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Bible Helps:     Priesthood of the Levites

The High Priest

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Priesthood of the Levites

The Service of the Priests and the Levites

Hebrews 10:11
11 And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins:

Twenty-four Courses

I Chronicles 28:11-13, 19
11 Then David gave to Solomon his son the pattern of the porch, and of the houses thereof, and of the treasuries thereof, and of the upper chambers thereof, and of the inner parlours thereof, and of the place of the mercy seat,
12 And the pattern of all that he had by the spirit, of the courts of the house of the LORD, and of all the chambers round about, of the treasuries of the house of God, and of the treasuries of the dedicated things:
13 Also for the courses of the priests and the Levites, and for all the work of the service of the house of the LORD, and for all the vessels 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, even all the works 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:

Priests (1 Chronicles 24:1-19)
Priests' Assistants (1 Chronicles 23:4,28)
Singers (1 Chronicles 25:7-31)
Musicians (1 Chronicles 23:5)
Gatekeepers (1 Chronicles 26:1-19)
Keepers of the Treasure (1 Chronicles 26:20-28)

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 (I 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

I Chronicles 23:2-6
2 And he gathered together all the princes of Israel, with the priests and the Levites.
3 Now the Levites were numbered from the age of thirty years and upward: and their number by their polls, man by man, was thirty and eight thousand.
4 Of which, twenty and four thousand were to set forward the work of the house of the LORD; and six thousand were officers and judges:
5 Moreover four thousand were porters; and four thousand praised the LORD with the instruments which I made, said David, to praise therewith.
6 And David divided them into courses among the sons of Levi, namely, Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.

There were a great number of priests and Levites in the Temple at all times. According to I 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 (I Chronicles 25:7-31) and 4,000 musicians (I 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.

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 (I 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.

(References - Edersheim, Alfred. "The Temple - Its Ministry and Services As They Were at the Time of Jesus Christ." Originally published: 1874)


1.   Three Characteristics of : Numbers 16:5

a. Chosen of God
b. Set apart--or holy
c. Permitted to "draw near"; a spiritual function

2.   Aaron: first High Priest: Ex, 28:1, Numbers 18:7-8.

3.   Priesthood was to descend through Aaron's four sons, but only two survived. Numbers 18:1, 10:6.

4.   However, any sons of Aaron's with any -physical defects disqualified him. Lev. 21:17-23

5.   Function of the Priesthood:

a. Teach the Law (Doctrine). Lev. 10:11 They handled the written Word, the prophets handled the verbal Word (which became written).
b. Offer sacrifices - Lev. 9.
c. Maintain the Tab ernacle or Temple - Num. 18:3.
d. Conduct all ritual - Lev. 24:5-8.
e. Inspect unclean persons - Num. 6:22.
f. Judge controversies. Deut. 19:17.
g. Functioned in the Holy Place Ex 30:7-10.
h. Collected taxes from the people Num 18:21; Heb 7:5.

6.   Priests assisted by Levites - 2 Chron, 35:14; 29:34 on occasions when it is humanly impossible to perform the tasks, i.e. Passover; when offering thousands of sacrifices.

7.   The priesthood was reorganized in David's day into 24 orders. 1 Chron, 24:1-18.

8.   Some priests had also the office of a prophet: Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah.

9.   The entire nation of Israel was originally intended to be priests , but the Golden Calf incident cut it off to just Aaron's family - Ex. 19:4-6.
However, the Church Age finds each individual as a believer-priest. (Those born again.)

10.   The support of the priesthood: consisted of certain portions of the sacrificial offerings (Num. 18:8-14); one regular tithe (Num. 18:21-24; cf. Lev 27:30- 33), of which a tenth part went to the priests (Num. 18:26- 28); thirteen cities assigned to them (Josh. 21:13-19) a special tithe every third year (Deut.14:27-29; 26:12); the redemption money for the firstborn in Israel (Lev. 27); a percentage of the booty of war (Num. 31:25-27); and the shewbread (Lev.24:5-9).

11.   Assistants to the priests: the Levites - 2 Chron. 29:34:

a. Chosen by God to assist in sacrifices and in the care and administration of holy things - Num. 3:5, ff; 8:14-19.

b. Function:
1. Preserved and transmitted the Law - Lev. 10:11; Deut. 17:18; 33:10; Neh. 8:9; Ezek. 44:23.
2. Served the priests - Num. 18:4.
3. Set up, dismantled and transported the Tabernacle - Num.4;10:17, 21.
4. Taught doctrine and the administration of justice - Deut. 33:10a.

12.   Period of service : twenty-five years, from age 25-50 - Num. 8:24, 25.

13.   The three branches of Levi, in the tribe but not of the Aaronic line - Num.4; their responsibilities:

a. The KOHATHITES (articles of furniture, vessels and veil),
b. The GERSHONITES (Coverings, hangings and door).
c. The MERARITES (planks, bars and cords).

14.   The appointment of the Levites: God had chosen the entire nation to be his priests - Ex. 19:5, 6.
Upon their failure (Ex. 32:7-10), the Levites, who had rallied around Moses (Ex. 26-28), were commissioned for the priesthood (Num. 3:5-9).

15.   Dress of the high priest (Ex. 28): except on ceremonial occasions, the dress of the priests and the high priest was no different from that of the common people.

On ceremonial occasions, the high priest's uniform consisted of the following: white linen shorts; a white linen coat, approximately hip-length; a belt in the same colors as the curtains - white, blue, scarlet and purple; a turban-like cap with a golden crown, inscribed: "Holy to Jehovah," (this was the badge of his rank); an ephod of blue, lavishly embroidered in colors; a breast-plate of gold and cloth, with the urim and the thummin on the shoulders, and twelve stones, representing the tribes, engraved with their names and fastened with a golden clasp.

16.   The consecration of the priests and high priests - Ex. 29.

17.   The high priest's "big" day - the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16): On that high holy day, the high priest donned his ceremonial robes and entered the Tabernacle, where he sprinkled the blood of the bullock of the sin offering for himself over the top of the mercy seat (verses 6, 14).

If he emerged from the Holy of Holies, his priesthood was assured for another year. He reentered a second time with the blood of the goat of the sin offering for the people to do likewise for them. His return to the Israelites signified that he had obtained national pardon. The people of Israel were spared (verse 30).

18.   The reorganization of the priesthood in David's day, due to population increase: twenty-four courses (classes or orders); descent through Eleazar - sixteen; descent through Ithamar - eight courses (1 Chron. 15; 16:4-6, 37-43).

19.   The descendents of the high priest:

a. Succession occurred upon the officiating high priest's death with the eldest surviving son's installation (Num. 20:28).

b. The line was promised to pass down through Phinehas, eldest son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron (Num. 25:10-13). Eli was a legitimate priest and descendant of Ithamar, but not a high priest; the switch in the line took place during Saul's reign. It was rightfully restored to the line of Eleazar during Solomon's reign (1 Kgs. 2:26, 27, 35).

When Israel was about to go under the fifth cycle of discipline in Jeremiah's day, Seraiah was high priest. He was captured by, Nebuzar-adan and executed at Riblah (2 Kgs. 25:18-21). His son, Josedech, who should have inherited the office, never served as high priest but lived and died in captivity at Babylon (Hag. 1:1, 14). His son Joshua assumed the office when the high priesthood was restored in the days of Zechariah and Zerubbabel (Zech. 3:1). His successors were: Joiakim, Eliashib, Joiada, Johanan and Jaddua, who served in the time of Alexander the Great. He met Alexander's conquering army with a scroll of Daniel in his hand. By reading him those passages dealing with him, Jaddua won Alexander's friendship for the Jews.

Jaddua's successors were: Onias I, Simon the Just; Onias II, too young to become the high priest, was set aside in favor of Simon's brother, Eleazar. Onias II became known as Menelaus, an evil priest, and was followed, in turn, by an equally evil man - Alcimus. The high priesthood was passed down to the Asmonaean family, of the course (class or order) of Joiarib (1 Chron. 9:10; 24:7; Neb. 11:10), and continued in that line until Herod the Great destroyed the family, the last high priest, Aristobulus, being murdered by order of Herod (Herod the Great's brother-in-law) in 35 B.C. (twenty-eight high priests until the year 70 A.D.). The two high priests related to the death of Christ were Caiaphas and Annas.

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