LESSONS FROM NADAB AND ABIHU
The early chapters of the book of Leviticus describe the establishment of the Tabernacle system of worship, and the inauguration of Aaron and his sons as priests for service before the Living God. Several times it is stated that “Moses did as Yahweh commanded him” (or equivalent phrases), and in chapter 9, things reached a climax with the Divine approval being expressed thus:
“… and the glory of Yahweh appeared unto all the people. And there came a fire out from before Yahweh, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces” (Lev. 9:23-24).
Here was the establishment of Divine Worship in accordance with the pattern given by Yahweh himself. He accepted their offerings, and His people humbled themselves before Him: a wonderful climax to the work of setting up the Tabernacle arrangement. But then, like flies in the ointment, two of the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu spoiled the whole proceedings. By contrast to Moses who did as Yahweh commanded him, they took it upon themselves to offer that which Yahweh had not commanded. Given that immediately following their presumptuousness the priests were forbidden to drink alcohol (Lev. 10:9), it has been thought by some that this was a factor in their sin. Strong drink dulls the senses and releases the inhibitions, and it may well have contributed to these sons of Aaron doing that which was not proper.
The sin of Nadab and Abihu is described in the opening verse of chapter 10:
“And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before Yahweh, which he commanded them not” (Lev. 10:1).
Then came the Divine Response:
“And there went out fire from Yahweh, and devoured them, and they died before Yahweh. Then Moses said unto Aaron, this is that Yahweh spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron held his peace” (Lev. 10:2).
The same fire that first signalled the approval of national sacrifice. now demonstrated the rejection of these men’s offering. The gravity of the offense is seen in the magnitude of the punishment. This was that that Yahweh spake, saying, “I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me”. It is written that “he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him” (Heb. 11:6). But rather than to apply diligence to seek after the ways of Yahweh, these two priests took it upon themselves to come to God in the way that they thought fit – which was not the prescribed manner of approach as detailed to Moses.
WHAT WAS THEIR SIN?
There is some discussion as to precisely what their sin was. Some suggest that what they offered was not the incense prescribed by the Lord. Others that they went into the Holy of Holies which they ought not to have done. The text itself suggest another possibility: the record states that they “offered strange fire before Yahweh”. It was the fire itself that was incorrect, or “strange” as the old English suggests.
The correct manner by which Incense was to be offered is indicated in the commandments regarding the day of Atonement:
“and he [i.e. Aaron- CAM] shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from off the altar before Yahweh, and his hands full of sweet incense beaten small, and bring it within the vail: and he shall put the incense upon the fire before Yahweh, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the testimony, that he die not” (Lev. 16:12-13).
There was therefore a link between the Brazen Altar, and the offering of Incense. Coals of fire from the altar was used to ignite the incense, and both the coals and the incense itself were brought into the Holy of Holies – and into the presence of Yahweh. It is evident therefore, that to offer “strange fire” in connection with the incense was to use fire that was not from the Brazen altar, but was from some other source.
The case is further illustrated by the events that took place with the rebellion of the company of Korah. The acceptance of the offered incense was a token of the acceptance of the one offering the incense. Korah and the two hundred and fifty princes of the congregation offered their incense before the Lord, but their rejection was demonstrated in two ways: Korah, Dathan and Abiram were swallowed up by the earth, but the 250 princes were consumed by fire, in a manner similar to the case of Nadab and Abihu: “There came out a fire from Yahweh, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense” (Num. 16:35). Aaron and Moses alone were accepted, and the rebels were destroyed.
But the rebellion did not end there. The people murmured against the chosen two, “saying, Ye have killed the people of Yahweh” (Num. 16:41). Yahweh himself brought a plague upon the murmurers – but the manner by which the plague was caused to end is of particular interest for our current study:
“Moses said unto Aaron, Take a censer and put fire therein from off the altar, and put on incense, and go quickly unto the congregation, and make an atonement for them: for there is wrath gone out from Yahweh; the plague is begun. And Aaron took as Moses commanded, and ran into the midst of the congregation; and, behold, the plague was begun among the people: and he put on incense, and made an atonement for the people. And he stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stayed” (Num. 16:46-48).
The plague was halted by the Chosen One offering acceptable incense, which again involved the use of coals of fire from the Brasen Altar. It seems clear then, that there was an association between the offering of Incense and the Brasen Altar, where animal sacrifices were made.
All the ordinances of the Law were shadows “of good things to come” (Heb. 10:1), and taught a pattern of principles that would lead up to Messiah, the Moses-like prophet. The question arises: what can the offering of Incense under the Law contribute to our understanding of Christ? It would appear from Scripture that Incense is representative of prayer. Hence the Psalmist wrote: “let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (Psa. 141:2 see also Rev. 8:4). Here, David’s prayers are also associated with both incense and the animal sacrifice – the two go together. The Burnt Offering which was consumed upon the Altar in its entirety foreshadowed the offering up of Messiah as a sacrifice for his brethren. The taking of coals from the Brazen Altar to be the means by which incense was offered therefore foreshadows the way in which the prayers of worshippers must be upon the basis of the Sacrifice of Christ. There is no other basis upon which sinful man can come before righteous Yahweh, than that prescribed through the Sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. And just as on the day of Atonement, the incense was contained within a golden censer, even so our prayers must be offered in faith (gold = perfected faith, 1 Pet. 1:7).
By contrast, there are certain prayers that are not heard. Hence Jeremiah was told concerning those who have “set up altars to that shameful thing, even altars to burn incense unto Baal: Therefore pray not thou for this people, neither lift up a cry or prayer for them: for I will not hear them in the time that they cry unto me for their trouble” (Jer. 11:13-14). And again: “Pray not for this people for their good. When they fast, I will not hear their cry; and when they offer burnt offerings and an oblation, I will not accept them …” (Jer. 14:11-12).
In our day, prayers are only accepted through our High Priest of Yahweh’s appointing, Jesus the Christ. Our Statement of Faith expresses it in Clause 14:
“That he is a priest over his own house only, and does not intercede for the world, or for professors who are abandoned to disobedience. That he makes intercession for his erring brethren, if they confess and forsake their sins. – Luke 24:51; Eph. 1:20; Acts 5:31; 1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 8:1; Acts 15:14; 13:39; Heb. 4:14, 15; Jno. 17:9; Heb. 10:26; 1 Jno.2:1; Prov. 28:13.
Nothing could be stated in plainer terms: Yahweh “will not hear” such prayers. He “will not accept” the offerings of professors of the Truth who “are abandoned to disobedience”. Yet we are being urged in some quarters to do exactly this – to offer prayers which Yahweh has declared He will not hear.
The truth of the matter is that the priestly intercession of the Lord Jesus Christ is no indiscriminately affair, but is a privilege of the highest order, only available to those who have the humility to approach the Father on His Own Terms. The Apostle was quite correct when under Spirit guidance he wrote: “if we sin wilfully after that we have received a knowledge of the Truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries (Heb. 10:26-27).
The intercession of Christ is only available to those who have faith in Christ, not those who scorn his ways, whilst at the same time professing to accept him as Lord.
“Without faith it is impossible to please Him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him. (Heb. 11:6)
“being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: by him also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2).
Examples of such testimonies could be multiplied. It is by faith that we enter into the grace of God; standing in a position of being able to approach unto, and have peace with our God, through the priestly office of our Lord Jesus Christ. In order to come unto God through him, belief is necessary, for without faith it is not possible to please Him. He does not countenance petitions from those with whom He is not pleased – as witnessed by His dealings with Israel.
Nadab and Abihu were not alone in their presumptuous approach to Yahweh: king Uzziah sinned in a similar way. 2 Chronicles chapter 26 records how he was blessed richly by Yahweh:
“he was marvellously helped, till he was strong. But when he was strong, his heart was lifted up to his destruction: for he transgressed against Yahweh his God, and went into the temple of Yahweh to burn incense upon the altar of incense” (2 Chron. 26:15-16).
THE SIN OF KING UZZIAH
Uzziah’s sin was different to that of Nadab and Abihu, in that in his case he had no right to offer incense in the first place: he was a king, and not a priest. It was not for him to offer the incense – he was, in effect, approaching the Divine Presence as his own High Priest, and offering strange incense. So, the priests tried to reason with him:
“they withstood Uzziah the king, and said unto him, it appertaineth not unto thee, Uzziah, to burn incense unto Yahweh, but to the priests the sons of Aaron, that are consecrated to burn incense: go out of the sanctuary; for thou hast trespassed; neither shall it be for thine honour from Yahweh Elohim” (2 Chron. 26:18).
Then the wrath of Yahweh was kindled against him:
“Then Uzziah was wroth, and had a censer in his hand to burn incense: and while he was wroth with the priests, the leprosy even rose up in his forehead before the priests in the house of Yahweh, from beside the incense altar. And Azariah the chief priest, and all the priests looked upon him, and, behold, he was leprous in his forehead, and they thrust him out from thence; yea, himself hasted also to go out, because Yahweh had smitten him. And Uzziah the king was a leper until the day of his death, and dwelt in a several house, being a leper; for he was cut off from the house of Yahweh …” (2 Chron. 2619-21).
Rather than to accept the priest’s rebuke, Uzziah became angry against them, and so the anger of Yahweh was demonstrated in his being smitten with leprosy until the day of his death.
Uzziah was a king who sought to enter into the Temple as a priest, to offer incense there. Interestingly, the prophet Isaiah was show a vision as described in the sixth chapter of the book that bears his name:
“in the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon the throne, high, and lifted up, and his train filled the temple”.
Notice, it was in the year that king Uzziah died that the prophet had this vision of Messiah in the temple (priest) and upon the throne (king). Christ was the only king-priest who had the right to take this position. By contrast to Uzziah, it is written of the Christ that “… so also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest; but he that said unto him, Thou art my Son, today have I begotten thee.” (Heb. 5:4-5). The other interesting feature, is that Uzziah was smitten with leprosy in his forehead – whereas under the Law, the High Priest had to have a metal plate positioned on his forehead, engraved with the words, “Holiness to Yahweh” (Exod. 28:36). Christ epitomised Yahweh’s holiness, hence in Isaiah’s vision, he saw the seraphim calling to each other: “Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh of hosts …” (Isa. 6:3).
Returning to the case of Nadab and Abihu, there is a reason given for their death:
“then Moses said unto Aaron, This is that Yahweh spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron held his peace” (Lev. 10:3).
The position is expressed in Hebrews chapter 12 which we looked at earlier:
“Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire” (He. 12:28-29).
The exhortational point that emerges from a study of these things, is that we must take great care in our approach to our God. We cannot casually come before him as we see fit: all we say and do must reflect his honour and holiness: “with reverence and godly fear”. This is equally important when we offer “the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His Name” (Heb. 13:15) by way of singing hymns to Him. The hymns and praises that emerge from our mouths must ascend to His Presence as the incense – ignited by association with the Sacrifice of Christ. Hymns and Praises upon any other basis will be rejected as “strange fire”: unacceptable before the Divine Presence.
There is one final point that emerges in connection with this, regarding the structure of the golden Altar upon which the incense was placed. The Altar is described in Exodus chapter 30, but what is of particular significance in the light of our current consideration is the marginal rendering:
“… and thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, the top [marg. roof] and the sides [marg. walls] thereof round about, and the horns thereof; and thou shalt make unto it a crown of gold round about” (Exod. 30:3).
Notice the marginal rendering: the altar had a “roof” and “walls” – in other words, it was like a house! The very structure upon which Incense was offered was to be a house – demonstrating what the people were to do within their houses. Every house in Israel was to be a house of prayer, even as the Temple of the Age to Come will be a “house of prayer for all nations” (Isa. 56:7). But the altar also had a “crown of gold” round about it, thus pointing forward to the “incorruptible crown” granted to those who love Messiah’s appearing (1 Tim. 4:8). In other words, the house-altar was representative of the glorified house, of which Messiah is head. All overlaid with gold – a metal that speaks of incorruptibility – in the Age to come, there will be praise to Yahweh by all his saints: “they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou was slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; and hast made us unto our God kings and priests; and we shall reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:9-10).