Previous article in this series: January 1, 2013, p. 153.
Isaiah was a prophet in Jerusalem during the reigns of no fewer than four kings of Judah: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah (). Uzziah and Jotham were good kings. Judah therefore enjoyed an extended period of prosperity. The great increase in worldly wealth and luxury was accompanied by a decline in spirituality among the people generally. When Jotham’s son Ahaz began to practice idolatry, first after the manner of “the kings of Israel” ( ), and then “after the abominations of the heathen” ( ), the people were quick to follow suit.
From the very beginning of his sixteen-year reign to the bitter end of it, Ahaz “did not that which was right in the sight of the Lord” (). In fact, the extent to which Ahaz led the people in the grossest forms of idolatry staggers the imagination. The first demonstration of his defiance of God and of His word is found in verse 2: he made “molten images for Baalim.” He also introduced the worst of the heathen rites connected with the worship of these idols. Human sacrifice was sometimes part of the service of Baal (or of Molech, which according to seems to have been closely associated with Baal worship). Even this most repulsive form of idol worship was not too much for Ahaz. For we read that he “burnt his children in the fire, after the abominations of the heathen whom the Lord had cast out before the children of Israel” ( ). Almost beyond belief! Ahaz (of the line of David!) and Judah (the people of God in the old dispensation!).
Even this was not the extent of Ahaz’s rebellion. “He sacrificed also and burnt incense in the high places, and on the hills, and under every green tree” (). The divinely appointed place of worship obviously meant nothing to one who cared not at all about the manner of worship or, for that matter, the object of worship.
In fact, Ahaz meddled at will with many aspects of worship that had been prescribed by God Himself, and that were of rich symbolic significance. While in Damascus to see the king of Assyria, Ahaz spied an altar that was very much to his liking. He made a sketch of it, sent the drawing to Urijah the chief priest, and ordered him to build one like it in the court of the temple (). In the court of the temple there already was an altar—the brazen altar of burnt offering, built by Solomon according to specifications given by God ( ). But Ahaz preferred the altar of his own making. When he returned to Jerusalem, he himself offered burnt offerings on his newly constructed altar, and, finding the old brazen altar to be in a more prominent position than his own, he moved the altar of God farther “from the forefront of the house” ( ), so that his own would occupy the most favored position, with nothing to compete with its splendor.
To top it all, he “cut in pieces the vessels of the house of God, and shut up the doors of the house of the Lord” (). The shutting of the doors surely indicates that, by direction of Ahaz, all the services that were to be conducted by the priests in the Holy Place were discontinued. The images and the new altar of Ahaz replaced all that was holy. Further, he “made him altars in every corner of Jerusalem. And in every several city of Judah he made high places to burn incense unto other gods” ( ).
Not only was Ahaz tampering with that which had been prescribed by divine ordinance, he was also, by dis carding much of which had symbolic meaning, rejecting that which was signified. By setting aside the altar, for example, he was showing what he thought about the sacrifices, which were basic to the worship of Jehovah. The very salvation of the Jews was bound up in those sacrifices. For the temple, the altar, the priests, the sacrifices—all these looked ahead to Christ. But Ahaz cared not at all for that. And he found Urijah, the high priest, willing to cooperate with him. No wonder that Isaiah described the leaders of Ahaz’s day as “watchmen [that] were blind,” and “shepherds that cannot understand” ().
Ahaz and the people of Israel were made to feel the anger of God for their apostasy. The reign of Ahaz, in fact, brought one disaster after another to the country of Judah. Judah was delivered into the hand of the king of Syria, who “carried away a great multitude of them captives, and brought them to Damascus” (). The king of Israel, too, smote Ahaz and Judah “with a great slaughter. For Pekah the son of Remaliah slew in Judah an hundred and twenty thousand in one day, which were all valiant men; because they had forsaken the Lord God of their fathers” ( ). Likewise did the Edomites come and smite Judah, carrying away captives ( ); and the Philistines “invaded the cities of the low country” ( ). Thus did the Lord bring “Judah low because of Ahaz king of Israel; for he had made Judah naked, and transgressed sore against the Lord” ( ).
One hundred twenty thousand valiant men . . . dead. In one day! The magnitude of that loss, in a country so small, and in time so short, is staggering. Hard to imagine, one would think, a consequence of apostasy more grievous.
There was indeed, however, a more grievous consequence. More grievous—and yet one that we might overlook. Isaiah did not. “Therefore, behold, I will proceed [in judgment of their apostasy] to do a marvelous work among this people, even a marvelous work and a wonder” (). And what was that work? That a 120,000 men will fall in one day? No. It’s this: “the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid” ( ).
Calvin asks, “. . . for what kind of punishment is more dreadful than blindness of mind and stupidity?” And he adds: “This indeed is not commonly perceived by men, nor are they aware of the greatness of this evil; but it is the greatest and most wretched of all.”
And what is the sin of which this most-wretched-of-all punishments is a consequence? Our thoughts might, perhaps, go immediately to Ahaz’s burning of his children in the fire. But that wasn’t it. It was . . . their worship of God.
We look at: “Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men . . . .” And then follows the consequence: “. . . therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvelous work . . . .” “He [that is, God] could not testify more plainly than by the tremendous severity of this chastisement, how great is the abhorrence with which he regards false worship” (Calvin).
Israel had learned, years earlier, the truth of that—that is, of the abhorrence with which God regarded false worship. Shortly after their consecration as priests of the Lord, Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron, were careless in carrying out their new duties in the office. And they paid for it with their lives. A bolt of fire from the Lord struck them dead on the spot (). Calvin points out, also in this connection, the deadly seriousness of profanation of worship. He acknowledges first that “apparently it was a light transgression to use strange fire for burning incense; and again their thoughtlessness would seem excusable, for certainly Nadab and Abihu did not wantonly or intentionally desire to pollute the sacred things, but, as is often the case in matters of novelty [i.e., new duties], when they were setting about too eagerly, their precipitancy [hastiness] led them into error. The severity of the punishment, therefore, would not please those arrogant people, who do not hesitate superciliously to criticize God’s judgments; but if we reflect how holy a thing God’s worship is, the enormity of the punishment will by no means offend us.”
The applicability of that to the Jews of Ezekiel’s day, and to the Jews of Jesus’ day, and to the church world of our day is clear on the surface. Especially for that reason we must be clear also as to the reason for God’s jealousy with respect to the form of worship. What comes to mind immediately when we consider the transgression of Nadab and Abihu is God’s holiness. One who comes precipitously into the presence of God does not come reverently. One who comes carelessly into the presence of God will all too easily and quickly neglect God’s prescription for worship. That is what Nadab and Abihu did. In their offering of incense in the tabernacle, they brought “strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not” (). Thus did they violate divine prescription for worship. This, in itself, was no small matter. But fully to appreciate God’s abhorrence of this profanation of worship, we must bear in mind that the ceremonies involved were not arbitrarily imposed on the people of Israel. In the dispensation of shadows, they were types. When, therefore, the Lord commanded that live coals from the altar of burnt offering that stood before the tabernacle be used to burn incense on the altar within, the people of Israel could take for granted that this divinely-prescribed procedure had typical significance. Though they could not have anticipated the details of the fulfillment of these types, we sell them short, we underestimate them, if we think that they could not have sensed the connection between the two altars. The incense, they understood, was offered to God—and as a sweet-smelling sacrifice. And how could Jehovah be pleased with the scent of smoke from burning incense from an altar in the tabernacle? How could God’s people, all of whom are sinners, find favor with God and be accepted by Him? Well, that had everything to do with the expiatory sacrifices on the other altar, the altar of burnt offering. There must be atonement—atonement by the shedding of blood. Apart from that, the burning of incense would be but a vain show, and, worse, a robbing Christ of His honor.
Those last few words were borrowed from John Calvin, who thus characterized the worship of the Jews in the temple of God in Jerusalem some 800 years after Nadab and Abihu paid with their lives for their trespass in the tabernacle in the wilderness.
Robbing Christ of His honor. We ought to ponder that. If it be true, that strange fire (), hypocrisy ( ), and bloody hands ( ) were not only profanations of God’s sanctuary but also a despising of Christ, we can well understand why they met with such dreadful vengeance from God (death in the one instance, spiritual blindness and eventual deportation in the other). We might, however, be inclined to wonder how, or even whether, the Jews in the old dispensation could rob Christ of His honor. Is Calvin, perhaps, attributing to the Jews of the old dispensation a level of comprehension that was in fact beyond them? To ask this question is not, of course, to call into question the severity of God’s vengeance on them. That His judgment was, and is always, in perfect accord with justice we take for granted. Our question is only this: Was the sin of the people of Judah relative to their worship of God only a trifling with divine prescription for the manner of that worship (which, in itself, would justify God’s vengeance on them), or was that sin aggravated by an awareness of the symbolism involved in it, and a despising of it?
Next time: Robbing Christ of His honor.