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A Strange Judgement

Category Articles
Date August 12, 2003

It seems that especially at times of "new beginnings" the LORD shows the reality of His judgment to His people that they may fear Him.

by William Smith

Text: Leviticus 10: 1-7

One of the things I most look forward to, if the Lord wills, is attending my son Jeremy’s ordination to the ministry. I expect it to be a day of great joy. Maybe the whole family can be present. There will be a solemn ordination service, with the taking of vows, the laying on of hands, and the giving of the right hand of fellowship. There will be a reception at which some congregation of God’s people will join with Jeremy’s family and friends to celebrate this happy occasion.

There was a day like that for Aaron when, in a very special ceremony, he was ordained as High Priest and his sons were ordained to serve as priests with him. All were washed with water and dressed in special priestly clothes. All were anointed with oil. Three sacrifices were offered – the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the ordination offering.

Eight days later Aaron and his sons began their official ministry as priests. They offered their first offerings to the LORD, and the LORD accepted their offerings and confirmed their priesthood. The glory of the LORD appeared, and the LORD sent fire to consume the offerings on the altar. The people shouted for joy, and fell down on their faces in awe.

It was a wonderful day. There was celebration. And then there was death. Death of two of Aaron’s sons on their first day of public ministry. What are we to make of this strange judgment?


Nadab and Abihu were Aaron’s two oldest sons. They had enjoyed a wonderful privilege when the LORD made His covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai. They went up on the mountain with Moses, and Aaron, and the seventy elders. They beheld God and they ate and drank in His presence. It is a scene of glory and fellowship. When the priesthood was officially established, they, along with Aaron and their brothers, were ordained. But on the first day of their ministry they sinned against the LORD.

What was their sin? The record in Leviticus is brief. They took their censers, shallow metal pans, put coals in them and sprinkled a mixture of spices on the coals to offer incense. Incense was used in the Old Testament worship, so there was nothing in itself wrong with offering incense. But this act is described as offering "unauthorized" or "strange fire" before the LORD. But what exactly did they do that was wrong?

Suggestions are made that they violated some instruction about the offering of incense. Some suggest that they took the coals from some place other than the Altar of Sacrifice. Others think they offered the incense at some time of day other than that God had prescribed. Still others believe that they were going into the Holy Place to the Altar of Incense, which stood right in front of the Most Holy Place, an altar at which only the High Priest was allowed to offer incense. Others tell us they were possibly drunk which led to their acting without care and discretion. Then others say that they may have had wrong motives, such as pride, ambition, and rebelliousness. Of all these the one that appeals to me most is that the coals did not come from the altar, since fire is described as ‘unauthorized.’

But, from the brief description we cannot be sure. What we do know is that they sinned, acting as priests, in the matter of worship and that they did so by doing something that the LORD "had not commanded them." The priests were responsible for worship – that was one of there distinctive functions. They were supposed to know all the directions that God had given for worship and were to follow them very carefully so that nothing done in worship might offend the LORD. But these priests did something in the offering of incense that the LORD had not commanded.

God takes His worship very seriously. He is the One being worshiped and He reserves for Himself the right to determine how He will be worshiped. He does not leave it to us to devise the ways in which we worship Him, as though He said, "So long as you are sincere in worshiping me, I don’t care what you do. Do as you like." No, God tells us we must worship Him, that we must worship only Him, and that we must worship Him according to His directions.

In the Reformed churches this text is one that has been used to teach what is called "the regulative principle of worship." That principle asserts that in worship we are not only forbidden to do what God forbids, but also that we are forbidden to do anything that God does not command. Put positively the principle is that in worship we are to do only those things which God authorizes. The Westminster Confession’s statement of the principle is printed at the top of the order of worship today: "But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations a and devices of men… or in any other way not prescribed in Holy Scripture."

If you think about it doing it God’s way makes great good sense. I do not know about you, but if I were invited to meet the President in the Oval Office, I would not just go and do whatever seemed natural to me. Even though we live in a country which prides itself on having no royalty, I would want to know the details of protocol and I would follow the prescribed protocol out of respect.

To Christians, who love and worship the true God, it is the most natural thing in the world to ask about the divinely prescribed protocol for an audience with our Creator, Redeemer, and King. We take worship seriously, and we want to worship God according to the directions He has given in His word that our worship may be a delight to Him.


The sentence was severe and summarily executed. Before fire came out from the LORD and consumed the sacrifice on the altar, signifying God’s acceptance of the offerings of the newly ordained priests. Now, as soon as Nadab and Abihu offered unauthorized fire the fire of judgment came out from the LORD and consumed Nadab and Abihu.

This incident is not alone in Scripture. Much later in Israel’s history, during the reign of King David, it was decided that the time had come to move the holy ark of God to Jerusalem. As they were moving the ark on a cart the oxen stumbled and a man named Uzzah put out his hand to steady the ark. The writer tells us: "And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error" (2 Samuel 6:7). That was the end of the procession for that day. Several months passed before the ark was moved to Jerusalem.

Such events are not confined to the Old Testament. In the early days of the Christian church in Jerusalem many believers sold their property and possessions and made the proceeds available to the church for the relief of needy Christians. A man named Ananias and his wife Sapphira sold a piece of property and brought the proceeds to the Apostles, indicating that what they gave was the entire proceeds, when in fact, they held back some for themselves. This act was described by Peter as "lying to the Holy Spirit" and as "test(ing) the Spirit of the Lord." Both of them fell down dead on the spot.

It seems that especially at times of "new beginnings" the LORD shows the reality of His judgment to His people that they may fear Him. It happened with Nadab and Abihu when the priesthood was inaugurated for Israel. It happened when the ark was moved to its permanent dwelling place in Jerusalem. It happened in the formative days of the New Testament, when the Holy Spirit had been given in fullness to sanctify and to equip the Church. God wants to point out to His people that knowing Him, that receiving privileges from Him, that serving Him is serious business. Texans like to say, "Don’t mess with Texas." Among the people of God, we ought often to say to one another, "Don’t mess with God."

No, the Lord does not strike down everyone who merits judgment. But He gives us these examples at the beginnings of new eras to show that He is a God who takes seriously the sin of those of His people who do not take Him seriously. We will be wise to think about that, when we worship, when we are called to office in the church, when we offer our service to Him.


The LORD Himself underscored the significance of this event with an easily remembered poetic saying. Moses told the shocked father and High Priest, Aaron: "This is what the LORD has said, "Among those who are near me, I will be sanctified, and before the people I will be glorified.’"

The LORD intends to be sanctified – treated as holy – by the priests and all who are near Him. God is not an ordinary person; everything associated with Him and particularly those things dedicated to Him are no longer ordinary; they are holy. Perhaps the great human problem is that we have trouble remembering that God is God, that He is not a man like us, and that we must treat Him as the extraordinary, majestic, and holy God He is. God also wants to be glorified before the people. He wants the people of God to recognize how "heavy he is" – how significant He is, how big He is, how awesome He is. His people must give Him glory, and they will do that only when those who lead them in drawing near to God treat Him as the infinitely glorious being He is.

Those of us who serve as elders of God’s people, and those of us who are called to the ministry of the Word and who lead in worship are "near God", and God expects us to sanctify Him and glorify in all that we do. Particularly when we lead God’s people in worship we must be careful to treat Him as holy and to lead the people to glorify Him. That does not mean that worship must be stuffy or cold. Worship can be warm and personal, but it also must be reverent dignified "for our God is a consuming fire"

This is not just for elders and ministers of the Word. It is for all God’s people. God wants you to treat Him as holy and to glorify Him in all your life, but especially when you draw near to Him in worship. How is it then that sometimes we participate in worship indifferently? How is it that we sometimes smirk about what is going on? How is that we distract ourselves and others? I speak a special word to young people who have made professions of faith. Ever since your baptism you were included among God’s people and given the privilege of worshiping with them. But now you are not just a member of a worshiping family and community. You yourself are a worshiper, and you, no less than any adult, are called on to worship God with all your being, to treat Him as holy, and to glorify Him.

I was at a graduation the other night. And, while I tried not to be an " old fuddy-duddy" I was bothered by the actions of several students who called attention to themselves. Some adults laughed at and with them, but I could not. They did not treat the occasion with the gravity and dignity it deserved. They did not show respect for themselves, or their teachers, or for what it means to graduate. You treat some things as special and worthy of special behavior.

God is special. Everything associated with Him is holy. His worship is holy. The LORD says to us, "Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified."


In the presence of this event – full of awe – "Aaron held his peace." He kept silence as he viewed the judgment that fell upon his own sons. We might attribute his silence to the shock of the suddenness of all that happened. At one moment he was experiencing one of the happiest days of his life as he and his sons went about their first day of ministry as priests. Then without any warning it seems the judgment of the LORD fell and his sons were dead.

But, if we think about it, taking into account even that shock can leave one speechless at times, we will find it more likely that he would have given expression to his sudden sorrow. Put yourself in his place. How would you have reacted? Surely, if no words could come, there would be shrieks of agony and groans of grief. Take into account that the Middle Eastern personality is far more expressive of emotion than the European, especially the northern European, and it seems that in almost any other case there would have been loud crying and perhaps words of consternation and bewilderment.

It seems that Aaron was silent because he restrained himself, a thing which he must have done only with the greatest difficulty. It is as though he put his hand over his mouth and refused to let so much as a whimper to escape. Aaron was deliberately acquiescing in the judgment of God. He would not question God. He would not lash out in anger against God. He would not so much as groan or weep lest it be thought that he believed the LORD had acted unjustly. This is the LORD’s judgment and before it He will submit. The Judge of the all the earth has acted justly. Let it be so.

We can, indeed we must, learn from this. It does not teach us the faith is stoic or that there is never any place for giving vent to our questions, our doubts, our grief, and our pain. Read the Psalms or look at some of the things that Jesus said, and you will see the expression of the tumult of the human heart.

But there are times when silence is required. The writer of Psalm 73 tells us that, when he compared the lives of the wicked and the righteous in this world, he doubted the goodness and justice of God. But, while he was going through all that he kept silent. Looking back he wrote, "If I had said, "I will speak thus,’"- that is, if he has spoken what he was thinking – "I would have betrayed the generation of your children" (Psalm 73:15). The writer of Psalm 39 was going through an apparent illness which he knew was the result of his sin, and he said, "I am mute; I do not open my mouth, for it is you who have done it" (Psalm 39:9).

Ultimately before God our calling is to submit, to recognize the righteousness of His doings, and to do nothing that would put ourselves in the place of questions His rights or His justice. This is the place of man, the created being and sinful moral before the all-wise, all-good, and all-powerful God.


This event concludes with the LORD imposing sanctions on Aaron and his two remaining sons with regard to the mourning for and burial of Nadab and Abihu. Moses instructed cousins of Aaron to take care of the removal of the bodies. When they had taken care of that duty, Moses told Aaron and his sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, that they were not to go through the normal expressions of mourning. They could not let their hair go, nor could they tear their clothes. If they did, they, too, would die, and God’s wrath would come upon the whole congregation. It is not that no mourning was allowed, The rest of the congregation could mourn the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, but Aaron, Eleazar and Ithamar were not allowed to participate. They must remain at the holy tent and continue their priestly duties. This case seems to be special in that both Aaron and his sons were not permitted to go near the dead. Ordinarily this prohibition applied only to the High Priest who was never to go near death, not even in the

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