Everything in this chapter relates to "Hezekiah [appointing] the courses of the priests and the Levites after their courses" (v.2). Of his own herds Hezekiah made provision for the priests to offer the prescribed burnt offerings (v.3; see Numbers chs.28-29). He also ensured that the tithes, which were required to support the priests and Levites in their service, were collected (vv.4-10), stored and distributed satisfactorily (vv.11-19). While Israel as a nation was called to be "a kingdom of priests" (Ex 19.6) the concept was introduced at Sinai of a set apart priesthood, who would wear holy garments and offer sacrifices at the tabernacle as representatives of the nation (Ex 25-Lev 27). The responsibilities of the priests in relation to these sacrifices are delineated in Leviticus; in Numbers the role of the Levites is explained. A brief summary of the role of the Levites will help us to appreciate Hezekiahs activities in this stage in his reforms.
Following the Passover and the death of Egypts firstborn, all of Israels firstborn males became the Lords. This was meant to be a constant reminder to subsequent generations of Gods mighty deliverance of the nation from Egypt (Ex 13.1-2, 11-16; 22.29; 34.19-20). The tribe of Levi was then given to the priests to support their tabernacle service and was accepted in the place of Israels firstborn sons (Num 3.11-13, 39-51; 8.5-26; 18.1-6; 1 Chr 23.27-32). Levites began to serve at 25 years of age and finished at 50 years of age (Num 8.24-25). During Israels journeying in the wilderness the Levites dismantled and erected the tabernacle, and bore it and its vessels (Num 1.50-51), though they were forbidden from ever looking at or directly touching the tabernacle furniture (Num 4.15,20). Each Levite family performed different tasks. The Kohathites carried the tabernacle furnishings (Num 3.27-31; 4.1-20, 34-37; 7.9); the Gershonites transported the tabernacle itself (Num 3.21-26; 4.21-28, 38-41; 7.7); the Merarites moved its framework of boards, pillars and sockets (Num 3.33-37; 4.29-33, 42-45; 7.8). The priests and Levites encamped next to the tabernacle, Gershon being westward (Num 3.23), Kohath southward (Num 3.29) and Merari northward (Num 3.35). The eastern area, immediately in front of the tabernacle entrance, was reserved for the priests (Num 3.38).
Entry into the Promised Land and the building of the temple necessitated big changes in the way priests and Levites functioned. For example, there was no longer any need for the Levites to carry a mobile tabernacle or its vessels (1 Chr 23.26). And since the priests and Levites were now scattered throughout the land in their various cities (Josh 21.1-42), they no longer lived near the place of worship. Because of this David subdivided the priests into 24 courses, allowing them to take it in turns to serve at the temple (1 Chr 24.1-19). This division of the priests, together with the temple blueprint, was given to David by the Holy Spirit (1 Chr 28.11-19). When Moses counted the Levites at Mount Sinai, "all the males from a month old and upward, were twenty and two thousand" (Num 3.39). In Davids lifetime there were 38,000 Levites aged 30 and above (1 Chr 23.3), of whom 24,000 were expected to serve in the temple, assisting the priests in the offering of sacrifices (1 Chr 23.4, 28-32); 6,000 were appointed as officers and judges to oversee the work (1 Chr 23.4). Because of the vast wealth stored in Solomons temple, 4,000 Levites were appointed to be porters, gate keepers or temple guards (1 Chr 23.5; 26.1-19). "And four thousand praised the Lord" (1 Chr 23.5; 25.1-31).
Unlike other tribes, the tribe of Levi received no territory in the Promised Land. Apart from the suburbs of their cities they had no land on which to grow crops to support themselves. Instead, they were given "the sacrifices of the Lord God of Israel made by fire [as] their inheritance" (Josh 13.14). In order for Israels worship system to run smoothly the nation needed to support the Levites by tithing (giving the tenth) all their increase (Lev 27.30-33; Num 18.20-24). This tithe also contributed to the well-being of the "stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow" and produced joy in those who gave (Deut 14.22-29), for "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20.35). In turn the Levites tithed the best of the tithe, which contributed to the support of Israels priests (Num 18.25-32).
It is questionable for how much of Israels history tithing actually occurred on a national basis. Apart from one mention in Amos 4.4, after Deuteronomy there is no record of tithing right up until Hezekiahs re-establishment of it. When Jeroboam took over the northern kingdom, he would have immediately stopped all tithes from going to Jerusalem. Even among the remnant who returned to Jerusalem after the captivity there was a problem with tithing to support the Levites (Neh 13.10-12). Despite the huge logistical challenge of reintroducing the tithe and arranging for its distribution to all the Levites in their various cities, Hezekiah determined to do it. He knew full well that if the worship of Jehovah was to continue the priests and Levites needed ongoing support (2 Chr 31.4).
It is true that "a worshipping people will always be a generous people".1 Having just celebrated the Passover (2 Chr 30.1-27), destroyed the idols (2 Chr 31.1) and seen the example of Hezekiahs own generosity (v.3), "as soon as the commandment came abroad, the children of Israel brought in abundance the firstfruits of corn, wine, and oil, and honey, and of all the increase of the fields" (v.5). The firstfruits were the best (Num 18.12-13). Joyful giving of these firstfruits looked back to Israels deliverance from Egyptian bondage and testified to Gods goodness (Deut 26.1-11). Giving the firstfruits was also an act of faith, believing that God would supply the remaining harvest. They began to give in the third month with the "grain harvest" and continued till the seventh month with the "fruit and wine harvest" (2 Chr 31.7).2 The people gave so much that Hezekiah and the princes "blessed the Lord, and his people Israel" (v.8), and Azariah explained, "we have had enough to eat, and have left plenty: for the Lord hath blessed his people; and that which is left is this great store" (v.10). It was comparable to Israels giving for the tabernacle in the wilderness (Ex 36.4-7), or their giving to repair the temple under the direction of Jehoiada (2 Chr 24.6-14). In the New Testament the Macedonian believers stand out as a great example of generosity (2 Cor 8.2). Christian giving causes God to be praised (2 Cor 9.11-15) and greatly encourages the Lords servants (Phil 4.10).
Having collected the tithes it was important that they were stored and distributed with transparency and equity. "Hezekiah commanded to prepare chambers in the house of the Lord; and they prepared them, and brought in the offerings and the tithes and the dedicated things faithfully" over which named men were responsible (2 Chr 31.11-13). Others were accountable for distributing the gifts "to their brethren by courses, as well to the great as to the small" (vv.14-19). In a similar way, all handling of money in relation to Christian work should be done transparently by faithful men (Act 6.3; 2 Cor 8.21). In Israel it was the case that "they which minister about holy things live of the things of the temple…they which wait at the altar are partakers with the altar" (1 Cor 9.13). "Even so [in the New Testament] hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel" (1 Cor 9.14). Paul exhorted the Galatians, "Let him that is taught in the word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things" (Gal 6.6). If Israel, who lived under the Law, gave so generously, how much more should Christians give, who live under grace?
To be continued.
1 The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: Old Testament.
2 Keil & Delitzsch. Commentary on the Old Testament.