The day began bright with hope and promise. This day was the nearest to Eden man had been since the fall: the dwelling place of God was again with man.
The tabernacle stood within Israel’s camp, and now Yahweh was set to appoint his priests. Israel gathered in breathless expectation as Moses publicly ordained Aaron and his four sons — Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar —to serve as priests of the Most High God.
In that first appointment to holy service, blood was spilled, animals fell slain, anointing oil was poured, special garments were bestowed, a covenantal meal was consumed. The proceedings kept in careful step with the drumbeat “as the Lord commanded” (Leviticus 8:4, 9, 13, 17, 21, 29, 36). So far, so good.
The first worship service in the tabernacle then commenced immediately after the ordination. Turning to the people, Aaron and his four sons offered sacrifices for themselves and for the people, and he blessed them. The Lord added his “so far, so good” by providing the grand finale:
The glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the pieces of fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces. (Leviticus 9:23–24)
The Lord approved the ordination and showed his pleasure at their worship.
But the weather soon changed.
Wailing in the Camp
Imagine the scenario. As you sit by your tent with your family later that day, you begin to hear what sounds like loud cries heading your way. You hear shrieks and screams. As the crowd comes closer, you wonder: What could possibly bring such sorrow on a day like this?
Sobs swell in your ears as the entourage draws near.
Is that Mishael and Elzaphan from Aaron’s family? Why is their walk belabored? What is that they’re carrying between them? The smell of burnt flesh begins to fill the air — a bull?
Then you see it, the motionless heap they carry slowly through the camp and out to where the scraps of sacrifices go: the garb that so recently dazzled in the sunlight — the coverings, the sashes, the hats of a priest. It cannot be! Nadab? And Abihu too?
These — no, not these.
These just celebrated this morning — ordained of God; these, the eldest sons of Aaron, next in line to lead us; these, who went up by name to sit with the elders and see the very face of God upon the mountain (Exodus 24:1)? It could not be these who had just assisted Aaron as the glory of the Lord fell and we all collapsed in worship.
No, not these, who were just washed clean with water, clothed with coats, tied with sashes, bound with caps; not these, who so recently laid their hands upon the offerings; no, not these, who were just touched with the blood of the sacrifice upon their ear, thumb, and big toe, consecrated unto Yahweh. Not these.
Were they ambushed? Had someone defiled the tent with murder? Or has the Lord himself, so recently setting them apart, now dismissed them with fire?
Sins of Nadab and Abihu
Many wonder what exactly Nadab and Abihu’s sin entailed. Some think, with the immediate reference prohibiting drunkenness (Leviticus 10:8–11), that they offered incense while intoxicated. Others wonder (perhaps in addition to this) whether they attempted to go into the Holy of Holies (Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?, 147).
Whatever the list of crimes, we know that Nadab and Abihu offered “unauthorized fire before Yahweh, which he had not commanded them” (Leviticus 10:1). Which the Lord had not commanded them. The sevenfold refrain of “as the Lord commanded” came to a fatal halt. They went forth of their own initiative to draw near to God as they saw fit.
And the retribution was swift, and nothing less than just. They took liberties as they gripped their censers of incense, “and fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (Leviticus 10:2).
Worship Is Not Safe
With many today, it appears, worship of the Almighty is slight and carefree. Some women give more thought to their makeup, and men to the game after service, than that we have gathered to meet with God.
The assumption seems to be that the Deity is content — thankful even — that we have set aside our precious time on our Sunday to give him some of our attention. He is ever-smiling, even when some barely bother to rise from their beds, happy to “worship” virtually week in and week out with their “online churches.” They wouldn’t engage with the mailman with so slouched and slovenly a disposition, but here they are worshiping before God. Many approach the burning bush every Sunday with their sandals (or bedroom slippers) still upon their feet, spiritually and otherwise.
What happened to reverence? When did it become an endangered species? Has God not the right to ask many professing Christians today, as he did the negligent priests of Israel, “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear?” (Malachi 1:6).
And I ask this not to the bizarre outliers given to almost unbelievable forms of irreverence, like spraying the congregation with water guns, drive-thru “means of grace,” and dance contests in the worship service. I ask this to the normal, seemingly respectable church-attender, flippantly going through the motions: Do you approach the Lord with fear and trembling? And I ask this of myself, Do I consciously worship every Sunday before the Holy God, the untamable Lion of Judah?
In light of Nabad and Abihu, it stands to reason that, for thousands who gather every Sunday, the safest place for them to be would be absent.
The lightning strikes of judgment — in the old covenant with Nadab and Abihu, and in the new with the likes of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11) — ought to cause the same response it did for the early church: “And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things” (Acts 5:11).
I sigh that I don’t often have this fear or due reverence in the worship of God. In his presence, Isaiah cried, “Woe is me! For I am lost” (Isaiah 6:5). Job cried, “Now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5–6). Peter cried, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). The beloved disciple writes, “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Revelation 1:17).
Granted, these are not to be the only or primary experiences of God day-to-day — but do we ever respond this way?
Sermon of the Dead
How would our worship services change if the Nadabs and Abihus of our day were struck dead and carried out through the aisles of our churches?
If wails of horror resounded and scorched sermons read,
Here, O Christian churches, are two corpses of those who trifled with the Consuming Fire of heaven and earth. Two men of high rank, two men of great promise, two sons of Aaron himself, consumed in judgment. Behold them. Wail for them. Learn from them.
Read the sermon text written upon their lifeless frames:
“Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified” (Leviticus 10:3).
Ministers, you who draw near to God in service today, behold them drunk upon my wrath. Will you dare toy with the shepherd’s crook? Will you wander before me with the strange fire of false teaching? Have you not been warned of stricter judgment? Have you not been commanded to watch over yourself and your doctrine and my sheep carefully? Have you not been charged — in my presence — to preach my word, not your own? The pulpit is a false hope for protection.
Or to those strolling into worship every Sunday with an irreverence, a negligence, a fatal familiarity that I did not command: Behold the bodies of my chosen servants. If I treat these with righteous impartiality, shall you escape?
With Fear and Trembling
The towering love of God, the warm compassion of Christ, the blessed name “Immanuel” (God with us), does not permit creatures to approach him with irreverence. Boldly we can approach the throne of grace through our better High Priest, Jesus — but never apart from him and never in ways disobedient to his command.
Worship today is to be no less weighty than in Israel, because the God we worship has not lessened in holiness. Joyful, triumphant, consoling — but never flippant. He will be glorified. As Matthew Henry soberly comments on this text, “If God be not sanctified and glorified by us, he will be sanctified and glorified upon us. He will take vengeance on those that profane his sacred name by trifling with him.”
So, as the bodies pass us by in Leviticus 10, making their way out of the camp, they press on us a question to consider today: Do we worship the Holy God of Nadab and Abihu?