The book of Haggai in the Bible is not about Haggai. It’s about Zerubbabel. It was written to him and was also about him. At the same time, it was not about how great a man he was, but how he fit into God’s great plan. We need to understand Zerubbabel to understand the book of Haggai, and we certainly need to understand God’s plan.
Zerubbabel was a part of God’s plan. He was a descendant of David and eligible to reign as king if there had been a kingdom. He was saved by grace; by the grace of the king of Babylon, that is. Evil-Merodach released his grandfather Jehoiachin from prison, where Nebuchadnezzar had confined him, and gave him a place at the royal table. The line of David could have easily been erased at that time, because kings loved to eliminate their competition. The promise to David of a never-ending lineage teetered in the balances for a moment, while Jehoiachin lay exposed to the arbitrary whims of the world’s demagogues. Then he was restored. Jehoiachin and his son Shealtiel enjoyed peace and protection as subjects of the Babylonian empire. When Cyrus the Great sent the Jews back to their land to rebuild their temple, he chose Zerubbabel to be governor of the Persian district of Judah. How fitting for the heir apparent to be placed in charge! Neither Zerubbabel nor any other Jew orchestrated this. Neither Cyrus nor any Persian understood what was happening. It was a higher power that placed the right man at the right place at the right time.
The restoration took place in God’s time. Anything could have happened. The people of Judah could have all been killed. They could have been assimilated like the Northern Kingdom. They could have remained dispersed forever. Not only did they come back home, but they did it at a specific time. The prophet Jeremiah predicted 70 years of captivity (Jer. 25:11) for a reason. The people were supposed to leave the ground fallow every seventh year, and they failed to do it for some 490 years. It would lay fallow for all the years that they failed to do it voluntarily on their own, according to 2 Chronicles 36:21. The first deportation was 605 BC, and the Jews returned under Cyrus in 538 BC. That makes 67 or 68 years. As a mathematician, I can understand that God knows how to round. Some people think that since God is perfect that numbers in the Old Testament need to come out perfectly, and they look for dates to make this happen. We need to be careful not to impose our modern idealism on the past. It’s clear enough that the timing of the return was no accident.
Even though Zerubbabel was God’s man for the hour, he failed as a person. The Jews returned in 538 BC with the goal of rebuilding the temple, but it was not done until 17 years later, in 515 BC. As Haggai wrote, “These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord.” (Haggai 1:2). They came back with good intentions but lacked the motivation to get it done. These were God’s people, knowing God’s plan, but they didn’t have the ability to accomplish it themselves. They were busy building their own homes and might never have gotten to rebuilding the temple. God had to intervene to accomplish his plan. God sent the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, and God sent his Spirit. As it says, “And the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel” (Haggai 1:14) and “My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not” (Haggai 2:5). Haggai and Zechariah spoke God’s words in 520 BC, and the people began the work in the same month, because the initiative came from God.
In the midst of all this building, Haggai subtly discloses a fundamental temple truth to Zerubbabel: Holiness comes from God. It should have been obvious, but it wasn’t. Here’s the analogy that Haggai shared: If consecrated food touches something else, it doesn’t become holy (2:12), but if something unholy touches consecrated articles, the consecrated articles become unholy (2:13). There was only one place in the entire world where articles could be consecrated to God and considered holy, and that was at the temple. The temple needed to be built because we needed a visualization to remind us that we need God to be holy. The daily temple sacrifices would be a continual reminder, even to those who were not present, that God’s goodness is different from ours, and that we can only obtain that godliness by coming to Him.
This temple was much smaller than Solomon’s temple or than Herod would expand it centuries later, but it did the job. Haggai ties it all up by telling Zerubbabel’s future. God would destroy the strength of nations and make Zerubbabel a signet ring. The Persian empire did not fall during the lifetime of Zerubbabel, so we have to look for the fulfillment in a greater context. A signet ring identified a king, and this would be Zerubbabel’s greater role. Jechoniah, Shealtiel, and Zerubbabel are all mentioned in Matthew 1:12, which gives the lineage of King David. According to this passage, the tenth generation after Zerubbabel was Joseph, the legal father of Jesus. Zerubbabel had the honor of being a chosen link in the lineage that identified Jesus as the Son of David and the king whose kingdom would never end. Zerubbabel would never be king, but he would point to the King of kings.