The number 42,000 sounds like a lot of people. It’s about double the number that attend a sold-out NBA or NHL game. It would pack out most MLB stadiums and be a huge concert turnout. It’s quite a crowd.
But 42,000 is a small city—barely a city at all, in fact. It’s really more of a town. And that is the entire number of the exiles who returned to Jerusalem. Millions departed Judah in captivity, and 42,000 returned. When we think about it in these terms it sounds feeble and small. It is more sad than celebratory.
Yet this small number is no more sad than the seed that dies and shrivels and cracks to give life to a new plant (Matthew 13:1-22). For that is what these 42,000 exiles were: new growth of God’s people in God’s promised land. They were a fresh start and a kept promise and measure of God’s faithfulness.
While the list of names upon names (fifty verses worth) might seem cumbersome and meaningless as we struggle to read them, they are a record of a legacy. Every family represented had roots in Jerusalem and would grow there again because God was faithful. Every priest and Levite would once again serve God in the temple because God brought them home to do so, and they took this responsibility seriously. They sought to keep God’s law in selecting leaders. Those who “feared God more than most” (Nehemiah 7:2), and those of the correct lineage were selected according to God’s priestly dictum and manner (Urim and Thummim), so that God’s house would be unsullied.
These 42,000 had paid the price for their ancestors’ unrighteousness, and they had every intention of clinging to the God who had never let go of them. They clung to the words of David from Psalm 34, that “the Lord redeems the lives of His servants and all who take refuge in Him will not be punished” (v.22). Because they were small in number and barely established, God’s people held to the promise that “one who is righteous has many adversities, but the Lord rescues him from them all” (v.19). How could they not? They’d already been rescued from Egypt, from invaders, and now from exile too.
From this humble restart Israel would be established again. Families would resettle, the temple would be rebuilt, and hope would come again—hope for a Messiah, One who would gather the exiles from every tribe and nation around the globe. For God will always bring His people home and redeem the righteous.
Written by Barnabas Piper