Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. (Leviticus 10:1-2, NKJV)

“…it is called strange fire; and, though not expressly forbidden, it was crime enough that God commanded it not.” – Matthew Henry, Commentary on Leviticus 10:1

You may notice that The Presbytery Inn blog posts have been a few days behind and sparse the last few weeks. We have been fighting off seasonal cold and flu in my household and blogging has taken a back seat. God willing, I hope to catch up in the coming week. [ed.]

In our readings on the Book of Leviticus, we have been given a description of how the priest is to offer sacrifices at the altar. From there, Moses consecrates Aaron and his sons for ministry at the altar. (ch.8). Following this, Moses commands Aaron to offer a sacrifices for himself and for the people (9:7). Note that throughout these chapters, Moses has been instructing and commanding Aaron in what to do (8:4-5, 9:1-2). In turn, it is God who is commanding Moses (8:36). We deduce from this that the sacrifices of the temple are being conducted according to the express command of God through the mediator, Moses.

Thus, when Nadab and Abihu come before the altar, they are coming on their own without any command to do so. It is in this context that we understand the phrase “which he commanded them not” in Lev 10:1. Some contend that there was an express command given to not offer strange fire, thus Nadab and Abihu had done that which was expressly forbidden (Exodus 30:9). However, when we look in Exodus 30:9, we see that God said no other incense but that which is appointed by God may be offered. We see God’s appointment of incense later in the chapter in v. 34:

And the LORD said unto Moses, Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight: (v. 34, KJV)

So, the context for Exdous 30:9 is the use of incense at the altar that is not one of the varieties mentioned in v.34. The command of Exodus 30:9 does not apply to the fire of the altar but to incense offered. In the Hebrew, “strange incense” (zarah qetoret) is a different construction than “strange fire” (zarah es).  Therefore, we must make a distinction between the strange fire that Nadab and Abihu offered and the strange incense mentioned in Exodus 30:9.

Therefore, we have no express command from God to not offer strange fire. If you search throughout the law of Moses, you will not find one. Nadab and Abihu, by offering strange fire, did that which God had not commanded; they did not offer that which was expressly forbidden. They offered that which was not expressly commanded. By implication of Leviticus 6:13 (which states that God’s fire will forever burn upon the altar) and Leviticus 9:24 (when that fire fell upon the altar), what Nadab and Abihu did was offer fire other than that which was on the altar. This was never expressly forbidden; rather, it was never expressly commanded. For this reason, God killed Nadab and Abihu. How are we to understand the words of Lev 10:3, “I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me”? That God, being holy, commands that worship of Him be kept holy; that is, according to His command. In his sermons “Gospel Worship“, Jeremiah Burroughs comments: “in those that come to worship me in my Tabernacle, I will be sanctified in all things that concern my Worship, I will be sure to be sanctified there.”

The question then remains and it is one that I will leave you to ponder: Has God said that He has abolished the command to worship Him as He has appointed? Has He left it to us to determine all things concerning His worship? Or has He – in His all sufficient Word – given us instruction and command in how to worship Him?

I am a Reformed Presbyterian. I offer all content as my own personal reflections. I am not a licensed minister.