14 And the elders of the Jews builded, and they prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. And they builded, and finished it, according to the commandment of the Elahh of Israel, and according to the commandment of Cyrus, and Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia.

Enduring an age of discouragement

The king of Persia was convinced to grant an edict against the Jews, which caused the work to cease, and the building of God's house to be abandoned. Since it was not complete, however, the full recommencement of the temple services was prevented. At such a time, with hearts discouraged and hopes disillusioned, how difficult it was for the House of Asaph to maintain their song. Yet such was their spirit that they continued to guard their hymns, whether they did so in public or in private.

The decree of Darius, more than a decade later, permitted the temple to be completed, and it was finished in the providence of God exactly seventy years after its overthrow. 1 The occasion was marked by a joyful ceremony of dedication, where at last the Levites could again be set in their courses for the service of the house, and only now could the temple worship be fully resumed. 2

A joyful Passover which followed brought back memories of the great Passovers of Hezekiah and Josiah, both of which had marked the restoration of temple services after a period of suspension. This one would be the same, and yet again the House of Asaph would lead the temple song, as they had done in the days of those earlier kings, whose reformations had so inspired the people of God. 3

Sixty years later, Ezra came to Jerusalem, leading another group from Babylon. A faithful priest and ready scribe, with a deep knowledge of the law of Yahweh, he had high hopes for the spiritual good he might help to achieve, and, given his resources, had every reason to believe that he could accomplish it. 4 Yet before his journey had even begun, there were signs of the failure that would mark so much of his endeavour. The group who responded to his call was disappointingly small, and there was not a single Levite among them.

A group of thirty-nine were eventually gathered, but none had come of his own free will. There were a handful of singers included, but their spirit lacked the intense fervency the House of Asaph had shown when returning with Zerubbabel. 5

On arrival at Jerusalem, he was immediately plunged into the controversy of strange marriages, where some in Israel had married out of the Truth. Ezra was distressed beyond words, and prostrated with grief at this departure from God's law. But his careful examination of the matter, and its painful resolution, also revealed another difficulty which Ezra had perhaps not envisaged. He realised how sparsely populated the city was, and how scattered the captives were, as they looked to their inheritances in different parts of the land.

He saw the need to strengthen the walls of Jerusalem, but he was constrained by circumstance. By royal decree, his remit extended to the embellishment of the temple, but not to the fortification of the city, and his attempt to do so was met with strong opposition. 6

Discouraged and disheartened, the people turned every man to his own affairs, just as they had during the delays under Zerubbabel. So much of what Ezra had sought for was not achieved, and the situation was to deteriorate yet further.

1 The temple was destroyed in 586 BC, and rebuilt by Zerubbabel in 516 BC (Ezra 6:14,15).

2 The phrase "And they set ... the Levites in their courses" (Ezra 6:18) suggests that only at this point were the temple ordinances fully re-established. For this, the House of Asaph had waited!

3 There can be no doubt that the temple praises recommenced at this point, and that the House of Asaph led them, since, among the singers, only their household had returned with Zerubbabel.

4 Ezra travelled with the consent of Artaxerxes, and bore a royal decree which granted a Jewish 'right of return', permission to teach the law, and resources to beautify the temple (Ezra 7:11-26).

5 Ezra 8:15-19.

6 This circumstance (Ezra 4:11-16) is suggested by the repetition of the word "walls".

Bro Roger Lewis - The house of Asaph

18 And they set the priests in their divisions, and the Levites in their courses, for the service of Elahh, which is at Jerusalem; as it is written in the book of Moses.

Preserving the music of the temple

The temple ritual followed the pattern laid down in the law of Moses, which recorded the offerings for the continual burnt, the sabbath, the new moons and the special festivals. In doing so, it established a cycle of worship which moved through the rhythm of daily, weekly, monthly and annual services. 2

A vital part of Asaph's work with David was to establish musical accompaniments for each of these aspects of temple worship, and to designate the psalms which might be used on each occasion.

The foundation of the sacrificial code rested upon the offering of the morning and evening lamb, 3 and it was no accident that the choirs were commanded to be in attendance every morning and every evening, 4 since their hymn also formed a vital part of the daily tamiyd service. Worship was lifted to a higher plane on the sabbath day, 5 which marked the climax of the week. The selection of a psalm to be sung on the sabbath day 6 is an indication that certain psalms were indeed used at specific times and for specific purposes.

Elsewhere, there were clues that every day of the week had a designated psalm to be sung by the choir. 7 Beyond the weekly cycle, the law mentioned monthly observances, 8 which were also celebrated in psalms. 9 Songs to be sung at annual festivals 10 were already a matter of scriptural testimony, 11 but eventually the Hallel Psalms became the special choral offering at all the main feasts. 12

That all these musical arrangements were still found in the temple in the time of Christ 13 was not the consequence of any new initiative, but the result of their time-honoured hymn book having been faithfully preserved by the singers in their successive generations.

Of all these, the House of Asaph was not only the most famous, but the most involved in this exercise of treasuring the old. 'The temple, whose courts would be graced by the presence of Christ, would echo, even in his day, to the sound of songs so ancient that the music of David and Asaph could still be heard.

This was a work whose very success depended on one singing dynasty, who from father to son, and from son to grandson, would capture, absorb, and perpetuate their family calling. It was not the action of certain individuals, but the constant and consistent spirit of every generation of this household. They all kept the sacred charge, and they all passed it on.

Although others might have contributed in some lesser way, the real difference was made by one family; and, as was so often the case in the history of the Truth, the many were debtors to the few. That spirit of preserving their songs without loss or change would become one of their most famous contributions to the music of the nation.

Even the passage of centuries had not dimmed their faithful spirit, as the legacy of the past was kept alive in their daily song.

When the New Testament epoch opened, the temple worship was integral to the nation's life and identity, as Jews from the land and Jews from abroad came in their thousands to celebrate the feasts, 14 share in the offerings, and sound their Amen to the songs of the temple choirs (1 Chronicles 16:36). It was into this time that Messiah was born, and into this temple that the infant was brought on the day of his presentation to Yahweh. 15

It was a day never to be forgotten, for there at the sanctuary the child was met by two godly believers, brought together by divine arrangement, to give witness to this extraordinary moment in the Father's purpose.

Why they were chosen, and what they witnessed to, would be revealed in the gospel which uniquely recorded the nativity of Christ. It was, however, as if the spirit of the House of Asaph presided over the gathering, for the whole episode was redolent with allusions to this holy household.

2 Note the progression of morning and evening, sabbath, new moons, set feasts (2 Chronicles 31:3).

3 Numbers 28:1-8.

4, 1 Chronicles 9:33; 23:30.

5 Numbers 28:9,10.

6 The heading for Psalm 92 reads, "A Psalm or Song for the sabbath day".

7 The Septuagint (although numbering the psalms differently), assigned specific psalms to five of the seven days. The Mishnah, in one of its oldest tractates (Tamid 7:4) mentioned the following order of daily psalms to be sung by the temple singers: Day 1, Psalm 24; Day 2, Psalm 48; Day 3, Psalm 82; Day 4, Psalm 94; Day 5, Psalm 81; Day 6, Psalm 93; sabbath day, Psalm 92. Two of these psalms were from the House of Asaph (Psalms 81,82)! The same list is mentioned elsewhere (The Temple - Its Ministry and Services, Alfred Edersheim, pages 172,173).

8 Numbers 28:11-15.

9 Psalm 81:3.

10 Numbers 28:16-29:39.

11 Isaiah 30:29; Amos 5:21-23.

12 "The Hallel was altogether sung on eighteen days and on one night in the year. These eighteen days were that of the Passover sacrifice, the Feast of Pentecost, and each of the eight days of the Feast of Tabernacles and of the Dedication of the Temple. The only night in which it was recited was that of the Paschal supper, when it was sung by every Paschal company in their houses" (The Temple _ Its Ministry and Services, Alfred Edersheim, page 225).

13 The view that these arrangements predated the time of Christ is also noted by others (Exploring the Psalms, Mark Vincent, page 279).

14 Acts 2:1,5-11,41.

15 Luke 2:22,23.

Bro Roger Lewis - The House of Asaph Ch 13