Saturday, July 30, 2016

Bible Commentary - 1 Chronicles 25

In this chapter, David organizes worship ministry for the temple.

Similar to chapters 23-24, this chapter is part of the broad category of "organizing chapters", where David in particular is organizing different facets of the temple ministry.  In the first of these chapters (1 Chron 23), David performed a census of the family of Levites as a whole, which serves as a general overview of the Levites and priests.  In the following chapters, David provides more specific instructions for the Levites and priests. Chapter 24 has a detailed breakdown of priestly responsibilities, and this chapter continues with detailed instructions for the worship ministry of the Levite families.  So basically, chapter 23 opens with a genealogy that essentially says "here is a list of all the people that are involved in the temple" and the following chapters contain the specific organization for what each of those groups of Levites or priests are responsible for doing, family by family.  This present chapter (1 Chron 25) fits in as part of those detailed instructions.  It lists 24 families of Levites that must serve as worship leaders and musicians in the temple.  These 24 families almost certainly correspond with the 24 families of priests in chapter 24, and they probably served at the same time and for the same duration.

In this chapter, as in the previous ones, David remains a driving force behind the organization.  It's part of his overall commitment to the temple and his vision for what the temple should look like.  I think this partly reveals David's own personal interest in music; we know, for instance, that David was regarded as a skilled musician long before he even became a military leader, much less king (1 Samuel 16:14-23).  In only the second mention of David (the first when he was anointed by Samuel), he is mentioned because he is "a skillful musician".  In addition, the authorship of many of the Psalms in the bible are traditionally attributed to David (some of these attributions are in the biblical text of the Psalm's title, such as all of Psalms 3 through 32 and many others).  Therefore we can regard David as having a particular interest in music and I believe that interest shows through here.

I think it's interesting how the musicians in this chapter are connected to prophetic ministry, as in verses 1, 2 and 3.  Music has been tied to prophecy before, but the connection is not clear.  For instance, 1 Samuel 10:5 has a band of prophets coming down from a high place (traditional religious site) playing instruments and prophesying.  2 Kings 3:15 is even more enigmatic, because in that instance Elisha specifically requests a musician to play music before he issued a prophetic directive to the king of Israel.  In some mysterious way, music enabled Elisha (who was already a mighty prophet) to prophesy.  Even though this story makes it clear that music has some kind of power, it's not at all clear how or why.  Any casual human experience with music makes it clear that music has emotional power.  Movie soundtracks provide obvious musical cues to how the listener should feel about particular scenes.  Music is ubiquitous across possibly every human culture.  This chapter, however, implies that music also has spiritual power as it empowers prophets to interact with the LORD: interceding on our behalf sometimes and speaking to us on the LORD's behalf in other times.

A full discussion of music and the spiritual realm is beyond the scope of my commentary, but there are two things I should say.

First, this chapter validates, and perhaps even demands, the role of music in worship and church ministry.  Besides its role here in empowering prophets, 2 Kings 3:15 makes it clear that there are certain situations where prophetic ministry is literally not possible without music.  No matter what else we could say about music in human culture, we should acknowledge that God has designed music as a spiritual ministry, and this is something that cannot be compromised.  If we degrade or remove music from church ministry, that ministry will be impoverished in some way because they are simply not operating the way that God designed the human spirit.

Secondly, I don't believe that there is a specific form of music that God demands from us.  I argue this for two reasons.  First, music in the bible itself takes several different forms and is largely constrained by the instruments that existed at that time.  Several places in the bible (particularly Psalm 150, which we have not read yet) makes it clear that every kind of instrument is acceptable for praising the LORD, just as much as it makes clear that we are directly adjured to praise the LORD in such a manner.  That is, all created things must praise the LORD, and all created things are acceptable to praise the LORD.  Second, as more of a cultural argument, music takes many different shapes in different cultures and across time.  The diversity that exists in music parallels the diversity that exists in human ethnicities, languages and other aspects of culture, and it strikes me as deeply inappropriate to seize upon a single kind of music that is declared acceptable while all others are outlawed.  I would feel the same way if somebody claimed that all worship must be in English or Arabic or French and that all other languages were inappropriate.  God makes clear in many places throughout the bible that all ethnicities are accepted, all languages are accepted, and it strikes me as a natural extension to say that all kinds of music are accepted.  The primary limitation (just as with language) is that worship music should be respectable and appropriate, so except for very specific circumstances worship music should avoid excessive profanity, cursing or other graphic language and imagery.  Even within this limitation, I think the scope for acceptable worship music is very broad.

In the 1960's and 1970's there was a fairly broad culture war between the older generation and the youth (the counterculture).  One of the manifestations of that culture war was in the church and centered around rock music.  Many people from the older generation regarded rock music (i.e. guitars and drums) as inappropriate for worship music in a church setting, some going as far as to label it demonic.  This is still the opinion in a variety of more conservative or traditional churches, while in many newer churches or denominations (especially the so-called Third Wave movement which includes Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard movement) a new style of rock-n-roll worship music predominates.  Nowhere is this fracture more evident than in places like a Presbyterian church I once visited that hosts both a "traditional" service and a "contemporary" service, with one of the chief distinctions being the worship music style.

Before saying anything further, I should remark that I play acoustic guitar, bass guitar and piano and I go to a church with a contemporary worship style, so my own personal preferences bias me towards the contemporary style over traditional hymns.  With that said, in my opinion the bible makes it clear that both of these worship styles are appropriate in the sight of God.  Both traditional hymns and contemporary worship permit us to encounter the heart of God if we choose to seek him in that way, and therefore the only real distinction between these worship styles is personal preference.  My personal preference is towards contemporary styles but I respect traditional worship styles for what they are.

At the same time, we should also acknowledge that these conflicting worship styles are indicators of a broader cultural shift that is happening in the church between the younger and older generations that are most commonly associated with contemporary and traditional worship styles, respectively.  This was a cultural shift that began in earnest in the 1960s but has continued to this day (though perhaps with less ferocity and acrimony).  My first reaction is to find this conflict uncomfortable.  I can't help but quietly hope that those traditional denominations with traditional styles could perhaps be reconciled in unity with the Third Wave and younger generations.  My second reaction is that I'm really not at all sure that this kind of reconciliation makes sense or how it should look.  As I stated above, I think personal preference is a completely valid way to select and organize worship music.  So long as differing groups of people prefer different worship styles, I think it makes sense that there should be different worship experiences to suite them, and I see nothing wrong with that.  Perhaps I am simply uncomfortable because I still see echoes of the internecine culture wars within the church playing out through these musical differences.  I think ultimately what I would like to see is unity in diversity, i.e. that everyone would find a church with a worship style that matches their personal preference, but that the various Christian congregations would be unified even if their musical expressions were different.  I'm not sure how that should look though.  Perhaps that Presbyterian church had the right idea, hosting traditional and contemporary services separately while uniting those separate services in other ways.  To me, it felt vaguely segregated, but in hindsight it may be for the best.

Okay, well that was a long tangent but I think it's an important topic.  Music is more than just something that sounds nice.  It has spiritual significance, so I think it needs to be treated seriously.

In the next chapter, David continues organizing the temple ministry by ordaining the temple gatekeepers and treasurers.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Bible Commentary - 1 Chronicles 24

In this chapter, David divides the priests into 24 orders responsible for the temple ministry.

The basic purpose of this chapter is to set up a rotation for different priestly families to come and serve in the temple.  This is quite similar to the previous chapter when David was organizing the Levites.  Both chapters are part of David's preparations for the temple.  The general progression of this book is that David has first defeated Israel's national enemies, establishing peace, then second he brought in great volumes of tribute and stone and wood to construct the temple.  After collecting the materials for building the temple, David now seeks to prepare the administration of the temple by organizing the priests and Levites.

I think the biggest surprise to me in this chapter is that serving in the temple is actually only a small fraction of what the priests do with their time.  Since there are 24 families who serve in the temple, that means each family will only spend 1/24th of their time in the temple service (this is slightly more than 4%).  It doesn't say how long each period of service would be, but I think the most likely duration would be two weeks, because then 24 periods would be very close to one year in the Hebrew calendar.

Since so much of the biblical text is centered around the temple, worship and sacrifice ministries, I always imagined the priests spending their whole lives sacrificing animals and burning incense and stuff like that.  I rarely ever thought of them as having an occupation outside of their official ministry at the temple or the tabernacle.  And yet we can see that the priests spend only a tiny fraction of their time in the temple.  What did the priests do when they weren't serving in the temple?  We can figure out a couple possibilities based on the biblical text.  Besides their responsibilities for monitoring skin diseases and mold, the priests were also selected to administrate Israel as officials and judges.  1 Chronicles 23:4 states that six thousand Levites would serve as officials and judges, but it's almost certain that the priests would do similarly and were most likely responsible for overseeing the Levites in whatever aspect the Levites administrated.  The priests were "paid" through the tithe, so they did not have to do any farming or otherwise earn a living.

I don't have much more to say about this chapter.  I think the majority of the names and families mentioned in this chapter are not meaningful elsewhere and the genealogical elements of this chapter are fairly unimportant to anyone who is not a scholar.  I think we can understand this chapter as another phase of David's grandiose plan for building the temple, and that should mostly cover it.

In the next chapter, David's grandiose plans continue with the music ministry.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Bible Commentary - 1 Chronicles 23

In this chapter, David first takes a census of the Levites and then assigns them to the temple ministry.

The main driving force in this chapter is expressed in v. 25-26: because Israel is no longer going to wander in the desert, the previous Levitical ministry (carrying the holy things) is no longer applicable.  The nation, the holy things, the LORD: they are now going to dwell in Jerusalem “forever”.  This leaves the Levites in an interesting position.  They were not granted a tribal inheritance (i.e. land) because they were dedicated to the LORD perpetually: Deuteronomy says that the LORD is their inheritance.  If their ministry is disbanded, they could still live in the Levitical towns (scattered throughout the nation), but they depend on the tithe for their sustenance because they do not own any farmland.  Instead, David is seeking to construct a ministry for the Levites that is true to the spirit of their prior occupation but fits their nation’s present circumstances.

This chapter begins with a census of the Levites.  It is necessary to count and organize the Levites in order to assign them to ministries, so even though the Levites were included in the extensive genealogy at the beginning of this book, it makes sense that they would be listed again here.  Afterwards, the chapter lists several different kinds of service for the Levites.

First, in v. 4-5, David lists several kinds of service.  The vast majority are assigned to “supervise the work of the temple of the LORD”, with another six thousand distributed as judges and officials and the remainder assigned to other tasks in the temple complex but not related to the temple itself.  Assigning Levites as judges and officials shows the fusion that often existed in Israelite society between the political and religious spheres.  This should not surprise us, seeing as the Law of Moses was considered the governing law in ancient Israel and that is itself a mixture of religious and civil law.  It should be readily apparent, given their place in society, that the Levites hold significant political power throughout the nation.  As in every theocracy, the priests sometimes act kinda like a king and the king sometimes acts kinda like a priest.  In this chapter, we see both as the king manages the affairs of the temple and the Levites are assigned judicial and administrative roles throughout the kingdom.

Second, v. 28-31 gives a second list of tasks for the Levites, as it relates to the temple.  This second list is probably a detailed breakdown for those who “supervise the work of the temple” in v. 4, which was the largest and most extensive part of the Levites’ service.  Indeed, the list of duties for the Levites is varied and extensive.  In my personal opinion, I think at this point the distinction between the priestly ministry and the Levitical ministry is starting to blur.  In the past, the priests did everything in the temple, are responsible for performing sacrifices and offerings, and handle some other random stuff like mold inspections.  The priests still handle sacrifices and the mold stuff, but now Levites are taking on a large portion of the temple ministry.  Even though I think their ministries are starting to look similar, the priests still have distinctly greater authority than the Levites, since the Levites are ministering “under their brothers the descendants of Aaron” (v. 32).

The reason why this chapter is pertinent is that David is organizing the Levites in service of the temple.  David is not just preparing the materials for constructing the temple, he is arranging for the Levites and priests to run the temple complex once it has been built.  In the post-exilic period, David’s structure is used as a prototype and justification for the temple order of their day, and we see this organization continue even into the New Testamental period.

Lastly, one minor textual note is that v. 3 says that the census counted men above 30 years old, while v. 24, 27 counts men who are over 20 years old.  The 30 year age limit is likely taken from Numbers 4:1-3 when the original census of the Levites was conducted for their assignment to ministry during the time of Moses.  The change to 20 years appears to have been instituted by David for no reason that we are given.

In the next chapter, David goes on to divide and organize the priests.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Bible Commentary - 1 Chronicles 22

In this chapter, David prepares the gold, silver and other materials for Solomon to build the future temple of the LORD.

In my opinion, I think the crux of this whole chapter is verse 5: David thinks that Solomon is young and incapable of building the temple by himself to be as great as David wants it to be, so David is going to “help” Solomon out as much as he can.  The accomplishment is nominally Solomon’s, but David intends pitch in whatever way is possible.  I can’t help but observe a parallel to overly ambitious parents of our own generation, so desperately eager for their children’s success that they help write school essays, hire tutors and do whatever it takes to get their children into some kind of elite university or prestigious law school or something.  The children perhaps resent that parental influence, but such parents are perhaps seeking to fulfill their own dream in their child’s life and disregard their child’s desires or intentions.

I wonder how much of this dynamic is in play here, and how Solomon feels about David’s influence and reputation preceding him.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that while Solomon is the one building the temple, David is more famous in history.  I wonder if Solomon ever felt that David was an overbearing father.  The other side of this story is that David has undeniably prepared Solomon for success.  Because David wanted the temple to be amazing and fantastic, it had to be a multi-generational project.  It was too big for one generation to build it.

Beyond all the preparations for the temple, David has also crushed their neighboring enemies and ensured that Solomon will indeed have peace in his generation.  The only question is, once Solomon is unconstrained by his father’s guiding influence, where will his desire lead him?  Will he become the great king and temple builder that David desires, or will he be like king Joash who started to sin and disregard the LORD when Jedoiada the priest died (2 Kings 12)?  This is the ultimate test of a man’s heart: what you do when there is nobody left to control you or force you to behave some certain way.  We know from the book of Kings that when Solomon reaches his old age, he marries foreign women who lead him to worship idols, and I really wonder if David’s behavior is a factor.  While David loves the LORD, he may be alienating his son by treating him as a pawn to fulfill his own desires.  Chronicles does not analyze these issues directly, but it’s something to keep in mind when observing the interaction between David and Solomon.

In keeping with the above, what we can learn most directly from this chapter is David’s zeal for the temple.  We know that it was “in David’s heart” to build the temple, but he was not permitted to do so by the LORD, similar to how it was in Moses’s heart to enter with Israel into the promised land, but he was not permitted to do so either.  Moses spent the end of his life preparing Israel to enter the promised land by giving them the Law of God (basically all of Deuteronomy), and now David is spending the end of his life preparing Solomon to build the temple.  I can feel David’s enthusiasm pouring through this chapter as he wants to do everything he possibly can to ensure that the temple is “of great magnificence and fame and splendor”.  I think David really wanted to build the temple and when that was denied to him, he now wants to get as close to building the temple as he possibly can without overstepping the boundary that God laid down.

Meanwhile, we can also see this chapter as part of the transition between David and Solomon’s kingships.  David is both handing over the temple project to Solomon as well as commanding his royal administration to obey Solomon.  Passing down the command to build the temple definitely establishes a continuity between father and son, the same way that the covenantal promise bound together Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Another theme in this chapter is the contrast between David as a man of bloodshed and Solomon as a man of peace (v. 8-9).  This is in keeping with the previous several chapters that detailed some of David’s military campaigns.  Israel needed to have peace with their neighbors in order to build the temple, but for some vague moral reason, conducting these campaigns disqualified David from building the temple.  There is no indication that David sinned in fighting these wars; the wars were morally approved by God, victories came from God as a sign of favor for Israel, and the LORD is not actually rebuking David in this passage.  Perhaps in some broad sense David was somehow rendered ceremonially unclean because of his time fighting in these wars.  He is not unclean in a formal sense (he can still partipate in the Passover, make offerings, enter the temple grounds, etc), but he is denied the more specific privilege of building the temple, even though David acting within God’s will.

In the next chapter, David continues the preparations by organizing the Levites and assigning them tasks for the temple administration.