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The Covenant of the Priesthood and of Levi

 

And the Future Work of Elijah

The above title is taken from Nehemiah’s prayer concerning those priests who had disgraced their office after he had returned to Persia. (Neh. 13:29). During an absence of 12 years, the Levites had gradually corrupted their calling and as a result, led Judah astray. The prophet Malachi, “my messenger” as his name means, was sent to witness against this alarming trend. He observed that the people were not bringing God the best of their offerings. This was because the priests had not been faithful in teaching and showing a good example, to instruct the people how they should serve Him.

Consequently, they had become “contemptible and base before all the people” and God would not support the blessings they pronounced because they had been foremost and leading “the holy seed” into marriage with the alien and divorcing the wife of their youth to do it! So good and evil were no longer clearly defined. In prophetical language, Malachi spoke of a coming “God of judgement” who would purify Levi and pronounce sentence against evildoers.

There was one reason why the “sons of Jacob were not consumed” for this. The LORD says, “I change not”. Many years before, He had pronounced the terms of an “everlasting covenant” which He was going to ensure would be enforced. This covenant is referred to six times by Malachi:-

2:4     ”that my covenant might be with Levi”;
2:5     ”my covenant was with him of life and peace”;
2:8     ”ye have corrupted the covenant of Levi“;
2:10   “profaning the covenant of our fathers”
2:14   ”the wife of your covenant“;
3:1     “the messenger of the covenant“.

In the days of Malachi and Nehemiah the pattern of future events was established. Malachi, “my messenger” prepared the way for Nehemiah, “the messenger of the covenant”. Nehemiah “suddenly came to his temple” returning from Persia and ejected Tobiah the Ammonite and his stuff. He found the situation exactly as Malachi had described it:

  1. “the Levites had not been given their portion” of tithes (Neh. 13:10,12)
  2. Judah had robbed the LORD of tithes and offerings” (Mal. 3:8).
  3. He “commanded the Levites to cleanse themselves” (Neh. 13:22) and condemned those who had married foreign wives (Neh. 13:23-28), –  “Judah hath married the daughter of a strange god” (Mal. 2:11).
  4. He concluded with a most significant prayer: “Remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood and the covenant of the priesthood and of the Levites.” (13:29)

It is this “covenant of Levi” which we now wish to investigate. What exactly is it? How does it fit in with what the writer of Hebrews says about the new covenant superceding the old and how does it relate to the future of Israel?

Levi and the Firstborn

Before God brought Israel out of Egypt he slew all the firstborn sons of the Egyptians. At the same time he spared the firstborn sons of Israel through the blood of the passover lamb. Because they had been redeemed from the death of Egypt’s firstborn, the LORD regarded them as His own (Exod. 13:2,12; Num. 3:13). As such the firstborn became a privileged class in Israel. When Israel came to Mount Sinai they entered into a covenant with the God of Israel to keep His laws, as summarized in 10 Commandments, or “tables of the covenant” (Deut. 9:9,15). But Israel quickly corrupted themselves and made a molten calf to worship. Moses returned from the Mount in judgement upon the guilty. At that time he said: “Who is on the LORD’s side? Let him come to me!” – and all the sons of Levi assembled before him.

Levi executed judgement with the sword without favour and 3,000 died that day. Their faithfulness was later commemorated in the last words of Moses, who remarked concerning Levi, “Who said unto his father and to his mother, I have not seen him; neither did he acknowledge his brethren, nor knew his own children; for they have observed thy word and kept thy covenant. They shall teach Jacob thy judgements, and Israel thy law…” (Deut. 33:8-10).

Instead of the Firstborn

Because Levi kept the covenant of the 10 Commandments at Sinai when Israel went astray, God gave them the privilege of having the status of His firstborns in Israel, instead of the natural firstborn (Deut. 10:8-11; Num. 3:12,41,45; 8:16-18). To impress this fact upon Israel, Moses was commanded to number all the males of Levi from a month old and upward, a total of 22,000. Then all the firstborn males from the rest of Israel were numbered, a total of 22,273 (Num. 3:39-43). Then, from the 273 natural firstborns more in number than the male Levites, Moses collected redemption money of five shekels apiece and gave it to Aaron and his sons.

The Levites also were cleansed and then given as a gift to Aaron and his sons, as a wave offering from Israel (Num. 8:11-19) to “do the service of the tabernacle” and its furniture, and between the ages of 25 to 50 were eligible to assist the priests in their work (Num. 8:24-26). So during the wilderness wanderings they were to encamp around the tabernacle, on the north, south and west, while the sons of Aaron, the priests, encamped directly on the east.

When they came into the promised land, Levi was given no tribal allotment among Israel. Instead, they were spread through the land in 48 Levitical cities, 6 of which were cities of refuge. These cities were exempt from the normal laws applying to city dwellings every Jubile (50th) Year and could return to their owners (Lev. 25:29-34). From these cities, with their surrounding pasturelands, the Levites were to teach the people about God’s Word.

The Levites were to receive tithes from the people and in turn, pass a further tithe of that amount onto the Priesthood (Num. 18:26-28). By this means they would be sustained by Israel, leaving them free to understand and teach the Word of God and by the right teaching of it, to receive the material benefit of tithes from a blessed nation.

The Covenant of the Priesthood

Of the Levitical families, Aaron’s had already been chosen for the Priesthood before the incident of the golden calf (Ex. 29:30; 31:10), though not officiating until the tabernacle was completed. In the day of their anointing the LORD proclaimed that “their anointing shall surely be an everlasting priesthood throughout their generations” (Exod. 40:15). Special regulations were given for the priests with respect to mourning for the dead, their appearance and their marriage practices. Any wonder Malachi chided them for dealing treacherously against “the wife of thy covenant”.

The Covenant in the Family of Phinehas

Phinehas was the grandson of Aaron. In Numbers 25 another tragic story is recorded where Israel, led by their princes, were being seduced by the beautiful women of Moab to partake in the idolatry of Baal Peor, so that the LORD set out to consume them by plague. The tribe of Simeon was particularly involved and prince Zimri brazenly participated in immorality before them all. The zeal of Phinehas for the LORD was stirred and he took a javelin and slew the offenders. God ceased to consume Israel for his sake (25:11) and promised him “my covenant of peace: and he shall have it and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood;” (vv12-13).

So the “everlasting priesthood” to which the sons of Aaron were anointed was now to be found particularly in the descendants of Phinehas. So we find in 1 Chron. 6:50-53 the lineage of Aaron through Phinehas down to Zadok and his son Ahimaaz in the days of David and Solomon. It was God’s intention that a faithful family of teaching priests would always be found in Israel, an enduring blessing for the nation.

It was this covenant with the house of Phinehas that Malachi referred to when witnessing against the corruption of the priesthood after the exile. “I have sent this commandment unto you that my covenant might be with Levi, saith Yahweh of Armies. My covenant was with him of life and peace …..” (2:4-5). He reminded them of the former spirit of Levi under Phinehas, loving knowledge and teaching the truth, turning many from iniquity. But they had corrupted the covenant of Levi; they had profaned it by putting away their Jewish wives to marry strangers; they had perverted judgment.

So ‘Yahweh of Armies’ would come to them as “the messenger of the covenant” to purify Levi by fire and turn their hearts back to the spirit of their fathers. This accomplished, the acceptable offerings of former years would be restored (3:4). All these things would be done because Yahweh “changes not”. His covenant with Levi would yet stand and there would yet be faithful Levites teaching the people, so the sons of Jacob (taking up language from the days of Phinehas) would not be consumed.

 

Jeremiah’s Promise to Levi

Many years earlier, beholding the desolations of Judah after their removal to Babylon, Jeremiah saw that the day would come when God would “perform that good thing which I have promised” to Israel. In Jeremiah 33:15-26 he describes how the covenant God made with David would surely be fulfilled by one so unlike Zedekiah, Judah’s last king. David would “never lack a man to sit upon the throne of the house of Israel, neither shall the priests, the Levites, lack a man before me to offer burnt offerings…” because Messiah would reign forever.

The certainty of it is illustrated by God’s covenant with day and night. God had also made a sure covenant with David and with “the Levites, the priests, my ministers” (v21). Both David’s seed (in Christ) and the Levites would be multiplied as Abraham’s seed (v22). These “two families which the LORD hath chosen” are yet to play a prominent part in Israel’s future.

Elijah and the Covenant

In preparation for the coming of the LORD of hosts to enforce the covenant of Levi, a messenger would first be sent to prepare the way (3:1). This messenger would be Elijah the prophet (4:5). We know this because John Baptist was sent in the “spirit and power of Elijah” as both “my messenger” and “Elijah who was to come before” (Luke 1:17; Matt. 11:10-14) thus linking Elijah with this messenger. But John was not Elijah, for he himself testified “I am not Elijah” (John 1:21) and Malachi had said that the messenger he would introduce will “purify the sons of Levi” so that Jerusalem’s offerings would be “pleasant, as in former years”.

But Levi hated John and would not accept his testimony concerning Jesus. They killed Messenger of the Covenant (Jesus) and so the land was “smitten with a curse” or devoted to destruction, from AD70 onwards. There remains therefore a future role for Elijah.

Elijah and Moses

Malachi said: ”Behold, I will sent my messenger!” . . . “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet!” Jesus said there was no greater prophet born among women than John for this reason: that he came as Elijah (Matt. 11:9-11). Elijah then, must have been the greatest of the prophets! Indeed, he appeared with Moses on the mount of transfiguration. Like Moses, Elijah had left Israel in full vigour and was taken away by God on the other side of the river Jordan, in the land of ancient Moab. After Moses was taken away, Joshua, with the spirit of Moses upon him (Num. 27:18-20; Deut. 34:9), miraculously crossed the Jordan. Joshua and Israel then proceeded to Gilgal, then Jericho, followed by Bethel/Ai.

When Elijah was to be taken, God sent him from Gilgal to Bethel, then to Jericho and finally to Jordan. Elijah miraculously crossed back over Jordan and then was taken away, as if to take the same position as Moses. Then Elisha, following the pattern of Joshua, with the spirit of Elijah resting upon him, miraculously crossed Jordan again. But both Moses and Elijah faded away on the mount, leaving, not a successor who had received their spirit, but “my beloved son” who had received honour and glory from his Father (2 Pet. 1:17).

Elijah to Restore all Things

Elijah is the one to prepare the way for the LORD in the day of judgement. After the disciples had seen Elijah on the mount, they were sure they had seen a major sign that Jesus was about to reveal his power. They wanted to tell everyone but Jesus asked them not to. So they asked, “Why then say the scribes that Elijah must first come?” Jesus showed them that it would not be merely a case of seeing Elijah, but that he would indeed come first and “restore all things”.

What things?

Malachi had said to the priests “where is my fear?” (1:6). He reminded them that Levi was once blessed “for the fear wherewith he feared me” (2:5). The God of judgement would be a swift witness against those Levites who “fear not me” (3:5). Taking up this idea again, he speaks of another class “that feared the LORD” and who “speak often one with another” (3:16). They would be a “special treasure” and “spared” in the day of judgement. He promised, “Unto you that fear my name” the Sun of Righteousness would bring healing, not destruction (4:2).

So Malachi concluded, “remember the Law of Moses my servant … Behold! I will send you Elijah … and he will turn the hearts …” (4:5). Elijah will come to do what Levi had neglected. On mount Carmel he had prayed that the LORD God of their fathers would “turn their hearts back again” (1 Kings 18:37) from serving Baal. Elijah will be the “messenger of Yahweh of Armies” and “turn many away from iniquity” (Mal. 2:6-7) and prepare in Israel a class like the sons of the prophets, who “fear my name”, Levites among them, thus preparing them for the purifying they will receive when the Messenger of the Covenant appears.

The Covenant at Sinai

When Israel was established as a special people to God at Mt Sinai, the Law of Moses was their national law by covenant. God offered them to accept “my covenant” and they did so. This covenant was summarized in 10 commandments, which were later placed in the Golden Ark, so that it became known as “the Ark of the Covenant”. It’s ordinances were given to Moses who wrote them in a book, called the “Book of the Covenant”. It concerned the conditions under which Israel would be allowed to occupy the land of promise. Both the book and the people were dedicated to this covenant with the sprinkling of blood. Its statutes were not designed to be a scheme of salvation, but rather to teach the people the sort of people they should be if they wished to obtain it.

The covenant that established this law for Israel was distinct from the covenant of justification, or “blessing” – and eternal inheritance in the land, that God made many years earlier with Abraham and his family, called his “seed”. The covenant at Sinai had never promised eternal life. It merely allowed Israel’s national continuance in the Promised Land for as long as they kept it. But God wanted to be the “Lord of all the earth” through Israel’s fine example.

The Surpassing Greatness of the Priesthood of Christ

The Letter to the Hebrews contrasts the superiority of Christ’ priesthood with Aaron’s. The Covenant with Israel at Sinai eventually revolved so much around the Aaronic Priesthood that the author of the letter to the Hebrews could conclude that if there was a change of the priesthood, it would necessitate a removal of the law. Aaron’s priesthood was based on hereditary and physical qualities, whereas Melchizedek’s was based on moral ones; it involved priests who died, but Christ “ever liveth”.

After Christ’s resurrection it had “waxed old” and was “ready to vanish away” because Israel were about to be denied access to the land and temple in which it was designed to be practised until such time as they are morally ready to receive it again. Yahweh their God is going to restore the institutions of the Law under conditions were ritual will be alongside the very things it taught. The “pattern” will be alongside the very “heavenly things” themselves – and the moral objectives it sought to achieve will be accomplished.

Levi was given the privileged status once enjoyed by Israel’s firstborns because of their moral courage and faithfulness. A covenant was established with them because they had put God first, even above their own families. The covenant of the priesthood and of Levi in relation to the nation of Israel therefore, was never to be changed. Yahweh, who “changes not” will see that it is enforced. The Levites will be as the stars of heaven, as Jeremiah foretold, themselves purified and turning many away from iniquity. They will minister at the altar and bring the offerings near to the Lord of all the earth.

 
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