This text will be talking about the lives of the priests. Malachi 2:7 – For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.
One might picture the priests in the Temple as they would gather in the evening to talk about all the things that had happened in The Temple that day. There must have been much talk especially during the trial of Jesus, His condemnation by the Sanhedrin, and His being delivered up to the Gentiles. These things must have been the topic of much conversation in and around The Temple. The people must have thought about their own chief priests being at the head of condemning Jesus for what he had done. Also they must have heard about what had happened to Judas and how he had thrown the money back at the high priests because he said that it was ‘blood money’. The people must have talked extensively about how Jesus had taught in the Temple day after day, and how He had performed miracles of healing, etc. Many of the people there must have seen Jesus perform miracles with their own eyes, or maybe he had even performed a miracle in their own life. As the people talked of these matters, it would only be natural that the priests would overhear and even discuss these matters themselves. Also Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the priestly council himself and he let it be known openly that he was a follower of Christ by asking to bury him in his own grave that he had built for himself one day. There definitely must have been much rumor and talk in and around the Temple at this time by both ordinary people and priests.
The number of priests to be found at all times in Jerusalem must have been very great. Ophel, their living quarters must have been very densely inhabited. It was said that at least half of them were in Jerusalem at all times and the other half spread out across the land. Many of them had also settled in Jericho. Each of the priests was supposed to get a turn serving in Jerusalem, as that’s where they all wanted to be.
Everything connected with the priesthood was intended to be symbolical and typical — the office itself, its functions, even its dress and outward support. The fundamental design of Israel itself was to be unto Jehovah ‘a kingdom of priests and an holy nation’.
Just as the Israelites in the wilderness were instructed by God to give a half-shekel as their tabernacle contribution, so also this amount of money became the standard Temple contribution.
The fundamental jobs of the priests were to be that of reconciliation and mediation. The first was expressed by the sacrifices they performed for the people, and the second signified an intervening priesthood from the people to God.
The Hebrew term for priest (Cohen) denotes in its root meaning as ‘one who stands up for another, and mediates in his cause.’ For this purpose God chose Aaron and his sons, and the tribe of Levi to bestow his gift of priesthood. The High Priest was the one in Old Testament times that everything ultimately centered around as far as sacrifices were concerned. This was a forerunner for the one ultimate sacrifice in Jesus Christ who was our ultimate High Priest.
The next idea that was to be expressed by the priesthood was holiness. Israel was to be a holy nation that had been brought near to God and so they should keep themselves in fellowship with God. This was to be done by the priesthood at all times, and the gold plate which the High Priest wore on his forehead symbolized this. This plate had the words ‘Holiness unto Jehovah’ printed on it. At the end of this text, there is a picture of what the High Priest may have looked like at the time of Aaron.
Everything the High Priests and regular priests did or wore fully embodied their positions: their distinctive dress, the bodily qualifications, any defilements that would interrupt their functions, anything that they said or did was to set them apart. In every respect was there to be a difference in them and the Israelites.
Exodus 28: 36, 38 – Make a plate of pure gold and engrave on it as on a seal: HOLY TO THE LORD… It will be on Aaron’s forehead, and he will bear the guilt involved in the sacred gifts the Israelites consecrate, whatever their gifts may be. It will be on Aaron’s forehead continually so that they will be acceptable to the Lord.
God definitely expected the priests to be different from the rest of Israel, and especially the High Priest was to be different from any other person. Just as these things were expected of Aaron in the Old Testament, the Temple priests also had their ways of being set apart from the rest of the people. No doubt, though, they patterned their ways after the Old Testament writings which they so often had read.
Actually this started at the time of Moses, but there is more documentation for it when David was king. On God’s instructions he divided the sons of Aaron into 24 groups or “courses” as they were called. Then a schedule was set up so that the Temple of the Lord could be staffed with priests all year round in an orderly manner. Lots were drawn to determine the sequence in which each group would serve in the Temple. Each one of the “courses” of priests would begin and end their service in the Temple on the Sabbath, with a tour of duty being for one week. During regular times of the year, this is how it worked and they knew when their time to work would come up. However, at the three festivals of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and Tabernacles, all the men of Israel were required to travel to Jerusalem for festivals of the Lord, so on those occasions all the priests would be needed in the Temple to accommodate the crowds. Excluding the three festivals, each group of priests would serve in the Temple twice on their scheduled course, with everything included being about five weeks of duty.
The institution of David and Solomon continued until the Babylonian captivity. After they came back, they had to restore the original number because only four courses were left. They chose to give them the ancient names they had once had instead of current names of the tribes, so the later names didn’t always coincide because of this reason.
Just like the priests, the Levites had at the time of King David been arranged into twenty four ‘courses’ which were to act as priests’ assistants, singers and musicians, gatekeepers and guards, and officers and judges. Of these various classes, that of the priests’ assistants was by far the most numerous, and to them the charge of the Temple had been committed in subordination to the priests. It had been their duty to look after the sacred vestments and vessels; the storehouses and their contents; and the preparation of the shewbread, of the meat-offerings, of the spices, etc. They were also generally to assist the priests in their work, to see to the cleaning of the sanctuary, and to take charge of the treasuries.
I Chronicles 23: 4-5 – Of these, twenty-four thousand are to supervise the work of the temple of the Lord and six thousand are to be officials and judges. Four thousand are to be gatekeepers and four thousand are to praise the Lord with the musical instruments I have provided for that purpose.
The chart below gives an example of how the priests were thought to have served. This one is specific to Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, and what his tenure of duty was.
In the next text we will discover how these duties were carried out in the Temple of Herod. There is also more detailed information on Zacharias in this month’s text of Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah study. It gives information about what he was doing when the angel came to him to foretell the birth of his son John. He was serving his ‘course’ in the Temple.
What the High Priest may have looked like: