Has this ever happened to you? You receive an award, or a promotion, or your pet project is a big success. People heap praise on you. They’re impressed by what you’ve done. They admire the gifts you have. And, more importantly, they respect who you are. They tell you how they feel, and they tell others about the impact you’ve had on their life. Maybe this all comes in the wake of one of those singular successes, or maybe it just comes as the result of a lifetime of quietly doing what you do and being who you are. Day by day, you simply try to be the best parent, the best worker, the best friend, the best person you know how to be, and other people notice.
Those words of praise should make you feel proud, right? They affirm that you’ve done something right, done something well, done something good. But while on the outside you’re smiling and saying thank you, a voice inside your head is telling you a different story. That voice is sowing seeds of doubt. It tells you that you aren’t anything like what other people think you are. It reminds you of all the less-than-praiseworthy things you’ve done: the time you snapped at your child or didn’t call your friend back right away or didn’t give 100% on the job. You can’t imagine why you’d be the object of others’ praise. Instead of basking in the glow of well-deserved respect, all you hear is that voice telling you that you’re a fraud who’s managed to pull the wool over everyone else’s eyes.
If this is the case, you’re suffering from what’s called “imposter Syndrome,” and you wouldn’t be alone. The magazine “Psychology Today” estimates that some 70 percent of adults may experience Imposter Syndrome at least once in their lifetime. It’s not an actual mental illness, but a mindset where we’re convinced that we’re not who other people think we are. We suspect that someone will eventually figure it out and expose the truth about us. Imposter Syndrome drains the joy out of what we’ve done and makes us doubt what we can do in the future.
I wonder if Zerubbabel might have been suffering from moments of Imposter Syndrome at the end of the book of Haggai. He had certainly had his successes. But, in spite of all that was being accomplished under his leadership, during very trying times, Zerubbabel had reason to doubt himself. Perhaps that’s what prompted God to speak words of encouragement directly to Zerubbabel through Haggai. And, in God’s encouragement for Zerubbabel, we may find encouragement for ourselves.
Zerubbabel was born in Babylon during the exile. That’s actually what his name means: “born at Babel.” As an adult, Zerubbabel became an acknowledged leader of the exiled Jews. When Babylon fell to the Persians, the Persian king Cyrus invited the exiles to return to their land and to rebuild the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. Zerubbabel returned to his ruined city and, along with some other leaders, was appointed by then-governor Sheshbazzar to lead the effort to rebuild the temple.
Arriving in Jerusalem, the first thing Zerubbabel and his coworkers did was to rebuild the altar. Within seven months of their arrival, they reinstituted the burnt offerings and the festival of booths, in spite of their fear of the neighboring peoples. Then, Zerubbabel and the others raised money, organized workers, and rebuilt the temple’s foundation. They marked the occasion with a joyful worship service.
Zerubbabel succeeded Sheshbazzar as governor of Judah, and during his tenure he ensured that the priests and worship leaders were provided for. When work on the temple stalled and God challenged Zerubbabel and his people through Haggai to get back to work, he and the others listened and obeyed, and work on the temple resumed.
So, Zerubbabel had a great deal to be proud of. He had become respected enough among the exiles to be one of those who led them back to their homeland. He had overseen the rebuilding of the altar and the temple foundation, raising the needed funds and managing the workers. He heeded the word of God, spoken through Haggai, and the temple walls were rising again. He had every reason to be pleased with his work and confident in his abilities.
What then, prompted God’s word to him? All the rest of God’s words in Haggai had been addressed to the people as a whole. But the words of our passage are directed to Zerubbabel alone. What makes it necessary for God to speak so powerfully about the future to Zerubbabel?
Perhaps it was because there were some skeletons rattling around in Zerubbabel’s closet that were making him doubt his abilities and his future—skeletons who whispered that he wasn’t cut out to be the faithful leader others thought he was. Because, Zerubbabel’s family tree was pretty sketchy. The death of his great-grandfather, the good king Josiah, had ushered in a string of kings who did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. It was under the dubious leadership of Zerubbabel’s ancestors that Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple’s holy treasures stolen, and the people taken into exile with the kingship of David’s line at an apparent end.
God was so angry with Zerubbabel’s grandpa Jehoiachin that God railed against him through Jeremiah: “If you were the signet ring on my right hand, I would tear you off!” This is worse than tearing off an engagement ring or even a wedding ring. A signet ring was a ring of incredible importance. A signet was actually a seal that was worn on the finger or worn on a chain around the neck or arm. It was used to validate documents. Anything sealed with a signet was legally binding. Possession of someone’s seal meant that they had given you all the authority that belonged to them.
On occasion, a master would allow a trusted servant to carry and use his seal, giving to the servant the authority to act in the master’s name. God had given such authority to King David and to the kings who came from David’s line. But that trusting relationship had come to an end with Zerubbabel’s great-uncle Zedekiah. No longer was David’s line the visible seal of God’s intentions for the world.
With a family history like that, maybe Imposter Syndrome really took hold of Zerubbabel when God told him what God was planning to do: to shake the heavens and the earth, and to overthrow the throne of the kingdoms of the world. Drawing on imagery from the exodus story, God paints a picture of chariots and riders being overthrown, of horses and their riders falling, and of a confusion so great that comrades would use their swords to kill each other. This would be a shake-up unlike anything the world had seen before. It wouldn’t be surprising if Zerubbabel was questioning how suitable he was to be a leader of Judah for that day, given his family history.
Imposter Syndrome can cause us to fear the future and the demands that may be placed on us. When we believe that our success was just a lucky break, or that people only think well of us because they haven’t seen the real us, any new opportunity just makes us doubt ourselves more, because we think that, this time, our real colors will show through, and we’ll actually prove ourselves to be the failures we know ourselves to be. Or, we’ll get lucky and be successful again, but that means that the expectations of us will be even higher. We’ll be more visible. We’ll have more responsibility. For a self-described imposter, new opportunities just mean a higher likelihood of being found out.
We can sympathize with that feeling, unless we’re among the minority of people who’ve never felt this way. We can understand why Zerubbabel might have needed a pep talk from God, because we’ve needed pep talks, too—encouragement from people who do know us well and can help dispel our doubts and fears.
God speaks right into Zerubbabel’s fears. God speaks of the role Zerubbabel will play when God turns the world upside down. I love the way God zeroes in on the miserable family history that must have been on Zerubbabel’s mind with a reference back to God’s words in the past. Yes, Zerubbabel’s ancestors may have been so bad that, if they had been a signet ring on God’s finger, God would have torn them off. But, God does not judge Zerubbabel according to his ancestors’ wrongdoing. “On the day when I shake up the world,” God says, “I will make you like a signet ring, my servant Zerubbabel, for I have chosen you.”
God’s description of the coming shake-up is full of violent action. It’s a scene out of an epic battle tale. But God is speaking in poetry here. We know this because we know that the event that shook the world to its core wasn’t a scene out of a World War II epic or an apocalyptic thriller. What happened was that, one day, a baby was born in Bethlehem—God in human form, the Word made flesh. On that day, in Jesus, a new kingdom—God’s kingdom—broke into the world and began the process by which the power of human rulers on earthly thrones would be overthrown. There was a new world order when Jesus ascended into heaven and took his place at the right hand of God, where he reigns as King and Lord of all that is. That kingdom hasn’t been fully realized yet, but the overthrow of earthly powers began on that day long ago, and it will be completed on that day when Christ comes again.
So, what does that day have to do with Zerubbabel? Jesus’ birth happened centuries after Zerubbabel lived and died. But Zerubbabel had a role to play in this earth-shaking, world-changing event. You’ll see it if you look at the genealogy of Jesus in Chapter 1 of the Gospel of Matthew. Zerubbabel is one of Jesus’ ancestors. After all that Zerubbabel’s forebears had done to alienate themselves from God, it was through Zerubbabel that a king of David’s line would once again take his place on the throne—not an earthly throne, but the throne of God. The day when Zerubbabel would become like God’s signet ring was the day when his grandson many times over was born in a stable and brought God’s kingdom near.
So, what do these closing verses of a tiny little book that hardly anyone ever reads have to say to us? First of all, they tell us that, even when we feel like imposters in our own lives, God knows what we have in us. God knows our weaknesses, and God knows our strengths. God knows our gifts and our abilities. And, why not? God gave them to us in the first place. God has confidence in us when we lack confidence in ourselves. We need never worry about Imposter Syndrome before God. The God who formed our inward parts and knit us together in our mother’s wombs knows exactly who we are. God has confidence in us when we lack confidence in ourselves.
Secondly, God has a place for us in God’s plan for the world, even though the part we are to may never be clear to us. The massive military event Zerubbabel may have been expecting to lead never materialized. Jesus wasn’t born until many generations later. So it is for us. The things we anticipate may play out differently than we expect and may not happen in our lifetimes. But we can trust that God has work for us to do that will help further God’s plan for the world, perhaps in ways that will only be manifested on a day far into the future. When God calls us to a task, whether to a task that is bold and dramatic or the tasks of everyday life, we can trust that God will use us and be with us.
Finally, we participate in God’s plan as adopted sons and daughters. After the reign of Zerubbabel’s ill-fated uncle Zedekiah, there were no more earthly kings from the line of David. But Jesus came to fulfill the promise that a descendant of David would sit on the divine throne eternally. Jesus is the king who sit son that throne. The good news is that we are members of Christ’s royal family. We are heirs to our King—what Paul describes as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.
In a moment we will sing a prayer to our King. We will pray for him to come again and, on that day, shake the heavens and the earth once more—not to destroy what God has created but to create a new world of peace and justice, where all nations will desire Christ as their King. We will also pray for him to come once again into our hearts, banishing our fears, forgiving our sins, and freeing us for lives of joy and confidence. On that day and every day, may we open our hearts to our King, that he may reign in us forever. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young