The Sons of Korah: A Lesson in Chain Breaking

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Last week’s Sabbath Thought was a little on the gloomy side. I think we ended on a positive note, but looking at three separate stories of squandered potential and tragic downfalls has a way of putting a damper on even the most important of lessons.

Today, let’s do the opposite. Instead of stories about people who started out strong and threw it all away, let’s look at the story of a people who took an ancestor’s failure and turned it around:

Let’s talk about the sons of Korah.

* * *

The story of Korah is a sadly familiar one. It’s a watershed moment in the book of Numbers and it’s significant enough that even Jude makes mention of it centuries later in his epistle to the New Testament Church (Jude 1:11).

Korah isn’t my focus today, but his rebellion sets the backdrop for what I really want to talk about, so let’s pick up those threads for a moment. As a descendant of Kohath, Korah’s job was to help transport the holy furnishings of the sanctuary—the ark of the covenant, the altar, the lampstand, and so on (Numbers 4:1-20).

At some point, Korah decided that all this manual labor was beneath him. Moses and Aaron were his cousins, after all (Exodus 6:16-21)—but they led Israel while he was stuck on the Wilderness Moving Crew. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. He deserved better.

He and a mob of similarly discontent Israelites confronted his cousins. “You take too much upon yourselves,” they accused, “for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3).

Long story short, God made it abundantly clear what He thought of Korah’s attempted power grab. The story ends with Korah and his fellow rebels completely annihilated, swallowed by the earth itself, “with their households and all the men with Korah, with all their goods” (Numbers 16:32)

The Bible calls it “the Korah incident” (Numbers 16:49). It was to be memorialized forever (Numbers 16:36-40)—a warning to anyone else who felt they had the right or the authority to challenge God’s divine instructions.

* * *

In His mercy, God appears to have spared some of Korah’s household (likely the ones too young to participate in the revolt). Their inheritance, though, was the legacy of a foolish man who brought ruin on himself and on those who followed him. That was the shadow they lived in and the name they couldn’t escape:

“The sons of Korah.”

And yet…

And yet when the Bible introduces us to the sons of Korah generations later, we don’t see a clan holding onto bitterness and resentment. They’re not nursing a centuries-old grudge.

They’re serving.

Just before David takes the throne of Israel, we’re told that the Korahites “were in charge of the work of the service, gatekeepers of the tabernacle. Their fathers had been keepers of the entrance to the camp of the Lord. … Now some of them were in charge of the serving vessels, for they brought them in and took them out by count. Some of them were appointed over the furnishings and over all the implements of the sanctuary” (1 Chronicles 9:19, 28-29).

Hundreds of years after Korah’s rebellion, his descendants were doing the very work Korah had turned up his nose at. Transporting vessels. Looking after furnishings and implements. Guarding the gates of the sanctuary.

The work didn’t change. The attitude of those doing the work changed.

It’s an attitude that shows up in their praises as well. Eleven of the 150 psalms preserved for us are attributed to “the sons of Korah,” and in those psalms we catch a glimpse of what made these men different than their ancestor:

For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
Than dwell in the tents of wickedness.

(Psalm 84:10)

That’s not a figure of speech. The Korahites were gatekeepers of God’s temple—and they knew the story of Korah’s rebellion. They knew all too well that God had swallowed up their namesake and his tents and all his possessions in return for his defiance (Numbers 16:27, 31-32).

The sons of Korah could have followed in Korah’s footsteps. They could have made a scene and demanded more. Instead, they chose to be doorkeepers. They chose to fulfill the role God had reserved for them with honor and excitement.

Generations earlier, Moses asked Korah and his rebellious mob, “Is it a small thing to you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the work of the tabernacle of the Lord, and to stand before the congregation to serve them?” (Numbers 16:9). Translation: Don’t you realize what a blessing God has already given you?

Korah didn’t. But the sons of Korah did. It’s a sentiment threaded into the fabric of their psalms: “We have thought, O God, on Your lovingkindness, in the midst of Your temple” (Psalm 48:9) and “My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God” (Psalm 84:2).

For the sons of Korah, being near God—being in His service—was everything. What Korah took for granted, his descendants treasured.

What about us? What do we treasure?

* * *

What impresses me the most about the sons of Korah is how they handled what had become a shameful family name. There was a time, no doubt, when the words “son of Korah” must have been pronounced with venom and disgust. Son of Korah, the rebel. Son of Korah, the failure.

Rather than change their identity, the sons of Korah changed what their identity meant. Because of their dedication and obedience to God—because of their refusal to follow in their forefather’s error—being a son of Korah wasn’t a shameful thing. The sons of Korah were there to do the job God had set apart for them, and they did it with passion.

Today, we remember them for that passion. For their service. For their psalms of praise. For their zeal. For taking the chains that bound them to the failures of the past and shattering them.

It’s not that they lived lives without hardships. They didn’t. Another look at their psalms reveals that they wrestled with unanswered questions from God, just like we do today. “Lord, why do You cast off my soul?” asks one son of Korah. “Why do You hide Your face from me? I have been afflicted and ready to die from my youth; I suffer Your terrors; I am distraught” (Psalm 88:14-15). It’s not a psalm that ends with a clear answer or peaceful acceptance. It’s filled with the very real words of a man who can’t understand why God is allowing life to deal him hand after hand of trials and hardships.

Another sons of Korah psalm features an honest monologue with God, struggling to praise God while still acknowledging the current state of affairs: “You have severely broken us in the place of jackals, and covered us with the shadow of death” (Psalm 44:19). In these psalms, we see how questions can coexist alongside faith. The sons of Korah trusted God, but it didn’t change the fact that there were times in their lives when they were hurt, confused, and unable to understand God’s purposes or reasons.

I think that’s part of the lesson here. Chain breaking doesn’t start with God fixing all our problems or offering us a clean, spotless environment in which to overcome our flaws. It doesn’t start with God promising we’ll never have to face the same challenges as those who came before us.

Chain breaking starts when we align ourselves with God and prepare ourselves to make better choices than those who came before us. That’s the key. The challenges don’t change. We change.

The sons of Korah chose to be chain breakers. They faced the same scenario as their ancestor—a position that lacked the pomp and the spotlight of the priesthood—but rather than reject it, they embraced it as a gift from God.

I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
Than dwell in the tents of wickedness.

* * *

What about you? In your life, which one is it? Are you a doorkeeper, or do you dwell in the tents of wickedness? Do you embrace the opportunities God gives you to learn and grow and serve (even when they’re not glamorous or enviable), or do you set yourself against God and demand something “better”?

Your family history is irrelevant. The actions of those who came before you are irrelevant. The sons of Korah took a tarnished family name and, through their dedication to serving God in whatever capacity He allowed, they made that name stand for something else entirely.

Psalm 45—another composition of the sons of Korah—ends with a goal. If the sons of Korah had a mission statement, I suspect this would have been it:

I will make Your name to be remembered in all generations;
Therefore the people shall praise You forever and ever.

(Psalm 45:17)

Generations later, here we are, reading those words and singing those praises.

Life is full of opportunities to complain and gripe about what we’ve been given—but it’s full of just as many opportunities to give thanks and sing praises to God. The sons of Korah found the opportunities to give thanks and seized them.

Let’s do the same.

Until next time,
Jeremy

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