Chapter 3: Prophets, kings and priests
A lot of the Old Testament makes reference to three groups of people: prophets, kings and priests, as they feature in the nation of Israel. They were, in their own ways, leaders of the nation, although there were elders and officials too, but it was always God’s intention that He would lead them. One esteemed Bible commentator has made the observation, when we consider the 2000-year Bible history of Israel, leading up to the coming of Jesus, that if we were to divide this into four roughly equal periods, when considering its leadership, this was dominated by patriarchs, prophets, kings and priests respectively. It was never quite that simple though. Prophets and priests featured in the three last periods and there was considerable overlap and interaction between prophets, kings and priests (the place of these in the Old Testament, especially the last two, we will consider in more depth in this chapter). That same commentator observed in those 2000 years, no styles of leadership worked entirely satisfactorily, which is why they needed someone who could combine all three offices. They got that in Jesus, their Messiah, who we will also consider, who they rejected. Before we do so, we will consider the history of Israel through the lens of the Bible.
The Bible – chronology, division, order
When we consider the Old Testament chronologically (see Figure xxx in Chapter 2), we can do so with reference to the Christian Bible, which can be viewed in three sections: History: Genesis through to Esther (17 books); Poetry: Job through to Song of Solomon (5 books) and Prophecy: Isaiah through to Malachi (17 books) (Total 39 books). Regarding Prophecy, this can be divided into two sections: the 4 Major prophets and Lamentations; the 12 Minor prophets. Books are arranged differently in the Hebrew Bible, which can also be viewed in three sections: the Law: Genesis through to Deuteronomy (5 books); the Prophets: Joshua through to the 12 minor prophets (treated as one book) (8 books); the Writings: Psalms through to Chronicles (11 books) (Total 24 books). Prophecy too can be treated in two parts: Former prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings (the last two – both one book)) and the Latter prophets: Isaiah through to the Minor prophets (with Daniel is oddly included in the Writings, along with Lamentations and Ruth, with Chronicles as one book).
In many ways, the Hebrew Bible approach suits that taken by this book. The prophets, unsurprisingly, are mostly in the part of the Hebrew Bible called “the Prophets”, although they also appear in the Law and the Writings. The kings appear mainly in the Prophets, but some appear in the Writings too, notably Chronicles. There is an important distinction that could be made with reference to Kings and Chronicles appearing in different sections of the Hebrew Bible, rather than next to each other in the Christian Bible. Kings (and Samuel) were written from a prophet’s perspective, with a focus on the kings of both Israel and Judah; Chronicles was written from a priestly perspective with a focus on the kings of Judah and the line of David, from which the Messiah would come. For the sake of balance, while some repetition between Kings and Chronicles, there are important differences too and for a fuller understanding of the prophets of the Bible, Chronicles needs to be studied. As for the priests, they appear in all three sections of the Hebrew Bible. While not a focus of this book, they played an important part in our story and interacted with both kings and prophets.
Introducing prophets, priests and kings
While the focus of attention in this chapter is on the prophets, priests and kings of the Old Testament, something should be said about the New. The first and most important thing to mention is that the Jesus we read about in the New Testament is prophet, priest AND king. We will return to this point later in the chapter, after we have set out our store. As for the offices: while prophets do exist under the New Covenant, which is what the New Testament is primarily about, there are aspects not seen in the Old, which will be discussed in later chapters. While there are “leaders” in the Church, we will also get to, priests don’t apply in the same way as the Old. Jesus is our Great High Priest and the teaching of the “priesthood of all believers” takes on added importance. As for kings, the King the Church follows is Jesus. However, as citizens on earth, we are obliged to obey earthly rulers (kings) unless it stops us obeying King Jesus.
The Bible – an overview
We will now embark on a rapid journey through the Old Testament, identifying prophets, priests and kings on the way, before picking up again specifically on priests and kings, while prophets are comprehensively covered in the remaining chapters of this book, for they appear in one way or another in almost every book of the Old Testament, along with their prophetic utterances. The Bible begins with the creation story, with God creating human beings in His own image, seeking to have a relationship with them. We see right at the outset the origins of sin (as well as many other origins) and also the beginning of the way to redemption, one of the major themes of the Bible. We learn how humankind multiplied but also of their rebellion toward God, whence God sent a Flood to destroy the earth. Even following the Flood, the human propensity to do wrong continued, for example in building the Tower of Babel and God destroying it.
Which brings us to a central theme of the Bible and the focus of the Old Testament, Israel. We start with God calling Abraham: “Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing” Genesis 12:1. It was with that great nation God wanted to establish His covenant, which might be likened to that of marriage. We follow the story through Isaac and Jacob, then the Patriarchs and then a 400 year stay in Egypt when they became slaves and Israel’s population increased to over a million.
Which brings us to Moses, God’s prophet and more, to lead Israel out of Egypt into the Promised Land. The forty years spent in the wilderness was a testing period and one when the Law was given (covered in Chapter 5). Following possessing the land under Joshua, there was further period mainly to do with Israel and God’s dealing with it under the Judges (covered in chapter 8). This was followed by a period of Israel following the kings and, following the death of Solomon, the division of the kingdom into the ten northern tribes (Israel) and two southern tribes (Judah). Both were eventually to go into Exile; Israel under the Assyrians and Judah under the Babylonians. The rest of the Bible relates to considering the Babylonian exile and the return of a remnant of those who were exiled, under Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah respectively. The 400 years before the coming of Jesus are part covered in the Apocrypha. Full autonomy for Israel never happened and there was always some foreign power controlling their fate, which was a mixture of some good and a lot that was not good. Dates and timelines are shown in Figure xxx in Chapter 2. The sad story of the Old Testament is that it was a lot to do with the ups and often downs of Israel, as they broke their covenant with the Lord and were disobedient to Him.
This brings us to the New Testament but before we do, let us bridge the gap by considering further the last, and often neglected, book of the Hebrew Bible, Chronicles. Given it was written centuries after Samuel and Kings, the content of which would have been well known to the readership and referred to by the author, possibly the priest, Ezra, one might ask what the intention was behind this writing. To understand this better, we should put ourselves in the shoes of the Jewish readership. They had returned from Exile to the Promised Land, but things were far from what they desired and hoped. They were looking for the awaited descendant of David to come as its Messiah, and to restore the land to its former glories and better, as had been foretold by the prophets. The Temple, whose story David is so much part of even though he was not allowed to build it, represented the Messianic hope that God would dwell among His people and all the promises made, going back to Abraham, would be fulfilled. The lineage of David, and the importance of Temple worship were two themes emphasized in Chronicles but not in Kings. The very last verse of Chronicles is: “Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, All the kingdoms of the earth hath the Lord God of heaven given me; and he hath charged me to build him an house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all his people? The Lord his God be with him, and let him go up” 2 Chronicles 36:23, leaving open the door of hope.
What was being looked forward to was the coming of the Son of David, Jesus the Messiah. While the prophets saw this at best as a shadow as they looked forward to the Kingdom being restored and the Day of the Lord, the Gentiles were to play an important part, even those they were never discounted in the Old Testament. We turn to the Age of the Church (Jew and Gentile), covered in the New Testament and whose story can be found in the annals of history, until such time Jesus comes again. As a footnote, the Temple does not yet exist even though one understanding of Ezekiel 40-48 suggests it will at some time, and this is one of the many items of discussions among students of Bible prophecy. It is argued by some Christians, that see that Temple irrelevant as far as the New Covenant goes, that Jesus is the Temple: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” John 1:14, and in Jesus’ own words: “Tear down this Temple, and in three days I will build it again” John 2:19.
Looking at the Priests
NOTE: This book is about the Prophets of the Bible, and as a future project another two books could be written: Priests of the Bible and Kings of the Bible. To do the subjects justice, this would require the same forensic trawl through the Bible as for this book. The best we can do for now is to provide overviews on Priests and Kings, with an emphasis on how they related to the Prophets.
The priesthood of ancient Israel was the class of male individuals, who were patrilineal descendants from Aaron (the elder brother of Moses), who served in the Tabernacle, Solomon’s Temple and Second Temple until the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. The High priest, was the chief religious functionary in the Temple of Jerusalem, and before the Temple was built, the Tabernacle, whose unique privilege was to enter the Holy of Holies once a year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, to burn incense and sprinkle sacrificial animal blood to expiate his own sins and those of the people of Israel. A priest is required to act as a mediator. He is one who represents YHWH to His subjects and in return them to Him. He acts as an ambassador, a chosen vehicle through whom YHWH has chosen to serve the people and represent Him, on His behalf.
Besides priests featuring in other religious worship, e.g. of Baal, they featured long before the office was established under Moses, and as recorded in the Books of Exodus and Leviticus. The first mention of priests is Melchizedek, King of Salem (Genesis 14:18), which we will return to when we consider Jesus as Priest. Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, was a priest of Midian (Exodus 4:1). There were priests among the Israelites when they came out of Egypt (Exodus 19:22, 24). As for the false priests who served false gods there was the Priest of Midian (Exodus 18:1), priests of On (Genesis 41:45), priests of Dagon (1 Samuel 5:5), priests of the High places (1 Kings 12:32) and priests “of them that are no gods” (2 Chronicles 13:9). At Mount Sinai, God designated Aaron and his descendants to serve as priests (Exodus 28:1, 44; 30:30; 40:13-15; Numbers 3:3). One of the twelve tribes of Israel, Levi, were assigned priestly duties, although not all Levites were priests. Only those designated could perform priestly duties, not other Levites (Numbers 16:1-3; 1-10; 10:1-3), not Moses or his descendants (1 Chronicles 23:13). The Levitical priests had to be between 30 and 50 years old (Numbers 4:3), unblemished (e.g. not lame) (Leviticus 21:16-23), have a proper marriage (Leviticus 21:9, 14), i.e. not married to a harlot or a divorced woman or a widow other than a priest’s widow (Ezekiel 44:22). While the other tribes of Israel were given an inheritance, when it came to dividing up the land, this was not so for the tribe of Levi, for the Lord was their inheritance (Deuteronomy 10:9). The standards of ritual holiness and actual holiness among priests were high, and when two of Aarons sons offered unauthorized fire before the Lord (Leviticus 10:1) God struck them dead.
Among the duties of the priests was to teach the people (Leviticus 10:8-11), serve as judges to resolve controversy (Deuteronomy 21:5), offer sacrifices (Exodus 29:38-42), assess impurity (Leviticus 13-15), burn incense (Exodus 30:7-8), bless the people (Numbers 6:22-27), bless God (Deuteronomy 10:8), keep the tabernacle (Numbers 3:38; 4;16), take care of the altar (Leviticus 6:8-13), the lamps, and the showbread (Leviticus 24:1-9), prepare the holy things for each days journey (Numbers 4:5-15), continue the sacred fire (Leviticus 6;12-13), blow the trumpets (Numbers 10:1-10). As for the High Priest, he was God’s leader over the priests. Aaron served as the first High Priest (Exodus 40:12-13). Aaron’s son, Eleazer, replaced him as High Priest when he died (Numbers 20:26-28). The position of high priests continued through the time of Christ (Matthew 26:3) until the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 AD. Their duties included: direct the work of the priests and Levites (Numbers 3:4), inquire of the Lord (Judges 20:28), consecrate other priests (Exodus 29:1-37), maintain the golden candlestand with its fire (Leviticus 24:1-4), burn incense daily (Exodus 30:7-8), and offer sacrifices on the Day of Atonement (Hebrews 5:1, Leviticus 16, 23) the one day he could enter the Holy of holies.
Regarding the priesthood, as far as Israel is concerned, this was maintained until at least the second Temple was destroyed. For a period, when there was no Temple, following the destruction of the first Temple, i.e. during the Exile, priests appeared not to function, although the line was maintained. Between the Law being given to Moses at Mount Sinai to Solomon built the Temple, priests operated out of a Tabernacle (Tent) As far as Christians are concerned, this was replaced by a better than that of Aaron priesthood, a priesthood of the order of Melchizedek. He was the man who blessed Abraham after returning from battle: “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he gave him tithes of all” Genesis 14:18-20. Looking forward to the King that was to come, the Psalmist declared: “The Lord said unto my Lord, sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool… The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek” Psalm 110: 1,4.
Looking at the Kings
Kings featured throughout the Bible, starting with Nimrod, who was “a mighty hunter before the Lord” (Genesis 10:9) and long before Israel had a king. We use the term “king” loosely. It could be them who ruled over a city, like the five kings who fought against the four kings, referred to in Genesis 14; them who ruled over nations, including Israel from the time of Saul, of which there are many examples, and them who ruled over empires, like Cyrus (Persian) and Nebuchadnezzar (Babylonian). While our kingly focus, as far as this book is concerned, is on Israel, it was not God’s intention for Israel to have a king, and rather He, YHWH, should be their king, but the people insisted they have a king and be like other nations, and God gave them one. While Israel’s kings, and later Israel and Judah when the kingdom was divided, were meant to follow the Law and rule wisely, justly etc., they did so to varying degrees. Following the Exile, Israel had varying degrees of autonomy although, except for a short period (167BC to 37BC) under the Maccabees, they were always ruled over by someone else, with varying degrees of benevolence, at least until 1948. Kings in Bible times were usually autocratic, ranging from very bad to quite good. While in the 2000 years following Christ, attempts were made, when Christians were in the ascendency, to have a theocracy, but rarely succeeded and will not do so before Christ returns to reign, although engaging with government is an issue.
Figure xxx in Chapter 2 shows a timeline for the kings of Israel and Judah. The first three kings: Saul, David and Solomon, ruled over a united kingdom. When the kingdom divided, Israel and Judah followed different routes. While our chart indicates kings were either good or bad, it was rarely that simple. More often than not, the fortunes enjoyed or otherwise by people in the land had a lot to do with how well the king behaved. The kings of Judah were a mixture of good and bad, while those of Israel were all bad. Yet sometimes bad kings had good points e.g. Jehu; and good kings had bad points as not removing the High places. Sometimes a king started off good and turned bad later, e.g. Solomon and, on rare occasions, a king started off bad and turned good, e.g. Manasseh. All too often, a bad king followed a good one, and vice versa. The tragedy was both the kingdoms of Israel and Judah came to ignominious endings and that was a lot down to their turning their backs on God. Throughout and especially during the time of the kings, there were prophets around to guide them in God’s ways and, more often than not, they engaged with the kings who were reigning. Sometimes, happily, they were listened to and their words were heeded, but all too often they were ignored and rejected, with often disastrous results. As far as this book is concerned, examples of that interaction are given in Chapters 9-13.
Jesus – Prophet, Priest and King
In exceptional cases, individuals in the Old Testament combined more than one office. For example, while Ezekiel and Zechariah are both known to us as prophets, they were also priests. It might be argued that Moses was king and priest as well as prophet. After all, he led the children of Israel and when God was angry with them over worshipping the Golden Calf, he interceded on their behalf, as a priest. The same might be said of King David. As we will see, he wrote half the Psalms, some of which are prophetic. As for being a priest, he did make a sacrifice and lead the worship when the Ark of the Covenant came to the city (2Samuel 6 12-15). But the one who truly combined all three offices was Jesus and it is He who we will consider now, as we conclude this chapter.
But Jesus is a lot more than Prophet, Priest and King – he is God. According to the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father”. According to John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him” John 1:1-3. According to the writer of the Hebrews: “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high” Hebrews 1:1-3.
As a prophet, Jesus called the world to turn from sin and return to the Father and was put to death for doing so. Crowds identified him as “Jesus the prophet” (Matthew 21:11). He spoke of himself as a prophet: “No prophet is accepted in his own native place” (Luke 4:24). A few days before His death, He foretold his death and resurrection (Matthew 16:21–28). Peter cited Moses when he preached Christ: “For Moses truly said unto the fathers, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear in all things whatsoever he shall say unto you. And it shall come to pass, that every soul, which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people. Yea, and all the prophets from Samuel and those that follow after, as many as have spoken, have likewise foretold of these days” Acts 3:22-24.
Given that a priest is a mediator between God and human beings, who offers a sacrifice to God on behalf of all, notably on the Day of Atonement, the Jewish high priest went into the Holy of Holies, for his sins and the sins of the people, that was what Jesus did, although not for His sins, since he was sinless. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews compared Jesus to Melchizedek, a greater high priest. Because he is both divine and human, Jesus is the perfect mediator. He is not only the perfect priest, holy and sinless, but the perfect sacrifice. The sacrifice of Jesus need never be made again. Jesus “entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). Jesus continues his role as priest. “He is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25).
Jesus is spoken of as a king in the Gospels. Gabriel announced to Mary that the Lord God would give her son the throne of David his father, and he would rule over the house of Jacob forever. Magi looked for a new born king of the Jews. When Jesus last entered Jerusalem, crowds hailed him as a king. He was arrested for making himself king, and the soldiers mocked him as one. When Pilate asked if he were king of the Jews, Jesus replied, “You say so” and he clarified, “My kingdom does not belong to this world” (John 18:36). The charge written against Jesus was “Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews”. Jesus announced the kingdom of God. His mission was to have God reign in the hearts of all and to have peace and justice in the world. Jesus exercised his royal office by serving. He is foretold as king “in thy majesty ride prosperously because of truth and meekness and righteousness” Psalm 45:3. His return is keenly anticipated “King of kings, and Lord of lords” Revelation 19:16.
Pre-, actually in it, and post- Exile
And on a lightish note: A challenge facing those of us authors who undertake serious research, with a view of presenting it in a way that is comprehensive and palatable to ordinary folk, who are adverse to dry, academic treatises, is how do we divide up the necessary content so everything worth covering is covered. Maybe it is OCD or autism, but having felt some satisfaction that the sixteen chapters, plus a bonus one at the end, cuts the mustard, this author realised he had not given due to justice to presenting the bigger picture of the Exile.
The Exile (of Judah into Babylon), along with the Exodus (of Israel from Egypt into the Promised Land) are the two big stand out events of the Old Testament, occupying the thoughts of successive prophets and, considering the modern situation, are remarkably relevant. We will cover Exodus when we do Moses but given we have prophets before the Exile (concerned with the Exile to come) e.g. Isaiah and Jeremiah as well as Habakkuk and Zephaniah, prophets who lived through the Exile i.e. Ezekiel and Daniel and prophets who came with the return from Exile i.e. Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, we face the challenge of where to present the big picture (at least an overview)? This is the response …
There were two Exiles: the first involved the ten Northern tribes of Israel by the Assyrians, around 722BC; the second involved the two Southern tribes of Judah by the Babylonians around 586 BC. It is this Exile we are concerned with here, although in both cases the reason for the exiles was it was God’s final judgment concerning their sin, despite being given and ignoring many warnings. The main justification for including here, besides convenient to do so, is that it represents the transition from kings and prophets to prophets and priests (with prophets fading out altogether following the end of the Old Testament and until the New begins) and prepares us for the one who is prophet, priest and king, i.e. Jesus, the one that prophets in all of these periods, were looking forward to.
It is helpful to view both the sending into Exile and the returning from Exile, following the decree of Cyrus 536BC, having conquered Babylon in 539BC.
Sending into Exile (deportations):
- 606 BC and included the Royal Court, including Daniel
- 597 BC and included craftsmen, including Ezekiel
- 586 BC and included the rest (but not all, especially if poor)
Returning from Exile:
- 537 BC, comprising 50000 from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and led by Zerubbabel, under King Xeres / Cyrus (rebuilding the social life)
- 458 BC, comprising 1800, mainly priests and Levites, and led by Ezra, under King Artaxeres (concerned with rebuilding the religious life)
- 444 BC, comprising a few craftsmen, and led by Nehemiah, under King Artaxeres (concerned with rebuilding the physical life)
Some of the scattered 10 tribes and 2 tribes exiled to Babylon drifted back later.
This second Exodus was a bits and pieces, stop start approach, compared to the first Exodus under Moses, with only few of the exiled Jews actually choosing to return. While the Exile was anticipated with foreboding, notably Habakkuk, and the Babylonians like the Assyrians could be cruel, and the Bible says little of life in exile, it appears those exiled were treated well and allowed to get on with their lives. When it came to the Persians, who conquered Babylon, their rulers, beginning with Cyrus the Great, were very sympathetic and encouraged the return from exile. While work to rebuild the Temple began soon after their return, work halted in 520 BC, partly through apathy and partly through being discouraged by the Samaritan inhabitants, to resume, with prophets Haggai and Zechariah encouraging them, with work completed in 516 BC. The third post-exile prophet, Malachi, prophesied after the third return, around 440 BC.
Much of what we know about life after return from exile can be found in the Books of Ezra (help) and Nehemiah (comfort) although one book in the Hebrew Bible, perhaps Ezra as author. One commentator, noting remarkable similarities in approach between the two books, divides Ezra chapters as: 1-2 return (1), 3-6 rebuild, 7-8 return (2) and 9-10 reform and Nehemiah chapters as: 1-2 return (3), 3-7 rebuild, 8-10 renew and 11-13 reform, with chapter 9 in both confessing of national sins. If there was a sadness, it was while there was a semblance of returning to God and some high points, it was often half hearted and mixed with wrong attitudes. One particular event of interest was Esther becoming queen in 479 BC, with the book named after her, describing how the Jewish people were delivered from annihilation, thanks to what she and her uncle Mordecai did.
Mention should be made of the books of Kings and Chronicles. They say little of the time of exile and nothing after, yet both end on positive notes concerning King Jehoiachin and the Cyrus decree respectively. Both Jehoiachin and his grandson, Zerubbabel, who led the first return, were part of the Davidic line that led to Jesus. As we bow out of the Old Testament, 400 years before the awaited Messiah, who Israel was to reject, OT readers nevertheless can look forward to the promise of David’s descendant on the Throne. The words of the author’s favourite Christmas (Advent) carol are pertinent: “O come, O come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here, Until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel”.