The Wonder and Awe of Holy Fear

The Wonder and Awe of Holy Fear

The Wonder and Awe of Holy Fear.

“Now Adab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective fire pans and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘It is what the Lord spoke, saying, ‘By those who come near me I must be treated as holy, and before all the people I must be glorified.” (Leviticus 10:1-3).

“STRANGE” = Zuwr – The Hebrew root used here for “strange” means profane, unholy, wayward, astray, unauthorized, foreign to God and His instructions, disobedient; this word is also used in Proverbs 23:30-33 when referring to drunkenness and the poor judgement that comes from intoxication; it also is used several times in Proverbs to describe sexual immorality or adultery. The fire offered by the sons of Aaron was somehow “strange” in this biblical sense.

Capital Punishment? Why did God judge those two men so harshly? Why did God choose to be a “consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24) in this instance? Why was their punishment so severe? The Scripture is unclear as to why exactly these two sons of Aaron, newly ordained as priests, had to die. Some possible reasons for their death penalty include:

  1. They were intoxicated. The Hebrew word above for “strange” implies this directly. And this could be the very reason God instituted a new law very quickly after this incident, in verses 9-10: “Do not drink wine or strong drink, neither you nor your sons with you, when you come into the Tent of Meeting, so that you may not die – So as to make a distinction between the holy and profane, between the unclean and the clean.” It could be their intoxication clouded their thinking, gave them poor judgement, and they were unaware of how important the Lord’s instructions were. Thus they were careless about those instructions. Being drunk, they couldn’t distinguish between the holy and the profane, and made poor decisions.
  2. They simply ignored instructions. According to Numbers 16:46, they were instructed not to take the hot coals from the altar of burnt offering. Also in Exodus 30:9, they were told to  refrain from offering any strange incense on the altar. Is the Lord being too picky here? No, for in God’s eyes, He has a good reason for everything to do with the sacred duties of the Holy Place. And everything is connected to a holy God. Chief among the priest’s duties was to preserve God’s holiness. They failed to do so in a way that mattered.
  3. They approached the Holy of Holies. There’s a good possibility that the two sons arrogantly attempted to enter the Holy of Holies behind the veil. God would surely strike down anyone walking into the sacred place of the Lord’s presence without His permission. This possibility was directly implied later in Leviticus 16:1-2“Now the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they had approached the presence of the Lord and died. The Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell your brother Aaron that he shall not enter at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat which is on the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat.” 
  4. They didn’t follow God’s timing. The incense offering was mandated by God to occur during the morning and the evening sacrifices. This is when the priest was to trim the lamps, so there was “a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations.” (Exodus 30:7-9). It could be the two sons ignored God’s instructions, and offered the incense at the wrong time, thus thwarting God’s purposes for that particular instruction. Once again, it could be the two men were careless about obeying the Lord’s directions. They seemingly were indifferent to His desires. And it cost them. God is not being picky. He is being holy.
  5. This was a pivotal moment. Sometimes extreme measures need to be taken when an important new spiritual development is taking place, to make sure that it doesn’t pivot in the wrong direction. In this case with the two sons of Aaron, a new line of priesthood was being established, and the Lord needed to show everyone that He wasn’t playing games, that His holy Presence and His new system of sacred worship are not to be taken lightly. God imposed this lesson through the two sons and on the Israelites: Obedience to God is a serious business, and there is something profound taking place with this worship that they do not understand. The Lord wanted to teach the same lesson of divine accountability to the new Christian community being formed after Pentecost in Acts 5:1-11. Ananias and Sapphira lied to God, and they paid the price with their lives. It was a pivotal moment in the burgeoning life of the early church. As one could easily imagine, “And great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things.” With the early Christians and with the Israelites, the lesson was undoubtedly learned. Disobedience has consequences, especially with new formative moments in the Faith. Both the Jews and the Christians were suitably impressed.

Holy Fear. Whether they were drunk, careless, ignorant or foolhardy, the two sons of Aaron certainly lacked a quality needed by priests and believers in God’s service: a healthy fear of the Lord. They didn’t honor the awesome holiness of God, they didn’t even have the respect needed to obey His instructions. In our case, we all know about our worst fears: heights, public speaking, snakes, darkness, failure. But what is our best fear? The best fear of believers down through history is not a thing but a Person… God. Biblical fear certainly includes the knocking of knees and shortage of breath of honest fearfulness, but there’s more to the story.

Godly fear in Scripture also includes the raised hands of adoration; the bare feet of awe; a shiver of hopeful joy; a peaceful sigh of contentment; a humbled spirit overcome with devotion; a focused mind poised to listen and obey; a heart filled with a mixture of reverence, relief and wonder. This is what the ancients called “holy dread,” and it serves to keep us honest and careful as we acknowledge our place before an almighty, inscrutable God. In this state of  healthy fear, our tendency to domesticate the holy and righteous Lord would be unthinkable. Our relationship to the Omnipotent would not be foolishly limited to a casual, sentimental Buddy System with Jesus. The sons of Aaron somewhere along the way lost that fear factor before the Lord. They didn’t realize that things of God may be unsafe to handle if taken lightly.

“If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than me or else just silly.” “Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy. “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.” “I’m longing to see him,” said Peter, “even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point.” “That’s right, Son of Adam,” said Mrs. Beaver…”  (C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).

Do We Make the Same Mistakes? Do we demonstrate any contemporary versions of the strange fire? Are we in danger of offending an almighty and holy God? The two sons of Aaron got into big trouble with God by their indifferent, disrespectful treatment of God and His Holy Place, which was the precursor to the Temple in Jerusalem. Do we have any temples in our midst that can be defiled or dishonored by us?

  1. Each of us has a temple that we manage every day… our bodies. Our bodies contain the Holy Spirit, and is a place for worship. There was one chief act of desecration St. Paul had in mind in 1 Corinthians 6:18-20: “Run from sexual sins! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body.” So it appears that one way we might offer the sacrilege of a strange fire would be to dishonor our body through sexual immorality. Sex outside a marriage between a man and a woman could be considered a profane way of being careless with our temple, of taking God’s instructions lightly, of dishonoring the temple that is our body.
  2. The church is also a temple of the almighty God. Are there ways we can defile the temple and dishonor God? “Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? (1 Cor. 3:16). And Paul underlines that truth when he said in 2 Cor. 6:16: “What union can there be between God’s temple and idols? For we are the temple of the living God.” Does our church have any idols to own up to? Is there collective acceptance of anything sacreligious or contrary to God’s desire for the church? Is public acceptance more important than Biblical standards? Is there any materialism in the way we approach the church building or in our programs and ministries? Is there crass materialism in the lifestyle of the church believers that affects the church’s public perception or personality? Is there casual acceptance of obvious sins such as abortion, sexual assault, or pornography? Is the church addicted to technology or entertainment?  Whatever might be pernicious in its influence which is contrary to God’s mind on these matters, then they could be idols, they could run the risk of sacrilege and God’s judgement.
  3. Does our church underestimate God’s power? Are we careless or casual with God in our temples that contain the holiness and presence of God? “Why do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a package tour of the Absolute? On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”  (Annie Dillard, An Expedition to the Pole).

Meditations on Holy Fear:

a. “After this, the church all over Judea, Galilee, and Samaria experienced a season of peace. The congregations grew larger and larger, with the believers being empowered and encouraged by the Holy Spirit. They worshiped God in wonder and awe, and walked in the fear of the Lord.” (Acts 9:31, TPT).

b. “All nations whom You have made shall come and fall down before You, O Lord, and they shall glorify Your Name. For You are great and work wonders! You alone are God. Teach me Your way, O Lord, and I will walk in Your truth; give me singleness of heart to fear Your Name.”  (Psalm 86:9-11).

c. “Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the word of his servant? Let him who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God.” (Isaiah 50:10).

d. “Let the wise listen and learn yet more, and a person of discernment will acquire the art of guidance. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” (Proverbs 1:5 and 7).

e. “Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard, and a book of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honored his name.”  (Malachi 3:16).

f. “My child, if you take my words to heart, if you set store by my commandments, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding, and if you call out for insight, and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver, and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God.”  (Proverbs 2:1-5)