Gatekeepers

1 Chronicles 9:1 seems to bring the genealogies of 1 Chronicles to an end. The Chronicler has recorded the genealogy of the human race from Adam, focusing on the descendants of Abraham through Jacob. Summing it all up, he says, “So all Israel was enrolled by genealogies; and behold, they are written in the Book of the Kings of Israel.” It’s the first time the Chronicler uses the important phrase “all Israel,” and it appears to indicate that the genealogy is finished. He has provided genealogies for virtually all the tribes and covered the whole time period from the twelve sons of Israel to the exile, and in some cases beyond. What more is there to say? It’s not only an ending, but a tragic ending. “Judah was carried away into exile in Babylon for their unfaithfulness.” Judah was “stripped” (galah) to Babylon, stripped of land, temple, king, priest. After this long history, a history of exodus, conquest, and kings, Judah is no longer.

But the genealogies are not over, and Chronicles still has a long way to go. After verse 1, there’s verse 2 and then 3 and 4 and on to the end of the chapter and then new chapters. The apparent ending is not a final ending. The end of the genealogies, like the ending of 1-2 Chronicles as a whole, is an end, but not the end. Like all the endings in the Bible, this one leads to a new beginning.

The list that begins in verse 2 is headed by the phrase “the first dwellers.” The word first is ri’shon, from the same root as re’shit in the first phrase of the book of Genesis. After the end that is exile, God speaks again “in the beginning.” If that sounds like a stretch, look at the end of the passage. After listing returned exiles from various tribes, especially among priests and Levites, the passage closes with the claim that “some of the brothers of the sons of the Kohathites were over the showbread to prepare it every Sabbath” (v. 32). The continuation of the genealogy begins with “beginning” and ends with a reference to “Sabbath.” 1 Chronicles 9 rewrites Genesis 1. The Chronicler describes a new arrangement of creation following the decreation of exile.

The company of returned exiles includes four categories of people to cover the four corners of the land: Israel, priests, Levites, and temple servants (v. 2). As the Chronicler expands the list, he mentions seven categories of people: some from the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim, from Judah and Benjamin, also priests, Levites, and gatekeepers. Surprisingly, the longest part of this new creation account is devoted to the temple gatekeepers. We expect attention to the temple. After the exile, Israel’s big project is to rebuild the temple. We don’t expect all this attention to gatekeepers. But it fits the Genesis 1 context. In Genesis 2, after Yahweh has set up a garden, He places Adam there and commissions him as a servant and guard of Eden. The Levitical gatekeepers are new Adams, guarding the garden that is the temple.

This is a new creation passage. It’s also a new exodus text. The opening verses of chapter 9 imply a new exodus. Judah is carried away into exile, and then they return to possess and dwell in the land. Besides, the Chronicler provides a mini book of Numbers, enumerating the returned exiles from Judah (v. 6), Benjamin (v. 9), among the priests (v. 13) and among the gatekeepers (v. 22). The gatekeepers are portrayed as if Israel were still in the wilderness. Though they are assigned to guard the rebuilt temple, the sanctuary is described as a “camp,” the “camp of the sons of Levi” (v. 18) and the “camp of Yahweh” (v. 19). The word for “camp” (machaneh) is typically used for a military camp (1 Chronicles 11:15, 18; 12:22; 14:15-16; 2 Chronicles 14:13; 18:33; 22:1; 32:21). The gatekeepers guard a liturgical space, which is also a military camp, Israel prepared for liturgical battle. The description of the priests as gibborim chayil (v. 13) reinforces this. The NASB translation as “very able men” is too weak. All the other uses of the phrase in 1 Chronicles 1-9 (10x) refer to warriors, “mighty men of valor.” And that is the same connotation when the phrase is used of the Levites and gatekeepers. The temple is called a “tent” (v. 19), and “the house of the tent” (v. 23). The gatekeepers are stationed at the four corners of the sanctuary – east, west, north, south – to prevent incursions from every direction (v. 24), with the chief of the gatekeepers, Shallum, stationed at the east gate, in the place previously reserved for priests (vv. 17-18). This replicates the arrangement of Israel’s wilderness camp, in which Israel was set up in concentric rings around the temple.

The two story-lines, creation and exodus, belong together. Creation was the original exodus, and the first exodus recreated Israel and the world. New exodus means new creation, as new creation is always the result of an exodus.

In this new creation/new exodus setting, the gatekeepers are essential. The Chronicler presents the history of Israel as a history punctuated by sacrilege and unfaithfulness (as William Johnstone has pointed out). When they entered the land, Achan seized God’s plunder and hid it in his tent (1 Chronicles 2:3). The tribes that remained on the east side of the Jordan also committed ma’al (1 Chronicles 5:25). The first king, Saul, died because of unfaithfulness (1 Chronicles 10:13). Judah was carried into exile for the same offense (1 Chronicles 9:2). The word used in each instance refers to misuse of God’s holy things. Achan seizes plunder that belongs to God. Saul refuses to destroy the Amalekites that are devoted to God. Judah misuses God’s holy land and His holy house.

Against the background of this history of unfaithfulness and sacrilege, the gatekeepers are essential to the maintenance of the new Israel. They guard God’s house and His things so that wrath doesn’t break out against them. They ensure that God’s holy things are used for holy purposes. Without faithful gatekeepers, Judah might well end up where they had been – in exile because of her sacrilege and trespass (ma’al, v. 1).

To fulfill this task well, they have to imitate their fathers. The gatekeepers are given this “trust” by Samuel and David (v. 22), but the office of gatekeeper goes back to the wilderness. Centuries before, Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, served as the ruler of the gatekeepers. When a plague broke out against Israel in the wilderness because of her idolatry and fornication, Phinehas arrested the plague by impaling a fornicating couple in their tent (Numbers 25). Phinehas is the archetypal gatekeeper, full of the jealousy and zeal of Yahweh, ready to prevent Israel from defiling the Lord’s sanctuary. The Chronicler tells us that Yahweh was with him, that Yahweh stood with Phinehas at the gates of His own house, that Yahweh as both resident and guardian of His palace. Yahweh is the glory within the tent, and the first of jealousy that surrounds it.

Nothing was more important to the success of Israel’s new beginning than the gatekeepers. If they were faithful, they would ensure that the temple would not again be abandoned and destroyed. By their zeal, they would prevent abominations that would bring desolation. Only Phinehas-like gatekeepers would prevent Israel from falling against into sacrilege, and being driven again from the land.

Now, this may or may not be of interest, but whether it’s interesting or not, it doesn’t seem relevant. It seems little more than ancient history. I think, on the contrary, that it’s highly relevant and practical to our life as a body. We don’t have a temple or priesthood anymore in the way Israel did. By the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God has established a new temple in the world, a temple made of people not stones. This temple is the church, and it is a temple for the same reasons that the ancient temples were temples: Because it’s the place of God’s dwelling. All of us together form a temple of the Spirit, consecrated as holy ground and holy space by the Holy Spirit of Jesus. The church is a temple, and each member of the church is a small temple of the Spirit, sanctified by the Spirit’s presence. The new covenant temple is made of people, and that means that the distinction of temple and priesthood is virtually erased. It’s not that we are a priesthood gathered in a temple; we are a priesthood and temple in one. We are all Levites now. We are all guardians and gatekeepers of the house of God, and we are the house that we guard.

If we are all priests of God’s holy house, then we are all gatekeepers. In the new Adam Jesus, we are all Adams, commissioned to protect God’s holy place and God’s holy things. Each of us is called to keep the gates. Guard your heart, Solomon warns, for out of it are the issues of life. We may think our hearts impervious to outside influences, but Solomon knows better. We guard what goes in so that the right things issue out. We guard our hearts by guarding the gateways to our hearts – our eyes, ears, and tastes. We guard our ears by being careful who we listen to, whom we trust. We guard the gates of our eyes by being careful what we see and contemplate. We guard our hearts by guarding our tongues: What tastes become our delight? What food are we eating? This is the logic Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 6. You are bought with the blood of Jesus, and no longer belong to yourself. You belong to God, and are His holy place, consecrated by the Spirit. Since your body is God’s sacred ground, you may not join your body with a prostitute. That is not only adultery, but sacrilege, the same sin that Israel committed.

Parents are gatekeepers of their homes and especially of children. What are your children seeing, listening to? What kinds of tastes are they developing? I don’t have to tell you that monitoring the gateways to their heart is a big challenge today because there are so many media for them to draw from, so many avenues by which things can enter, and so much of it can take place in utter privacy. You can guard your children in a way that keeps them safe but immature. So in addition to guarding your children, you have to train them to guard themselves.

We are gatekeepers of one another. The pastors have a specific duty to guard the house, but we are all priests. This is the premise of Jesus’ teaching about church discipline. If a brother sins against you, go and confront him and seek to restore him and restore fellowship. Paul says it more widely: If your brother is caught in a trespass, you who are spiritual restore him, gently and humbly, recognizing your own weakness. “Encourage one another,” Hebrews says, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (3:13).

This doesn’t appeal to us. We like to be left alone, and don’t want other people interfering with our choices and desires. We don’t want to be confronted. We’d rather not have someone interfere. But 1 Chronicles indicates why this is so necessary. It’s necessary for the negative reasons I’ve already mentioned. By guarding one another, we prevent bitterness and sin from taking root, bitterness and sin that can cause great evils. We guard from the sacrilege that can lead to desolation and disaster.

But there is also a positive reason. Gatekeepers keep bad things out, but they do that to preserve the good things that are taking place within. The Levitical gatekeepers were “over the chambers,” perhaps chambers of feasting for common Israelites. Levitical gatekeepers were in charge of the flour, wine, oil, and incense of the sanctuary. The sanctuary was a place of festivity, of a feast of bread and wine, and Israel could rejoice in that feast only if the Levitical guardians were zealous and faithful in their work. If they slacked, defilements would undermine the joy of God’s house. We guard one another so that our Eucharist will be a feast of joy, rather than a deadly poison. We guard one another to preserve the peace and joy we have in the Spirit. We guard our families to preserve the festivity of a dinner table or a Christmas celebration. We guard our hearts to protect the joy of the Lord that is our strength. This is what “communion” or “fellowship” means. It involves friendship, keeping company, hospitality. More fundamentally, communion means we have a life in common, and live a life together. We share in good things – ultimately, in the greatest good thing, the Spirit who is the Lord and Giver of life, and we are called to show the zeal of Phinehas as we preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

You are your brother’s keeper, each a gatekeeper of this holy house.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.