The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
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 the LORD, which he commanded them not.Blessing and Judgment
A most happy change! We feel as if we could join the thankful and rapturous host of Israel. There has not been much blessing up to this period in our studies. We have come face to face with law, rule, exaction, discipline, and all the apparatus of profound and life-long education. A tender tone would have helped us now and again. We have not been without such tone. When we have heard it, we have made the most of it; we have magnified the tenderness into a great heaven-filling benediction. We took it as preliminary; we interpreted it typically; we hailed it as an earnest; we said, "The cloud at present is only about the size of a man's hand, but quickly the sky will be charged with rain, and upon the earth it will plash in gracious benediction." This is the right way to read gentle providences—all light helps by the way; regard them as earnests, pledges, hints, and promises in substance. A great human passage is before us. Up to this time we have been dealing with priests, and ceremonies, and mechanisms; we have been conscious of the want of what may be represented as the universal; on every hand we have been bounded, shut up in stern iron, with a look upward, but no horizon. Now Aaron stretches forth his hands and blesses the people: stern Moses joins him: they enter the tent of meeting and return, and they both bless the people. The ministry is widening; there is a streak of light on the faraway horizon; the two greatest men have at present seen the possibility of millenniums of light and rest and comfort; a new tone is in their voices; feeling begins to enter into the ministry of law. The people may behave better after this. Who can rebel immediately after a benediction? Does not a blessing block us on our rebellious way and make us think a little whether we may not have been wrong, and whether it is not better to turn round and go the other—the upward—road? What has been wanting in our education, personally, domestically, socially, may be this element of feeling, sympathy, benediction,—this utterance of infinite hope, this covering up of wounds and blemishes and shortcomings and life-wanderings by a great and divine benediction. We seem to have sudden summer coming upon us in the winter-time of this law and mechanism.
Blessings of this kind do not come alone; other comforts attend and consummate them. We read in the twenty-fourth verse of the ninth chapter:
"And there came a fire out from before the Lord, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces." (Leviticus 9:24)
It was a rare time in Israel—a time of rapture, of melting tenderness, of that sacred emotion which lifts up the level of the whole life by enlarging and ennobling all the best sentiments of the heart. This is what is now granted to men. All true service is glorified by a consciousness of the Divine presence. Again and again we say, "Did not our heart burn within us?" We knew hardly why; we had seen a Stranger: he had conversed with our inmost spirit: he had delivered messages straight to the hearing ear of the soul, every tone of which was heard, every tone of which was new; and the fire began to burn, and the heart became a new heart—soft, tender, filled with a sense of mystery: love rose above the region of words and shaped itself before the inner vision in apocalypses of symbol and type and wizardry such as might have been inspired by the Holy Spirit: and the air danced with new images, and the sun burned with new light, and all time seemed too short for the expression of the rapture which thrilled the spirit. Then we were charged with fanaticism; some did not hesitate to say: "These men are drunken; they have had new wine, and they are under the influence of intoxicants,"—not knowing that we were not drunken with wine wherein is excess, but were filled with the Spirit of God; and the only word in all the daily language of mortals which touched our experience at all, and gave it articulation, was the word fire, because it seems to hold all other words that mean earnestness, purity, elevation, beauty, suggestiveness. The fire in the humblest grate outshines the king's diamonds. The fire, read by open and discerning eyes, is a continual history, battle, unfoldment, revelation.
There have been grand days in the Church—days when the mechanical priest has shaken off his mechanism and blessed the people; days when great legislators have dropped the baton of statesmanship, and with free hands stretched out over a wondering people have blessed the common human heart. One may come in the ages who will sit down upon a mountain, and when he opens his mouth he will say, "Blessed, blessed, blessed!" he will begin his sermon by putting the crown upon all the best history of the heart; he will begin, where other men close, with congratulation and beatitude.
The history pauses a moment. It ought here to be punctuated by a whole century. Some time should elapse before the next sentence is read. Yet we had better not lengthen the pause, or we may sacrifice reality for poetical completeness. Our own life to-day is just as hurried, rugged, and contradictory as is this piece of ancient story. So we may come into the next chapter with an awful familiarity. Men can go from the altar to forbidden places; men can unclasp their hands from God's grip and put those hands into other keeping. Poetical justice might have closed the book of Leviticus with the ninth chapter. It would have been a glorious close,—Aaron moved to feeling: Moses giving way to emotion: the Lord's fire consuming the offering upon the altar: the people singing, shouting, and falling down in adoration. Why did not the history close there? That would have been Canaan enough for any nation, paradise enough for any people. But there is another chapter. The tenth chapter opens with a sketch of character which appears from day to day:
"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 the Lord, which he commanded them not." (Leviticus 10:1)
What a set-back in the grand advance! How often have we been within one step of heaven, and have turned suddenly round and fallen right back to the earth that has every reason to be ashamed of us! They were priests too; they were the sons of the pontiff. The evil began in the upper places. The scepticism is in the Church to-day. It pleases us to organise missions to those who are supposed to be unbelievers; but the unbelief of the day is in the Church. There is (as we have said again and again) no possible unbelief outside the Church. There may be ignorance, only partial knowledge, prejudice, perverted judgment; but, as we have again and again averred—and growing time becomes growing conviction,—the enemies of the Church are not outside the Church. The pulpit may be leprous; the ministry may be filled with scepticism. They were in the sacerdotal line, who blasphemously took their own censers,—a thing forbidden in the law. These men were not at liberty to take each his own censer; there was a utensil provided for that action, and for any man to bring his own ironmongery to serve in such a cause was to insult the Spirit of the universe. This is how we stand to-day: every man bringing his censer—his own censer,—which means the prostitution of personality, the loss of the commonwealth-spirit and of the recognition of the unity and completeness of the Church. There are men who spend their time in amending Providence: Nadab and Abihu represent two such men to-day. There are men who are always trying to naturalise the supernatural: this is what Nadab and Abihu did. They said in effect, "This evil fire will do quite as well; build your life on reason; order all the ministry of your life by coherent and cumulative argument; drop the ancient words, and choose and set new words of your own; there is no supernatural: let us banish superstition and inaugurate the reign of reason." Nadab and Abihu had a kind of church, but a church without the true God,—an uninhabited shell, a mockery, a base irony—the baser because it was in a sense religious. There are men who substitute invention for commandment. This is what Nadab and Abihu did: they invented a new use of the common censer; they brought into new service common fire; they ventured to put incense thereon when only the pontiff of Israel was allowed to use such incense; they invented new bibles, new laws, new churches, new methods; they were cursed with the spirit of extra independence and individuality, with the audacity of self-trust—not with its religious worship and adoration. This all occurs every day, and it occurs quite as rudely and violently in the current and flow of our own history. All this invention and all this deposition of God and of law comes just as swiftly after our conscious realisations of the divine presence as this instance came swiftly upon the conscious benediction of God. "There is but a step between me and death." It would seem as if a universe might intervene between true prayer and the spirit of distrust and cursing—yet not a hair's-breadth intervenes. A man on his knees is next to the worst self, namely,—a man with clenched fists defying the heavens. It is possible to lay down the Bible and take up the unholy book and read the corruptest pages with conscious interest if not positive sympathy. Thin is the veil which keeps the right action from the wrong deed. The place of devils is next door to the sanctuary always. For some men it is never so easy to rebel as after a great Amen spoken in the ear of Heaven.
Another action of fire is found in this incident:
"And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord" (Leviticus 10:2).
The same fire! Is it not said that the Gospel is a savour of life unto life, or of death unto death? Fire had just consumed the burnt offering and the fat upon the altar in token of divine complacency and sacred nearness and the acceptance of human worship and that same fire went out from the Lord and devoured the audacious priests—the sacerdotal blasphemers,—ate them up as if they had been common bones! It is an awful flame! "Our God is a consuming fire." Priests, officers, leaders, men of position, men of wealth, play not your little fantastic tricks on God's altar! Your vanity and pomp and fashion and base wealth will be no protection against the anger and righteous judgment of God. The pulpit must obey; the foremost men must obey as the hindmost. The law must have obedience—simple, complete, honest, unquestioning obedience;—ours not to ask the reason, or make objection, or start new difficulty, or invent new methods; but to be found in loving and holy obedience evermore.
This is what has always happened in the history of such men as Nadab and Abihu. History is full of the white ashes of burned heretics. Leave the Lord to handle the infidel—whether he be priest or outside sceptic. The Lord has never been negligent of his own altar. Men have arisen from century to century proposing the use of new censers, granting to every man the use of his own censer—and thus paying a subtle tribute to the vanity of the human heart; in many ages men have arisen to write down the Bible, to tear down the altar, to supersede the sanctuary. For a time they succeeded; but because there was "no deepness of earth" they soon withered away—that is to say, they were not rooted in the Heart of the Universe, which is a living Heart, an eternal Heart; they were planted on the surface of things, and were in very deed quite green and gave promise of blossom and of fruit; but we looked for them; and, lo, they were not; yea, we sought them, but they could not be found. The Lord will burn every Nadab and Abihu, and burn them the more quickly that they were priests. If they had been sound heretics—really out-and-out enemies and assailants—he might have conferred with Moses and Aaron about them as he conferred with an elder man about Sodom and Gomorrah; but he has no parleying when priests do wrong, for the evil is at the altar: there is nothing between the deed and the judgment. It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for preachers, teachers, professors, who have played the fool, and have substituted the traditions of elders for the commandments of God. It is a sad time in the Church when the altar is forgotten. The Lord said "I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified.... And Moses called" two of the family" and said... Carry out these men and bury them outside the camp"; and Moses would have no mourning by Aaron or Eleazar and Ithamar:
"Uncover not your heads, neither rend your clothes; lest ye die, and lest wrath come upon all the people: but let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning which the Lord hath kindled" (Leviticus 10:6).
"Moses said unto Aaron, and unto Eleazar, and unto Ithamar... Ye shall not go out from the door of the tabernacle of the congregation" (the tent of meeting), "lest ye die: for the anointing oil of the Lord is upon you"; if you go out you will reflect upon God's ministry in the world. Aaron must not mourn along the track of the divine judgment; he must remain at the altar; what may occur in his own heart none can tell, for God will not be hard upon him; but he must not be found going after burned men as one might go after those who had died complacently with Heaven and in the discharge of duty.
The reason is given in the words—"For the anointing oil of the Lord is upon you." That oil must separate between you and the appearance of unbelief; that oil is a restraint as well as an inspiration. Is it not so now, varying the terms and the relations of things? If we could enter into the spirit of that restriction, what different men we should be! The name of your country is upon you: dishonour it not. A venerable name, never associated with meanness, cowardice, corruption, or fear of man. Rise to the dignity of the signature which is upon you. When you flee, the enemy will say your country has fled; when you play the coward, the enemy will say the throne has tottered and the sovereign has succumbed. The holy vow is upon you. You said you would be better and do better. You punctuated the vow with hot tears; your emphasis was quite an unfamiliar tone, so much so that we wondered at the poignancy of your utterance, and felt in very deed that you were speaking the heart's truth. Remember that vow. The vow of the Lord is upon you. If you stoop, it will not be condescension, it will be base prostration; if you palter with the reality of language, it will not be ability in the use of words, it will be the profanation of the medium which God has established for the conveyance and the interchange of truth. The exalted position is yours. You are the head of a family: if you go wrong, the whole family will suffer to the second and third and fourth generations. You are known and trusted in business: if you be found mean, untrustworthy, faithless, deceitful, the whole city will feel the anguish of a pang, for you were regarded as a trustee of its honour and its reputation. The anointing oil is upon you in some form or in some way. The name of Christ is upon us all. We cannot get rid of it. In this way or in that we have all to do with Christ, with his name, his honour, his cross, his crown. Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon, lest the daughters of Philistia rejoice. Who can tell what savage joy there is when Lucifer, son of the morning, trembles in his orbit—staggers—falls? The anointing oil of the Lord is upon you, and when the Christian professor speaks the base word, does the base deed, bends at the forbidden altar, withholds the sacrifice, forbears to speak the word of faithful testimony and allegiance,—the enemy laughs, and hell says: "Art thou also become as one of us?"
And Moses spake unto Aaron, and unto Eleazar and unto Ithamar, his sons that were left, Take the meat offering that remaineth of the offerings of the LORD made by fire, and eat it without leaven beside the altar: for it is most holy:Priests and Laws
"And Moses spake unto Aaron,"—the people speaking unto the priest! That is the eternal law in the true Church. The priest has no existence apart from the people. The people were represented by Moses; the divine element was represented by Aaron; but Aaron was only a representative—living under criticism and judgment, and living only—so far as he lived truly—for the benefit and culture and elevation of the people. The Bible is the people's Bible; it is not the Bible of a class, a priest, a man-made and man-ruled Church of a mechanical and formal type, separating itself from the universal instinct, and the universal need of the world. A grand chapter is opened in these words!—the people speaking unto the priest: the great-heart speaking to the momentary officer: the instinct of a world sitting, as it were, in judgment and righteous and generous criticism upon ceremonies and mediums and momentary arrangements, even though they were divine in their origin and most beneficent in their purpose. The people are always more than the priests. The people are always more than the princes. Kings are nothing but the blossomings of the social tree. Princes have no existence but for nations. This is a law not to be taught in one lecture, or to be brought home to the human mind in all its fulness and generous intent in violent harangue. Knowledge will secure this end; the spread of wisdom will bring in "the parliament of man." Meanwhile, no priest must dictate; no prince must rule despotically. The people are the strength and the reality, the pith and the whole core of the nations. Moses must always speak unto Aaron. The pew must always speak to the pulpit, saying what its need is, telling the man how far he is speaking to immediate wants and to present necessities, or how far he is spending eloquent discourse upon people who are not in existence. Aaron must go down if he pray not mightily for the people. We cannot have any man continued amongst us simply because of his office. Office is nothing except it be associated with noble character, generous impulse, and divine vocation, and express the eternal thought of God. But this is an issue not to be hastened. Mechanical operation can do little or nothing here. Men must grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ; and not knowing how the kingdom of the Son of man shall come in—the infinite theocracy—when no man shall be dragged down but every man shall be lifted up, and without fire or tempest or high wind rending the rocks, there shall be heard a still small voice saying, "He is come whose right it is." Meanwhile, one sign of progress is that the people shall take an interest in their priests, correcting them, rebuking them, cheering them, responding to them; when their prayers are offered, all the people shall say, Amen;—then prayer will be not merely official; then prayer will be unanimous; then prayer will mightily prevail.
"And Moses spake unto Aaron.... Take the meat offering,"—and he adds,—"for so I am commanded." Moses was not the fountain of authority. There is a spirit in man, and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth him understanding. This was not a clamorous interference with Aaron, an interference merely for the sake of tumult or the assertion of endangered right; it was the representation of a divine purpose and a holy command. This is an instance which shows how the law was looked after. Men make laws and forget them; they refer to statutes three hundred years old, venerable with the dust of four centuries, and they surprise current opinion by exhumations which show the cleverness and the perseverance of the lawyer. Men are fond of making laws; when they have ignoble leisure, they "improve" it (to use an ironical expression) by adding to the bye-laws, by multiplying mechanical stipulations and regulations, and forgetting the existence of such laws in the very act of their multiplication. God has no dead-letters in his law-book. The law is alive—tingling, throbbing in every letter and at every point. The commandment is exceeding broad; it never slumbers, never passes into obsoleteness, but stands in perpetual claim of right and insistance of decree. It is convenient to forget laws; but God will not allow any one of his laws to be forgotten. Every inquiry which Moses put to Israel was justified by a statute; he said, "I do but represent the law; there is nothing hypocritical in my examination; there is nothing super-refined in my judgment; I am simply asking as the representative of law how obedience is keeping up step with the march of judgment?" We need such constables to watch the law and to be jealous for its observance and maintenance. Every age needs a grand constabulary force. The time will come when every man will be his own watch, his own critic and judge, and will require no external appeal; man shall not have occasion to say to man, "Know the Lord,"—for every one shall know him from the least to the greatest; universality of knowledge shall report itself in unanimity of obedience. God's laws are still alive, we have said; they are alive in nature; even could we sponge them out wherever they are written with ink, we cannot obliterate them as they form part of the very life and economy of creation. Fire still stings; the great sea will drown the vastest navy that ever trespassed on its waves if the laws which govern the ocean be not diligently obeyed—ay, almost to the point of idolatry; men who can use profane language to an invisible God must be up early and sit up late to watch the way of the sea. Thus, at some altar we are always bent: if not at this particular one, then at that. The profanest man is shamed into occasional reverence—bound like a coward at some altar which he would gladly escape. Nature looks after the execution of her own laws; she says to Moses and she says to Aaron and to all the children of men,—I am not mocked; you may mock my Creator, but I am not mocked; you cannot shorten one of my days, you cannot lengthen one of my sunsets, you cannot change the wind from the east to the west, you cannot drive on the procession of the seasons, or substitute one position for another in that serene and glorious march; you may mock my Creator; you may profane your speech by a misuse of his name; you may never look upward in pious wonder, not to say affectionate prayer; but I will not be mocked. So then, this boasted liberty, this magnificent freedom, is itself a caged bird, and the bars of the cage are of no flexible wand but of stiff and stubborn iron. We know we can blaspheme God, and we know that we cannot substitute spring for winter; we will be free and not pray, and we who thus spread paper wings fall down in stupid servitude before laws of ploughing, and sowing, and reaping—as obedient as the oxen that open the furrow. Every inquiry, therefore, which Moses made was founded upon a statute. The commandment of the Lord is everywhere.
"And Moses diligently sought the goat of the sin offering, and, behold, it was burnt: and he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron which were left alive" (Leviticus 10:16).
But the flesh ought to have been eaten; a ceremonial law ought to have been observed. The two elder sons of the pontiff had been burnt, and the flesh of the goat of the sin offering had not been eaten, and Moses was angry. He does not name Aaron: there is a gentle considerateness even in the "meek man's" anger; he will not have the pontiff abased in the sight of the people; he will blame the juniors. But there is an indirect blame that comes back with tremendous recoil upon men nameless who are involved in the responsibility. "And Aaron said unto Moses—" The younger men said nothing; they did not like the fire that burned in the face of Moses, a face soon made radiant either by communion divine, or by indignation because of violated law. So Aaron, recognising his own responsibility, made speech unto Moses. What is the answer to this ceremonial sin? A grand one! A perpetual one! Said Aaron, "Behold, this day have they offered their [the people's] sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord; and such things have befallen me": and there he sobbed. His two sons had been taken from him by fire: having the anointing oil of the Lord upon him, he was not permitted to go with the dead bodies, to see them buried outside the camp: he remained at his post; but his old heart was sore. We know the experience: still ploughing in the field, whilst a keener plough is ripping up the field of the heart! "... and such things have befallen me,"—I will not complain of the judgment: the young men were wrong: God was right: God's holy will be done! But I am a man; we could not eat the flesh to-day, our hearts were sore; if we had eaten the flesh, "should it have been accepted in the sight of the Lord?" The Lord knoweth our frame: he remembereth that we are dust; we know the law, the flesh would under ordinary circumstances have been eaten; but "such things have befallen me," my heart has been torn, my life has been emptied, a great judgment has stretched its black wings over my house-roof, and therefore the law has not been obeyed in the letter. It was a sublime answer; it was a father's explanation; it was a plea of instinct; it was old nature rising against temporary law, a larger law subordinating and for the moment suspending a smaller one. This is God's permission. This is the government under which we live. Instinct has its place in human education as well as ceremonial law, mechanical appointment, and transient stipulations. Aaron here supplies the "one touch of nature" which "makes the whole world kin." His plea holds good to-day. It holds good even in matters purely bodily. The sufferer "ought" to eat; "But," he says, "such things have befallen me. I ought to partake of food, you are quite right in reminding me of the law; but such things have befallen me: I have just buried my dearest one; I have looked into the grave where my only child lies." Another says, excusing himself, "My child is twice dead he is gone away, I know not where; I ought to eat and drink and sleep; but such things have befallen me." Thus one law modifies another. The deeper laws assert themselves against the more superficial statutes and ordinances. This plea operates in all social relations. Why was the wedding put off?—"such things have befallen me." Why was the feast postponed?—"such things have befallen me." The hands of the men were upon the bell-ropes, and in a moment more the metal in the belfry would have clashed out in song that would have made the city glad. Why was the belfry dumb?—"such things have befallen me." There are events in life which suspend the feast, which forbid the clash of the joy-bells, hung high in the air, almost eager to swing that they may speak their metallic music to the wondering town. We recall the card of invitation, and substitute it by a card black-edged, eloquent of grief, and in the presence of that dark margin explanation is unnecessary. God is not unpitiful: God is tender; he knows our frame; he says,—"They are but children of the dust; their life is but as a vapour, which cometh for a little time and then vanisheth away; and their days are as a post: they fly quicker than a weaver's shuttle; their breath is in their nostrils." "His mercy endureth for ever." If our very prayer is choked in the throat by ungovernable sorrow, it may in its very off-breaking—in its very interruption—be a mightier prayer than if its eloquence had been rounded in the most resonant periods. We live under a merciful heaven. The sceptre is not of iron, and the hand that holds it is a gentle hand.
There is more in the twentieth verse than the mere letter: "And when Moses heard that, he was content." Some explanations carry their own conviction. We know the voice of honesty when we hear it; there is a frankness about it that can hardly be mistaken. But the meaning lies deeper: there can be no contentment in the presence of violated law. Where a law is violated wantonly, nature can have no rest; she says,—"I cannot sleep to-night." Thank God she cannot! When she can forget her Maker, the end will have come in darkness, and there will in very deed, in spirit and effect, be no more any God. Law must be satisfied in one of two ways. Law can rest upon the ashes of Sodom and Gomorrah, saying,—"Judgment has been inflicted, righteousness has been vindicated, and the seal of condemnation has been attached to the testimony of evil"; and mighty, imperial, inexorable law sits on the desolated cities—"content." That is not the way in which the Lord would bring about his own contentment; still, there is the law: fall upon this stone and be broken, or the stone will fall upon you and you will be ground to powder. The Gospel is a savour of life unto life, or of death unto death. God would have law obeyed: all his ordinances carried out in simple obedience, every statute turned into conduct, every appointment represented in obedience and praise. Then the universe, faithful to her Creator, the stars never disloyal to their Creator-King,—the whole creation, will say,—CONTENT.