David Among the Priests: Seeing the Royal Priesthood of David in the Book of 1 Chronicles

priestcolorIn 1 Chronicles 1–9, the central feature of the genealogy is the priestly service of sons of Aaron and Levi. (See this post). Yet, as the book unfolds, there is another “priest” who takes center stage. Who is this priest? It is none other than David himself, a royal priest after the order of Melchizedek, we might say.

His priesthood, however, may be veiled to many readers because of the fact that David is not called a priest and because passages like Exodus 28 and Deuteronomy 33:8–11 restrict priesthood to the sons of Aaron. Yet, taking those Levitical instructions seriously, we should not miss how 1 Chronicles presents David.

In what follows, I will present four evidences of David’s priesthood, the last includes five actions that identify David as a priest. If time permitted, we could find more evidences for David’s priesthood and give rationale for how this works in Scripture. Some of these things will become clear below; others we will have to explore later. For now, let us content ourselves with what Scripture gives us in 1 Chronicles and how David is presented in priestly ways.

Four Evidences of David’s Priesthood

1. David is identified with the priests.

In 1 Chronicles 15:25–27 we read,

So David and the elders of Israel and the commanders of thousands went to bring up the ark of the covenant of the Lord from the house of Obed-edom with rejoicing. 26 And because God helped the Levites who were carrying the ark of the covenant of the Lord, they sacrificed seven bulls and seven rams. 27 David was clothed with a robe of fine linen, as also were all the Levites who were carrying the ark, and the singers and Chenaniah the leader of the music of the singers. And David wore a linen ephod.

If Saul could be among the prophets (1 Sam. 10:12), 1 Chronicles presents David as among the priests, i.e., he was “clothed with a robe of fine linen, as were all the Levites.” As the Chronicler opens his story of David, he focuses on David’s (righteous) obsession with bringing the ark to Jerusalem. In so doing, David is presented as leading, organizing, and even teaching the Levites, the priestly servants of Israel.

The significance of these actions is found not only in his association with the Levites—the tribe identified by God to stand before him as servants in his house—it is also found in his priestly actions (see below). It is further magnified by the fact that no other ‘high priest’ is presented in these chapters. Thus, David like Moses (who is never called a priest) serves as the leading mediator before God in 1 Chronicles 13–16. Later, in 1 Chronicles 22–26 he will also organize all the priests and Levites.

2. David is clothed with the linen ephod.

Even more significant than mere association with the Levites is the priestly attire that David is wearing in 1 Chronicles 17:27: “And David wore a linen ephod.” Already, David’s attire is compared to the Levites, but here special attention is given to his ephod.

In Exodus 28 the high priest (i.e., Aaron and his sons) are given a clothing that among other things, (1) matches the tabernacle, (2) communicates the glory of God to the people, and (3) brings to remembrance the twelve tribes before Yahweh. Central to these priestly garments is a linen ephod (vv. 4, 6­–14). This ephod served as the priest’s basic robe, and for all the ways ephods were made, worn, and even misused in Scripture, they always carried a priestly connotation.

For instance, Samuel (1 Sam. 2:18), Ahijah (14:3), and the priests of Nob (22:18) all wore ephods. (It’s probably not too much to say that the one wearing the ephod is a priest, cf. 1 Sam. 2:28). Accordingly, when David wears an ephod, his priestly status is suggested, if not declared. (The history of ephods in 1 Samuel also suggests that the ephod worn by the priests of Nob is the one that David wears when the ark is brought into Jerusalem.).

3. David’s city becomes the home of the ark.

In Leviticus, a book given for the instruction of priests, the high priest is told to sprinkle altar on the mercy seat, which is on the ark of the covenant, once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). Thus, priests served at the this altar. Which is to say in reverse, where the ark is, priests are.

Yet, in 1 Chronicles 16 the ark is no longer found in the tabernacle where Zadok and the others sons of Aaron served. Rather, David puts the ark in his city under a tent, thus associating priesthood with Jerusalem (cf. Psalm 132). In fact, 1 Chronicles 16:37, 39 go so far as to separate the ark from the tabernacle, placing the former in Jerusalem under David’s care and leaving the tabernacle in Gibeon under the care of Zadok.

37 So David left Asaph and his brothers there before the ark of the covenant of the Lord to minister regularly before the ark as each day required, 38 and also Obed-edom and his sixty-eight brothers, while Obed-edom, the son of Jeduthun, and Hosah were to be gatekeepers. 39 And he left Zadok the priest and his brothers the priests before the tabernacle of the Lord in the high place that was at Gibeon. (1 Chronicles 16:37–39)

Does this not point to David’s superior priesthood over Zadok? I think so. And it goes even further, for when David praises God in 1 Chronicles 17, he does so, having received God’s covenant promise that his son would build the temple (the place where the ark would dwell). At the same time, his son would receive an eternal throne. In response, David praises God and takes courage to pray before him. Verse 25 says, “Therefore your servant has found courage to pray before you.”

This is a strange phrase (“found courage to pray before [God]”), unless, it means something like the fact that David found courage to stand before the ark and pray like a priest. Remember, David has brought to Jerusalem, leaving the priests in Gibeon. Previously, it was the priests who stood before the ark and prayed before God. Anyone who forced their way to the altar, like Saul (1 Sam. 13:12), did so in violation of God’s rules for the altar. But now, based upon God’s divine word to David, he recognizes the gracious invitation to approach the throne of grace and offer prayer.

As Hebrews 5:1–4, no priest selects themselves. And every time a priest or Levite or servant seeks to exalt themselves and approach God without permission, they die (see Nabab and Abihu, Korah, and Uzzah). Therefore, approaching God takes courage—for it is a dangerous step to draw near to God. Yet, here in response to God’s grace, David does draw near to God in prayer, thus evidencing God’s favor on David and David’s priestly status.

Moreover, this invitation for David to approach the Lord, coupled with his sons promised throne, may be part of the background to David’s royal priestly psalm, Psalm 110.

4. David’s repeated actions evidence his priesthood.

Deborah Rooke has rightly said, “Priesthood is primarily about doing things, about carrying out rituals and procedures, rather than about being a particular kind of person or having a particular genealogical descent.”[1] Following this line of thought, David demonstrates his priesthood through a series of actions. Each of these could be a separate argument for his priesthood, but we will take them together.

In 1 Chronicles 15–16, when he brings the Ark to Jerusalem, he acts like a priest in at least five ways.

(1) David leads the procession of priests, who are carrying the ark (15:16–29).

(2) David offers burnt offerings. These offerings certainly involve the Levitical priests (16:1), but v. 2 says, “when David had finished offering the burnt offerings and peace offerings,” thus indicating his leading role.

(3) David blesses the people in the name of the Lord (v. 2), an unmistakable priestly action. In Numbers 6:24–26, God granted Aaron and his sons the role of blessing the people. Moreover, because blessing came from the altar, it was the priest’s place to mediate the blessing.

(4) David shares a meal with the people of Israel. We learn from Moses that only the priests could eat the sacrifices. When Israel, as a nation ate of the sacrifices (during the various festivals, e.g.), they functioned as a kingdom of priests. Thus, the eating and distribution of the bread, meat, and cakes of raisins suggests a priestly action by David.

(5) Finally, but prior to bringing the ark to Jerusalem, David learns from the mistake of carrying the ark on a cart (see 13:5–14). Yet, in learning from the Law, he becomes a teacher of the Law—a priestly duty (see Lev. 10:10–11; Mal. 2:1–9). Accordingly, 1 Chron. 15:2 tells us, “Then David said that no one but the Levites may carry the ark of God.” David’s correction comes from the Law and his teaching of the Law is what enables the people of Israel to worship God in truth.

All in all, these five actions, plus the previous three evidences—(1) David’s association with the priests, (2) his priestly attire, and (3) making his city (Jerusalem) the home of the ark, while leaving the tabernacle behind all point to the fact that in 1 Chronicles, David is identified as a priestly king.

Certainly, this fact raises questions, for how can a son of Judah be a priest? But better than denying that question outright, we should see how 1–2 Chronicles develops the tension. Certainly, there is the promise of a new priest(hood) to replace the old priesthood in 1 Sam. 2:35. And I would suggest that in 1–2 Chronicles we have something of the history that stands beside the Psalm 110 promise of a royal priest like Melchizedek.

In the fulness of time, we learn how this resolves in Christ. But in 1 Chronicles itself, we can begin to see the outworking of the royal priesthood—namely, the weakening/weakness of Levi, the promise of a better priest, and the ongoing story of Israel that leads to a better royal priest, who, like a previous Joshua, will bring the ark of the covenant into the presence of God. All of that and more is found in 1 Chronicles and we should keep our finger on the text to see how the story unfolds.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds


[1] Deborah W. Rooke, “Kingship as Priesthood: The Relationship between the High Priesthood and the Monarchy,” in King and Messiah in Israel and the Ancient Near East, ed. John Day, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 270 (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 189.