“The people of Judah have sinned before my very eyes,” says the Lord. “They have set up their abominable idols right in the Temple that bears my name, defiling it. [Jeremiah 7:30 (NLT)]
King David assigned temple duties to the 38,000 Levites: 24,000 oversaw the work in the temple; 6,000 acted as officials and judges; 4,000 were temple gatekeepers; and 4,000 became musicians. Rather than owning land themselves, Levites were scattered throughout Israel so they could instruct the people, guard the worship of the Lord, and prevent idolatry. These were not meek men. It was Levi and his brother Simeon who killed all the men of Shechem in retaliation for the rape of their sister. After the Israelites worshipped the golden calf, Moses said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” The Levites gathered at his side and then, at his command, slaughtered 3,000 of their fellow Israelites for their idolatry. [Exodus 32:26,28] Hardly what we’d think of as typical church workers, the Levites were a tribe of warriors.
Responsible for the temple’s treasury, furnishings, and articles used in worship, the Levite gatekeepers were to protect the temple from theft and desecration. No one, not even the king, was allowed to defile the temple. Yet, during Rheoboam’s reign, King Shishak of Egypt carried off the temple’s treasures; later King Asa sent what was left of its riches to the King of Aram as tribute. During Queen Athaliah’s reign, the temple was ransacked by her followers and parts of it used to build a temple to Baal. King Ahaz presented temple treasures to the king of Assyria, moved the original bronze altar, replaced it with a replica of an Assyrian altar, and made offerings to the gods of Damascus. He removed the Sabbath canopy and several ornaments from the temple, shut the temple doors, and set up altars for the worship of pagan gods.
By the time of King Hezekiah, people were worshipping the bronze serpent made by Moses. Although Hezekiah destroyed it and had the Levites purify the temple, his son, King Manasseh, again desecrated the temple by erecting an Asherah pole and altars for star worship. By the time of King Josiah, the temple had fallen into disrepair, the Ark had been removed from the temple, the book of the law had been misplaced, and Baal and Asherah were worshipped there. Josiah again cleansed the temple but his reforms did not last and both the temple and nation were defiled by sin.
I wonder what those warrior priests, the Levites, were doing during all of this temple sacrilege. While a few prophets spoke in condemnation of the various abominations, other than the rebellion led by Jehoiada, the Levites’ silence and apparent compliance throughout the books of Kings and Chronicles is reprehensible.
Today’s temple of God is Christ’s church and, sadly, His temple continues to be violated. Rather than Asherah poles and images of Baal, today’s defilement is far more subtle. It includes things like sexual exploitation, abuse of power, cover-ups, misuse of funds, false doctrine, being a place of gossip or conflict, hypocrisy, ignoring sin, putting numbers before discipleship or entertainment before worship, seeking financial gain rather than the glory of God, neglecting the call to service, replacing the gospel with pop psychology and feel good messages, overlooking malicious behavior, following personality rather than Christ, neglecting the sacraments, and allowing prayer or Bible study to be an afterthought.
For the most part, the Levites silently stood by as they saw God’s temple being defiled. Let us never make the same mistake.