I love the Psalms. I love them because they show us how to be real with our feelings, appreciate the colour they add to our lives, and still see self-governance (a fruit of the spirit) in operation instead of being ruled by them.
I used to assume that most psalms were composed by David on the run, or David on the throne, or David in the tent of worship. It wasn’t until someone suggested I pay attention to the Psalms of the Sons of Korah that I started to notice other writers. The Sons of Korah have a story. Their psalms show us the way back from rebellion and an identity of inherited shame. How did these men move from sentiments like “I am counted among those who go down to the pit,” to “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere?”
The story of Korah, and his co-conspirators Dathan, Abiram and On is hard for me to read. It messes with my theology and reminds me to keep asking questions. We find it in Numbers 16.
The Children of Israel had chosen to be more impressed with scary stories of giants than Joshua’s and Caleb’s good reports. Moses gave the grumbling people God’s message that although their children would see the promised land, they themselves would not. That’s when Korah and his friends (and the 250 men they convinced to join them) protested. They accused Moses of breaking promises and of wanting to make himself a prince over the people and use them like slaves.
Korah wanted a higher position, a greater place of honour than he had been assigned as a server in the tabernacle. Like satan, pride and ambition were his downfall. He argued it was not the people’s fault they were stuck in this desert. He insisted they were holy people and not disobedient complainers. Moses was wrong and it was his mismanagement causing the hardships and disappointments.
It’s not as if Korah and his friends had not seen God at work. The people witnessed the miraculous escape from Pharoah’s army, Moses’ face glowing after being with God, the shock and awe show on Mt. Sinai, a pillar of smoke by day and fire by night, miraculous provision of food and water, clothes that never wore out and many more events way beyond anything seen before. They had also witnessed the consequences of worshipping a golden calf and leprosy appear on Miriam when she and her brother Aaron tried to usurp Moses’ place as leader.
Over time, people like Korah tend to shrug off such demonstrations of power. He wanted control. Moses accused the protestors of wanting to be priests like Aaron. There was a brief trial with God as judge. The consequence of the guilty verdict was that they and their families were separated from the others and swallowed by the earth.
I have questions. This messes with my picture of a God of love. All I’ll say about that for now is that Asaph, an associate musician who served one of the Sons of Korah, wrote this: But my people still would not yield to me, so I lifted my grace from off their lives and I surrendered them to the stubbornness of their hearts. (Psalm 81:11)
It’s recorded in Numbers 26:11 that “… nevertheless the line of Korah did not end.” Some must have separated themselves from Korah because there were survivors who, although perpetually identified with the shame of being descendants, show up later in a genealogy in 1 Chronicles 6:22-26. Samuel the prophet was one.
Samuel showed up at a time of transition in history and served in the tabernacle from a very young age. Eventually he was granted by grace the role his forefather tried to take by force. The era of judges was over. He anointed first Saul, then David as king.
David had a heart for God like few before him. He erected a tent of praise and appointed Heman, Samuel’s grandson and others from the Korah clan as musicians. They continued in that role when the temple was built by David’s son, Solomon.
Why would this group of poets call themselves the Sons of Korah? It would be like a contemporary praise and worship band calling themselves The Sons of Hitler in my culture. What were they showing us? Heman wrote the saddest psalm in the Bible.
In Psalm 88 we can read the words of a man raised in a shame/honour culture who still identifies with the rejection settled on his family line. It is an expression of their pain.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like one without strength.
I am set apart with the dead,
like the slain who lie in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
who are cut off from your care.
You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
He ends with:
Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
You have taken from me friend and neighbor—
darkness is my closest friend.
In a shame/honour society (which many people in the west don’t realize ours is becoming) tribal identity determines destiny. He is rejected as one of those outsiders marked by the shame that labels his family. He cries to God for help, but his identity is still as a son of Korah.
This is the only psalm in which there is no expression of hope of relief at the end. That changes in other Psalms.
So why has my attention been drawn to the Psalms of the Sons of Korah? I believe we have come to another shift in history that requires a shift in mindset, a time of re-alignment. For some of us, that will require receiving a new identity and seeing ourselves as God sees us. It means exchanging shame for restoration and rejection for belonging in God’s family.
We can’t move on until we let go. The wilderness experience is about learning to change our mindsets and let go of the ways of Egypt. There is more to life in the Kingdom of God than we have known before, but it will take time and a willingness to cooperate in the process of letting the Holy Spirit change us.
We are about to learn, on a deeper level, how much Jesus Christ has done for us and how much we are loved as we travel the road back to where we belong.