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Matthew Henry's Commentary – Verses 36–63
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Verses 36–63

Here is an account, I. Of the priests that returned, and they were a considerable number, about a tenth part of the whole company: for the whole were above 42,000 (Ezra 2:64), and four families of priests made up above 4200 (Ezra 2:36-39); thus was the tenth God’s part—a blessed decimation. Three of the fathers of the priests here named were heads of courses, 1 Chron. 24:7, 8, 14. The fourth was Pashur, Ezra 2:38. If these were of the posterity of that Pashur that abused Jeremiah (Jer. 20:1), it is strange that so bad a man should have so good a seed, and so numerous.

II. Of the Levites. I cannot but wonder at the small number of them, for, taking in both the singers and the porters (Ezra 2:40-42), they did not make 350. Time was when the Levites were more forward to their duty than the priests (2 Chron. 29:34), but they were not so now. If one place, one family, has the reputation for pious zeal now, another may have it another time. The wind blows where it listeth, and shifts its points.

III. Of the Nethinim, who, it is supposed, were the Gibeonites, given (so their name signifies) by Joshua first (Josh. 9:27), and again by David (Ezra 8:20), when Saul had expelled them, to be employed by the Levites in the work of God’s house as hewers of wood and drawers of water; and, with them, of the children of Solomon’s servants, whom he gave for the like use (whether they were Jews or Gentiles does not appear) and who were here taken notice of among the retainers of the temple and numbered with the Nethinim, Ezra 2:55, 58. Note, It is an honour to belong to God’s house, though in the meanest office there.

IV. Of some that were looked upon as Israelites by birth, and others as priests, and yet could not make out a clear title to the honour. 1. There were some that could not prove themselves Israelites (Ezra 2:59, 60), a considerable number, who presumed they were of the seed of Jacob, but could not produce their pedigrees, and yet would go up to Jerusalem, having an affection to the house and people of God. These shamed those who were true-born Israelites, and yet were not called Israelites indeed, who came out of the waters of Judah (Isa. 48:1), but had lost the relish of those waters. 2. There were others that could not prove themselves priests, and yet were supposed to be of the seed of Aaron. What is not preserved in black and white will, in all likelihood, be forgotten in a little time. Now we are here told, (1.) How they lost their evidence. One of their ancestors married a daughter of Barzillai, that great man whom we read of in David’s time; he gloried in an alliance to that honourable family, and, preferring that before the dignity of his priesthood, would have his children called after Barzillai’s family, and their pedigree preserved in the registers of that house, not of the house of Aaron, and so they lost it. In Babylon there was nothing to be got by the priesthood, and therefore they cared not for being akin to it. Those who think their ministry, or their relation to ministers, a diminution or disparagement to them, forget who it was that said, I magnify my office. (2.) What they lost with it. It could not be taken for granted that they were priests when they could not produce their proofs, but they were, as polluted, put from the priesthood. Now that the priests had recovered their rights, and had the altar to live upon again, they would gladly be looked upon as priests. But they had sold their birthright for the honour of being gentlemen, and therefore were justly degraded, and forbidden to eat of the most holy things. Note, Christ will be ashamed of those that are ashamed of him and his service. It was the tirshatha, or governor, that put them under this sequestration, which some understand of Zerubbabel the present governor, others of Nehemiah (who is so called, Neh. 8:9; 10:1; and who gave this order when he came some years after); but the prohibition was not absolute, it was only a suspension, till there should be a high priest with Urim and Thummin, by whom they might know God’s mind in this matter. This, it seems, was expected and desired, but it does not appear that ever they were blessed with it under the second temple. They had the canon of the Old Testament complete, which was better than Urim; and, by the want of that oracle, they were taught to expect the Messiah the great Oracle, which the Urim and Thummim was but a type of. Nor does it appear that the second temple had the ark in it, either the old one or a new one. Those shadows by degrees vanished, as the substance approached; and God, by the prophet, intimates to his people that they should sustain no damage by the want of the ark, Jer. 3:16, 17. In those days, when they shall call Jerusalem the throne of the Lord, and all the nations shall be gathered to it, they shall say no more, The ark of the covenant of the Lord, neither shall it come to mind, for they shall do very well without it.