Author: Ron Graham
Nadab and Abihu
—What did they do wrong?
Nadab and Abihu made a fatal, tragic mistake. They were worshipping God, and God struck them dead. What did they do wrong?
1 Nadab and Abihu’s Season of Blessing
Nadab and Abihu could have been priests of God into old age, for they had God’s blessing.
- These two eldest sons of Aaron (and nephews of Moses) were among those Privileged to see God and live to tell about it (Exodus 24:9-11).
- Later, God chose them for appointment to the priesthood, and made this ministry to him a perpetual statute for them and their progeny (Ex 28:1, 29:9).
- After that, God himself participated in their inaugural sacrifice, by sending fire down from heaven to burn the offering (Leviticus 9:1-2,22-24).
2 One Small Act Ruined Everything
No sooner had they enjoyed this season of blessing, but Nadab and Abibu ruined everything. Just as Adam and Eve were cast from Eden through one small act of eating a forbidden fruit, so Nadab and Abihu spoiled their estate by one small act.
"Each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered it before the Lord". Then "fire went out from the lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord" (Leviticus 10:1-2).
The same heavenly fire, that burst from God’s glory in the tabernacle to consume the animal sacrifice, now fell upon the newly appointed priests and in violence they died. What did they do wrong?
3 Nadab and Abihu’s Error is Made Clear
We are left in no doubt about what Nadab and Ahihu did wrong. Their error is clear: They "offered profane fire before the Lord which he had not commanded them" (Leviticus 10:1). It was a two-fold error:
- Profanity: They offered to God something profane, something not sanctified or made holy, something ordinary and unconsecrated.
- Presumption: They presumed to do something in worship before God which God had not commanded them to do.
4 Nadab and Abihu’s Profanity was Inexcusable
There was no excuse for the profanity in worship committed by Nadab and Abihu. The censers (firepans) in their possession belonged to the altar, as part of its equipment, and therefore the censers were as sacred as the altar itself (Exodus 27:1-3, 38:1-3).
Each should have guessed that, since his censer was a holy object, only fire from a holy object (the altar) would be suitable to put in the censer.
Mind you, as we shall now see, even had they guessed, they would have been wrong to act upon their guess. It should only have made them afraid to do anything but await the word of the Lord.
5 Nadab and Abihu’s Presumption was Inexcusable
There was no excuse for the presumption that Nadab and Abihu showed in their worship. Nadab and Abihu acted on their own initiative, because they had no ccmmandment or authority from God to act as they did.
God was in the process of commanding, detail by detail, exactly what he required. He had not yet said anything about offering incense on the firepans. That commandment did not come until after Nadab and Abihu had died (Leviticus 16:1,12).
When God did make that commandment, he specified coals of fire from off the altar. Had Nadab and Abihu refrained from worshipping as they saw fit, and instead waited for the "thus saith the Iord", they would still have been alive and in God’s good grace. But they presumed to offer to God something "which he had not commanded them" (Leviticus 10:1).
What did they do wrong? They dared to worship God in a manner which he had not authorised, and for which they had no word from God. Let no one ever dare to act with such presumption!
6 Nadab and Abihu’s Error Was Not Forgotten
The error of Nadab and Abihu not forgotten, nor should it be. In the census and genealogical records, when Nadab and Abihu are mentioned, a note is made of their error and its consequences (Numbers 3:2-4 26:60-61). The lesson was to be remembered by future generations and, indeed, is "written for our learning" (Romans 15:4).
Let us worship God only as we have his word and authority to direct us. Let us not presume to add anything to our worship on our own initiative. Do not forget Nadab and Abihu. The wrath of God is upon all who presume to worship him in a manner he has not commanded.