Many people have heard that the Book of Psalms is a songbook, but that is exactly what it was in the Temple. 1 Chr 9 gives a list of the duties of the Levites and one of their duties was the choir. Now, just to be clear, all kohanim are Levites, but not all Levites are kohanim. There are three families in Levi. These families are Kohath, Merari and Gershom. Kohath had a son named Amram, and Amram has a son named Aaron, and that is where the kohanim descend from. Everyone else is called a Levite, only the sons of Aaron are priests.
The Levites had many jobs and they were pre-assigned in the Scriptures. They were musicians, singers, gatekeepers and tended to the needs of the altar, for example. They were listed by family and you can’t switch from one assigned job to another. For instance, if your family was assigned to be a musician, you can’t switch to gatekeeper. If your family was assigned to be gatekeepers, you can’t switch to tending the altar. Your assignment was for “L’Olam Vaed” (forever). Musicians were in two categories, singers and instrumentalists. You can’t switch because everything in the Temple had to be done to perfection. This perfection is seen in the position of the choir director. He does not stand in front of the choir, as you see in choirs today. They stood behind the choir because they did not need direction, everything was practiced to perfection.
In 1 Chr 9.1-33 we have a breakdown of many concepts that we will touch on briefly. In v 20 you will see the name Phinehas (Pinchas in Hebrew) and he is Aaron’s grandson, so this goes all the way back to the Torah. He is the one who drove a spear through two people engaged in sexual activity in regards to Baal-Peor in Num 25. In 1 Chr 9.20-22 it says “in their villages” which indicates that the Levites were scattered all over Israel. They were arranged in courses and divisions (Mishmarot) in the Temple, as we have studied in a previous teaching. They were assigned by families (v 23) to their duties and they changed these duties every Sabbath like the kohanim (v 24-25). Some stayed at the Temple and opened the gates and buildings. Some of those buildings were at the four corners of the Azarah, and were 100 cubits long and 50 cubits wide, or approximately 200 feet long and 100 feet wide. There were four gatekeepers for these four corner buildings, and these four officers were part of the 15 officers in the Temple (v 26-27). Some of the Levites were assigned to the altar and the utensils in the Temple, and were not musicians and instrumentalists (v 28-29). They could not go up the altar, get close to it or even touch it because you had to be a kohan. The Levites made sure that the kohanim had what they needed. Some of the Levites had the responsibility of the menochot (v 30-32 meaning “bread offerings”).
In v 33 we have the singers, and heads of the families who lived in the chambers of the Temple. They were free from any other service because they were engaged in their work (the music) day and night. That means they were teaching, writing and working on the music of the Temple. The “chambers” in v 33 is the Beit Avtinas, the southeastern building in the Azarah. The Sanhedrin, priestly lockers, a bakery and the Kior (laver) was in that building. Close to the south side of the building was a chamber for the singers. There was another chamber called the Beit ha Nitzotz, or “house of the flame/spark.” The hides and meat of the korbanot were processed there. In the north end of that building was another chamber for the choir.
The job of the singers and the musicians was so demanding that they practiced “day and night” meaning all the time. There were no music stands to place music on and no choir director in front of them because the music was memorized to the right “nigun” meaning music. The choir had to sing the songs perfectly because God gave the David the plans of all tis “by the Spirit” (1 Chr 28. 11-19). This included the courts, divisions, the work of the service and all the vessels, and it was given in writing. This included the songs. Deut 4.2 says that we are not to add to or detract from the Word that God has given us. Man does not have the authority to change a command of God, and this included the Temple music.
There was no “improvising” or “artistic expression” in the Temple. You had certain psalms for certain days. Individuals came to the Temple with offerings with certain psalms. There were many ceremonies and these were accompanied by certain psalms. Without the music, the drama of what was happening was diminished. Ever watched a TV program without the sound or music? You can really see the difference. For example, many have seen the movie “Jaws” and just hearing two notes told you that the shark was near. Those two notes told you what was happening. In the same way, the Temple music communicated from God to the worshipper a certain message.
There are three ways to learn. First, you can learn by the written word. Second, you can learn through explanations and third you can learn by the liturgy. As an example, if you said “law” to most Christians they think bondage, bars, restrictions, punishment and burden. If you talk to a person who understands the Lord and the Scriptures, they will rejoice, feel free and be glad. It is the same thing with liturgy. They think that “liturgy” is something they have “broken away” from, like in Catholicism. But the Temple liturgy has the greatest treasures about how things were done and the experiences of the worshipper.
Now, we have talked about how a musician could never be a singer and vice versa. On the northeast corner building called the Beit ha Nitzotz there is a gate, and it is called by two names. One is the Sha’ar ha Nitzotz and the other is Sha’ar ha Shir (song). This is the gate that the singers and musicians used to enter into the Temple area. There is a platform east of the altar called the Duchan, and it is 2 1/2 cubits higher than the Court of Israel. This platform had one step as a warning to the Israelite to go no further. Then, there were three steps for the choir to stand on. These steps could hold about 100 singers. When they sang, they had the “sound” down perfectly and it took a lifetime to master all of this.
There was a rule or an exception in the morning and afternoon services that the priests that gave the priestly blessing (Birkat Kohanim) formed the letter “shin” with their hands when they faced the people. This was where “SpocK” in Star Trek got his greeting with his hand when he said “Live long and prosper.” He saw the kohanim do the Shin with their hands when they blessed the people in the synagogue as a child, and he adopted a similar symbol. Now, the priests had their back to the Sanctuary when they did this because it was seen as God blessing the people through them from the Holy of Holies. It was the same way with the Levitical choir. They had their backs to the Sanctuary when they sang because they were not singing to the Lord, the songs were being sung through them from God to the People. We have always thought that songs were song “to God” but that was not the case in the Temple. That is why these songs had to be sung perfectly because they were teaching the people how to worship, and these songs were coming from the Lord through them.
In the conclusion, we will pick up here with more about the Levitical choir and their music.