WHILE MOSES WAS IN THE MOUNT receiving instruction from God concerning the building of the sanctuary, the people became weary of waiting for him. He had been gone for more than a mouth, and they were not sure when he would return, if ever. "We wot not what is become of him" they said. They therefore asked Aaron to make them gods such as they had in Egypt, that they might worship them and enjoy the feasts they had celebrated among the Egyptians. Aaron was willing to do the bidding of the people, and soon a golden calf was made, of which the people said: "These be thy gods, 0 Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt." Ex.32:4.
Aaron built an altar, and proclaimed a feast to the Lord. Burnt offerings and peace offerings were sacrificed, "and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play." Verse 6. Moses, of course, knew nothing of this until God informed him: "They [the people] have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt." Verse 8
Doubtless to test Moses, God now proposes to destroy the people and to make out of him a great nation. But Moses intercedes for the people and asks God to spare them. And God graciously accedes to his request. "And the Lord repented of the evil which He thought to do unto His people." Verse 14. Moses was evidently not prepared for the sight that met his eyes when he came down from the mount. The people were shouting and dancing, so much so that Joshua concluded: "There is a noise of war in the camp." Verse 17. When Moses saw the length to which Israel had gone, that they were actually engaging in the lascivious pagan dances which they had learned in Egypt, his "anger waxed hot." He had just received from the Lord the two tables of the law containing the Ten Commandments, written with the finger of God, "graven upon the tables." "He cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount." Verses 16,19.
It would ordinarily be thought that the breaking of these tables would be a great sin in the sight of God. Doubtless, the act was symbolic. Israel had sinned. They had broken the law. In token of this, Moses breaks the tables just given him of God. And God does not rebuke him: He merely rewrites the same commandments on two other tables. This also may have symbolic significance. The law is not destroyed by being broken -- God writes it again.
The sin Israel had committed was a grievous one. God had done great things for them. He had liberated them from bondage. He had opened for them the Red Sea. The law had been proclaimed from Sinai amid thunders and lightnings. God had entered into covenant relations with them, and the blood had been sprinkled upon them as well as upon the covenant book. And now they had departed from God and forgotten all their promises. The time had come for decisive action. It must be known who is on the Lord's side, for surely not all have gone astray. A call is made by Moses: "Who is on the Lord's side? let him come unto me." Israel hesitates. Of all the vast throng, only one tribe has the courage to step forward. "And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him." Verse 26.
This courageous action on the part of the tribe of Levi doubtless influenced their selection to the service of God. In a crisis they ranged themselves on the side of right, and God rewarded them. They were selected instead of the first-born to belong to God in a specific sense and to serve at the tabernacle. Num.3:5-13. One family -- that of Aaron -- was entrusted with the priesthood; the rest were "to do the service of the tabernacle" and "keep all the instruments of the tabernacle of the congregation." Verses 7,8. "The priests which were anointed, whom he consecrated to minister in the priest's office," had to do with the more direct service of God at the tabernacle, such as the lighting of the lamps; the burning of incense; the offering of all kinds of sacrifices on the altar of burnt offering; the sprinkling of the blood; the preparation, placing, and eating of the show-bread; preserving knowledge and teaching the law. Num.3:3; Ex.30:7,8; Lev.1:5; 24:5-9; Mal.2:7. The priests were all Levites, but not all Levites were priests. The priestly office was reserved for Aaron and his descendants. Num.3:1-4; Ex.28:1.
The priests also had control in many civil and personal matters. They decided when a man was unclean ceremonially, and had power to exclude him from the congregation. Leprosy was referred to them for examination, and upon their word hung the decision as to whether a man was to be banished from society or whether a house was to be torn down. Lev.13,14. "Take heed in the plague of leprosy, that thou observe diligently, and do according to all that the priests the Levites shall teach you as I commanded them, so ye shall observe to do. Remember what the Lord thy God did unto Miriam by the way, after that ye were come forth out of Egypt." Deut.24:8,9.
The priests alone could restore a man to his family after exclusion. They had jurisdiction in certain cases of suspected unfaithfulness. Num.5:11-31. By their interpretation of the law they came to wield a great influence and authority in many matters affecting daily life. In difficult matters of law the priests were associated with the judge in making judicial decisions, not merely in religious matters, but in that which was purely civil, "matters of controversy within thy gates." Deut.17:8. Their decision was final. The man was admonished to do "according to the sentence of the law which they shall teach thee, and according to the judgement which they shall tell thee." "And the man that will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest that standeth to minister there 'before the Lord thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall die: and thou shalt put away the evil from Israel." Verses 11, 12. (See also Deut.19:17.)
The priests were a class set apart from the rest of the people. They alone could serve in the temple in the more intimate offices of sacrifices. While it was permitted in early days for any person to erect an altar wherever he pleased, and to offer sacrifices on it, later it became a law that only in Jerusalem could sacrifices be offered, and that only priests could officiate. This gave the priests tremendous power and influence. They had control of the entire outward worship of the whole nation. They controlled the temple grounds. Only through them could Israel have access to the blessings of the covenant symbolised by the sprinkling of the blood and the offering of incense. They alone could walk the sacred precincts of the temple proper and transact with God.
It is easily conceivable that a body of men who had control of a nation's worship, of the teaching and interpretation of law, of intimate personal relationships, of the execution of legal decisions, would wield a powerful influence for good or evil upon the people. When added to this prestige is the emolument pertaining to their calling, an emolument that, in later times at least, amounted to vast sums, we may believe that the priests became a very exclusive organization.
The prerogatives of the priesthood were great, and its rights were most jealously guarded. Only Aaron and his descendants could officiate in sacrificial worship. Ex.28,29; Lev.8-10; Nu.16-18. No one could become a priest who was not born into the family. This immediately, put great stress upon the matter of birth, and upon the genealogical record supporting that birth. It was incumbent upon each priest to prove his descent from Aaron by unimpeachable evidence. There must be no flaw in the succession. Each step must be clear.
To examine into the genealogy of each candidate became the task of certain priests. It was later taken over by the Sanhedrin, who spent part of their time in this work. If a priest successfully proved his genealogical right to the office and passed the physical test required, -- if he had no disqualifying deformity of body, -- he was dressed in white garments, and his name was inscribed on the official list of authorised priests. It may be that Revelation 3:5 is based upon this custom. On the other hand, if he failed to satisfy the examiners, he was dressed in black.
Physical deformity -- if the genealogical record was satisfactory -- did not debar the priest from sharing in the support given to the temple priest. Lev.21:21-23. If the defect was not too prominent, he could even serve in some minor capacity, such as caring for the wood used in the altar service, or as a watchman.
The priestly office being very sacred, regulations as to whom a priest might or might not marry, were strictly enforced. A priest might not marry a woman whose husband had put her away or divorced her. He might not marry a prostitute or a violated maid. Lev.21:7,8. He could therefore marry only a pure virgin or a widow, though the high priest was forbidden to marry even a widow. "And he shall take a wife in her virginity. A widow, or a divorced woman, or profane, or a harlot, these shall he not take: but he shall take a virgin of his own people to wife." Lev.21:13,14.
The priests were also to be careful as to ceremonial defilement. They might not touch a dead body except that of a very near kin. The high priest was denied even that. Lev.21:1-3,11. In fact, in every act of their lives the priests were to be conscious of their need of keeping away from anything that might defile. And this carefulness in regard to physical defilement was only emblematic of the greater spiritual purity. "Holiness unto the Lord" was the watchword of the priesthood. The priests and the Levites had no inheritance in the land as did the other tribes. "They shall eat the offerings of the Lord made by fire, and His inheritance. Therefore shall they have no inheritance among their brethren: the Lord is their inheritance, as He hath said unto them." Deut.18:1,2.
Instead of a portion of the land, God gave the priests certain parts of the sacrifices which the people brought. Of every animal sacrifice, except the burnt offering, which was wholly burnt on the altar, and certain other sacrifices, the priests received the shoulder, the two cheeks, and the maw. Deut.18:3. The priests also received the first fruits of corn, wine, and oil and wool of sheep. In addition, the priests were given flour, meat offerings baked in the oven or in the frying pan, mingled with oil or dry. Lev.2:3,10;1;2;3;4;5;24-5-9. Of the burnt offerings they received the skin. Lev.7:8. In case of war, a certain portion of the spoil also fell to the priesthood, both of men and cattle and gold. At times this amounted to no inconsiderable sum. Num.31:25-54. All heave offerings and wave offerings were the priests. Num.18:8-11. All dedicatory offerings likewise were the priests'. Verse 14.
The first-born in Israel, both of man and beast, belonged to the priest, though the "firstborn of man shalt thou surely redeem," that is, Israel was to pay a stipulated sum, five shekels, for each first-born of the children. Verses 15-19. In the year of jubilee, fields that were not redeemed, or that had been sold and could not be redeemed, reverted to the priests. Lev.27:20,21. In case of trespasses that involved holy things, the transgressor was to pay not only the original estimated sum, but add a fifth to it, and give it to the priest. Lev.5:16. In case of harm done to a neighbour, where restitution to the injured party was not possible, the command was to "let the trespass be recompensed unto the Lord, even to the priest." Num.5:8. The regular temple tax of a half shekel for each soul in Israel, "the atonement money," was to be used for the service of the tabernacle, that is, for expenses incurred in the service of God, and did not go directly to the priest. Ex.30:11-16. Besides the above-mentioned sources of income, there were many smaller ones, which need not here be discussed.
The incomes here enumerated were in addition to the tithe income received by the priests. All Israel was commanded to pay tithe. Lev.27:30-34. This tithe was to be given to the Levites, and belonged to them. Num.18:21-24. Of the tithe which the Levites thus received, they were to take a "heave offering of it for the Lord, even the tenth part of the tithe" and "give thereof the Lord's heave offering to Aaron the priest." Num.18:26-28. It appears that in later times tithes were paid directly to the priests. Heb.7:5. Some have thought that this came about at the time of the second temple, when very few of the Levites returned from captivity and it became necessary to employ Nethinims in their stead, but this is not very clear. Ezra 8:15-20. In any event, the priests received tithes directly or indirectly from the people, and as the priests originally were but few in number, the income from this source was probably more than sufficient for their needs.
The priests were ministers of God divinely appointed as mediators between God and men, particularly authorised to officiate at the altar and in the service of the sanctuary. In the days when books were not common, they were not only interpreters of the law, but in many cases the sole source of knowledge of God's requirements. Through them the people were instructed in the doctrine of sin and its expiation, in righteousness and holiness. Through their ministration the people were taught how to approach God; how forgiveness might be had; how prayer might be offered to God; how inexorable the law is; how love and mercy at last prevail. The whole plan of salvation was laid open to them as far as it could be revealed in types and offerings. Every ceremony tended to impress upon their minds the holiness of God and the sure results of sin. It also taught them the wonderful provision made through the death of the lamb. Although it was a ministration of death, it was glorious in its promise. It told of a redeemer, a sin bearer, a burden sharer, a mediator. It was the gospel in embryo.
In the service of the priesthood three things stand out prominently above the rest: mediation, reconciliation, sanctification. Each of these deserves a special word of emphasis.
The priests were first of all mediators. This was preeminently their work. Although the sinner might bring the offering, he could not sprinkle the blood or burn the flesh on the altar. Neither could he eat the shewbread, or offer the incense, or even trim the lamps. All this someone else must do for him. Although he could approach the temple, he could not enter it; though he could supply the sacrifice, he could not offer it; though he could kill the lamb, he could not apply the blood. God was accessible to him only through the mediation of the priesthood. He could approach God only in the person of another. All this would strikingly bring to mind the fact that he needed some one to intercede for him, some one to intervene. This may be more vividly brought to mind by supposing an occurrence which might easily be true.
A heathen who sincerely desires to worship the true God hears that the God of Israel is the true God, and that He lives in the temple in Jerusalem. He starts on the long journey and at last arrives at the sacred place. He has heard that God dwells between the cherubim in the most holy, and decides to enter that place, that he may worship God. But he has not gone many steps into the court when he is stopped by a sign that says no stranger may pass this sign except at the peril of his life. He is perplexed. He wants to worship the true God of whom he has heard, and he has also been told that God desires worship. Yet now he is stopped. What can be done? He inquires of one of the worshippers and is told that he must provide himself with a lamb before he can approach God. Immediately he furnishes himself with the required animal and appears again. Now can he see God? He is told again that he cannot enter.
"Why, then, the lamb?" he asks.
"That you must give to the priest to sacrifice."
"Can I then enter?"
"No, there is no possible way by which you can ever enter the temple or see God. It is not done that way."
"But why cannot I see your God? I want to worship Him."
"No man can see God and live. He is holy, and only he who is holy can see Him. The priest may go into the first apartment, but there is still a veil between him and God. The high priest only can at stated times enter the most holy. You cannot go in yourself. Your only hope is to have some one appear for you."
The man is deeply impressed. He is not permitted to enter the temple. Only he who is holy can do that. He must have some one to mediate for him. The lesson sinks deeply into his soul: He cannot see God; he must have a mediator. Only thus can sins be forgiven and reconciliation be effected.
The whole sanctuary service is grounded in mediation. Even though the sinner brought the lamb; even though he killed it; the service could be made efficacious only through a mediator who would sprinkle the blood and make application of the sacrifice.
The second prominent feature of the service was reconciliation. Sin separates from God. It is that which hides His face from us, and causes Him not to hear. Isa.59:2. But through the sacrificial offerings, and in the ascending incense with the prayers, God could again be approached. Communion was restored; reconciliation effected.
Even as mediation was the underlying purpose of the priesthood, so reconciliation was the intent of the sacrifices offered daily through the year. Through them, amicable relations between God and man were restored. Sin had separated; the blood united. This was accomplished through the ministry of forgiveness. The statement is that when the whole congregation had sinned and had brought their offering for sin; when the elders had placed their hands on the offering and presumably confessed that sin, "it shall be forgiven them." Lev.4:20. Again, the fiat goes forth that when a ruler had sinned and had complied with the requirements, "It shall be forgiven him." Verse 26. The promise is likewise for any one of the common people: "It shall be forgiven him." Verses 31, 35. Through sin, estrangement had come in; but now all is forgiven.
We are reconciled to God by the death of His Son. Rom.5:10. Reconciliation is effected by blood. 2 Chron.29:24. Into the first apartment of the sanctuary the priest entered day by day to commune with God. There was the holy incense reaching even beyond the veil into the most holy; there was the candlestick emblematic of Him who is the light of the world; the table of the Lord inviting communion; and the sprinkling of the blood. It was a place of drawing near to God -- of fellowship. Through the ministry of the priest forgiveness was extended, reconciliation effected, man brought into communion with God.
The third important feature of the sanctuary service is that of sanctification, or holiness. The amount of sin cherished in the heart measures our distance from God. The stranger might come only so far in the temple court. The penitent soul might come to the altar. The mediating priest might enter the holy place. Only the high priest -- and he but one day in the year, and that after extensive preparation -- might enter the most holy. Clad in white he might with trembling approach the throne of God. Even then, incense must partially conceal him. Here he might minister not merely as one seeking forgiveness of sin, but be might boldly ask to have them blotted out.
The daily service throughout the year, symbolised by the ministration in the first apartment, was not complete in itself. It needed to be completed and complemented by that of the second apartment. Forgiveness operates only after transgression. The damage has already been done. God forgives the sin. But it would have been better if the sin had not been committed. For this the keeping power of God is available. Merely to forgive the transgression after it has been committed is not enough. There must be a power to keep from sinning. "Go, and sin no more" is a possibility of the gospel. But to "sin no more" is sanctification. This is the eventual goal of salvation. The gospel is not complete without it. We need to enter with Christ into the most holy. Some will do this. They will follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth. They will be without spot or wrinkle. "They are without fault before the throne of God." Rev.14:5. By faith they enter the second apartment.