We may well think that when Nadab and Abihu were struck with death all about them were struck with horror, and every face, as well as theirs, gathered blackness. Great consternation, no doubt, seized them, and they were all full of confusion; but, whatever the rest were, Moses was composed, and knew what he said and did, not being displeased, as David was in a like case, 2 Sam. 6:8. But though it touched him in a very tender part, and was a dreadful damp to one of the greatest joys he ever knew, yet he kept possession of his own soul, and took care to keep good order and a due decorum in the sanctuary.
I. He endeavours to pacify Aaron, and to keep him in a good frame under this sad dispensation, Lev. 10:3. Moses was a brother that was born for adversity, and has taught us, by his example, with seasonable counsels and comforts to support the weak, and strengthen the feeble-minded. Observe here,
1. What it was that Moses suggested to his poor brother upon this occasion: This is it that the Lord spoke. Note, The most quieting considerations under affliction are those that are fetched from the word of God. So and so the Lord hath said, and it is not for us to gainsay it. Note, also, In all God’s providences it is good to observe the fulfilling of scripture, and to compare God’s word and his works together, which if we do we shall find an admirable harmony and agreement between them, and that they mutually explain and illustrate each other. But, (1.) Where did God speak this? We do not find the very words; but to this purport he had said (Exod. 19:22), Let the priests who come near to the Lord sanctify themselves, lest the Lord break forth upon them. Indeed the whole scope and tenour of his law spoke this, that being a holy God, and a sovereign Lord, he must always be worshipped with holiness and reverence, and exactly according to his own appointment; and, if any jest with him, it is at their peril. Much had been said to this purport, as Exod. 29:43, 44; 34:14; Lev. 8:35. (2.) What was it that God spoke? It was this (the Lord by his grace speak it to all our hearts!) I will be sanctified in those that come nigh me, whoever they are, and before all the people I will be glorified. Note, First, Whenever we worship God, we come nigh unto him, as spiritual priests. This consideration ought to make us very reverent and serious in all acts of devotion, that in them we approach to God, and present ourselves before him. Secondly, It concerns us all, when we come nigh to God, to sanctify him, that is, to give him the praise of his holiness, to perform every religious exercise as those who believe that the God with whom we have to do is a holy God, a God of spotless purity and transcendent perfection, Isa. 8:13. Thirdly, When we sanctify God we glorify him, for his holiness is his glory; and, when we sanctify him in our solemn assemblies, we glorify him before all the people, confessing our own belief of his glory and desiring that others also may be affected with it. Fourthly, 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. If his rent be not paid, it shall be distrained for. (3.) But what was this to the present case? What was there in this to quiet Aaron? Two things:—[1.] This must silence him, that his sons deserved their death; for they were thus cut off from their people because they did not sanctify and glorify God. The acts of necessary justice, how hard soever they may seem to bear upon the persons concerned, are not to be complained of, but submitted to. [2.] This must satisfy him, that the death of his sons redounded to the honour of God, and his impartial justice would for it be adored throughout all ages.
2. What good effects this had upon him: Aaron held his peace, that is, he patiently submitted to the holy will of God in this sad providence, was dumb, and opened not his mouth, because God did it. Something he was ready to say by way of complaint (as losers think they may have leave to speak), but he wisely suppressed it, laid his hand upon his mouth, and said nothing, for fear lest he should offend with his tongue, now that his heart was hot within him. Note, (1.) When God corrects us or ours for sin, it is our duty to be silent under the correction, not to quarrel with God, arraign his justice, or charge him with folly, but to acquiesce in all that God does; not only bearing, but accepting, the punishment of iniquity, and saying, as Eli, in a case not much unlike this, It is the Lord, let him do what seemeth him good, 1 Sam. 3:18. If our children have sinned against God (as Bildad puts the case, Job 8:4), and he have cast them away for their transgression, though it must needs be grievous to think that the children of our love should be the children of God’s wrath, yet we must awfully adore the divine justice, and make no exceptions against its processes. (2.) The most effectual arguments to quiet a gracious spirit under afflictions are those that are fetched from God’s glory; this silenced Aaron. It is true he is a loser in his comforts by this severe execution, but Moses has shown him that God is a gainer in his glory, and therefore he has not a word to say against it: if God be sanctified, Aaron is satisfied. Far be it form him that he should honour his sons more than God, or wish that God’s name, or house, or law, should be exposed to reproach or contempt for the preserving of the reputation of his family. No; now, as well as in the matter of the golden calf, Levi does not acknowledge his brethren, nor know his own children; and therefore they shall teach Jacob thy judgments, and Israel thy law, Deut. 33:9, 10. Ministers and their families are sometimes exercised with sore trials that they may be examples to the believers of patience and resignation to God, and they may comfort others with that with which they themselves have been comforted.
II. Moses gives orders about the dead bodies. It was not fit that they should be left to lie where they fell; yet their own father and brethren, the amazed spectators of this dismal tragedy, durst not offer to lift them up, no, not to see whether there was any life left in them; they must neither be diverted from nor unfitted for the great work that was now upon their hands. Let the dead bury their dead, but they must go on with their service; that is, “Rather let the dead be unburied, if there be nobody else to do it, than that work for God should be left undone by those whom he has called to it.” But Moses takes care of this matter, that though they died by the hand of justice in the act of sin, yet they should be decently buried, and they were so, Lev. 10:4, 5. 1. Some of their nearest relations were employed in it, who were cousins-german to their father, and are here named, who would perform this office with tenderness and respect. They were Levites only, and might not have come into the sanctuary, no, not upon such an occasion as this, if they had not had a special command for it. 2. They carried them out of the camp to be burned, so far were they from burying them in the place of worship, or the court of it, according to our modern usage, though they died there, that they did not bury them, nor any of their dead, within the lines of their camp; as afterwards their burying places were out of their cities. The tabernacle was pitched in the midst of the camp, so that they could not carry these dead priests to their graves without carrying them through one of the squadrons of the camp; and doubtless it was a very awful affecting sight to the people. The names of Nadab and Abihu had become very great and honourable among them; none more talked of, nor more expected to appear abroad after the days of their consecration, to receive the honours and caresses of the crowd, whose manner it is to adore the rising sun; and next to Moses and Aaron, who were old and going off, Nadab and Abihu (who had been in the mount with God, Exod. 24:1) were looked upon as the great favourites of heaven, and the hopes of their people; and now on a sudden, when the tidings of the event had scarcely reached their ears, to see them both carried out dead, with the visible marks of divine vengeance upon them, as sacrifices to the justice of God, they could not choose but cry out, Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God? 1 Sam. 6:20. 3. They carried them out (and probably buried them) in their coats, and the garments of their priesthood, which they had lately put on, and perhaps were too proud of. Thus the impartiality of God’s justice was proclaimed, and all the people were made to know that even the priests’ garments would not protect an offender from the wrath of God. And it was easy to argue, “If they escape not when they transgress, can we expect to go unpunished?” And the priests’ clothes being so soon made grave-clothes might intimate both that the law worketh death, and that in the process of time that priesthood itself should be abolished and buried in the grave of the Lord Jesus.
III. He gives directions about the mourning.
1. That the priests must not mourn. Aaron and his two surviving sons, though sad in spirit, must not use any outward expressions of sorrow upon this sad occasion, nor so much as follow the corpse one step from the door of the tabernacle, Lev. 10:7. It was afterwards forbidden to the high priest to use the ceremonies of mourning for the death of any friend whatsoever, though it were a father or mother (Lev. 21:11); yet it was allowed at the same time to the inferior priests to mourn for their near relations, Lev. 10:2, 3. But here it was forbidden both to Aaron and his sons, because, (1.) They were now actually waiting, doing a great work, which must by no means cease (Neh. 6:3); and it was very much for the honour of God that their attendance on him should take place of their respects to their nearest relations, and that all services should give way to those of their ministry. By this they must make it to appear that they had a greater value and affection for their God and their work than for the best friend they had in the world; as Christ did, Matt. 12:47, 48. And we are hereby taught, when we are serving God in holy duties, to keep out minds, as much as may be, intent and engaged, and not to suffer them to be diverted by any worldly thoughts, or cares, or passions. Let us always attend upon the Lord without distraction. (2.) Their brethren were cut off for their transgression by the immediate hand of God, and therefore they must not mourn for them lest they should seem to countenance the sin, or impeach the justice of God in the punishment. Instead of lamenting their own loss, they must be wholly taken up in applauding the sentence, and subscribing to the equity of it. Note, The public concerns of God’s glory ought to lie nearer our hearts than any private affections of our own. Observe, How Moses frightens them into this submission, and holds the rod over them to still their crying (Lev. 10:6): “Lest you die likewise, and lest wrath come upon all the people, who may be in danger of suffering for your irreverence, and disobedience, and ungoverned passions;” and again (Lev. 10:7), lest you die. See here what use we are to make of the judgments of God upon others; we must double our guard over ourselves, lest we likewise perish. The death, especially the sudden death, of others, instead of moving our passion, should compose us into a holy reverence of God, a cautious separation from all sin, and a serious expectation of our own death. The reason given them is because the anointing oil of your God is upon you, the honour of which must be carefully preserved by your doing the duty of your office with cheerfulness. Note, Those that through grace have received the anointing ought not to disturb themselves with the sorrow of the world, which worketh death. It was very hard, no doubt, for Aaron and his sons to restrain themselves upon such an extraordinary occasion from inordinate grief, but reason and grace mastered the passion, and they bore the affliction with an obedient patience: They did according to the word of Moses, because they knew it to be the word of God. Happy those who thus are themselves under God’s government, and have their passions under their own government.
2. The people must mourn: Let the whole house of Israel bewail the burning which the Lord has kindled. The congregation must lament, not only the loss of their priests, but especially the displeasure of God which appeared in it. They must bewail the burning that was kindled, that it might not burn further. Aaron and his sons were in danger of being too much affected with the providence, and therefore they are forbidden to mourn: the house of Israel were in danger of being too little affected with it, and therefore they are commanded to lament. Thus nature must always be governed by grace, according as it needs to be either constrained or restrained.