God’s people were born not to be slaves, but to be free. When they lived under the bondage of Pharaoh they cried out to God and He delivered them through Moses. After centuries of rebellion the Lord sent His people into exile under Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. Freedom would once again come to them by the hand of the Lord. They would be led home by men like Zerubbabel from the line of David and Jeshua the High Priest.
Under these great men of their day and many other tribal leaders listed here were thousands of men whose names we do not know. Their numbers are recorded for us—numbers that at first glance may seem impressive, but these figures are much lower than those in the account that we have of the people who came into the land centuries earlier under Joshua.
Special attention is given here to those who would lead the life of worship in a rebuilt Jerusalem. Without proper priests and Levites the returning exiles would immediately be walking in disobedience to the revealed will of the Lord. The number of Levites noted in this chapter was surprisingly small. They were aided by other temple servants, but those who could not prove their ancestry were excluded from religious leadership in the new Israel.
When the fighting men of Israel were numbered prior to entering the land of Canaan the total was over 600,000. Centuries later when David ordered an unauthorized census there were well over 1,000,000 men who were counted as descendants of Jacob. After hundreds of years there should have been many millions who were their descendants, but the whole assembly coming back from exile totaled only 42,360. What happened to all of them? How could it be possible that there were fewer than 50,000 returning exiles?
Israel and Judah had faced the discipline of the Lord and many people had died. While this plain fact is very discouraging, we should never be surprised that the judgment of the Almighty might lead to the loss of many lives. What should surprise us is that anyone is allowed to live.
The Lord had a plan that involved the survival of some number of Israelites and the continuation of the line of David through Zerubbabel. These survivors would have much work to do. They could take courage that though many of their brothers and sisters had died and many others would remain in foreign lands throughout their lives, God would fulfill His promises through the thousands that were coming back to Jerusalem.
The returning exiles would set out to rebuild the temple of the Lord. Many gave of their substance to see that good work accomplished. Theirs was an important period in the history of the people of God. The Jews would be kept alive for the great purposes of God, including the eventual coming of the Messiah King. But who could have known that it would take many centuries for that King to come, and that He would give His life for the building of a much greater temple? Who could have known that the death of one prisoner, Jesus, would mean eternal freedom not only for millions of Jews, but also for billions of Gentiles?
Prayer from A Book of Prayers
Lord God, You know Your people. You sent many out of the land in the day of discipline. You brought them back according to Your prophetic Word. Thank You for Your particular care for Your people today. You know our names, but Your knowledge is much more extensive than that. You know our heritage. You know our extended families and the towns we came from. While this is true of all Your creatures, it is especially the case for Your chosen people. The particular care that You have shown for the sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is undeniable. Your actions of love and discipline for the people of the Old Covenant are recorded in the Scriptures. But there is a vast multitude of chosen men, women, and children who have become Israelites indeed through faith in Jesus Christ. In Him we have a safe place within the worship assembly of Your people. We are even part of the priesthood of all believers who shall serve You forever in a better land than Canaan. Blessed be Your Name, O God.