The Service of the Priests and the Levites

Hebrews 10:11 (NASB)

29 Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins;

Twenty-four Courses

1 Chronicles 28:11-13, 19 (NASB)

11 Then David gave to his son Solomon the plan of the porch of the temple, its buildings, its storehouses, its upper rooms, its inner rooms and the room for the mercy seat;
12 and the plan of all that he had in mind, for the courts of the house of the LORD, and for all the surrounding rooms, for the storehouses of the house of God and for the storehouses of the dedicated things;
13 also for the divisions of the priests and the Levites and for all the work of the service of the house of the LORD and for all the utensils of service in the house of the LORD;
19 "All this," said David, "the LORD made me understand in writing by His hand upon me, all the details of this pattern."

Before the Temple was built, David received instructions from the Holy Spirit and showed Solomon how to divide the priests and the Levites and how they were to serve. In the Temple, there were several classes of Levites:

In addition, there were also officers and judges (1 Chronicles 26:29-32) that assigned outside responsibilities.

The priests and the Levites were divided into 24 courses within their assigned class. The length of each course was 7 days (1 Chronicles 9:25). The week of service began and ended on the Sabbath (2 Chronicles 23:8). In addition, all the priests served for 3 extra weeks during the year (Deuteronomy 16:16).

Each course of priests and Levites came on duty for a week, from one Sabbath to another. It should be made clear that not every priest and Levite in a course served every day. The service was subdivided among the various families which constituted a course. The number of families in a course varied. The singers had only one family in each course (1 Chronicles 25:7-31) whereas the other classes had up to 9 families in a course.

The Jewish calendar has only 51 weeks in a year. Each of the 24 courses therefore served twice a year, plus 3 weeks they all served, for a total of 5 weeks during the year. Every 2 or 3 years, there is a leap year which adds a leap month. It was not certain how the priests served these extra days.

The Number of Priests and Levites

1 Chronicles 23:2-6 (NASB)

2 And he gathered together all the leaders of Israel with the priests and the Levites.
3 The Levites were numbered from thirty years old and upward, and their number by census of men was 38,000.
4 Of these, 24,000 were to oversee the work of the house of the LORD; and 6,000 were officers and judges,
5 and 4,000 were gatekeepers, and 4,000 were praising the LORD with the instruments which David made for giving praise.
6 David divided them into divisions according to the sons of Levi: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.

There were a great number of priests and Levites in the Temple at all times. According to 1 Chronicles 23:4-5, there were 24,000 priests and priests' assistants, 4,000 gatekeepers and 4,000 musicians. They were divided into 24 courses according to their assignment. When a course was on duty, all its members were bound to appear in the Temple. Therefore there were more than 1,300 Levites in the Temple at any given time, although not all of them were serving on the same day.

Based on this large population, David enlarged the number of vessels and furniture to be used in the Temple. For example, he designed not 1 lampstand, but 10, as well as 10 tables of showbread and 10 lavers. He also designed vessels that were unique to this Temple. He made special "carts" which transported the lavers from place to place within the Temple. The "brazen sea," a large reservoir of water resting on twelve oxen, was one of the wonders of the ancient world. This water was used by the priests to purify themselves before attending to their sacred duties.

The Duties of the Priests

Before the break of the day, the priests on duty were ready and they assembled to cast lots to decide the assignment of the various daily tasks. It started with filling the lavers and preparing the altar. At about 9:00 am, they opened the gates and blew the silver trumpets to announce the commencement of the morning service. The service included slaying the sacrificial lamb, salting the sacrifice, trimming the lampstand, burning the incense, presenting the burnt offering and drink offering, blessing the people and blasting the silver trumpets. This was followed by the Psalm of the day, presented by the singers, accompanied by instrumental music.

Immediately after the morning service, the Israelites might bring in their private sacrifices and offerings. It would occasionally continued till near the time for the evening sacrifice, which was about 2:30 pm. The evening service was similar to the morning service. It ended at about 4:00 pm.

At night, the priests kept watch about the innermost places of the Temple, including the inner court and the Temple itself. They also opened and closed all the inner gates.

On a Sabbath day, there were the weekly renewal of the showbread and an additional burnt offering of two lambs. Before the actual Sabbath commenced, the service of the new course of priests and Levites had already begun. After the evening service, the outgoing course handed over the keys of the sanctuary, the holy vessels, and everything else they had in charge to the new course. At sunset on Friday, the Sabbath began. Immediately followed was the renewal of the showbread. It had been prepared by the incoming course before the Sabbath itself, in one of the side chambers of the Temple. Although the service of the incoming priests had begun, that of the outgoing had not yet completely finished. In fact, the outgoing priests offered the morning sacrifice on the Sabbath (Saturday morning), and then the incoming course performed the evening sacrifice. Both courses spent the Sabbath in the Temple. The Sabbath service was the same as on other days, except that at the close of the morning sacrifice two additional lambs were offered, along with its appropriate meal and drink offerings (Numbers 28:9-10). When the Sabbath was over, the outgoing course left the Temple and parted from each other with a farewell.

On New Moons and other festivals, there were additional rituals to be observed according to the Law.

The Duties of the Singers and Musicians

The singers and musicians were selected and set apart to their assigned function. There were a total of 288 singers (1 Chronicles 25:7-31) and 4,000 musicians (1 Chronicles 23:5). They were also divided into 24 courses. Therefore each course had 12 singers and more than 160 musicians. Unlike the singers, the 160 musicians were coming from several families. The ministry was subdivided among the families, and only one family of 20 to 30 musicians accompanied the 12 voice choir.

The real service of praise in the Temple was only with the voice. The instrumental music served only to accompany and sustain the song. The musical instruments used were mainly the Nevel (harp) and the Kinnor (lyre). The silver trumpets used in the Temple, blown by priests only, were not part of the instrumental music, but were intended for assembling Israel to worship at the Temple. The other musical instrument mentioned was the cymbal. But this "sounding brass" and "tinkling cymbal" also formed no part of the Temple music itself, and served only as the signal to begin that part of the service.

Nevel

The Nevel (translated to harp) was either a portable harp (left) or a lute (far left). Ancient harps generally had soundboxes and even soundboards made of skin stretched over a wooden framework.

Biblical references:

1 Samuel 10:5; 2 Samuel 6:5; 1 Kings 10:12; 1 Chronicles 13:8; 15:16, 20, 28; 25:1, 6; 2 Chronicles 5:12; 9:11; 20:28; 29:25; Nehemiah 12:27; Psalm 33:2; 57:8; 81:2; 92:3; 108:2; 144:9; 150:3; Isaiah 5:12; 14:11; Amos 5:23; 6:5

 

Kinnor

These pictures show two versions of the Kinnor (lyre). The lyre is box-shaped, with two arms and a yoke, and of an approximate average height of 50-60 cm. The design of the lyre is based on an ancient coin from the Second Temple era. The Kinnor is sometimes translated as "harp", but it is not a harp at all. In Jewish tradition, this instrument is associated with King David and is also referred as the "Davidic Harp."

Biblical references:

Genesis 4:21; 31:27; Nehemiah 12:27; 1 Samuel 10:5; 16:16,23; 2 Samuel 6:5; 1 Kings 10:12; 1 Chronicles 13:8; 15:16, 21, 28; 16:5; 25:1, 6; 2 Chronicles 5:12; 9:11; 20:28; 29:25; Psalm 33:2; 43:4; 57:8; 71:22; 81:2; 92:3; 98:5; 108:2; 147:7; 149:3; 150:3; Isaiah 5:12; 30:32

The Levite choir offered praises in the morning and evening services. They were trained in singing and skillful (1 Chronicles 25:6-7), and were free from other duties (1 Chronicles 9:33).

The Duties of the Priests' Assistants

Of the various classes of Levites, the priests' assistants were the most numerous. They were in subordination to the priests. It had been their duty to look after the sacred garments and vessels, the storehouses and their contents, and the preparation of the showbread, of the meal offerings, of the spices, etc. In general, they were to assist the priests in their work, to clean the sanctuary, and to take charge of the treasuries (1 Chronicles 23:28-32).

The Duties of the Gatekeepers

The gatekeepers assumed the responsibilities of policing the Temple and guarding the outer gates and the storehouse, day and night. The laws of Levitical cleanness were most rigidly enforced upon worshippers and priests. If a leper, or any one who was defiled had entered into the Temple area, or any priest officiated in a state of uncleanness, he would, if discovered, be dragged out and killed.

Related Topics

The Jewish Calendar - Presents an overview of the Jewish Calendar and Festivals. Also provides links to online tools.

The Five Offerings - Presents an overview of the sacrificial system.

References

Edersheim, Alfred. "The Temple - Its Ministry and Services As They Were at the Time of Jesus Christ." http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/temple.html [Originally published: 1874]