Did you know that the Sons of Korah were involved in one of the Bible’s most ferocious demonstrations of the holiness of the Sabbath? Nehemiah 13:4-22 gives one of the most notable examples of the service of the Sons of Korah as gatekeepers for Judah, but their own role in the story has been nearly invisible, until now. In this passage of scripture we see not only the corruption of the priesthood of Judah at the time, but the faithful role of the Sons of Korah in aiding the reforms of Nehemiah.
Nehemiah 13:4-14: The Corruption of the Priests In The Time of Nehemiah
In Nehemiah 13:4-9 we read about how the priests failed to provide the rest of the Levites with the tithes and offerings as they were required to do so by the Law of God, hoarding it for themselves while they engaged in their own political games, as the Bible says: “Now before this, Eliashib the priest, having authority over the storerooms of the house of our God, was allied with Tobiah1. And he had prepared for him a large room, where where previously they had stored the grain offerings, the frankincense, the articles, the tithes of grain, the new wine and oil, which were commanded to be given to the Levites and singers and gatekeepers, and the offerings for the priests. But during this time I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had returned to the king, and I came to Jerusalem and discovered the evil that Eliashib had done for Tobiah, in preparing a room for him in the courts of the house of God. And it grieved me bitterly; therefore I threw all the household goods of Tobiah out of the room. Then I commanded them to cleanse the rooms; and I brought back into them the articles of the house of God, with the grain offering and the frankincense.”
Here we see that Eliashib the priest, who was supposed to provide for the Levites from the tithes and offerings, instead threw their goods out of the temple so he could give his crony and political ally Tobiah of Ammon a room in the Temple contrary to the law. This defiled the temple, forcing it to be cleaned by Nehemiah (and the godly Levites) so that the Levite singers and gatekeepers (prominent among whom were the Sons of Korah) could have their own rooms back. It is notable that whenever leadership is corrupt and engaging in political gladhanding, that devotion to the law of God quickly diminishes. Those who do not faithfully fulfill their own requirements under the law will be poor shepherds of the people of God in making sure that the laws of God are faithfully obeyed in general. Those who obey the law are the only appropriate judges, and here we see that Eliashib failed in corruption, proving himself to be more like the sons of Eli the priest than like Samuel the faithful prophet and judge of God.
Nehemiah 13:10-14 continues the narrative explaining how Eliashib had acted corruptly: “I also realized that the portions for the Levites had not been given them; for each of the Levites and the singers who did the work had gone back to his field. So I contented with the rulers, and said, “Why is the house of God forsaken?” And I gathered them together and set them in their place. Then all Judah brought the tithe of the grain and the new wine and the oil to the storehouse. And I appointed as treasurers over the storehouse Shelemiah the priest and Zadok the scribe, and of the Levites, Pedaiah; and next to them was Hanan the son of Zaccur, the son of of Mattaniah; for they were considered faithful, and their task was to distribute to their brethren. Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God, and for its services!”
Here we see that the corruption of the priests led Israel to neglect its obligations to tithe. It was not only the priests of the Aaronite line, but also the Levites who served in such tasks as security, the music service, and the preparation of the showbread, who were to receive the “first tithe,” but due to the corruption of the high priest at the time these duties were neglected and the Levites had to earn their own income in their fields rather than serving the people of God as they had been called to do. Nehemiah therefore, in order to bring the service of God to its appropriate level, had to place godly men in charge of the administration of the tithes because the High Priest was corrupt and unworthy. Nonetheless, we see here Nehemiah showing a strong concern for the singers and the gatekeepers of the Levites, which were two of the most prominent roles of the Sons of Korah in the temple system. Nehemiah’s concern for their well-being allowed them to serve their role as defenders of God’s law, as would shortly be obvious.
Nehemiah 13:15-22: Yet You Bring Added Wrath On Israel By Profaning The Sabbath
Now that the material needs of the Levites had been met, Nehemiah called on the Sons of Korah to fulfill their job of serving as gatekeepers in Israel to defend the sanctity of the Sabbath day in Nehemiah 13:15-22: “In those days I saw people in Judah treading wine presses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and loading donkeys with wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. And I warned them about the day on which they were selling provisions. Men of Tyre dwelt there also, and sold them on the Sabbath to the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem. Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said to them, “What evil thing is this that you do, by which you profane the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers do thus, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Yet you bring added wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath.”
Continuing on, it says, “So it was, at the gates of Jerusalem, as it began to be dark before the Sabbath, that I commanded the gates to be shut, and charged that they must not be opened till after the Sabbath. Then I posted some of my servants at the gates, so that no burdens would be brought in on the Sabbath day. Now the merchants and sellers of all kinds of wares lodged outside of Jerusalem once or twice. Then I warned them, and said to them, “Why do you spend the night around the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you!” From that time on they came no more on the Sabbath. And I commanded the Levites, that they should cleanse themselves, and that they should go and guard the gates, to sanctify the Sabbath day. Remember me, O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness of Your mercy!”
As this passage is a very contentious and controversial one, let us carefully examine a few elements of this as they relate to the point at hand. First of all, let us note what activity was profaning the Sabbath day. One aspect is in labor—the nobles of Judah had their peasants working in harvesting grain and bringing it for sale on the Sabbath as if the Sabbath were an ordinary market day fit for doing one’s normal shopping. Both the labor and the buying and selling of goods profaned the Sabbath. Additionally, though, the Bible here considers even the purchase of one’s provisions (meals) from unbelievers (referred to here as men of Tyre) as profaning the Sabbath. If we assume that the 2 Timothy 3:16-17 rule2 applies to this passage of scripture (as would appear to be the case given the Biblical standard of interpretation), it would mean that it is improper for believers to purchase the goods and services of unbelievers during the Sabbath under ordinary circumstances, at the very least. This clearly has serious implications for our own Sabbath practices, which may often fall far short of this standard (as has often been the case for me). It is not my point to spell out these implications in detail, but they ought to be obvious enough.
Additionally, let us examine the issue of whether Nehemiah’s conduct here (or the conduct of his Korahite gatekeepers) was within the proper boundaries of scripture. Nehemiah was the civil governor of Judah, and as a civil leader he had the divinely ordained responsibility to enforce the law of God (Romans 13:1-4), which is the responsibility of all civil leaders. Lacking such civil authority, believers today are not called upon to enforce punishments on unbelievers. Nonetheless, as the Levite gatekeepers were themselves also religious leaders with the proper authority to determine who was fit to enter the temple in worship or not, it would appear that those legitimate religious authorities also have the responsibility to enforce the standards of God’s Sabbath as interpreted by Nehemiah on the community of believers (since this passage is holy Scripture inspired by God for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction as to God’s standards of Sabbath observance) within the boundaries allotted for religious authorities. Let this be done with mercy and not with harshness.
Let us finally note that the Sons of Korah, who were the gatekeepers of the temple who guarded the gates of Jerusalem from the ungodly sale of provisions for the people of Jerusalem, had both a civil and religious role. In their religious role their job was to sanctify the Sabbath day and defend the holiness of the people of God and of the city of Jerusalem, the holy city. Additionally, though, the sons of Korah served as civil magistrates whose job it was to enforce the Sabbath prohibition even on unbelievers who sought to do business in the community of God. Therefore we see that in a godly realm that there are cases where people who hold religious offices (like the Levite gatekeepers of the Sons of Korah) may be called upon to enforce biblical law as civil officers of the law if they are called to do so by the appropriate and legitimate civil authorities. Therefore, in a godly realm there is no strict separation of church and state as both church and state are properly under the same biblical law code.
Despite the fact that this passage is an extremely contentious one concerning the observance of the Sabbath day, the role of the Sons of Korah in enforcing the law of God in both a civil and religious fashion is not often recognized. The fact that this account remains as scripture indicates that God accepted the interpretation of Nehemiah on Sabbath observance as normative for all believers in all times, even if we may lack the same enforcement mechanisms he used at this present time. Regardless, God has the same standards of holiness for His Sabbath day now as he had in the time of Nehemiah. Let us note as well that it is necessary first to clean house within the often-corrupt religious hierarchy (as was the case with Nehemiah) before the people of God can be purified and their behavior brought up to God’s high standard. Let us therefore neither do nor say anything that would slander either the servants of God or denigrate God’s consistent and unchanging standard of godly behavior, even as we all seek to hold ourselves accountable to that standard and so develop the same noble character of God as is shown by Nehemiah and the sons of Korah in this passage.
1An enemy of Israel.
2“All Scripture is given by the inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”