Levi the Preacher-Swordsman – Part 2
“The greatest of legendary swords are those which no longer need to be drawn.”
by Jacob Gucker
“The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple,
even the messenger of the Covenant, whom ye delight in;
behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of Hosts.
But who may abide the day of His coming,
and who shall stand when He appeareth?
For He is like a refiner’s fire.
And He shall purify the sons of Levi,
that they may offer unto the Lord
an offering in righteousness.”
— Handel’s Messiah quoting Malachi 3:1-3
In part 1 of this article we saw that Levi, the third son of Jacob and the priestly tribe in Israel, is a preacher-swordsman and guardian of Yahweh’s covenant community. We saw that God took Levi from being a man who would use his mouth and his sword to assemble men for slaughter and redeemed him to become a tribe who would use his mouth and his sword to assemble men for true worship and covenant life. In Genesis 34 Levi and Simeon used the sign of circumcision to hobble a whole city and then used their swords to destroy it. Their father prophesied that they would be scattered in Israel, and they were, but the actual scattering would be a blessing. In a moment of faithfulness at Sinai the Levites took up their swords to guard the covenant and were by that action ordained to be the priestly guardians of God’s covenant by serving in the tabernacle.
We also saw that there are quite a few places in scripture where Levi is associated with speech and the sword. Levi uses the sword for the ritual act of circumcision and slaughtering animals for sacrifice, and he uses speech to instruct Israel in Torah and to guard the truth. In this second part I will show how Levi, the preacher-swordsman, is glorified in the New Covenant to wield the Sword of the Spirit.
The End of the Sword
The symbolic relationship between speech and the sword runs throughout scripture and so Paul’s designation of God’s word as “the Sword of the Spirit” in Ephesians 6:17 is not a unique metaphor peculiar to the Apostle. It is as old as the Pentateuch, though it is most abundant in the writings and prophets, and is engrained in Paul’s biblical imagination. Consider these examples of Old Testament poetry and prophecy:
“His speech was smooth as butter, yet war was in his heart; his words were softer than oil, yet they were drawn swords.” Psalm 55:21
“…who whet their tongues like swords, who aim bitter words like arrows…” Psalm 64:3
“There are those whose teeth are swords, whose fangs are knives, to devour the poor from off the earth, the needy from among mankind.” Proverbs 30:14
“My soul is in the midst of lions; I lie down amid fiery beasts— the children of man, whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords.” Psalm 57:4
“Their tongue is a deadly arrow; it speaks deceitfully; with his mouth each speaks peace to his neighbor, but in his heart he plans an ambush for him.” Jeremiah 9:8
“He made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away.” Isaiah 49:2
Notice that all manner of sharp weapons are mentioned. Swords, knives, spears, and arrows are included and parallel the many different ways in which a person can impact others with the spoken word or a written decree. Most of these examples are negative, not referring to preachers but to those who cut others to pieces with their malicious words. However, the last example here is from one of the famous “servant songs” of Isaiah and prophesies of Christ who would be the embodiment of Israel, Yahweh’s servant nation.
Readers of the Psalms and Prophets take this recurring metaphor as a fitting literary device because it is poetic, but “the sword” is a concept in the mind of God which precedes the human use of sharp weapons. God placed a flaming sword at the eastern gate of the garden sanctuary of Eden to guard the way to the tree of life before any human had even sharpened a stick to wield as a weapon, and later the Levites guarded the tabernacle with man-made swords as representatives of the angels which guard the throne of God in the heavens. Furthermore, the Bible refers to angelic beings who wield swords as they carry out God’s work on earth. Thus, it seems that the sword is an enduring symbol of word and effects the word of priests and kings and prophets in the physical world.
The sword is God-made, but is it eternal? Shouldn’t we be turning our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks at some point as Isaiah, Joel, and Micah say? Shouldn’t we take up the mighty pen and engage in diplomacy rather than war? What is the end, or telos of the sword? The answer lies in the Bible’s spiraling meta-structure. That sounds like it might be confusing, but it simply means that the Bible is structured so that the end of it is a return to the beginning while also being a progression into new creation. Like a spiral, the Bible cycles through the same story again and again but with important differences and significant developments. For instance, the Bible begins in a garden paradise and ends with a paradisiacal city. It begins with the two guarded trees of life and knowledge and ends with many trees lining the river that flows from the city with fruit and leaves that are for the healing of the nations (Ezekiel 47:12). It begins with the precious gold and onyx of Havilah downstream from the garden, and ends with a garden city built with gold and precious stones. It begins with man and woman naked in the garden and ends with Christ and church clothed in glory and splendor.
The development of the garden into an eternal city is not linear. The garden does not get better and better until it becomes the city. No, the repeating pattern of exile and return in the scriptures means that the garden is walled off and its custodians banished because of sin, but it comes back as a tent in the wilderness. The two trees are lost, but they come back later in the design of the temple furniture and decorations. Israel’s tree is cut back to the stump, but God promises to make it flourish once more. The precious gold of Havilah and Ophir is mined and covers the Ark and then fills Solomon’s temple. But then the Gentiles burn the temple and the gold melts. The man becomes a polygamist with seven bald women grabbing hold of his cloak, all of them promiscuous. But then he goes back to the wife of his youth, forsaking all others, and purchases her in the slave market. She will turn again and take five husbands plus one who is not her husband before all is finished, but some bright day she will be attached to her husband and He will lead her to the water of life. Like night and day, sleeping and waking, death and resurrection, history goes forward not in a line or round in a circle, but both. Our lives are the same as we have times of joy and sorrow, plenty and want, sickness and health. The promise of resurrection and the gift of the Spirit is the promise that we are going forward, not merely round and round.
Adam had no physical weapon to fight the serpent in the garden. His sword was the word of God. He failed to wield it against the serpent and so God had to replace him with the flaming sword and cherubim. In the covenant with Noah the sword became the tool of the civil government to punish evil. Noah was authorized to pass judgement on murderers and man-slaying beasts. In the Mosaic Covenant the Levites were to guard the garden-tent with their swords. By God’s grace they were also teachers of the word. Their privilege was a shadow of better things to come. But what makes the word in the end better than the word in the beginning? Man in the garden had the word and the breath of life with which to speak it, but his breath and his life were merely his own spirit, a gift of God, yes, but not the greatest gift. Furthermore, the word of the gospel was not complete then and now is. In Christ we have the gift of the Holy Spirit and the fully-forged sword of the Spirit. Thus, the telos or end of “the sword” is the whole council of God in the mouth of man, extended by the Holy Spirit.
We see what has happened and will continue to happen to the sword, but we still need to find out what happened to Levi in the New Testament. In Malachi chapter 3 there is a prophecy that the Lord will suddenly come to His temple and will purify the sons of Levi like a refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap. If we take this to be the coming of Jesus Christ, then in what sense are the sons of Levi refined? Are we still waiting?
Levi in the New Exodus
As we learned in part one this article, the book of Exodus begins with a faithful Levite couple. According to the Gospel of Luke, the first chronological event event of the New Exodus in Jesus is the appearance of an angel to a righteous Levite named Zechariah, telling him that his barren and aged wife would give birth to a son. He appeared to him while he was on duty in the temple, burning incense at the hour of prayer. Zechariah did not believe and Gabriel, who stood in the presence of God and was sent to speak to Zechariah, took away the Levite’s ability to speak until the good news had come to pass. Once again, we see a Levite with a speech problem. Zechariah is thus unable to speak the customary benediction and leaves Israel waiting. The priest remains mute and deaf until after the baby is born. And yet, his tongue is not loosed on the day of birth, but rather on the eighth day after he is born. The eighth day is the day of his circumcision, the day of his ritual rebirth into the nation of priests. It does not say who wielded the knife, but it might have been Zechariah himself if not a local Levite. Either way, Zechariah’s speech returns to him on the day of circumcision, showing that priestly speech and priestly cutting go hand in hand.
When John, the forerunner of Christ, went out to preach and to baptize, it was priests and Levites who came out to him, suspicious of what he was doing. This is because he was baptizing and the ancient purpose of baptism in Israel was to ordain priests. What was this son of Zechariah, this son of Levi, doing out in the desert baptizing people at the Jordan river? The Jews sent priests and Levites to find out because it was an overt and highly symbolic action. By baptizing people in the Jordan river he was essentially giving them a new Exodus and reentry into the holy land. They were getting a new entrance into the promises of Abraham.
The book of Hebrews deals with the fact that Jesus is the great high priest, despite the fact that he is not from the tribe of Levi. This would be a problem if the writer of Hebrews did not know that Jesus was in another priestly order altogether. Jesus is in the order of Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem to whom Abraham gave tithes after the battle of the kings. Messianic kings like David, Solomon, and Jesus are in this priestly line. Hebrews also speaks of the uselessness of the Levitical sacrifices and temple service in the new age, for Christ is the new temple. He is the everlasting high priest and His sacrifice is the final sacrifice for atonement of sins. On the other hand, this does not mean that the Levitical priesthood is abolished altogether. No, if God can raise up sons for Abraham from the stones, He can certainly raise up sons for Levi! If He did not accomplish this, He would not be faithful to His promise to purify the sons of Levi.
Since baptism is a sign of ordination into priesthood, all those who are baptized into Christ are sons of Levi. They take up the Sword of the Spirit to circumcise hearts for God by the word of God. They take up the Sword of the Spirit to prepare people to offer themselves as living sacrifices as their new service of worship (Romans 12:1). Ours is a two-edged sword, “piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 12:4). It is also the sword by which we guard the Lord’s table. Just as the flaming angelic sword guarded the tree of life and the Levites guarded the bread of the presence with their swords, the bread and wine of the Lord’s table is ours to guard from those who are not baptized into the new temple of God. and is the standard by which we solemnly cut people off from the Lord’s table who are living in open rebellion to their baptismal testimony.
The Armor of God
Many of us have learned about putting on “the armor of God” in Sunday School. The glossy pages of the Sunday School book told us that Paul is referring to the armor and weapons of a Roman soldier. Usually there is a labeled graphic of the soldier, gladius in one hand and a scutum shield in the other, complete with a helmet that has a red broom on top. And let us not forget the fact that Paul mentions a breastplate, but says nothing about a back plate, so let’s not retreat! Forward to victory as a conquering phalanx; it’s the Christian way!
There is good reason to believe that Paul is not thinking of a Roman soldier. He was not necessarily searching for a metaphor at all because the Bible and the Apocrypha already contained such devices. For instance, Isaiah 59:17 says, “He put on righteousness as a breastplate and a helmet of salvation on his head….” Paul’s imagination was more Hebraic than Roman; it is more likely that he is describing the armor and weapons of a decked out temple guardian. If we look for comparisons in the high priest alone, as some have, we will fail to find the whole picture. He had a nice breastplate and belt and turban, but not a shield or sword. However, if we look to the Levitical guardians in 2 Chronicles 26, we will find a good reference for a more Hebraic picture. We can also see a wonderful picture of what Christian Levites are all about.
In that passage the mother of wicked King Ahaziah killed off all her son’s children. The entire Davidic line came down to a single surviving infant whose nurse hid him away while his grandmother killed the rest of his brothers. The high priest’s wife hid Joash in the House of the Lord where he grew up as a child of the temple precincts. In the child’s seventh year Jehoiada the high priest called upon all of the priests and Levites who were on guard in the temple to take up sword, spear, and shield and to surround the boy King and guard him within the house of God as he was given the Kingdom. The boy grew up in the temple precincts; he was practically a Levite himself, but he was the true heir to the throne.
The Kings of Israel have often flirted with priesthood. David ate the bread of the presence and wore the linen ephod and danced before the Ark. Solomon worshipped before the Ark in the tabernacle of David. Uzziah went too far, burning incense at the altar of incense, a skin disease breaking out upon his brow which kept him out of God’s house until the day of his death. Each of these were kings of Salem, now Jerusalem, like Melchizedek. Their closeness to priesthood anticipates Jesus. Joash, surrounded by armed and armored Levites, is a picture of Christ, the ultimate Priest-King, standing in the temple with all His holy warriors around Him. Sadly, Joash did not remain faithful after Jehoiada died. He grew up in the temple and presumably got his food from the Levitical portions, but he was ultimately unfaithful to God, even murdering Zechariah, Jehoiada’s son, in the house of Yahweh. Many Christians grow up, as it were, in the temple precincts, but do not endure to the end, proving that they never had saving faith.
From Pentecost to Pentecost
Many Christians think that Pentecost is a single event in the book of Acts. Actually, it is a holy day that is still celebrated by a great number of Christians. It refers to the 50th day after Passover when the children of Israel entered covenant with God. Like the Levites, the first disciples of Jesus were ordained for priestly service at Pentecost. The first Pentecost of the old epoch included the giving of the law and the tabernacle and the Levites rising up with their swords to defend the covenant, in which 3000 of their brothers fell. The first Pentecost of the new epoch included the gift of the Holy Spirit, the temple of the body of Christ, and the apostles rising up to pierce their brothers with the Sword of the Spirit. After the Spirit falls upon the disciples in tongues of fire and they speak in all of the various languages that are represented among the throng who came up for Pentecost, Peter stands up to preach and reveal the meaning of it all by saying:
“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” Acts 2:22-24.
“Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.” Acts 2:33.
Peter, an ordained Priest who has been baptized in water and baptized in the Holy Spirit, preaches to the men of Israel and the effect is circumcision of the heart:
“Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2:37-38.
The verb translated here as “cut” is a word used nowhere else in the Bible or other Greek literature. It is formed by the preposition kata and the word nusso. Nusso is often used of grievous wounds and is only used in Matthew and John to describe the piercing of Jesus’ side with a spear. The preposition seems to indicate a deep or thorough stabbing or piercing. The usage here is metaphorical because of the context. Peter’s words, empowered by the Spirit, are piercing the hearts of his hearers. The employment of this particular word with the ultimate effect that three thousand people are added to the church on the same calendar day on which the Levites took up their swords to kill three thousand of their covenant breaking brethren, heralds the fact that God has fulfilled His promise to refine and purify the sons of Levi with the fire of the Holy Spirit. The spiral of biblical history has come round again to Levi and his sword, but now his speech and his sword are one in the same. The children of Israel had once again succumbed to idolatry, crucifying Jesus at the hands of sinful men and paying homage to Caesar. Peter tells his audience that the only way forward is baptism. Levi has delivered the death blow and they must be baptized in order to die with Jesus and be raised again and filled with the Holy Spirit. Being baptized, they are able to go into the new temple and eat of the holy food. They themselves are empowered by the Spirit to wield the word of God to defend this sanctuary of life. They are true Levites, for their lips guard knowledge and truth is in their mouth.
Levi purified is like the third son of Jacob and Leah; he takes up his sword to defend the covenant community, but instead of creating a false community, he uses his sword of the Spirit to attach people to God and build the church. Leah’s hope was that the child would help her to be attached to her husband, but his destiny was even greater than all her hopes, for now he attaches the bride of Christ to the Bridegroom and the two become one in order to unite heaven and earth. The artfulness of God in turning Levi’s sin around and using him to save the bride and the bride the world is worthy of awe, thanksgiving, and praise. However, we are not quite at the end of it all. Levi’s scattering in Israel was a consequence redeemed and it is an echo of what happened at the tower of Babel. In this story, all things are redeemed and glorified, even the tower of Babel.
Garden, Tower, Tower, Garden
When the day of Pentecost came the believers and devout Jews and God fearing people from every nation were together in one place. Yahweh had drawn the powers of Sin together to condemn it in the flesh of Jesus on the cross, but He had also drawn together people of different tongues to hear of this mighty work in their own language. In this moment God reversed the scattering of Babel, for He was bringing His people together to begin work on a new city and a new tower, a tower that would connect heaven and earth. The church is that tower and those who build it have a liturgy that God loves, for they do not sing to one another of their own greatness, but of the glory of God. Jesus Christ is the building that bridges heaven and earth. Like those who built the tower of Babel, we rejoice as we work. The tower of Babel was made with the dust of earth that had been mixed with water and burned and hardened by fire. Human beings are but dust, but by adding the water of baptism and the fire of the Spirit, God fashions them into bricks for building His tower, the church. Thus, God has turned the song of Babel into a song that we can sing:
“Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly!”
Each Christian is a baked brick in God’s tower and a son of Levi, refined by fire.The church is the city that comes down out of heaven in the book of Revelation and in it is the tree of life, available to all without measure. The final New Creation city is the garden glorified, and no unclean thing may enter it.
Legendary swordsmen are greater in legend than in life, and the greatest of legendary swords are those which no longer need to be drawn. On earth a sheathed ceremonial sword is a sign of prosperity and peace and the rule of a good king. Swords are forged to bring about the rule of Kings and are sheathed in times of peace and that is the best we can do in the governments of man. But God sheathed His sword after the death and resurrection of Christ by reforging it as Word, and this is a return to the garden of Eden. Those who are in Christ are all children of Levi and legendary swordsmen. With the full armor of God we can block and parry the fiery shafts of the evil dragon, the serpent of old and fulfill our vocation as priests to God. We who were in Christ at His death are in Christ in His victory. Like the Levites who gathered to Moses at Sinai and the priestly guardians who gathered around Joash, we are gathered around Christ as He conquers the nations by His word.
“And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron…” Revelation 19:14-15
Jacob Gucker is a librarian at BMA Theological Seminary in Jacksonville, Texas. He lives with his wife and baby daughter at Preacher’s End Farm where she raises vegetables and pastures chickens and he looks up from his books to help out.