Sons of Korah: Doorkeepers in the House of God

Reading: Psalm 84

I’m not sure if I’d have wanted to be called ‘a son of Korah’. Korah was a traitor to the faithful, one who had rebelled against God’s appointed leaders -his own family members (Moses and Aaron were Korah’s first cousins). He had been condemned by God in the most graphic way imaginable. He was linked with the deaths of 15,000 of God’s people. Being called ‘a son of Korah’ may have been rather like being called ‘bin Laden’. It didn’t matter who you were, your innocence, your lack of association with your relative. You were tarred with the sin of Korah.

And yet the discerning Israelite would also have seen it as a reminder of the faith of Korah’s family. While the families of Dathan and Abiram had shared in their fathers’ sins and therefore in their fathers’ judgement, the sons of Korah were different. Nothing is said of them in Numbers 16; yet at the last census in the wilderness, we are told that the sons of Korah did not die (Num 26:9); they separated themselves from their father, and survived as a testimony of allegiance to God over family loyalty and the promise of personal gain.

So it’s fitting that the witness of the sons of Korah should continue through the time of the judges, into the time of David, and forward at least until the return from exile.

From among them came Samuel. He was not a descendant of Aaron and so was not a priest by inheritance. Yet he was given the priestly role so sought after by his ancestor Korah. Wearing a linen ephod, he lived in the temple of God as a child, and he offered sacrifices as an adult. Here, at the heart of the worship of Israel, was a sign of the blessings given to those who would turn aside from the rebellion of their father, and dedicate themselves to God.

Samuel’s sons, of course, did not take after their father; they “did not walk in his ways, but turned after gain”; they had more in common with their ancestor, Korah, than their father Samuel. Yet their own sons followed in the footsteps of the sons of Korah; they dissociated themselves from the sins of their fathers, and were rewarded with a role in the tabernacle of David. History had repeated itself – the sons of the rebels had themselves rebelled and turned to God.

“These are the men whom David put in charge of the service of song in the house of the LORD after ark rested there. They ministered with song before the tabernacle of the tent of meeting until Solomon built the house of the LORD in Jerusalem, and they performed their service according to their order. These are the men who served and their sons.” (1Chronicles 6:31-33).

Three leaders of song from the three branches of the tribe of Levi.
At the centre is Heman, grandson of Samuel and descendant of Korah; on his right hand is Asaph, of the sons of Gershom; and on his left is Ethan or Jeduthun, from the sons of Merari. Yet though they ‘ministered with song’ for the whole period of David’s reign, they did not live in Jerusalem
Yet they did not live there in Jerusalem. Heman’s family were based in Ephraim and Manasseh, Asaph’s family in Galilee and beyond the Jordan, Ethan’s family – Reuben, Gad and Zebulun. None of them were given the right to live in Judah, Simeon, and Benjamin – the area which had as its centre the tabernacle and then Temple in Jerusalem. (1 Chronicles 6).

The bringing of the ark to Zion was the first step in the ark coming to a permanent place of rest, symbolic of the climax of the God’s Kingdom over Israel. The Levites had been commissioned with carrying the things of the tabernacle; and now with the ark at rest, these three families had a new role – a dual role of singers and gatekeepers.

The sons of Korah watched over the east and north of the Temple; the sons of Merari the south and east. These singer-gatekeepers surrounded the Temple, standing every morning and evening to thank and praise God “and whenever burnt offerings were offered to the LORD, on Sabbaths, new moons and feast days, accoding to the number required of them, regularly before the LORD.” (1Chron 23:30, 31).

And they were known, presumably by their own choice, as the sons of Korah. Not the people of Heman, chief of the Korahite singers. Not as the sons of Samuel. But the sons of Korah. They chose to associate themselves with those who some four hundred years before had stood apart from their rebellious father.

Imagine your are a Jew. You’ve been told the story of the sons of Korah. How they separated from their father and received the privilege for praising God day and night in the temple. You’ve seen them for yourself, standing at the entrance of the temple. The house of Asaph on the right, the sons of Jeduthun on the left, and in the centre the sons of Korah.

And then you open the scroll of the Psalms. Past the first and second books of Psalms. To book three. Psalms of Asaph on the right (73-83), to the right is the Psalm of Jeduthun, and in the centre are the Psalms of the Sons of Korah  (84-88). – also Psalm 42-49 The position on the page matches the position in the Temple. And your eyes look down at the middle of the page – the first of the songs of the sons of Korah. Psalm  84.

“How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD!”

Who is this man? Who is this one who faints for the courts of God?

We’re not told the name of the person who wrote this Psalm. But he is one of the sons of Korah. He lives, as do all the sons of Korah, among the tribes of Ephraim, and Manasseh, perhaps in Shechem. He is a Levite, in a Levitical city. He of course, has duties in that city to serve as a Levite, but nothing in scale compared to the daily work going on in the Temple.

And once a year, he makes a special trip to the Temple in Jerusalem. He and his family, for two weeks a year will lead the worship in the Temple. They will be singers with harp, lyre and cymbal, doorkeepers of the house of God. Taking turns, they serve as doorkeepers to the Temple day and night, singing praises in the morning and the evening, on the Sabbath day, and when the burnt offerings are offered. Although they are not priests themselves, they are allowed to come closer to the service of God than any of the other tribes. They stand as witnesses as the work of the priests is carried out day by day. Even when they are not in service themselves, they live for this two week period in close proximity to the temple, possibly within the temple precincts itself. Even as they rest, they hear their brothers continuing the work of worship of God.

But it’s for two weeks only. The rest of the year, they live at home in the central hill country of Israel – away from the Temple and the worship of God.

And back at home, or perhaps on his journey home, this man, this son of Korah is inspired to write these words, recalling his time at the Temple against the backcloth of whole story of the sons of Korah, back to his great-grandfather, Samuel, to his great-great grandmother Hannah, and right back to his rebellious forefather, Korah.

“How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.” (vv 1,2)

How he wishes to back in the Temple; how he wishes to part of the worship of God, not like his forefather Korah, for the position of prestige, but to be in the presence of God, singing his praises. To be there not in the tabernacle of Korah, but in the tabernacle of God.

And not just any God, but the living God, Yahweh of hosts.  The LORD of hosts comes four times in this chapter. It’s a rare title of God in the Psalms, and of the 12 times it occurs, 7 are found in the 11 Psalms of the Sons of Korah. (Ps 24:10, 46:7, 46:11, 48:8, 59:5, 69:6, 80:4, 84:1, 84:3, 84:8, 84:12. 89:8). Why should they of all people use this title? Because it was first used by their great-grandmother, Hannah. A title probably coined by her, and forming the first words of Hannah recorded in Scripture.

“Even the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.” (v. 3)

First think once more of Hannah. The lonely barren wife who found solace at the Temple. The joyful mother who, in the complete dedication of Samuel to service to God, lay her young at the altar of burnt offering. Think of Samuel, who as Eli lay down in his own place, was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was. But beyond that, think of the acceptance of the sons of Korah in the temple service; that despite their rebellion of their father, they could take part in temple worship. They could stand before that same altar that had been covered with the plates made from the censers of Korah and his companions. Here was their home; though they lived far away, they saw their journey to the temple as a homecoming.

“Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise!”  (v. 4)

What a joy it was to fulfil their task of singing God’s praises. Yet the sons of Korah were only temporary sojourners. Perhaps they looked back longingly to the time when Samuel lived there permanently and served God daily. Or perhaps they looked forward, seeing the High Priest as a picture of their future hope when they too could dwell forever in God’s presence.

But though sojourners, here was their ultimate home. The Temple at Jerusalem represented all their desires.

“Blessed are those who strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways” (v. 5)

ESV adds ‘to Zion’ – the highways to Zion. It’s one and the same. Those who trust in God, are focused on the journey to Zion, as the sons of Korah would look forward to their time of service year by year.

“For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere”  (v. 10)

Their brief period of service outweighed the rest of the year. Yearning for the presence of God, there was no other place they longed to be.

“I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God,
than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (v. 10)

For Korah and his companions, it was not enough to share in the service of the Tabernacle. They wanted equality with Moses – a priesthood of all the congregation. But his descendant, the writer of this Psalm, is satisfied. He is content with the privilege of the task given to him by God. And his role, though temporary, and to some degree, was far greater than any attraction to follow Korah’s ways, and dwell in ‘the tents of wickedness’.

And once again, this son of Korah was looking back to his great grandfather Samuel, who instead of sitting by the doorpost of the Temple, as Eli did (1Sam 1:9), took it upon himself to open the doors of the temple (1Sam 3:15)

“For the LORD God is a sun and shield;
the LORD bestows favour and honour.
No good thing does he withhold
from those who walk uprightly”
(v. 11, 12)

So the good things that Korah was so eager to grasp, the favour, the honour were, in a sense, granted to his descendants. Samuel did serve as priest, even though not entitled by birth. The sons of Korah were given a place at the centre of Temple worship.

But I’m sure the writer of this Psalm saw beyond the immediate, literal application of this Psalm. He would have known that the one who trusted in the Lord was always in God’s presence; could always seek his presence in prayer. He would have known that his position as doorkeeper in the house of God was not so much a job, as a way of life, a state of existence. He was guardian of the temple of believers, watchman of that which came and went in to the house of God. He would have known that forsaking the tents of wickedness did not simply mean dissociating from his forefather’s wicked actions, but an on-going personal separation from all wickedness, and a recognition that all such things were just temporary ‘tents’ compared to the everlasting ‘dwelling-place’ and ‘courts’ of God.  He would have known that the ‘hosts’ of 4000 singers, and 4000 gatekeepers were just a picture of the multitudinous host that would one day join the angels in singing the praise of the LORD of hosts. His two weeks of ministry at the Temple were the tiniest foretaste of a time when God would dwell with man, in a fuller and more glorious sense; when the temple would be replaced not only with the more magnificent temple of the Kingdom, but with the temple of believers – godly men and women, in whom God dwelt.

We haven’t mentioned Christ. And we haven’t mentioned how all this applies to us. And yet I hope we’ve seen the Spirit of Christ running through this Psalm, the same Spirit that dwells in us. That same yearning that Christ felt to be in the presence of God, and the sense of desolation he felt at the prospect of being separated from that by death. That longing for the permanence of the Kingdom, when God would be glorified as LORD of hosts. We need to share that three-fold longing for the presence of God. Firstly, on a personal, day to day basis we need to be seeking God in prayer, resting in his presence, rejoicing in his praises. We need to feel that yearning to be with his saints, gathered in the ecclesia, his temple, working together to serve and worship the Father. And we need to be longing for God to be glorified, for Christ to be exalted, and for the glory and Spirit of God to fill the earth. And we need all those three. How can we long for the Kingdom, yet do nothing now to fellowship the Father and his children with whom we will share it? How can we long for fellowship with our ecclesial family, while thinking nothing of its source in Christ, or its destination in the Kingdom? How can seek a relationship with God, yet not long for the fulfilment of his purpose? We need all three. We need this three-fold longing for the presence of God. Otherwise our personal worship is nothing more than a spiritual exercise, our ecclesial life is nothing more than a social club, and our future hope is nothing more than a selfish dream.

Let’s think again as we read through the Psalm once more, of the Spirit of these words, of their meaning to the Psalmist, of their meaning in mouth of Christ, and of what we must feel as seek the presence of God.

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8 Comments

  1. Billy said,

    May 6, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    To God be the Glory!

    Greetings from an Indonesian in Melbourne! I am a choir member in my church and during my search for the story behind Psalm 42 and 43 (we’re going to sing Felix Mendessohn’s “Richte, Mich Gott”), I stumble upon this blog of yours. Truth be told, I do not know what to think after reading this short article: I always put my guard up against writings that does not provide extensive quotes from the Bible, yet every sentence in your article constantly brings my mind, and heart, back to the Lord God! This page is now permanently saved in my favorites list, whilst I do my own research on it (as God told me to test every spirit) – but honestly speaking, even now, I am praying that every single information you have in it is correct, for then I’ll pass this on to everyone in my choir… my youth fellowship even! (That is, with your permission of course :D)

    Nevertheless, I believe it is not mere chance that led me here. I thank you sincerely for taking the time to put all this in writing. “A life worth living worth recording” indeed. You have rekindled my passion for my own writing. Thank you for that too!

    I have not yet looked at your other writings, but I won’t be surprised to find other passionate yet faithful Scripture expositions lingering around.

    Thank You Lord! and Thank you, too 🙂

    PS: I have a blog… not worth looking… but feel free 🙂
    http://billybnugroho.blogspot.com

  2. Joan said,

    February 9, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    Thank you so much. The information was wonderful, i am in a transition place with my walk with God. I am asking him where he would have me serve at my church. and just looking for informaton about the service of God’s house, and this was what i needed, i will be back again…

  3. Ted said,

    April 3, 2011 at 12:37 am

    Your post is excellent and helpful. But I have a question about the connection of Samuel to Korah. I can’t see that from the relevant passages, but would love to know how you concluded this.

    Thanks!

  4. Barbara Bailey said,

    May 27, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    This day, I must celebrte a service of Death and Resurrection for a dear parishoner. Always at the door as our Head Usher, I sought out this scripture to give depth and meaning to his Service and my message. Your words are rich and touching, meaningful and helpful. Thank you for inspiration as I say good bye to a good, dear, faithful friend and ‘doorkeeper in the house of the Lord.’

  5. June 6, 2013 at 12:46 am

    Hmm is anyone else encountering problems with the pictures on this blog loading?
    I’m trying to determine if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog.
    Any feed-back would be greatly appreciated.

  6. Lisa said,

    October 21, 2013 at 11:37 pm

    Fabulous post! I’ve studied Korah and his descendants extensively, and yet you’ve added material new to me! Thank you!

  7. Yvonne C. said,

    November 13, 2016 at 11:39 pm

    Quite detailed. I should be speaking on Psalm 46 and was surprised that it was not written by David, hence my search into the life of the sons of Korah. Thanks


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