By J.R. Miller
"Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered strange fire before the LORD, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD." Leviticus 10:1-2
The incident of Nadab and Abihu is the story of a sin which casts a shadow over the beginnings of the tabernacle worship. These young priests were presumptuous, elated by the new honor conferred upon them, and, besides, were probably under the influence of wine. Swift and terrible punishment came upon them for their sin, the essence of which was that they disregarded definite Divine instructions and took their own way instead of God's. It was right to offer incense--but it must be offered in the way God had prescribed. The fire must come from the altar of burnt offering--but these priests took common fire instead.
One lesson is, that we are not to be guided by what we think proper and fitting in serving God--but by what God Himself tells us He wants. Saul, in one of his campaigns, thought he would honor God by sparing some of the finest cattle he had taken from the Amalekites, which God had bidden him to destroy and offer them as a burnt offering. But his act was displeasing to God. "To obey is better than sacrifice," Samuel told the king. The Lord knew what was the best thing to do with the Amalekites cattle. Precise obedience is what pleases God. He cares nothing for sacrifices, if in making them we have disobeyed Him. Any fire would make incense burn fragrantly--but God had not said any fire would do. It must be holy fire.
Our worship must be of the heart, inspired by love for Christ and under the direction of the Holy Spirit. All our life must be according to the will of God. It is not enough that we make it brilliant, that it shall win the praise of men--it must please God. It is well for us to ask ourselves continually, what God thinks of us and of the things we do. No matter how men compliment us on the excellence of our achievements, if God is not pleased and does not approve us, human commendation is only a mockery!
Another teaching is, that we are always in danger of offering strange fire in our worship. If our prayers are only for things we ourselves want, without reference to God's will, they are kindled with strange fire. If we offer only forms of worship, however ornate and beautiful--but without faith and love and true adoration, we are offering strange fire to God. If we live in sin, breaking the commandments, and then come before God with devout postures and pious words, it is strange fire we are bringing. If we make money dishonestly and then come with the fruits of our dishonesty in our hands, giving them for God's service, we are offering strange fire in our censer. Only the prayers that are in accordance with the will of God and are inspired by the Spirit of God--are acceptable to the Hearer of prayer. Only the service that is rendered in obedience and holiness is pleasing service. Only the money that is earned according to God's law is a fragrant offering when laid upon God's altar.
Someone tells of an old codfish dealer, a very earnest and sincere man, who prayed every day. One of the chief joys of his life was the hour of daily family worship. One year two merchants persuaded him to go into a deal with them, by which they could control all the codfish in the market and greatly increase the price. The plan was succeeding well when this good old man learned that many poor people in the city were suffering because of the great increase in the price of codfish. It troubled him so, that he broke down in trying to pray at the family altar and went straight to the men who had led him into the plot, and told them that he could not go on with it. Said the old man: "I can't afford to do anything which interferes with my family prayers. And this morning when I got down on my knees and tried to pray, there was a mountain of codfish before me, high enough to shut out the throne of God, and I could not pray. I tried my best to get around it, or get over it--but every time I started to pray, that pile of codfish loomed up between me and my God. I wouldn't have my family prayers spoiled for all the codfish in the Atlantic Ocean, and I shall have nothing more to do with it, or with any money made out of it."
When Nadab and Abihu had offered the strange fire, the punishment followed swiftly and terribly. "So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them!" On one page of the Scriptures we read: "God is love," but on another page we find the words: "Our God is a consuming fire." We see so much of the Divine mercy that covers up our sins and hides them, putting out their blackness with the glorious whiteness of grace, that we are in danger of forgetting how exceedingly sinful sin is, how hateful to God, and what penalties it brings upon itself! Indeed, the smallest sin is a breach of law which would invariably draw instant death upon him who commits it--were it not for the patience and forbearance of God. Such judgments as this, give us glimpses of sin's true character and its invariable penalties, unless we are shielded beneath the wings of Divine love!
God's holiness is always manifested in His acts, whether they are of mercy or of justice. In the case of these men, the holiness was shown in their punishment. They refused to honor the Lord by doing that which he had commanded them to do, and were struck down at the tabernacle door for their sin. The law of God always has a double aspect. From one side--it appears bright and full of blessing; from the other side--it is dark and full of terrors. It is like the pillar of cloud which led the people in their journey from Egypt. It was light on one side, towards the Israelites; it was dark and terrible towards the Egyptians. Even of the gospel of Christ, the same is true. Paul tells us that it is either the savor of life unto life, or of death unto death. If we accept it, it has only good for us; but if we reject it, it has only condemnation.
The conduct of Aaron in the presence of his great sorrow is pathetic. "Aaron remained silent." His heart was crushed by the terrible sorrow--but he recognized the justice of God and bowed himself submissively to the Divine will. We may always be silent to God, therefore, even in the darkest hours and in the most painful experiences. We do not need to understand--God understands, and He is our Father. On the grave of a child in an English churchyard, these words are cut in the marble: "Who plucked this flower?" The answer from, Christ will be: "It was I." Then sorrowing ones should be silent in their grief.
God has a sovereign right to do as He will, and we may not question what He does. We know that God is love and that all He does is done in love. We know that He is wise and good and that His way is always right and best for us. We should never be afraid to trust His heart--when we cannot understand His hand.
Aaron's sorrow was made far more intense by the fact that his sons had died in an act of disobedience to God. It makes a vast difference, when parents sit beside the coffin of their dead child, whether the child has died in sweet faith in Christ--or in sin. If Aaron's sons had fallen in the performance of some duty, giving their lives a sacrifice in obedience to God, there would have been no bitterness in the father's heart. But when death had come because of their sin--there seemed no comfort. What could the father say? David's grief over Absalom was similar. All the stricken king could say was: "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would that I had died instead of you!" Aaron said nothing, bearing his sorrow in silence.
It seemed a strange command that Moses gave, forbidding any exhibition of grief over the death of these young men. "Do not let your hair become unkempt, and do not tear your clothes, or you will die and the LORD will be angry with the whole community." One reason for this was that any expression of grief in this case would seem to be a complaint against what God had done, and they were not, either by word, by act, or by look, to show anything but the most perfect submission. These men had sinned, and had been stricken down because of their sin. There must be reverence and submission before God, and not complaint.
Another reason why they should not give expression to their grief was that they had their duties to perform in the tabernacle and must not leave them for a moment, not even to attend to what seemed to be the sacred duties of affection. The worship of God must not be interrupted, even by the experience of sorrow.
We must not understand, however, from the command in this particular case, that we are never to weep over our friends who have died. Grief is human. Jesus Himself wept beside the grave of His friend Lazarus, at Bethany, and He does not forbid tears in time of affliction. But we should never weep rebelliously, and our grief must never interfere with our duty. Ofttimes there are things to be done even in the midst of our sorrow, and duty must not stop even for tears. Jesus refused a disciple permission to go home to bury his father, before going forth with the gospel message. We must go on with our work in the very days of bereavement.
Sometimes people let their tasks drop out of their hands in the time of trouble, as if they are absolved from any further participation in the duties of active life. But this is wrong. We lay our dead away today, and tomorrow we must return to our place in the midst of life's activities. Our friend's work in this world was done when God called him away--but our work is not finished, and we must not neglect it, even though our hearts are breaking with grief.
One of the saddest things about this whole story, is that the crime seems to have been the result of intemperance. The fact that the command was given at that particular time and in connection with this terrible occurrence, that priests should drink no wine when they were about to enter the tabernacle to engage in their sacred duties, seems to imply that the sin of these men was due partly at least to intoxication. The lesson is very urgent. It applies first to ministers, to those who minister at God's altar, to those who have to do with spiritual things. They should not take strong drink when they are about to engage in God's service. The reason suggested is that their minds may always be clear to understand what is right and what is not right, and that they may be able to teach the people wisely and discreetly all the words of God. Those who yield to the influence of strong drink are thereby disqualified for the sacred work of their office.
But we need not confine this Divine counsel to ministers. The lesson is for all. We should always live so as to be at our best, with mind unclouded, that we may know distinctly what our duty is. Strong drink unfits anyone for truest and best living. It takes away men's senses. It makes them reckless. They are unable while under its influence to do their work well.
At a large banquet given in a great city by physicians, in honor of a distinguished surgeon from abroad, the visitor turned down his glasses when the wine was brought on. One sitting beside him asked somewhat playfully: "Why, doctor, are you an abstainer?" The honored guest replied: "Not perhaps for the reason usually given--but I am a surgeon, and any moment may be called to perform some delicate operation on which life and death depend. I must never be unready. I must always be in condition to do the most perfect work possible as a surgeon. Even the smallest indulgence in alcohol unfits me, at least in some degree, for doing my best work. Hence I never drink at all."
The great doctor's experience is suggestive. Every man should be always at his best, ready to do his duty in the fullest, completest way. Anything which unfits him for this, he should never do. A young surgeon was proving most skillful and successful in his profession. His specialty was the eye. He was becoming very proficient. He was passionately fond of cricket. But he discovered that playing was affecting his hands. He saw that if he would do his best in his work on the eye--he must give up his cricket. It was hard to do this--but he did it cheerfully in order that his hand might always do its best in his profession.
Whatever in life, though it be only harmless play, that hinders us in reaching the highest attainments or doing the truest and worthiest things--we should gladly sacrifice. This is one of the reasons for abstinence from strong drink. Some men tell us that it excites and stimulates them so that they can think more brilliantly and work more rapidly and efficiently. But the effect in such cases is illusive, is only temporary at the best, with unwholesome reaction. The excitement produced by wine is not normal, is unnatural, and, as in the case of the great surgeon, really unfits one for work that requires steadiness and nerve and the fullest possession and use of all one's faculties. Paul's counsel is always the sanest: "Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit."