When the Levites were first ordained in the wilderness much of the work then appointed them lay in carrying and taking care of the tabernacle and the utensils of it, while they were in their march through the wilderness. In David’s time their number was increased; and, though the greater part of them was dispersed all the nation over, to teach the people the good knowledge of the Lord, yet those that attended the house of God were so numerous that there was not constant work for them all; and therefore David, by special commission and direction from God, new-modelled the Levites, as we shall find in the latter part of this book. Here we are told what the work was which he assigned them.
I. Singing-work, 1 Chron. 6:31. David was raised up on high to be the sweet psalmist of Israel (2 Sam. 23:1), not only to pen psalms, but to appoint the singing of them in the house of the Lord (not so much because he was musical as because he was devout), and this he did after that the ark had rest. While that was in captivity, obscure, and unsettled, the harps were hung upon the willow-trees: singing was then thought unseasonable (when the bridegroom is taken away they shall fast); but the harps being resumed, and the songs revived, at the bringing up of the ark, they were continued afterwards. For we should rejoice as much in the prolonging of our spiritual privileges as in the restoring of them. When the service of the ark was much superseded by its rest they had other work cut out for them (for Levites should never be idle) and were employed in the service of song. Thus when the people of God come to the rest which remains for them above they shall take leave of all their burdens and be employed in everlasting songs. These singers kept up that service in the tabernacle till the temple was built, and then they waited on their office there, 1 Chron. 6:32. When they came to that stately magnificent house they kept as close both to their office and to their order as they had done in the tabernacle. It is a pity that the preferment of the Levites should ever make them remiss in their business. We have here an account of the three great masters who were employed in the service of the sacred song, with their respective families; for they waited with their children, that is, such as descended from them or were allied to them, 1 Chron. 6:33. Heman, Asaph, and Ethan, were the three that were appointed to this service, one of each of the three houses of the Levites, that there might be an equality in the distribution of this work and honour, and that every one might know his post, such an admirable order was there in this choir service. 1. Of the house of Kohath was Heman with his family (1 Chron. 6:33), a man of a sorrowful spirit, if it be the same Heman that penned the Ps. 88:1-18, and yet a singer. He was the grandson of Samuel the prophet, the son of Joel, of whom it is said that he walked not in the ways of Samuel (1 Sam. 8:2, 3); but it seems, though the son did not, the grandson did. Thus does the blessing entailed on the seed of the upright sometimes pass over one generation and fasten upon the next. And this Heman, though the grandson of that mighty prince, did not think it below him to be a precentor in the house of God. David himself was willing to be a door-keeper. Rather we may look upon this preferment of the grandson in the church as a recompense for the humble modest resignation which the grandfather made of his authority in the state. Many such ways God has of making up his people’s losses and balancing their disgraces. Perhaps David, in making Heman the chief, had some respect to his old friend Samuel. 2. Of the house of Gershom was Asaph, called his brother, because in the same office and of the same tribe, though of another family. He was posted on Heman’s right hand in the choir, 1 Chron. 6:39. Several of the psalms bear his name, being either penned by him or tuned by him as the chief musician. It is plain that he was the penman of some psalms; for we read of those that praised the Lord in the words of David and of Asaph. He was a seer as well as a singer, 2 Chron. 29:30. His pedigree is traced up here, through names utterly unknown, as high as Levi, 1 Chron. 6:39-43. 3. Of the house of Merari was Ethan (1 Chron. 6:44), who was appointed to Heman’s left hand. His pedigree is also traced up to Levi, 1 Chron. 6:47. If these were the Heman and Ethan that penned the Ps. 88:1-89:52; there appears no reason here why they should be called Ezrahites (see the titles of those psalms), as there does why those should be called so who are mentioned 1 Chron. 2:6; and who were the sons of Zerah.
II. There was serving-work, abundance of service to be done in the tabernacle of the house of God (1 Chron. 6:48), to provide water and fuel,—to wash and sweep, and carry out ashes,—to kill, and flay, and boil the sacrifices; and to all such services there were Levites appointed, those of other families, or perhaps those that were not fit to be singers, that had either no good voice or no good ear. As every one has received the gift, so let him minister. Those that could not sing must not therefore be laid aside as good for nothing; though they were not fit for that service, there was other service they might be useful in.
III. There was sacrificing-work, and that was to be done by the priests only, 1 Chron. 6:49. They only were to sprinkle the blood and burn the incense; as for the work of the most holy place, that was to be done by the high priest only. Each had his work, and they both needed one another and both helped one another in it. Concerning the work of the priests we are here told, 1. What was the end they were to have in their eye. They were to make an atonement for Israel, to mediate between the people and God; not to magnify and enrich themselves, but to serve the public. They were ordained for men. 2. What was the rule they were to have in their eye. They presided in God’s house, yet must do as they were bidden, according to all that God commanded. That law the highest are subject to.