One morning recently, I was ploughing through the genealogy of Levi in 1 Chronicles 6. It’s an anticlimax to the miracles and battles in the preceding book of 2 Kings. However, I dutifully read through the lineage of Levi—after all, his sons became the priests and temple workers. But then three names jumped out at me: Heman, Asaph and Ethan. “These are the men whom David put in charge of the service of song in the house of the Lord.” The name Heman always makes me laugh because it reminds me of a cartoon hero I used to watch on TV in the 1980s; the name Asaph of course I recognized; and Ethan stands out for being a popular name today. If you eliminate all the “son of”s in the passage, you get the picture of Heman standing in the centre, with Asaph on his right and Ethan on his left, leading the singing.
Psalms 88 and 89 were also on my Bible reading plan that morning. To my surprise, they were written by none other than Heman and Ethan.
A few days later, I read 1 Chronicles 15. In verses 17-19, the three singer-songwriters appear again. “The singers Heman, Asaph and Ethan were to sound the bronze cymbals.”
But contrary to what you’d expect from the worship leaders of the golden age of Solomon’s temple, their psalms are some of the most gloomy complaints in the psalter.
Heman: “My soul is full of troubles…O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?”
Ethan: “I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord forever… But now you have cast off and rejected… Lord, where is your steadfast love of old?”
and to paraphrase several psalms of Asaph: “God is a righteous judge, but life sure sucks right now.”
The Three Tenors chosen by the king must have led the people in some pretty authentic worship. No need to put your happy Sabbath face on. No, come as you are. But these three men left a legacy of commitment to God that was to last at least twelve generations, around 360 years.
By the time of King Hezekiah, the temple had fallen into disuse, misuse and ruin. But when he began to reform worship in Judah, it was none other than the sons of these three musicians that were first to pitch in and help. 2 Chronicles 29 records “Of the sons of Asaph, Zechariah and Mattaniah, of the sons of Heman, Jehuel and Shimei; and of the sons of Jeduthun (a variant of Ethan), Shemiah and Uzziel. They gathered their brothers and consecrated themselves and went in as the king had commanded, by the words of the LORD, to cleanse the house of the LORD.” And when it was time to have a worship service, “the Levites [sang] praises to the LORD with the words of David and of Asaph the seer.”
Their legacy continued all the way to the last temple reforms before the exile, under King Josiah. At the Passover recorded in 2 Chronicles 35, “The singers, the sons of Asaph, were in their place according to the command of David, and Asaph, and Heman and Jeduthun, the king’s seer.”
Through centuries of both righteous and idolatrous kings, these families of worshippers passed the light of faith from generation to generation.
There are two morals to this story: One, read the fine print. You never know what you’ll find. Two, what kind of a legacy are you leaving? Are you so real with God about your sorrows and the injustices you see around you that your children are drawn to worship him? Generations from now, will your great-grands worship God no matter the prevailing spiritual climate? When revival comes, will they be the first to get involved?
For a lot of people, the Bible is either art or truth. For me, it's both, and I hope to persuade readers in both camps to see the other perspective.