07. Priests and Prophets

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THE temple and the temple service constituted a wonderful object lesson for Israel. It was intended to teach man God's holiness, his own sinfulness, and the way to God. One of the important lessons of the sacrificial system was to teach priest and people to abhor sin and to shun it. When a man sinned inadvertently or through error, he was expected to bring a sin offering to the temple. The first requirement in the sacrificial ritual was the placing of the hands upon the animal and the confession of sin by the sinner. Then with his own hand he was to slay the animal. After this the priest was to take of the blood and put it upon the horns of the altar of burnt offering. The inwards were then burned with the fat on the altar, and a part of the flesh was eaten by the priests in the holy place.

This was to teach abhorrence for sin. God intended this abhorrence for sin to be so great that men would “go and sin no more.” No normal person likes to kill an innocent animal, especially if he realizes that it is because of his sins that the animal has to die. A normal priest would certainly not delight in the service of blood which he was compelled to perform because of sin. To stand all day, working with dead animals, dipping the finger in the blood, and sprinkling it on the altar, could not be very attractive or pleasant. God Himself says He delights not “in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats.” Isaiah 1:11. Neither would the true priest.

The sacrificial system afforded the priests an excellent opportunity to teach the plan of salvation to offenders. As a sinner brought his offering the priest might say, “I am sorry that you have sinned, as I am sure you are sorry. God, however, has made provision for the forgiveness of sin. You have brought an offering. Place your hand on that offering and confess your sin to God. Then kill the innocent lamb, and I will take the blood and make atonement for you. The lamb you are killing is symbolic of the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world. The Messiah is to come and give His life for the sin of the people. Through His blood you are forgiven. God accepts your penitence. Go, and sin no more.”

Through this solemn ritual the man would be deeply impressed with the heinousness of sin, and would go away from the temple with a firm determination not to sin again. The fact that he had killed an animal would teach him as nothing else could do that sin means death and that when anyone sins, the lamb must die.

Paying for Sin

Beautiful and impressive as was this service, it was capable of perversion. If the sinner should conceive the idea that his offering paid for the sin that he had committed, and that if he only brought an offering every time he sinned all would be well, he had an entirely wrong conception of God's intent. Yet that is how many came to consider the ordinances. They felt that their sacrifices paid for their sins, and that should they sin again, another sacrifice would atone for it.

Repentance and true sorrow were minimized. The people came to believe that whatever their sin might it could be atoned for by a gift. With the presentation of their offering, they considered the transaction finished. Many of the priests encouraged the people in this attitude. Sin was not as abhorrent in their sight as intended it should be. It was something that could paid for with the gift of a lamb, which at most cost a small sum. The result was that “thousands of rams” and “ten thousands of rivers of oil” were bought to be pleasing to God. (Micah 6:7)

Perversion of the Symbol

The remuneration of the priests was in large part derived from the sacrifices offered by the people. Thus priests came to look upon the sacrifices as a means income to them. In addition to the tithes they received, the priests retained a part of most of the sacrifices offered. They also received part of the meal offerings and peace offerings-flour, oil, corn, wine, money, and salt-as well as offerings for special occasions.

These ordinances, therefore, easily became perverted. Some of the corrupt priests saw clearly that more the people sinned, the more sin and trespass rings they brought, the greater would be the portion coming to them. They went so far as to encourage the people to sin. Of the corrupt priests it is written: “They eat up the sin of My people, and they set their heart on their iniquity.” Hosea 4:8. This text affirms that the priests, instead of admonishing the people and urging them to abstain from sin, “set their heart on” the people's iniquity, and hoped they would sin again and come back with another offering. It was to the financial advantage of the priests to have many offerings brought, for each offering added to their income. As the priesthood became more corrupt, the tendency toward encouraging the people to bring offerings increased.

An interesting commentary on the length to which some priests perverted the ordinances is given in the second chapter of First Samuel: “And the priests' custom was, that, when any man offered sacrifice, the priest's servant came, while the flesh was in seething, with a flesh hook of three teeth in his hand. And he struck it into the pan, or kettle or caldron, or pot; all that the flesh hook brought up the priest took for himself. So they did in Shiloh unto all the Israelites that came thither. Also before they burnt the fat, the priest's servant came, and said to the man that sacrificed, Give flesh to roast for the priest; for he will not have sodden flesh of thee, but raw. And if any man said unto him, Let them not fail to burn the fat presently, and then take as much as thy soul desires; then he would answer him, Nay; but thou shall give it me now: and if not, I will take it by force.” 1 Samuel 2:13-16.

This shows the degradation of the priesthood even at that early period. God had commanded that the fat should be burned on the altar, and that if the flesh were eaten, it should be boiled. The priests, however, wished to get their meat raw with the fat, so that they could roast it. To them it had ceased to be a sacrificial meal, and had become, instead, a gluttonous feast. The following comment is made: “The sin of the young men was very great before the Lord: for men abhorred the offering of the Lord.” Verse 17.

This tendency of the priests to encourage the people 'bring sin offerings rather than to abstain from sin became more pronounced as the years went by. In the tabernacle as first erected by Moses, the altar of burnt offering was quite small, being only five cubits square. Solomon's temple the altar was enlarged to twenty bits, or about thirty feet on each side. In Herod's temple it was still larger. It appears that the altar of burnt offering was made larger and larger to accommodate the offerings placed upon it.

Increasing Degradation

The time finally came when God had to do something or the whole temple service would become corrupt. He therefore permitted the temple to be destroyed, and many of the people were carried into captivity to Babylon. With the temple gone, the practices would naturally cease. The minds of the people would be called to the spiritual significance of the ordinances which they had so often witnessed, but which now were no more. In Babylon there was neither burnt offering nor sin offering, nor the solemn feast of the Day of Atonement. Israel hung their harps on the willows.

After seventy years in captivity they were permitted God to return to their homeland and to build the temple again. He hoped that they had learned their son. But they had not. The altar of burnt offering as made even larger than before. The people became ore firmly settled in their regard for the mere form and ritual of the temple and its sacrificial service, and they failed to heed the prophetic message that “to obey is better than sacrifice.” 1 Samuel 15:22. The income of the priests from offerings became large; so large, indeed, that the money accumulated in the temple constituted one of the largest collections of wealth in antiquity, and the priests became money lenders.

At feasts such as the Passover, Jerusalem was filled with visiting Jews from Palestine as well as from other lands. Josephus tells us that as many as one million visitors were in the city at one time. Israel was commanded by God not to appear empty handed before the Lord, so all these pilgrims brought offerings. (Deuteronomy 16:16) It was a physical impossibility for the priests to offer as many sacrifices as would be required to accommodate all the people. They were therefore encouraged to convert their offerings into cash and leave this cash as temple money with the priests, who would at their convenience offer the sacrifice which t he money called for. It was soon found that it was easier and safer not to bring the sacrificial animal from home. The offerer ran the risk not only of having the animal rejected by the priest for some defect, real or supposed, but of incurring an additional loss. For to sell an animal that had been rejected by the priests was not easy, especially when a thousand others were trying to do the same thing. For some purposes only temple money could be used, and on this an exchange was charged. This changing of common money into temple money was another source of large income to the priesthood.

As noted before, the priests were divided into twenty-four courses, each one of which was to serve one week at a time, twice a year. When the office of the high priest became a political one, and he was appointed by the government, corruption became widespread. Since it was a very lucrative position, men began to bid for the office of high priest, and it was actually sold to the highest bidder. To get this money back, the high priest took control of the selection of the courses; and only such priests were called to serve at Jerusalem at the time of the feasts as could be depended upon to share with the officials the large revenues contributed at that time. Corruption came again to prevail, and many were the priests who were called to serve at the temple at the great feasts only because they were willing to divide the spoil with the higher officials. The order in which the priests were to serve was changed, and the entire plan of God corrupted. Christ's later designation, “a den of thieves,” was not a mere poetic expression; it was literally true.

A Corrupt Priesthood

“The priesthood had become so corrupt that the priests had no scruples in engaging in the most dishonest and criminal acts to accomplish their designs. Those who assumed the office of high priest prior to, and at, the time of Christ's first advent, were not men divinely appointed to the sacred work. They had eagerly aspired to the office through love of power and show. They desired a position where they could have authority, and practice fraud under a garb of piety, and thereby escape detection. The high priest held a position of power and importance. He was not only counselor and mediator, but judge, there was no appeal from his decision. The priests were held in restraint by the authority of the Romans, and were not allowed the power of legally putting anyone to death.

This power rested with those who bore rule over the Jews. Men of corrupt hearts sought the distinguished office of high priest, and frequently obtained it by bribery and assassination.” - Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 2, page 13, 14.

“As Jesus entered, He was indignant to find the court of the temple arranged as a cattle market and a place of general traffic. There were not only stalls for the beasts, but there were tables where the priests themselves acted as money brokers and exchangers. It was customary for each person who attended the Passover to bring a piece of money, which was paid to the priests upon entering the temple.

“From the changing of foreign coins and different denominations of money to accommodate strangers, this matter of receiving their offerings had grown into a disgraceful traffic, and a source of great profit to the priests. Many came from a great distance and could not bring their sacrificial offerings. Under the plea of accommodating such persons, in. the outer court were cattle, sheep, doves, and sparrows for sale at exorbitant prices. The consequent confusion indicated a noisy cattle market, rather than the sacred temple of God. There could be heard sharp bargaining, buying and selling, the lowing of cattle, the bleating of sheep, and cooing of doves, mingled with the chinking of coin, and angry disputation. A great number of beasts were annually sacrificed at the Passover, which made the sales at the temple immense. The dealers realized a large profit, which was shared with the avaricious priesthood and men of authority among the Jews, These hypocritical speculators, under cover of their holy profession, practiced all manner of extortion, and made their sacred office a source of personal revenue.” -Ibid., page 115, 116.

These conditions, of course, did not exist originally. It was only after centuries of transgression that corruption reached the heights here depicted. It was comparatively early, however, that abuses began to creep in, as evidenced in the quotation from the book of Samuel in the earlier part of this chapter.

As the priests thus lost sight of the original intent of offerings, and perverted God's plan in the sacrifices, it became necessary to send warnings to them. To do this, God used the prophets. From the very first the prophets' message to His people was: “Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.” 1 Samuel 15:22. To some of the apostatizing priests it seemed a calamity that the people should stop sinning, for in that case sin offerings would cease. To this the writer of Hebrews refers when he says: “For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the overcomers there unto perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? Because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins.” Hebrews 10: 1, 2.

The Prophet Recalls From Apostasy

The Old Testament can be better comprehended hen the struggle between priest and prophet is understood. It was a tragic struggle, which ended in many cases with victory for the priests. The prophet is God's mouthpiece. The people may go wrong, and the priests may go wrong. God, however, is not left without a witness. Under such circumstances He sends a prophet to His people to bring them back to the right way.

It may easily be imagined that the prophets were not popular with the priests. As the priests served in the temple from day to day, inviting the people to bring their sacrifices, the prophets would be commanded by God to take their position near the temple gate and warn the people to bring no more offerings. This is written of Jeremiah: “The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying, Stand in the gate of the Lord's house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you of Judah, that enter in at these gates to worship the Lord. Thus said the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. Trust you not in lying words, saying, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, are these.” Jeremiah 7:14.

After this follows further admonition by the prophets for the people to amend their ways and not trust in lying words. “Will you not steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely,” says the Lord through the prophet, “and come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, We are delivered to do all these abominations?” Verses 9, 10. Then he adds significantly, “For I spoke not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. But this thing commanded I them, saying, Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be My people: and walk you in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well unto you.” Verses 22, 23.

Obedience, Not Sacrifice

Hear what God has to say through Isaiah: “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? said the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. When you come to appear before Me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread My courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto Me; the new moons and Sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates: they are a trouble unto Me; I am weary to bear them. And when you spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you: yea, when you make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.” Isaiah 1: 11-17.

Note the strong expressions: “I am full of the burnt offerings of rams”; “I delight not in the blood of bullocks”; “who hath required this at your hand?” “bring no more vain oblations”; “incense is an abomination unto Me”; “your appointed feasts My soul hates”; “I am weary to bear them”; “I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.”

Amos says: “I hate, I despise your feast days. . . . Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts.” Amos 5:21, 22.

Micah, in like strain, asks, “Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Micah 6:6, 7. He answers the question in this wise: “He hath showed thee, 0 man, what is good, and what cloth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” Verse 8.

The last prophet in the Old Testament says: “Now, 0 you priests, this commandment is for you.” “You are departed out of the way; you have caused many to stumble at the law; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, said the Lord of hosts. Therefore have I also made you contemptible and base before all the people, according as you have not kept My ways, but have been partial in the law.” Mal. 2:1,8,9.

David had the right view when he said: “Thou desires not sacrifice; else would I give it: Thou delights not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, 0 God, Thou wilt not despise.” Psalm 51:16, 17.

Priests Oppose Prophets

God could hardly have used stronger words than those used in rebuking both the priests and the people, but He was amply justified. The priests had corrupted the covenant. They had taught the people to sin, and had made them believe that an offering or a sacrifice would pay for the sin. They deserved the rebuke of the Lord which He sent through His prophets. The results were what might be expected under the circumstances. A bitter hatred against the prophets sprang up among many of the priests. They hated the men who were sent to rebuke them. Much of the persecution of the prophets in the Old Testament was carried on or instigated by the priests. It was not so much the people as the priests who opposed and persecuted the prophets.

It was the priests, the scribes, and the Pharisees who were the constant opposers of Christ. For them Christ reserved His most scathing rebuke: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites because you build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchers of the righteous, and say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. Wherefore you be witnesses unto yourselves, that you are the children of them which killed the prophets. Fill you up then the measure of your fathers. You serpents-you generation of vipers, how can you escape the damnation of hell? Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes. And some of them you shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall you scourge in your Synagogues, and persecute them from city to city. That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom you slew between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation.” Matthew 23:29-36.

Sin No More

Christ was a prophet. As such He sounded the prophetic message: “To obey is better than sacrifice.” “Go, and sin, no more,” was the way He put it. (John 8:11) He annulled the sacrificial system in offering Himself upon Calvary. Christ personally did not offer any sacrifices. He did not sin, and by teaching men not to sin He struck at the very heart of this priestly perversion. Though Christ was careful not to offend needlessly, and though He sent the lepers to the priests for certification (Luke 17:14), it could not escape the attention of the officials that Christ was not seen in the temple with the customary offering. They felt that His message constituted a rebuke to their practices, and they were glad when they found an accusation against Him in His reported words concerning the temple. (Matthew 26:61) The priests hated Christ, and when the time came, He followed the long line of noble heroes among the prophets by giving His life. The priests rejected the prophetic message. It was they who in reality brought about the crucifixion of Christ. In that they filled up the measure of their iniquity. They believed in sacrifices for sins and that through this provision forgiveness might be had. The larger message of victory over sin-the prophetic message-many of the priests did not understand, or at least did not teach.

It is not to be thought, however, that all the priests were wicked. There were many faithful men among them. Some of the priests, indeed, were also prophets, as Ezekiel. It was God's intent that every priest should have the prophetic spirit and sound the prophetic message. In God's plan it is not enough to attempt to remedy matters after a wrong has been committed. It is far better to prevent evil than to attempt to heal it. Wonderful as it is to be lifted up from sin and degradation, it is still more wonderful to be kept from sinning. “Go, and sin no more” is the true prophetic message. It is better to obey than to sacrifice. Every servant of God should echo this message if he would fulfill the counsel of God. God has always had need of prophets. They are His messengers to correct wrong. When wrong tendencies appear among His people, God sends His prophets to correct these tendencies and admonish the people.

The lesson for this time should not be lost. The work of the prophet is not done until the Lord's work in the earth is finished. God wants His ministers to sound the prophetic message. When abuses creep in, a voice must be lifted, calling the people back to the right ways of the Lord. And back of every such message must be the clarion call to abstinence from sin, to sanctification, to holiness. The prophets said, “To obey is better than sacrifice.” Christ said, “Go, and sin To more.” Every minister must exemplify this doctrine in his life and teach it with his lips. To the extent to which he fails to do this, he comes short of his high privilege. Of all times, now is the time to send the prophetic message to the ends of the earth. This was the command of Christ when He gave the great gospel commission to teach all nations and baptize them, “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded.” Matthew 28:20. This command to observe all things is parallel to the prophetic message that to obey is better than sacrifice. When this work is done, the end will come.




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