The Duty of Watching

11 minute read

This is a VerseNote, a quick meditation inspired by a specific passage of Scripture. See the rest of them.

And they lodged around the house of God, for on them lay the duty of watching, and they had charge of opening it every morning.
—1 Chronicles 9:27

This morning, there is something that calls to me about these words, but I don’t know what it is. I read it again and again, hoping that repetition would elucidate me, but that didn’t work.

So I highlighted it in my Bible app, thinking I’d come back to it and maybe figure it out then, but when is the next time I’ll be reading 1 Chronicles 9?

So I decided to start writing, because sometimes writing about something can help clear up thoughts and feelings. I think it worked; let’s see if you agree.

I think two things caught me: the camping and the watching.

These men’s job is to guard the gate of the tabernacle1. There is no temple yet in these days; we have to wait for Solomon to build that. We’re still worshiping and sacrificing at the temporary tabernacle.

Side note: when you think about this giant tent compared to all the Israelites again living in houses and cities and villages, no wonder David feels bad God doesn’t have a permanent home. God, of course, is God, and doesn’t worry too hard about whether His presence sits enthroned above the cherubim in a tent or a temple or anywhere at all.

What God knows that David doesn’t know is that the whole thing is just for show! The tabernacle is for the benefit of men, not of God. We need somewhere to worship; He doesn’t need somewhere to live. We need a hope to aspire to, a glimpse of Heaven to draw us along our way, an image of the throne to remind us whose we are.

The temple that Solomon will build is also just for show; for all its splendor, it is the merest shadow of truth (Hebrews 8:5). Jesus says all of Solomon’s glories cannot compare even to the lily that God has dressed (Luke 12:27); how then can Solomon’s temple be anything but smoke before the throne room of heaven?

So God knows that even the temple of Solomon that stands for hundreds of years, or the even grander temple of Herod that lasts even fewer years, is temporary. He know that everything on earth is temporary, the flower of the grass (1 Peter 1:24). And he knows the grass will wither and the flower fade, but the true temple of the Lord, the New Jerusalem and its inhabitants, the saints, will last forever (1 Peter 1:25).

So it’s kind of funny for David to want to build for God an infinitesimally-less-temporary structure.

Imagine a line from one end of a chalkboard to the other. And imagine that the left end is eternity past, and the right end is eternity future.

Now, somewhere on that line (it literally doesn’t matter where; infinity is weird like that), draw the span of the tabernacle, the span of the temple, the span of the nation of Israel, the span even of humanity. If you want to get really crazy, draw the entire timeline of the cosmos, from creation to recreation.

Hint: all of the above is just a dot.

You can see why God might chuckle a bit.

Anyway, these men are guarding the gates of the tabernacle. Which seems like a nice thing for them to do: the gates are sacred; the courts are sacred; the whole tabernacle is sacred; and only the right priests are allowed in the right areas at the right times. Anybody else blindly wandering in is likely to be killed by God (see, for example, Leviticus 10:1–3).

Those deaths always seem unfair to modern minds. Why should God kill you just for walking in the wrong door? Or—most unfair of all, I think—why should God kill Uzzah for trying to catch the Ark of the Covenant as it falls (2 Samuel 6:6–7)?

Well, reader, I hate to pull a Sunday school answer on you, but Paul has it right in Romans 6:23: the wages of sin is death. When the infinite ruler of the universe says, “Don’t touch that!” and you touch it, well…

But Paul’s also right in Romans 3:23: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. That is, we all deserve death. Uzzah’s just came earlier and more spectacularly than most. We modern Christians rebel because we have a culturally conditioned sense of fairness that competes with our sense of the sovereignty of God. We don’t have an experience of a king who can order executions; especially in the US, we don’t have any understanding of a legitimate authority with that kind of power.

God is not just a legitimate authority. He’s the only one. And He absolutely has that kind of power.

Anyway, these guys are guarding the gates of the tabernacle. It must be kind of a lonely job, just sitting at the gate and making sure nobody dies by walking in unexpectedly.

The people guarding the doors to our churches tend to wear name tags and big smiles. They hold the door for you and welcome you in and ask how your morning is and how your children are and if they can help you find a small group to join and whether you’d like a doughnut2.

What a shock it would be if, next Sunday, those folks—probably still wearing the name tags—were instead standing in front of the door, arms crossed, earpiece in, and only letting in the elders.

These men probably didn’t have name tags or earpieces, but they must have done the other things, or why are they there? It has to be a lonely job to keep people from their God, even when it’s God’s own rules that keep them out.

Careful readers are now yelling at their screens, going, “Hey, it says right there that they had to open the tabernacle every morning! That’s why they’re there! Not to keep people out.”

For whom were they opening the tabernacle?

The priests, with the morning offerings.

Way back in Exodus, God told Moses that the priests should sacrifice two lambs, every single day: one at dawn, and the other at sundown (Exodus 29:38–46). There is also a grain offering and a drink offering with each of the lambs.

Before the priests can make the sacrifice, the tabernacle needs to be prepared. On Sundays, your pastor (probably) doesn’t just arrive five minutes before you do and open the doors and flip on the light and start greeting people. An army of volunteers (even in a small church) was there long before, opening doors and lighting candles and corralling children and dressing acolytes and, I assume, passing out name tags and buying doughnuts.

If the sacrifice has to happen at dawn, the preparation for the sacrifice has to happen before dawn. Which means the men doing the preparing have to arrive before dawn, and the men doing the guarding have to be awake even earlier.

The amount of ritual preparation for this daily sacrifice is, kind of like the sacrifice itself, foreign to us today. But there’s preparation in the New Testament, too; it just looks different.

When you go to church, does your minister say something like, “Let us now prepare our hearts and minds for worship”? And does everybody then bow their heads and wait for the minister to do the preparation for them? That’s my experience.

But Jesus had a different thing in mind. Take a look at Matthew 5:23–24:

“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

In the Old Testament, preparation was for things. The priests had to wash themselves carefully; their clothes had to be just right; the utensils and the altar had to be cleaned; the sacrifice had to be prepared in just the right way (here’s a nice article on all that preparation). The candles, of course, were already lit, because they were always lit (Exodus 27:20–21).

In the New Testament, preparation is for your heart. This shift is in line with the entire arc of the story of God with His people.

In the Old Testament, God lives in the tabernacle or temple, His presence reserved for only the holiest of days and chiefest of priests; in the New Testament, the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us, and the Holy Spirit sets fire to our very hearts.

In the Old Testament, eating the wrong food or touching the wrong thing makes a man unclean. In the New Testament, saying something hurtful or storing anger in your heart makes you unclean. In the Old Testament, adultery of the flesh is a sin; in the New Testament, that sin starts long before, in the desires of the heart.

Anyway, these guys are guarding the gates of the tabernacle, and they’re probably lonely, and their job is to watch.

And that’s the second thing that caught me up today. Three verbs describe their entire job: Guard. Watch. Open.

We talked elsewhere about watching and waiting, and here today the Scripture brings us some men whose job it is to do some of that watching.

Remember from yesterday that unless God watches with these men, they may as well be asleep. We just learned that they have to be awake well before dawn, so they would definitely rather be asleep. So they had better be sure God watches with them.

Now, this is the tabernacle of God, so they have a nice head start, but what does it mean to watch with God?

I have to say I don’t know. In general, we can say that watching, or doing anything, with God means working within His will and not against it. Jonah is a good example of someone who heard the call of God and ran exactly the other way; don’t, you know, do that.

But watching in the will of God… here’s what I have. These men should be obedient and diligent in their watching.

Today, we seem to talk a lot about discerning the will of God. In the days of the kings, God frequently spoke directly to the people through the prophets3. Between the book of the law (if they could find it) and the prophets (if they listened), the will of God was quite manifest.

So obedience was, if not easy, straightforward.

It’s straightforward today, too, just a lot harder. And easier. Instead of hundreds of rules, we have just two: love God, and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:35–40). But those two encompass the whole of the law and the prophets, and in Matthew 5 and throughout His ministry, Jesus makes clear that loving God and loving your neighbor means a lot more than following rules. It means cleaning not just your body but your heart and mind; it means emptying your heart and filling it with God; it means pouring out yourself for your fellow men; it means sacrificing all you have for the sake of your brother. Like I said: easier, and harder.

Diligence is just the other side of obedience. Day after day, night after night, never letting their guard down, never letting their watch slip—this should again remind you of the parables from yesterday, about the wise and foolish virgins and about the faithful servant.

They were called, as we are called, to be diligent in their task, perfect in their obedience.

While we’re here, I can’t help but mention one of my favorite verses of Scripture, and it has to do with diligence:

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.
—2 Timothy 2:15

Just as these men watched the tabernacle gates day by day, and followed God’s will for their lives night by night, we are called to study Scripture day by day, night by night, so that we can “accurately handle” it—that is, so that we understand it correctly and apply it to our lives fruitfully.

Anyway, these guys are guarding the tabernacle gates. And this morning, something pulls me to them, makes me empathetic with their job.

There’s something holy about watching. Something special. We feel this today. We hold vigils, or sit shiva. On Christmas Eve, the church stays awake far past its bedtime, watching for the coming of the Christ child. Always with candles, to help us watch, to light our way.

We are, with these men, watching the gates of the tabernacle. They are waiting for the priests and the daily sacrifice; we are watching for the Great High Priest and the Once-For-All Sacrifice.

For a moment today, sit still, and let’s guard, let’s watch with them.

  1. It turns out we actually know some of their names. From 1 Chronicles 9:17: “Now the gatekeepers were Shallum and Akkub and Talmon and Ahiman and their relatives…” Keep reading, and we learn there were 212 of them (1 Chronicles 9:22) in total. Later, David appoints 4,000 (1 Chronicles 23:4–5), organized by clan (1 Chronicles 26:1–19). 

  2. Or, in my church, a breakfast taco. 

  3. There’s a giant digression, probably an entire series, available here based on Hebrews 1:1–2, but I’ll leave that for another day.