The service of the officiating ministers was not only done during the day, but also at night. From Scripture, we know that the ordinary services of the sanctuary consisted of the morning and evening services. There is difficulty, though, in knowing the exact time which each of the sacrifices was offered.
According to the general agreement, the morning sacrifice was brought at the ‘third hour’ (9:00), but the preparation for it must have commenced at least 2 or 3 hours earlier. There were probably not very many worshippers that witnessed the actual slaying of the lamb for the sacrifice. This took place right after the great doors to the Temple were opened. There was much to do to prepare the animals for the actual sacrifice, as we have already talked about in previous texts. This could possibly explain how on the day of Pentecost there were so many people gathered in the Temple at this early hour of the morning. They were there to offer sacrifices.
The evening sacrifice was fixed by the Law in Numbers 28: 4, 8. This offering was to be offered at ‘even’, that is the time right after the sun set and before night fell. There are several passages in Psalms that talk about playing stringed instruments at night in the Temple, and standing in the house of the Lord at night. In I Chronicles 9:33 there were Levite singers appointed for night services.
As the time passed, though, it seems that they started having the evening services earlier in the day – like 2:30 or 3:30. When Peter and John went up together into the Temple at the hour of prayer at later times, it must have been for the evening sacrifice or the prayer that accompanied the offering of incense.
The evening service was somewhat shorter than that of the morning, but still lasted about an hour and a half, which well met the requirement that was set out in Numbers. At this time in the history of the Temple, there was probably no other offering that was brought except on the eve of Passover, when the ordinary evening sacrifice took place two hours earlier at 12:30 P. M.
After the day of sacrifices was finished, the priests who had officiated for their designated time would be required to leave by one certain gate. They would take off their priestly dress and leave it in the appointed chambers. After this they would look like ordinary laymen as they went out of the Temple gate. They would put on their shoes or sandals, because as they officiated in the role of priest they had to be barefoot. The Levites had no clerical dress at all, but just wore white linen until they obtained permission from Agrippa II to wear priestly garments. As the former priests were leaving by one gate, there would be new priests coming in by another gate. They came at night so they could get up early in the morning and start preparing for the next morning’s sacrifices all over again. As the priests who had just ministered parted with each other, they gave each other a heartfelt farewell until the next time.
Most of the time the priests were on duty from one Sabbath to the next one. Their daily service was distributed among their respective ‘families’ or ‘houses’. For the Sabbath day, the people started coming earlier than on other days. As the ‘family’ whose daily ministration was accomplished left the Temple, the massive gates were closed by priests or Levites. These gates were so large that sometimes it took the united strength of twenty men to close them. Then the Temple keys were hung up in a hollow square under a marble slab in the ‘fire room’, which was the chief guard-room of the priests. As the last person had left the Temple, then the Priests would gather together for their evening meal. Pieces of the ‘sacrifices’ and the ‘prepared first-fruits’ supplied the food they needed to feed their hungry bodies after a long day.
Though the work day was over, there were still certain arrangements that had to be made. The Levites that were in charge of collecting the tithes and other business details that had gone on that day in the Temple had their daily work of writing the accounts of every transaction that had gone on, and also balancing the money that had come in to make sure that everything was done correctly and that no person was taking any of the money wrongly. There were huge amounts of money that were coming into the Temple at this time, and there definitely had to be checks and balances to keep everything honest.
The Night Watches
By day and by night it was the duty of the Levites to keep guard at all the gates so that no unclean person might enter into the Temple. These Levites were called the Temple Police and were under the command of an official known to us in Acts as ‘captain of the Temple’. In early Jewish writings, this man was known as ‘the man of the Temple Mount.’
The office must have been of considerable responsibility, considering the multitudes of people who came there, especially on the feast days. Also the Temple was in very close proximity to the hated Romans in the Fort Antonia that was built right next to the Temple. There were probably also many people who were just curious to try and get a look at what the inside of the Temple looked like because it was such a beautiful and huge structure.
At night guards were placed in 24 stations about the gates and courts. 21 of these were occupied by Levites alone, and the 3 innermost areas were jointly by priests and Levites. Each guard consisted of 10 men. In all there were 240 Levites and 30 Priests that were on duty every night. The Temple guards were relieved by day, but not during the night.
The Rounds of the Captain
During the night the ‘captain of the temple’ made his rounds. When he approached, the guards had to rise and salute him in a particular manner. Any guard that was found asleep on duty was either beaten, or his garments were set on fire. In antiquities, it was actually written about a guard that the captain found asleep and he set his garments on fire. This was written by the nephew of the guard. There are many passages in the Bible that talk about watching and not falling asleep, which are possibly referring to this watch in the Temple.
Even though one might be tired, there was much to do at night to get prepared for the next day of service. Some of the older heads of the families might recline on couches for a short while while the younger men kept watch, but they all had to be up very early in the morning to make preparations.
The priest who was superintendent of all the arrangements could knock on the door at any time and demand entrance. No one knew when he was coming and they had to be ready for him. They had to be ready at all times for his knock. He usually came right before dawn, but the other things they had to do had to be done before he came. They each had to take a bath and get themselves clean, for they would not be able to serve as a priest unless they had done this before the superintendent came.
The priests had a subterranean passage that was lit on both sides that led to the place where they bathed. After that, they didn’t have to bathe again that day except washing their hands and feet as prescribed for the sacrifices.
Casting Lots for the Services
Those who were prepared now followed the superintending priests through a passageway into the court. Here they divided into two companies, with each carrying a torch except for the Sabbath. On this day the Temple itself was lit up. One company went east and one went west. They were to carefully inspect everything to make sure it was satisfactory. After that, they met at the chamber where the high-priest’s daily meat-offering was prepared. Then they reported “All is well !”.
The people who were to prepare the high-priest’s daily offering were set to their work, and the rest of the priests went into the ‘Hall of Polished Stones’ to cast lots for the services of the day. They had to do things this way to make sure everything was done fairly. Altogether the lot was cast four times, though at different periods of the service.
This is the manner it was done: The priests stood in a circle around the president, who had one of them remove his headgear to show where the counting would start and end. It was not lawful in Israel to actually count the people because of what David had done in taking the census wrongly before God, but they all held up fingers to show which number they were. The president would name a certain number and the priests would start counting off with their fingers until they reached that number, and that was the person who was chosen for that particular task.
The first lot was for cleansing the altar and preparing it; the second for those who were to offer the sacrifice, and for those who were to cleanse the candlestick and the altar of incense in the Holy Place. The third lot was the most important. It determined who was to offer the incense. No person was to take part in it who had at any time officiated in this capacity before. The fourth lot picked those who were to burn the pieces of the sacrifice on the altar, and also who would perform the concluding portions of the service. This was a very important lot to win also. The morning lot held good also for the same offices at the evening sacrifice, except the burning of the incense was different at morning and evening.
The First Lot
When the priests were gathered for the ‘the first lot’ in the ‘Hall of Polished Stones,’ as yet only the earliest glow of morning light streaked the Eastern sky. Much had to be done before the lamb itself could be slain. Since it was a law that no sacrifice could be offered after the sun had set, it was also that none could be offered before the morning light had lit up ‘the whole sky as far as Hebron,’ yet before the sun had actually risen upon the Horizon.
The only exception to this was on the great festivals. During this time, the altar was cleansed much earlier so that the time of examining could be before sunrise. This was because of the great number of sacrifices that would be brought during the day – much more than on a usual day.
It could have been on this ground that, on the morning of the Passover, they who led Jesus from Caiaphas thronged so ‘early’ into the ‘judgment hall of Pilate.’ The people got out much earlier during the times of feast days.