiah 1–25, 323.

31 Tollington, 142–143.

32 Ibid., 143.

33 Goswell, 84.

34 VanderKam, 565.

35 Petersen, 241; Sweeney, 608; VanderKam, 566.

36 Petersen, 240; Tollington, 144–151; VanderKam, 564.

37 Merrill, 174.

38 Stuhlmueller, 46.

39 Petersen, 273; Stuhlmueller, 96.

40 Boda, 408.

41 Sweeney, 608.

42 Petersen, 243.

43 Sweeney, 610.

44 Ibid., 611.

45 Ibid., 610.

46 Stuhlmueller, 51; Sweeney, 532.

47 Boda, 653.

48 Goswell, 77.

49 Sweeney, 532.

50 Boda, 409, 653.

51 Ibid., 408.

52 Meyers & Meyers, 70; Sweeney, 611.

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