Aaron, the high priests who succeeded him, and the other Levitical priests represented the Israelites to God and God to the Israelites. Unfortunately, however, ancient Israel’s priesthood sinned and turned away from the Lord (Jer. 2:7b–8). When Israel went into exile in 586 BC, the priesthood almost disappeared entirely, for there was hardly any role for the Levitical priests apart from the Jerusalem temple.
Yet the Lord did not abandon the priesthood but pledged to restore it after the exile. This is the point of today’s passage. In his section on the new covenant (Jer. 31:31–33:26), Jeremiah records God’s promise that David’s sons would again sit on Israel’s throne and Levi’s sons would again offer sacrifices for the nation (33:17–18).
This is a difficult prophecy, for while the son of David ascended to the throne after the exile (Acts 2:32–36) and now reigns forever, there is no Levitical priesthood, nor are there hints in the New Testament that we are to expect one. What happened? Was God’s promise false? Of course not. This is clear from two important truths.
First, many prophecies are implicitly conditional and come to pass depending on the people’s response to the Lord’s revelation, even when conditions are not included in the revealed Word (Jer. 18:5–11). For example, God sent Jonah to pronounce judgment against Nineveh but relented when the Ninevites repented (Jonah 3). Nothing explicit in Jonah’s preaching suggested this condition of repentance applied, though Jonah suspected the merciful Lord might relent (chap. 4). God turned from His pronouncement once the implicit condition of repentance was met, though He certainly knew beforehand all that would happen. In fact, God always knows how people will respond to His Word because their response is part of His eternal decrees (Isa. 46:9– 10; Eph. 1:11). Regarding today’s passage, perhaps the Levites failed to meet implicit conditions (such as faith and repentance), and so they did not return to ministry.
Second, we should note that in Christ the Levites do really minister as priests before God this day. As the representative of all God’s people, Jesus stands in for us as He ministers in heaven (Heb. 7:25). When the Father considers His Son’s faithfulness, He reckons those who are in Him as if they have met their covenant obligations (2 Cor. 5:21). This includes believing Levites, whose duties include service to God.