Spectacular shows do not change hearts. The Israelites are worshipping a calf, and debauched in lust, in less than forty days after Sinai. And notwithstanding three thousand had died there, Nadab and Abihu, who went into the pavilion of God on the mount, and saw the sapphire pavement under Jehovah’s feet, and heard the commands of authority, disregarded them in a few months. They cannot even observe the order of their daily service. God is a consuming fire to all dross, and if a man be nothing else, all goes. What were their heedless lives compared to the lessons taught by their deaths?
The reason of their recklessness seems to be that they were inebriated. God’s minister is to be filled with the Spirit, not with wine, wherein is excess. Hence God’s prohibitory law (v. 9). It is the statute forever throughout your generations, and is certainly applicable now. A twofold moral may be emphasised.
I. Good intentions do not excuse disobedience.—Probably Nadab and Abihu did not mean any harm; apparently they imagined that the fragrance of their incense, and its appropriateness as a symbol of adoration and prayer were sufficient to excuse neglect of strict obedience to the revealed will of God. Their sin was not unlike that of Saul in a latter day, who thought to excuse disobedience by the offering of enormous sacrifices, and was sharply reminded that ‘to obey is better than sacrifice.’ So on this occasion the priesthood were terribly taught that obedience is better than incense, even the incense of the sanctuary. One of the most abused maxims is the saying that ‘a man’s first duty is to obey his conscience’; often that is not his first duty: it may be a prior duty to enlighten his conscience. Good motives are not enough; some of the worst crimes that stain the page of history have been wrought with the best intentions in obedience to the dictates of unenlightened consciences. So we need to seek light upon the way, while we make it our supreme endeavour to keep in the path marked out by the Divine will, turning aside neither to the right hand nor to the left. Neither our ignorance nor our good motives will excuse our disobedience to commands which we might and ought to have known.
II. Things which are lawful are not always expedient.—The priests were to abstain from wine and strong drink—not because the use of wine was in itself sinful, but because it involved a certain risk—which those who held that sacred office ought to be specially careful to avoid. The same principle underlay the exhortation of King Lemuel’s mother: ‘It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, nor for princes to say, Where is strong drink? Lest they drink and forget the law, and pervert the judgment of any that is afflicted.’ The duties of the kingly office made drunkenness a more terrible thing in a king than in a peasant, because a drunken king was likely to do so much more harm. So to-day some say that there are special reasons why all preachers and politicians ought to be abstainers, because the nature of their work makes drunkenness a more terrible sin in them than in private persons, while the use of strong drink to brace oneself for public functions is, perhaps, the most dangerous use of all.
(1) ‘What a sad chapter is this! How soon does God’s fair design become overcast! This offering of strange fire is a warning to us to-day, lest we should neglect the Divine prohibitions, and offer the fire of our own passion, or emulation, or self-will. How much of the worship and service we render is in danger of being charged with the accusation of strange fire. Nothing will avail before God which originates in nature’s energy or in the fervour of nature’s devotion.’
(2) ‘How often have we been guilty of the same sin? There is but one fire—that of the baptism of the Holy Spirit—that should burn upon the altar of our heart, and spread from us to others. Yet how often we have made use of the strange fire of human excitement, of fervid manner, of vehement gesticulation, of mere emotional address! Strange fire has been kindled in our censers and communicated to our people. We cannot be too careful to separate ourselves from all known sin.’