Their role was to encircle the tent. The Levites were to be human insulation: both protecting the priests and the holy things from unclean contamination from without and protecting the people in the camp from holy retribution from within.
But Korah and his kin grew discontent with their tribe’s role in Israel’s communal structure and staged a rebellion against Moses. Moses appealed to God, and God was decisive in his response. “The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods” (Nu 16:31,32). The end.
Or, perhaps, the beginning. “But the sons of Korah did not die” (Nu 26:11). Not only were they permitted to live, but they were given back their God-ordained place in the community. By David’s time they still held their entitled position: they were the gatekeepers, “keeping the thresholds of the tent, as their fathers had been in charge of the camp of the Lord, keepers of the entrance” (1 Chr 9:17-19).
Redemption whispers through the plot line. “Our fathers trampled upon our inheritance. God and his faithful people restored our legacy to us.”
If this were where the story ended, it would be a lovely vignette of God’s grace and communal forgiveness extended to a rebellious family. But there is so much more. The heads of the families of the sons of Korah were accorded special honor: “These are the men whom David put in charge of the service of song in the house of the Lord after the ark rested [in Jerusalem]” (I Chr 6:31-33; 9:33,34). God not only restored what a generation had once disdained, but also made something brand-new out of their lives and those who would long benefit from their spiritual legacy.
We don’t know definitively whether the specific psalms of the Sons of Korah in the Psalter date from David’s time when Zion, the dwelling place of God, was in Jerusalem, or are the cry of a post-exilic Israel longing for home. But with this specific personal history in view, it should come as no surprise that the songs of the Sons of Korah are some of the most poignantly powerful in the Psalter. Wearing the name of one’s shame and redemption is a powerful primer for prayer.
Found in Psalm 42-49 and 84-88, the psalms of the Sons of Korah contain such jewels as these: “As the deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God” (Ps 42:1); “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!” (Ps 84:1); and, “Glorious things of you are spoken, O city of God” (Ps 87:3).
Their tongues, indeed, became “like the pen of a poet” (Ps 45:1), and these inspired lyricists wrote some of the greatest worship texts of all time. I will never forget a moment I witnessed as accompanist to the conducting class in college, when we bravely plunged into one young conductor’s selection, “How Lovely is Your Dwelling Place” from Brahms’ Requiem. We were about two pages in when the conducting professor stopped the aspiring musician (and the accompanist). “There is some music,” he said, “that cannot be interpreted by the young.” We put it away that day. Psalm 84 has been holy ground to me ever since. “Now?” I ask myself. “Do I glimpse the sublime merging of lyrics and music now that I am far closer to the professor’s age than I am to the student’s?” I still suspect I’m too young.
But this I do know. Every so often these psalms of Korah’s sons take an autobiographical turn that leaves me breathless with wonder at the profound gratitude rising from the image itself. I discovered one of these treasures just recently. I was reflecting on Psalm 46, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way . . .”
A strong metaphor for anyone except the sons of Korah. For them, the earth actually once had given way. The earth moved so decisively that it swallowed up their entire disaffected family. In writing Psalm 46, might they have been living in the memory of their familial rescue? In some dramatic fashion that remains veiled in this family’s history, God had been their refuge and strength on a day when the earth really did open up. So now, when I hear the Sons of Korah say there is no cause to fear—even in the midst of unprecedented human trauma—I listen with different ears.
No part of the salvation drama, including the psalms, is merely beautiful poetry. Redemption and re-creation is always breaking into real human history. And as I reflect on the lives and psalms of the Sons of Korah, I find myself wanting to stay in their recommended posture. For this powerful psalm of redemption in the midst of catastrophe ends with the simple instruction that they, too, must have dwelt long within: “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10). And out of their stillness, out of their reflected gratitude, has risen a “mighty fortress” full of worship texts.
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Dr. Carla Waterman is either a spiritual theologian with an artist processor, or an artist whose passion is to teach spiritual theology close to the ground. Waterman has taught Christian Spiritual Formation for the past two decades, first at Wheaton College, then at Northern Seminary, both in the western suburbs of Chicago. Dr. Waterman co-taught DWS 704: The Sacred Actions and Ministries of Worship with Dr. Reggie Kidd at IWS from 2000-2012 and is currently leading spiritual retreats in the United States and the United Kingdom. Waterman holds a Ph.D. from Cornell University, finds her spiritual home in the Northumbria Community, and partners with the Canterbury Retreat and Conference Center in Oviedo, FL.