(August 28, 2022) Dr Jim McClure, noted theologian, shares encouragement…
Facing mountains in these dark times?
I’ve been reflecting on a character in the Bible who faced a big mountain and discovered God had gone before him in an amazing way. His name was Zerubbabel – not the easiest name to say, nor would it be likely that you would give your new born child that name.
Most Christians know little about this man, but I find him to be inspirational and also encouraging as we cope with the ‘highs and lows’ in living in these days.
We are living in disturbing times. In my lifetime I have never known such worldwide hostility, political instability, social confusion and moral corruption. And according to medical researchers the global rates of anxiety and depression are soaring. News articles and television reports can often be quite troubling as they confront us with a stream of disturbing incidents.
Of course ours is not the only generation that has been confronted by tragedy and emotional stress. Historical records reveal many periods when war, oppression and disease have had a crushing effect on people.
God does not provide a protective wall around His people to prevent their experiencing the pain and struggles of life, but His presence in our lives gives us hope.
In the Bible, living in hope doesn’t mean that we whistle in the dark to keep our spirits up. No, biblical hope means looking to the future with assurance because we know that, regardless of conditions and circumstances, when it seems that everything is spiralling out of control, God has never lost His control! Jeremiah succinctly declared, ‘Our hope is in you’(Jeremiah 14:22).
Nevertheless I admit that discouragement, anxiety and despair can at times attack our hope can take over and make us feel depressed. God addresses this very emotional experience in Zechariah 4:6 which states, ‘This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.’
Let me give you the background to this verse.
God’s people had experienced some very troubling times. The northern kingdom of Israel had been totally destroyed by the Assyrians and then just over 100 years later the southern kingdom of Judah experienced about 15 years of hostility by the armies of king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.
Finally Jewish resistance was broken in the year 586 BC when the Babylonian army swept into Jerusalem and destroyed the city. Many people were killed, the city walls were razed to the ground, the beautiful temple that Solomon had built was totally destroyed and its priceless treasures were looted by Nebuchadnezzar. Many of the leading citizens were also deported to Babylon.
The people were totally shocked and demoralised. They had firmly believed that Jerusalem, the city of God, could never be overthrown. But what they had considered to be ‘impossible’ had happened! Their spirits were broken and their hopes lay shattered. In Psalm 137 we can sense the anguish of those Jews who had been deported to Babylon as they sang their lament:
‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion… our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?’ (Psalm 137:1,3,4).
Almost 50 years later, when Babylon was defeated by the Persian king Cyrus, it was decreed that all Jews who had been exiled in Babylon could return to their homeland of Judah. Cyrus also gave them permission to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple and he returned to them all the precious things Nebuchadnezzar had stolen from the temple.
In Ezra 2:64 we read that 42,360 Jews accepted Cyrus’ offer and returned to their ancestral homeland. Under the leadership of Zerubbabel and with the support of Joshua, the high priest, and Zechariah the prophet, and after travelling two to three months over a distance of around 2500 kms, the settlers finally arrived at Jerusalem, the city of God.
Who was Zerubbabel?
Zerubbabel had a very significant role to play in God’s plans. Matthew and Luke’s gospels mention him as being an ancestor of Jesus.
The historical context of what Zechariah addressed here is found in the book of Ezra chapters 3 and 4.
1. Inflexible commitment to God’s will
What a disappointment it must have been for Zerubbabel and the other returning Jewish settlers when they arrived at Jerusalem, the city of David! There was nothing attractive about it . It was just a pile of rubble. There were no walls and no temple. Corruption was rampant, the priests were unscrupulous and the descendants of those, who had not been deported to Babylon, resented the arrival of the newcomers and were hostile to them. On top of all that, some Samaritans had also moved into the city.
Zerubbabel had been appointed Governor of Judah by King Cyrus and he had the unenviable task of rebuilding Jerusalem. But who was he? His grandfather, Jehoiachin who was only 18 years old, had been the king of Judah just over three months when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians and he had been deported to Babylon along with many others. Zerubbabel was born in Babylon.
Despite the apparently hopeless sight that confronted Zerubbabe when he first saw Jerusalem, he was committed to restoring the city. His grandfather and others would have told him about what an amazing city Jerusalem had been with the beautiful royal palace and the magnificent temple that Solomon had built over 400 years earlier.
One of Zerubbabel foremost projects was to rebuild the temple where the Jews could once again gather for worship and offer their sacrifices to the Lord. In the year 536 BC, two years after he had arrived in Jerusalem, the foundation of the temple was completed.
- Truly a man of God, his faith was evidenced in his commitment to bring glory to God.
- God is still looking for people who are truly committed to Him.
- The faith of very few Christians would ever be tested in a project as big as Zerubbabel’s.
- But the essential challenge to all of us is the same – our love of God and our faith in Him is evidenced not so much in the things we say but in the things we do.
Zerubbabel’s example challenges us to examine the integrity of our commitment to God especially when our circumstances are difficult.
2. Intimidating pressure of discouragement
With the completion of the building of the foundation there was great celebration… but then the problems began! Despite his success in laying the foundation for the new temple, Zerubbabel’s efforts hit a roadblock. Opposition came from two sources.
i) Criticism from within
Having completed the foundation, Zerubbabel was looking forward to the next stage – building a new temple on it! At first there was great celebration among the people when the foundation was finished. But then began the grumbling and criticism from many who were old enough to remember what the previous temple had looked like. It was clear, from the size of the new foundation, that what Zerubbabel was going to build would be smaller and less splendid than Solomon’s glorious temple that had stood for 400 years.
And so we read in Ezra 3:12, ‘Many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid.’
This is not surprising. In church life also criticism and discouragement often come from Christians within the church than from unbelievers outside the church.
I can well imagine the crushing of Zerubbabel’s spirit by the complaining of some of his fellow Jews. Instead of rejoicing that a temple dedicated to Almighty God would once again stand in Jerusalem, their mean spirits found fault in the size of the foundations! How disappointed Zerubbabel would have felt.
(ii) Opposition from without
It wasn’t only the attitude of some of the older Jews who were discouraging and intimidating Zerubbabel. Opposition also came from the Samaritan settlers in the area who are described in Ezra 4:1 as ‘the enemies of Judah and Benjamin.’At first, they appeared to offer a friendly gesture. They said to Zerubbabel, ‘Let us help you build’ (Ezra 4:2).
Zerubbabel rejected the offer for two reasons. First, they were an enemy of the Jews and could not be trusted.
And secondly, they could have no part in the worship in the temple because their idolatry and worship practices contradicted what the Jews believed. There was no way that Zerubbabel was prepared to compromise the core values of his faith on the basis of not offending those people who fundamentally disagreed with God’s word.
How relevant is this warning for Christians today as many leaders of historic denominations are discarding fundamental beliefs and values in order to avoid offending those whose beliefs and morals stand in complete contradiction to biblical truth.
I read recently that the first Methodist church in England, established by John Wesley, has agreed to celebrate same-sex marriage. A representative of the church said, ‘John Wesley believed in sharing God’s love with everybody and we hope that this step brings Wesley’s message of inclusivity into this century.’ How sad that the amazing ministry of John Wesley has been so misrepresented!
- As Christians are we prepared to stand firm against all pressures today to conform to the woke secular values that are steadily corrupting society?
- Are we prepared to stand firmly on God’s Word and boldly affirm His truth despite the ever increasing opposition?
- In 2 Corinthians 6:14 Paul clearly stated, ‘Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?’
Zerubbabel rejected the offer of the Samaritans that would have compromised him and his leadership. We read in Ezra 4:4 that the Samaritans made the builders afraid to continue building.
(iii) Withdrawal of official support
On top of the criticism of his own people and the opposition of those who were hostile to Zerubbabel, the King of Persia received a letter of complaint from the troublemakers and he withdrew his permission to rebuild. In Ezra 4:21 we read that the king issued an order stating, ‘This city will not be rebuilt until I so order.’
That was a triple blow for Zerubbabel. The great work he had begun with such vision and enthusiasm now lay shattered. The work, which had commenced with so much enthusiasm, came to a complete standstill! It appeared that the temple would never be rebuilt. What Zerubbabel had started with great enthusiasm, now lay abandoned. His hopes were crushed.
Next month I will share how with God’s help Zerubbabel levelled his hindering mountain.
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books and Bible study series, welcomes questions from Christians seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives.
His helpful book, Looking for Answers in a Confusing World, is offered free and is highly recommended. Available in electronic version in EPUB, Kindle and PDF formats with hyperlinks. Link for orders and questions: OnlinerConnect@gmail.com