In 538 BC, Zerubbabel, the leader of the tribe of Judah, was part of the first wave of Jewish captives to return to Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1–2). The Persian king appointed Zerubbabel as governor of Judah (Haggai 1:1), and right away Zerubbabel began rebuilding the temple with the help of Joshua, the high priest (Ezra 3:2–3, 8). The first temple, built by King Solomon, had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC (2 Kings 25:8–10).
It took Zerubbabel two years to rebuild the foundation of the temple. Then construction was delayed by Samaritan settlers whose friendly overtures masked a hidden hostility (Ezra 4:1–5). As a result of the opposition to the temple construction, Persia withdrew support for the project, and for seventeen years the temple sat unfinished (Ezra 4:21).
Finally, God sent the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to encourage and support Zerubbabel (Ezra 5:1–2), and the work on the second temple resumed. Four years later, in 516 BC, the temple was completed and dedicated with great fanfare (Ezra 6:16). The Jews also observed the Passover (Ezra 6:19). It’s interesting that Zerubbabel is never mentioned in connection with the dedication ceremonies, nor is his name mentioned again after Ezra 5:1. For this reason, Zerubbabel’s temple is often referred to simply as the “second temple.”
It is obvious that the Lord God was pleased with Zerubbabel’s efforts in returning the captives to Jerusalem, in building the second temple, and in reestablishing the temple worship (Ezra 3:10). With God’s prompting, Haggai gave Zerubbabel a special blessing: “‘On that day,’ declares the LORD Almighty, ‘I will take you, my servant Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will make you like my signet ring, for I have chosen you,’ declares the LORD Almighty’” (Haggai 2:23).
As the second temple was being built, there was a group of Jews in Jerusalem who were rather disappointed. Older Jews who recalled the size and grandeur of the first temple regarded Zerubbabel’s temple as a poor substitute for the original. To their minds, it did not even begin to compare with the splendor of Solomon’s temple. It was true that Zerubbabel’s temple was built on a smaller scale and with much fewer resources. Also, Solomon’s temple had housed the Ark of the Covenant, which was no longer in Israel’s possession. And at the first temple’s dedication, the altar had been lit by fire from heaven, and the temple had been filled with the Shekinah; attendees at the second temple’s dedication witnessed no such miracles. Even so, Haggai prophesied that the second temple would one day have a magnificence to outshine the glory of the first (Haggai 2:3–9). Haggai’s word was fulfilled 500 years later when Jesus Christ arrived on the scene (Luke 2:22, 46; 19:45). Zerubbabel’s temple was not as outwardly impressive as Solomon’s, but it had a greater glory: the Messiah Himself walked the courts of the temple that Zerubbabel built.