Several times in the past weeks, the story of Jehoshaphat’s battle in 2 Chronicles 20 has cropped up in my life. And as a music minister and worship-leading team member, my attention was captured by verse 21:
After consulting the people, Jehoshaphat appointed men to sing to the Lord and to praise him for the splendor of his holiness as they went out at the head of the army, saying:
“Give thanks to the Lord,
for his love endures forever.”
While I am greatly encouraged about the insights about singing and worshiping as we “go into battle,” I began to sense a hungry curiosity about the singers Jehoshaphat appointed to lead the army. I remember a pastor and friend kidding about the “ridiculousness” of the idea as so in keeping with God’s “using the weak to confound the strong.”
But were these singers really weak compared to the other mighty men of Judah? I think not. While historically, the tribe of Judah has always led Israel in battle, there was one other tribe who had a reputation for fierceness in a fight, an uncompromising devotion to honor that made them appear merciless and cruel, so much so that God Himself took that tribe out of the count and reserved them for Himself as His “honor guard.”
The tribe of Levi.
Their history began with Levi, third son of Jacob. After his sister Dinah was raped by Shechem, he conspired, along with his brothers, to avenge her honor. Together with Simeon, he attacked the town and killed all the men while they were in the throes of pain after circumcision. When Jacob got angry with them, they replied, “Should he have treated our sister like a prostitute?” (read the full story for yourself in Genesis 24). In his last moments, instead of blessing them, Jacob actually cursed Simeon and Levi:
Simeon and Levi are brothers—
their swords are weapons of violence.
Let me not enter their council,
let me not join their assembly,
for they have killed men in their anger
and hamstrung oxen as they pleased.
Cursed be their anger, so fierce,
and their fury, so cruel!
I will scatter them in Jacob
and disperse them in Israel. (Genesis 49:5-7 NIV)
This fierce anger and cruel fury came out in another Levi of note in Exodus: Moses. I have heard of the theory that the reason Israel’s stay in Egypt overshot God’s 400-year declaration to Abraham by 38 years was due to Moses’ rash action in killing the Egyptian beating up a Hebrew on the 398th year and his self-imposed exile in Midian for the next 40 years (you’ll have to do the math – it’s all in Exodus).
It makes sense to me — you don’t have to agree. 😉
The next episode of their uncompromising commitment to honor is also recounted in Exodus, and it was in this instance that Jacob’s curse on his son was turned into eternal honor by God Himself.
It was just as Moses was coming down from Mount Sinai after receiving the tablets of the ten commandments, and saw the Israelites worshiping a golden calf.
He stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him.
Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.” (Exodus 32:26-29 NIV)
In Numbers 3, in the assignment of servants for the Tabernacle, God declares twice, “The Levites are mine.” (verses 12 and 45) He chooses the Levites to serve in the Tabernacle in place of the firstborn children of the nation of Israel.
Phinehas was the next fierce Levite mentioned in Numbers 25. If you’re going to read it, let me warn you: merciless is an understatement.
The last Levite mentioned in the bible was Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”) (Acts 4:26 NIV) This was the Barnabas who dared to go against the grain: he chose to trust the sincerity of the newly-converted Saul of Tarsus who had been the persecutor of the believers, and then he fought to give John Mark a second chance, even at the expense of losing face with the church (he left without ceremony, while Paul and Silas were officially commissioned by the elders). And yet we enjoy the fruit of that encouragement to this day: Mark is recognized to have been the first to write a gospel account, Paul wrote the most books in the New Testament, and Luke, disciple of Paul, wrote the most verses.
Of course, not all the Levites were honorable. One of the more sickening stories for me is in Judges. And in the parable of The Good Samaritan, Jesus illustrated how the priest and the Levite, by virtue of their calling to be set apart for service, can inadvertently use that as an excuse to avoid being a good neighbor. Not to mention Annas and Caiaphas, and the roles they played in the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.
The Levites served the kings. David chose a Levite to be his chief bodyguard: Benaiah, son of Jehoiada, who was a chief priest (2 Samuel 23:20-23). Joash was protected from his grandmother’s genocidal mania by another Jehoiada, who was also a chief priest (2 Kings 11). In the recounting of the story of David returning the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, David learned what was probably a painful lesson for this sweet worshiper of the God of Israel: only the Levites could carry the Ark and minister before the Lord.
Psalm 27:4 now makes sense: David’s intense longing to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of his life, to gaze upon His beauty and to seek Him in His temple. Simply put, David COULD NOT just walk into the tabernacle and plop himself before the ark and enjoy communion with the God he loved because he was NOT A LEVITE. He did not have the kind of access the Levites and priests had to the physical representations of God’s presence in Israel.
So he did the next best thing: he provided for them. He not only made sure their physical provisions were met, he set up a new unit: the musicians who would be ministering before the Ark of the Covenant. And he created instruments and wrote songs for them as well.
When David was old and full of years, he made his son Solomon king over Israel.
He also gathered together all the leaders of Israel, as well as the priests and Levites. The Levites thirty years old or more were counted, and the total number of men was thirty-eight thousand. David said, “Of these, twenty-four thousand are to be in charge of 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.” (1 Chronicles 23:1-5 NIV)
In the dedication of the temple built by Solomon, the Levitical musicians also led the worship. The chief musicians were still the men David had appointed for the new unit: Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun (1 Chronicles 25). And as in the culture of those days, their ministry of prophesying, declaring praise and thanksgiving with music, and being the king’s seer passed on to their sons.
And so we come back to Jehoshaphat.
He had come to the temple to pray, along with the nation of Judah, in the face of the impending invasion of the Moabites, Ammonites, and Meunites. And how did God send His reply?
Through a Levite musician.
Then the Spirit of the Lord came on Jahaziel son of Zechariah, the son of Benaiah, the son of Jeiel, the son of Mattaniah, a Levite and descendant of Asaph, as he stood in the assembly.
He said: “Listen, King Jehoshaphat and all who live in Judah and Jerusalem! This is what the Lord says to you: ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s. Tomorrow, march down against them. They will be climbing up by the Pass of Ziz, and you will find them at the end of the gorge in the Desert of Jeruel. You will not have to fight this battle. Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the Lord will give you, Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Go out to face them tomorrow, and the Lord will be with you.’” (verses 14-17)
To the Israelites of Jehoshaphat’s day, and to Jehoshaphat himself, the Levitical musician was not just an excellent musical performer who could draw a crowd and entertain an audience. Descended from the fiercely honorable Levi, the Levitical musician was first and foremost a servant of the Most High God, set apart to serve God in behalf of the nation, and to serve the nation by standing in the gap between them and their God. The Levites represented the firstborn of Israel, God’s special possession. Jacob gave an awesome description of the firstborn in his final blessing to his sons:
“my firstborn, my might, the first sign of my strength, excelling in honor, excelling in power.” (Genesis 49:3 NIV)
And it is in recognition of this heritage and identity that Jehoshaphat chose the Levitical musicians to lead the army of Judah as they marched into battle. Because he recognized that the real battle is the battle for God’s honor and fame, and not simply the nation’s survival. And when it comes to fighting for God’s honor, not even the kings of Israel and Judah can hold a candle to the tribe of Levi (Uzziah found that out the hard way. Story is in 2 Chronicles 26:16-21).
But believers in Jesus Christ are a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). We are what David could only yearn to be: authorized to reign, and allowed into God’s secret place. Which is why our singing as we march into battle is even more powerful than Jehoshaphat’s choir.
And worship leaders have the awesome privilege to lead this royal and priestly choir. We are the Jahaziels of our day, encouraging the king and reminding him that the battle is the Lord’s, and not the king’s. And because we live after the cross, we can confidently assure the king that Jesus, God who became flesh, has already won not just the present battle, but the eternal war!
Sing unto the Lord, make a joyful sound – lift your voices and let your praise resound!
Sing a victory song in the time of war – trust in Jesus: the battle is the Lord’s!
Sing! Sing! Sing! For the Lord is good, and His mercy endures forever, forever and ever!
(The Battle is the Lord’s by Don Moen, Tom Brooks, and Marty Nystrom)