Leah, in the hope that the birth of her third son would unite her more fully with her husband, called the child Levi, Gen. 29. 34, which means “closely joined” from the Hebrew root lavah. Jacob, on the other hand, spoke of Levi as “scattered".
The Words of Jacob, "/ will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel”, Gen. 49. 7. This division and spreading abroad was a curse upon sin, 49. 5-7. God, however, turned it to good account, in accordance with His sovereign will. Levi was raised from his cruel vindictiveness, 34. 26, to a unique relationship with Jehovah.
The area where the men of Shechem were murdered by Simeon and Levi was the scene of the events of John 4. “Without doubt, the Samaritans of New Testament times were as bad as any men who had occupied that territory. Yet the cry was no longer a message of vengeance. Instead they heard: “Come, see a man … is not this the Christ?”. Then they went out of the city and came to Him. The thunderous voice for punishment, started by Levi and his brother, and echoed by James and John, Luke 9. 51-56, was not the Lord’s way; “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of”. Do we need the same rebuke? The Levites ultimately learnt to allow patient forbearance, so perfectly exhibited by Jesus, to replace their former carnal trait. Have we?
The family of Levi was lifted from enforced service with rigour in Egypt, Exod. 1. 13-14, to “all manner of service of the tabernacle of the house of God”, 1 Chron. 6. 48. They were “over the storehouses and treasuries of the house of God”, 1 Chron. 9. 26 marg. In place of serving hard task-masters “by reason of bondage”, Jehovah relieved their “shoulder from the burden”, Ps. 81. 6, and “the children of the Levites bare the ark of God on their shoulders”, 1 Chron. 15. 15. This reminds us that our burden of sin has been removed that we may take the Master’s yoke upon us and learn of Him.
The tribe of Levi was divided from the other tribes because it was specially selected by God to be closely joined to Him, Deut. 10. 8-9; 18. 5. All the priests, headed up in the high priest, were drawn from the family of Aaron, a great-grandson of Levi. The remaining Levites helped the priests. When the tabernacle was moved, for instance, the menfolk of Levi were of tremendous value, some eleven thousand workmen being needed to dismantle the structure, transport it and erect it again. Levites, such as Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun, contributed to the organization of the temple ritual. (This Levitical ministry, though it has lapsed, will operate again in the re-established monarchy, Ezek. 44. 10-11.) Should a Levite fail in his duty, the repercussions could be serious, Neh. 13.10-11. Similarly today, the conscientious endeavour of every saint is vital to the welfare of a local church. The quiet work of a sister is as necessary as the ministry of an eminent preacher. Let each of us be content with the sphere of labour that the Lord has entrusted to us, fulfilling it to His glory. The sad example of Koran, Dathan and Abiram, Num. 16, stands as a warning against any other attitude.
The Levites had no inheritance in Canaan because God was their portion, Josh. 13. 33. They lived in and around the fortyeight scattered cities allocated to them, Num. 35. 6. Each man, in his turn, had to go up to Jerusalem for a short period of service, lodging round the house of God. This perpetuated the Levites’ situation round about the tabernacle in the wilderness encampments. Originally the Levites were taken as the redemptive portion for the first-born in Israel, and Jehovah wished to have that portion permanently close to Himself. “Bring the tribe of Levi near”, Num. 3.6. From Deuteronomy 18. 6, where provision was made for a Levite, if he so wished, to reside indefinitely at “the place which the Lord shall choose”, it would seem that God greatly desired the affection of the people that He had specially chosen. In an even higher sense, this must be true of ourselves. No greater responsibility devolves upon the Christian than that of remaining in intimate communion with our Lord.
Thus it was that Jacob’s curse, although literally fulfilled, was nevertheless turned into a blessing. None of those who heard their father’s dying comments about them could have imagined what lay behind his words. It is ever true that God’s thoughts are not men’s thoughts; our ways are not His. We have only to contemplate Levi’s transformation, or our own conversion, to realize this. We Gentiles, who were once far off, are now made nigh by the blood of Christ, Eph. 2. 13. Can we explain how God translated us into the kingdom of His dear Son? “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord”, Zech. 4. 6. The change in Levi had no counterpart in Simeon! How great is our privilege!
The Words of Moses. Where Jacob condemned, Moses was able to bless.
“Let thy Thummim and thy Urim be with thy holy one, whom thou didst prove at Massah, and with whom thou didst strive at the waters of Meribah”, Deut. 33. 8. The high priest had a special fold, within his breastplate, designed to contain what were probably two stones called Thummim and Urim, “lights and perfections”. By use of these, God, on occasions, made known His will to the people. In many respects the high priest was a type of our great High Priest, and truly in Him are still the “lights and perfections”. In Christ “are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”, Col. 2. 3. The Saviour could say: “I am the light of the world”; but He also says of us: “Ye are the light of the world”. God’s mind, long ago, was ascertained through the Urim and Thummim. Now it is the task of the church to show to the world the thoughts and ways of God. This is possible only if we first discover the mind of the Lord in His Word and practise obedience to His will in our lives. We, of all persons, should not be found striving against our faithful High Priest who has been proved in all points. Quiet submission to God’s way, and satisfaction with His provision, should characterize each of us.
“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”, Deut. 33. 9. For some years the Levites maintained in general the high standard of their elevated position. Some incidents, however, anticipated the declension which was to set in later. For example, it was a Levite who introduced images into ceremonial worship, Judges 17. ; 18. 31. (This event becomes the more regrettable if the “Manasseh" of Judges 18. 30 was really Moses (see R.V.). To besmirch the family name is a serious business; note the application to the name of Christ, which Christians carry, in 2 Tim. 2. 19.)
It is delightful that Moses was able to bequeath a spiritual blessing upon this people. This was only possible because they had responded to Jehovah’s gracious call: “Consecrate yourselves to day to the Lord, even every man upon his son, and upon his brother, that he may bestow upon you a blessing”, Exod. 32. 29. They were to love the Lord more than even their dearest relatives. If we are to enjoy His full blessing we must do the same.
By the close of the Old Testament, the quality of priestly service had in general degenerated into an impious negligence of responsibility, Mai. 1. 10. Perhaps we, who live towards the end of a different age, need to take salutary note of this lesson from sacred history.
“They shall teach Jacob thy judgments, and Israel thy law”, Deut. 33. 10. Many illustrious teachers sprang from this tribe. Moses and Aaron of course come to mind. Phinehas, who averted divine wrath, and Samuel, who interceded for the people, are two others from Israel’s early days. Jehoiada, Jeremiah and Ezekiel were members of Levi, and Jewish commentators suggest that Elijah was a descendent of Aaron. The Maccabees, whose colourful history occupies part of the inter-testamental period, were Levites. Mention must also be made of John Baptist.
It was no part of the authority of the priests or Levites to attempt to improve upon God’s order. We, the priests of this age, have a similar charge to abide by the instructions left for us in the Epistles, “teaching others also”. Till He come, the Master “commands the porter to watch".
“They shall put incense before thee, and whole burnt sacrifice upon thine altar”. The high priest, with the Urim and Thummin, represented God to men. With the burnt offering at the brazen altar and the incense at the golden altar, he represented the people before their God. How typical this is of the one Mediator, Christ Jesus.
What was true of Levi as priestly unto Jehovah will expand, during the millennium, to incorporate the whole nation. “Ye shall be named the Priests of the Lord; men shall call you the Ministers of our God”, Is. 61. 6. When the offer was first put to them, the people were unable to rise to such an exalted position, so the honour was divested upon Levi, Deut. 10. 8. In the period of future supremacy, Deut. 28. 13, however, the whole nation will constitute a kingdom of priests. Meanwhile, today, all believers are “holy priests" offering “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ”, and “royal priests" showing forth “the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light”, 1 Pet. 2. 5, 9. Our occupation is to tend the sweet incense whence the fragrance of Christ will go with us as we move among our fellows.
“Bless, Lord, his substance, and accept the work of his hands”, Deut. 33. 11. This included a special privilege not usually recognized. When the twelve spies reported to the body of Israel camped at Kadesh-barnea, Joshua and Caleb stood alone, Num. 13. 1-16,14. 29-38. Because the common people believed the evil report of the other ten spies, God set a curse upon the nation. For forty years this pilgrim people was to wander in a wilderness. During those four decades “all who were numbered … from twenty years old and upward”, and had murmured against the Lord, were to die, Num. 14. 29. But the Levites were never numbered with the remainder of Israel, 1. 1-3, 47-49i 2. 33. Their numbering was “from a month old and upward”. 26. 62. Again, those who suffered as a result of the faithlessness at Kadesh-barnea were “all the men of war”, 32. 11-12; Josh. 5. 6; Deut. 2. 14. The Levites provided no men of war. It therefore appears that the Levites, who sent no spy into Canaan and played no part in the events that ensued, were exempt from the curse and were permitted to cross Jordan with Joshua and Caleb. This accounts for the presence of Eleazar in the promised land, Josh. 24. 33.
How beautifully Moses’ prayer was answered. Having no earthly substance, the Levites were blessed in a special way, entering Canaan as spiritual overcomers.
“Smite through the loins of them who rise against him, and of them who hate him, that they rise not again’. Moses knew that this honoured tribe would have enemies. Jealousy is a vicious attacker, and Satan is not slow to use such a weapon. Every saint today needs the protection of prayer support. Let us therefore pray for one another; “pray without ceasing".
An event that well exemplifies how the Levites were sustained is found in 2 Kings 11 and 2 Chronicles 23. Wicked queen Athaliah thought all the royal seed had been destroyed. One young prince, Joash, had however been hidden in the temple, and at an appropriate time the high priest “gathered the Levites out of all the cities” and the chief men of Israel and “showed them the king’s son’. “Behold the king’s son shall reign, as the Lord hath said of the sons of David”. After being allowed into the secret, the Levites took up posts as “porters of the door’ at the king’s house and at “the gate of the foundation’. They carefully guarded the truth and gathered around the rightful sovereign. These Levites were issued with weapons from what had formerly been David’s armoury. They were thus prepared to defend their cause. Once Athaliah had suffered capital punishment, “they brought out the king’s son and put upon him a crown… and made him king… upon the throne of the kingdom”. Detail by detail, this is a picture of our situation. The last the world saw of great David’s greater Son was at Golgotha. “The world seeth me no more, but ye see me”. He is now in the Father’s house awaiting the day of His proclamation. We have been entrusted with this great knowledge and are to watch and wait, utilizing the spiritual armour at our disposal. “Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching”, Luke 12. 37. Then, when Satan has been dealt with for a thousand years, the kingdoms of this world will “become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ”, Rev. n. 15. Little wonder that, at Joash’s accession, “all the people of the land rejoiced; and the city was quiet”. The Levites had done their job well.