Who were the company of singers who sang in the Temple built by Solomon? I think many people might answer “the Levitical singers.” That is not correct, because the Levites were not allowed inside the Temple; only the priests were. The Levitical choir and orchestra performed for Yahweh outside the building, in the courts.
In fact, however, there were singers inside the Temple. Consider the opening of Psalm 84:
aBy the Sons of Korah.
1How beloved are Your tabernacles, Yahweh of Armies.
2My soul yearns and even wastes away for Yahweh’s courts.
3My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the Mighty One, God of Life.
4Even a bird has found a house,
5And a swallow a nest for herself,
6Where she can put her young near Your altars,
7Yahweh of Armies, my King and my God.
8Blessed and merry are those who dwell in Your house!
9Continually they praise You.
So, according to this Son of Korah, small birds like swallows nested near God’s altars. They dwelt inside God’s house, unlike any human beings, for the priests entered for brief times morning and evening to trim the lamps and send up incense, and then left. The birds and their babies actually lived in the Temple. Filled with merriment, they praised God continually.
Now, a variety of translators and expositors have questioned this. One might translate “in Your house” as “at Your house.” True, but the poet says that the birds nest near God’s altars, plural. Clearly they would not have built nests right next to the courtyard Altar of Ascensions because of all the activity going on there, but they could have built nests anywhere in the courtyard. The only other altar is the Altar of Incense inside the Temple. Birds, therefore, nested inside the Temple.
They nested in the Holy Place, not the Holy of Holies. That most holy room had no windows and was sealed by olive wood doors except for a brief time on the Day of Coverings (Leviticus 16). Because of the commotion on that day, we can be sure no swallow had any time to build a nest in that room. The Holy Place, however, had high windows (1 Kings 6:3). The translations vary between “windows with artistic frames,” “latticed windows,” “windows with recessed frames,” and other options. Even if “latticed windows” eventually proves correct, the lattices could not have been so narrow that virtually no light came through. And if light came through, so did little singing birds.
This fact, of course, raises a couple of practical questions. First, who cleaned up the bird droppings? Answer: priests, since no one else was allowed inside. A priest was ordained at age thirty, so these were adult men who performed this task. We recall that Peter Leithart showed in The Priesthood of the Plebs that the word kohen, translated “priest,” actually means “servant of a royal household,” or palace-servant for short. Cleaning up the poop is just what servants do!
Second, what if bird droppings land on the loaves on the Table of Facebread? We can say several things about this. One is that since birds are not sinners, their poop is not defiling. Another is that doubtless the priests obviously did not have to eat any bit of facebread that had been splatted by sparrow poop – the Levitical rituals were not a matter of magic; you could let the birds have those pieces.
Then there is the question of birds nibbling on the bread. This takes on addition possible meaning in that the twelve faces of bread represented Israel and it is the curse of the covenant to be eaten by birds (Jeremiah 34:20, etc.). At the very least we really cannot have swallows eating the topmost loaves of facebread.
This leads to the question whether there was any kind of cover on the bread. We know that these were large loaves positions in two stacks and resting in pans, literally “palms” (kappoth, from kaf ), a term that not only provides rich theology (for another time) but also indicates the shape of the pans. The sides of these palm-pans enabled them to be stacked up. Placed on top of the stack was a dish containing incense. Did this dish simply rest on the topmost loaf, or was there a cover over that loaf? From what we have seen, that certainly seems likely. Go here for a good summary and pictures.
Additionally, the Lampstand that watches over the Facebread (Exodus 25:37) represents Yahweh watching over Israel. Since the lamps never went out, He who watched Israel never slumbered nor slept (Psalm 121). The same configuration is seen in the Holy of Holies, where Yahweh is enthroned above the cherubic Ark-cover that rests upon and covers the earthly Ark-chest. That golden cover is the firmament between heaven and earth. It makes perfect sense for there to be a golden cover over each stack of Facebread, between God’s eye and the tribes of Israel.
I conclude that the Facebread was in no danger from the chirping Temple singers.
The Son of Korah adds this later in this psalm:
20For better is a day in Your courts than a thousand.
21I should rather stand at the threshold of my God’s house
22Than dwell in tents of wickedness,
23For a sun and shield is Yahweh God.
24Grace and glory Yahweh gives.
25He does not withhold good from those who walk without blemish.
26Yahweh of Armies, blessed and merry is the man who trusts in You!
As a Levite singer he stands in the courts of Yahweh’s house, and this outer place, this threshold, is better than any palace-dwelling of the wicked. Like the birds who actually live in the Temple, those who trust in God are “blessed and merry” (the first word in Psalm 1). Trust in God is equivalent to dwelling inside His house.
We who live in the new creation are privileged actually to dwell in God’s house in a fuller sense. We can draw near and sing to Him not only in the Holy Place but in the Holy of Holies itself. We ascend by the Spirit to the place where Jesus is, at the right hand of God the Father.
In the environment of the Old Fallen Temple, Jerusalem-Babylon, there is no music to be heard (Revelation 18:22), and the only birds in the area are devourers (19:17f.).
This essay cannot be complete without this.
James B. Jordan is Founder and Director of Biblical Horizons, and Scholar-in-Residence at Theopolis.