The Sons of Korah and the Power of Historical Context for Bible Study

I've heard many a preacher say "text without a context is a pretext for a proof text".  Proof texts are usually Bible verses or passages that are often used by people who want to prove a particular point regarding a certain belief or doctrine.  Proof texts can be helpful but too often when using Bible verses as proof texts we strip them of their original meaning within the context they were written. Context is key to understanding a biblical passage.  Using context in understanding the Bible takes into account the author, their audience, the time frame, the culture, etc when trying to decipher the meaning of a text. Context often helps us understand and explain a passage, but it can also give a passage special meaning or background that helps us connect with it spiritually or emotionally.  Psalm 42 is an example of that, so lets look at that Psalm to better understand the use of context in reading and understanding a passage of Scripture.

Many of you have heard of and probably sang the worship song "As the Deer".  The song was written in the 1980s by Martin J. Nystrom and performed by The Maranatha! Singers, but the words come straight from Psalm 42.  Often as you study the Psalms the heading or title of the psalm give you some historical context as to who wrote the psalm and when they wrote it.  Those titles also detail musical notations and instructions for choir leaders.

For Psalm 42 and 10 other psalms you will see the phrase "of the sons of Korah" in the title.  The first question this title should spark is "who is Korah?". You have to go all the way back to Numbers 16 to get that answer. Korah was the grandson of Kohath who was a son of Levi, the head of the priestly tribe of Israel.  Kohath was one of 3 sons of Levi.  Kohath and his family were responsible for the care of the sanctuary which included care of the ark of the covenant, the curtains, lampstands, and other instruments of worship in the tabernacle.  Kohath's tribe's work was more arduous than that of the tribes of the other two sons of Levi.  Where as they could use carts to transport the framing of the tabernacle and other things, Kohath's tribe has to transport their precious and sacred items on their shoulders but only after the items had be wrapped in special cloth.  They became jealous of the work of the others and aspired to be priests which only those who descended from Aaron could be.  Due to this jealousy, Korah, Kohath's grandson, lead a rebellion and convinced 250 men to join him in challenging the authority of Moses and Aaron.

This did not end well for them as God in judgment opened up the earth and consumed all 250 of the rebels and their families.  But for some reason, the sons of Korah were spared either because they were too young to understand the rebellion or they disagreed with their father and stayed loyal to Moses and Aaron and the Lord.  Despite the rebellion God still had a plan for the line of Korah. The prophet and judge Samuel would come from this line. One line of the Korahites became mighty warriors and helped king David in several exploits.  Mostly the Korahites became doorkeepers and custodians at the tabernacle and later the temple.  They were also very skilled in choral and orchestral music, which is why we see their name in the title of some of the psalms.

Understanding their lineage helps us grasps the deeper meaning of the words of their psalms.  In Psalm 42:11 when they write "Put your hope in God, for I will still praise Him", perhaps they are remembering their infamous ancestor and their humble beginnings of how they were spared from wrath because of their hope and trust in the Lord.  Their psalms often express a deep longing for God and devotion to him even in the midst of great distress and depression.  "I thirst for God, the living God.  When can I come and appear before God?". (Psalm 42:2)  The sons of Korah knew what they meant when they were inspired to write "Better a day in your courts than a thousand anywhere else. I would rather be at the door of the house of my God than to live in the tents of wicked people". (Psalm 84:10) God had spared them from the wrath he gave their father, and it seems they were grateful for it for the rest of their history.

This is what historical context can do for your Bible study.  It changes the way you read and interpret and teach the text.  It adds fantastic backstory to poetry and prose.  When you know who the sons of Korah are it changes how you view what they were inspired to write.  The psalms of the sons of Korah teach us that God is faithful to those who trust him.  It teaches us that a longer for God spares us from His wrath.  It teaches us that being a servant in the house of God is better than being a priest in the temple of the wicked.  And that's a beautiful thing.  So the next time you read or teach a psalm, pay attention to the information in the title of the psalm.  It will add immense meaning to the psalm and change how you view it.


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