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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 3

The Pulpit CommentariesThe Pulpit Commentaries

Verses 1-51



Numbers 3:1

These … are the generations of Aaron and Moses. The word "generations" (toledoth) is used here in a peculiar and, so to speak, technical sense, with reference to what follows, as in Genesis 2:4; Genesis 6:9. It marks a new departure, looking down, not up, the course of history. Moses and Aaron were a beginning in themselves as the chosen heads of the chosen tribe: Moses having the higher office, but one entirely personal to himself; Aaron being the first of a long and eminent line of priests. The actual genealogy, therefore, is that of Aaron, and he is placed first. In the day. Apparently the day mentioned in Numbers 1:1; or it may be more general, as in Genesis 2:4.

Numbers 3:3

Whom he consecrated. The "he" is impersonal; the Septuagint has, "whose hands they filled."

Numbers 3:4

They had no children. If they had left sons, these would have succeeded to their office, and to the headship of the priestly line. In the sight of Aaron. In his lifetime (cf. Genesis 11:28). Septuagint, "with Aaron." In the time of David the descendants of Eleazar were divided into sixteen courses, the descendants of Ithamar into eight (2 Chronicles 24:3).

Numbers 3:6

Bring the tribe of Levi near. Not by any outward act of presentation, but by assigning to them solemnly the duties following. The expression is often used of servants coming to receive orders from their masters.

Numbers 3:7

They shall keep his charge, and the charge of the whole congregation. Septuagint, "shall keep his watches, and the watches of the children of Israel." The Levites were to be the servants of Aaron on the one side, and of the whole congregation on the other, in the performance of their religious duties. The complicated ceremonial now prescribed and set in use could not possibly be carried out by priests or people without the assistance of a large number of persons trained and devoted to the work. Compare St. Paul's words to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 4:5), "Ourselves your servants for Jesus' sake."

Numbers 3:8

Instruments. Vessels and furniture. Septuagint, σκεύη. Vulgate, vasa.

Numbers 3:9

They are wholly given unto him. The word nethunim (wholly given) is emphatic here, and in Numbers 8:16. As the whole house of Israel at large, so especially (for a reason which will presently appear) the tribe of Levi belonged absolutely to God; and he, as absolutely, made them over to Aaron and the priests for the service of his sanctuary. Cf. Ephesians 4:11, "gave some apostles," etc. The Levites, as gifts from God (nethunim) to their brethren the priests, must be distinguished from the nethinim or serfs of foreign extraction given by the congregation to the Levites to do their most menial work for them (Joshua 9:27).

Numbers 3:10

The stranger that cometh nigh. This constantly recurring formula has not always quite the same meaning: in Numbers 1:51 it signified any one not of the tribe of Levi; here it includes even the Levite who was not also a priest. The separation of the Levites for the ministry of the tabernacle was not to infringe in the least upon the exclusive rights of Aaron and his sons.

Numbers 3:12

I have taken the Levites. The actual separation of Levi had been already anticipated (see Numbers 1:47, Numbers 1:53), but the meaning and purpose of that separation is now formally declared, into reason, however, is assigned for the choice of this particular tribe. It is almost always assumed that their zeal in the matter of the golden calf was the ground of the preference shown to them now. But it may be doubted whether there was any "preference" in the matter at all. To Aaron and his seed on undoubted and important preference was shown, but the functions and position of the Levites were not such as to give them any preeminence, or to secure them any substantial advantage. They were tied down to the performance of routine duties, which demanded no intelligence, and gave scope for no ambitions. The one obvious reason why Levi was selected is to be found in the fact that he was by far the smallest in numbers among the tribes, being less than half the next smallest, Manasseh, and almost exactly balancing the first-born. A larger tribe could not have been spared, and would not have been needed, for the purpose in question. If any more recondite motive must be sought for the Divine selection, it must be found in the prophecy of Genesis 49:7. Levi as well as Simeon, though in a different way, was doomed never to raise his head as a united and powerful tribe among his brethren.

Numbers 3:13

Because all the first-born are mine (see Exodus 13:2, and below on verse 43). That the powers of heaven had a special claim upon the firstling of man or beast was probably one of the oldest religious ideas in the world, which it would be difficult to trace to any origin but in some primeval revelation. It branched out into many superstitions, of which the cruel cultus of Moloch was the worst. Among the tribes which preserved the patriarchal faith, it retained more or less of its primitive meaning in the assignment of sacrificial duties to the eldest son. According to the Targums, the "young men of the children of Israel" sent by Moses to offer sacrifices before the consecration of Aaron (Exodus 24:5) were first-born. Whatever ancient and latent claims, however, God may have had upon the firstborn of Israel, they are here superseded by a special and recent claim founded upon their miraculous preservation when the first-born of the Egyptians were slain. All the firstborn in that day became "anathema," devoted to God, for evil or for good, for death or for life. He, to whom belongs the whole harvest of human souls, came and claimed his first-fruits from the fields of Egypt. He took unto himself by death the first-born of the Egyptians; he left for himself in life the first-born of the Israelites. For the convenience, however, of the people, and for the better and more regular discharge of the ministry, he was content to take the single small tribe of Levi in lieu of the first-born of all.

Numbers 3:12

Instead of all the first-born. The Septuagint inserts here, "they shall be their ransom."

Numbers 3:13

Mine shall they be: I am the Lord. Rather, "mine shall they be, mine, the Lord's."

Numbers 3:15

From a month old. The first-born were to be redeemed "from a month old" (Numbers 18:16).

Numbers 3:17

These were the sons of Levi. These genealogical notices are inserted here in order to give completeness to the account of the Levites in the day of their dedication.

Numbers 3:23

Shall pitch. These directions as to the position and duties of the Levitical families retain the form in which they were originally given. The way in which they are mixed up with direct narrative affords a striking proof of the inartificial character of these sacred writings. Behind the tabernacle westward. The tabernacle opened or looked eastward towards the sunrise.

Numbers 3:25

The charge of the sons of Gershon. See Numbers 4:24-26.

Numbers 3:28

Eight thousand and six hundred. The four families of the Kohathites, of which that of Amram was one, must have contained about 18,000 souls. Moses and Aaron were sons of Amram, and they seem to have had but two sons apiece at this time. If, therefore, the family of the Amramites was at all equal in numbers to the other three, they must have had more than 4000 brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces. It is urged in reply that Amram lived 137 years, and may have had many other children, and that the variations in the comparative rates of increase are so great and so unaccountable that it is useless to speculate upon them. There is, however, a more serious difficulty connected with the genealogy of Moses and Aaron, as given here and elsewhere. If they were the great-grandchildren of Levi on their father's side, and his grandchildren on their mother's side, it is impossible to maintain the obvious meaning of Exodus 12:40. Either the genealogy must be lengthened, or the time must be very much shortened for the sojourning in Egypt. The known and undoubted habit of the sacred writers to omit names in their genealogies, even in those which seem most precise, lessens the difficulty of the first alternative, whereas every consideration of numbers, including those in this passage, increases the difficulty of the second. To endeavour to avoid either alternative, and to force the apparent statements of Scripture into accord by assuming a multiplicity of unrecorded and improbable miracles at every turn (as, e.g; that Jochebed, the mother of Moses, was restored to youth and beauty at an extreme old age), is to expose the holy writings to contempt. It is much more reverent to believe, either that the genealogies are very imperfect, or that the numbers in the text have been very considerably altered. Every consideration of particular examples, still more the general impression left by the whole narrative, favours the former as against the latter alternative.

Numbers 3:30

Elizaphan the son of Uzziel—of the youngest branch. This may have aroused the jealousy of Korah, who represented an elder branch.

Numbers 3:32

Eleazar. The priests were themselves Kohathites, and therefore their chief is here mentioned as having the oversight over the other overseers—ipsos custodes custodiens.

Numbers 3:38

Before the tabernacle toward the east,… Moses, and Aaron and his sons. The most central and honourable place in the camp, and the most convenient for constant and direct access to the sanctuary. Moses held a wholly personal and exceptional position as king in Jeshurun (Deuteronomy 33:5); Aaron was hereditary high priest. Between them they represented the union of royal and sacerdotal authority, which had many partial continuations in Jewish history, but was fully realized in Christ.

Numbers 3:39

Twenty and two thousand. It is obvious that there is a discrepancy between this total and its three component numbers, which make 22,300. It is so obvious that it must have been innocent; no one deliberately falsifying or forging would have left so palpable a discrepancy on the face of the narrative. It may, therefore, have arisen from an error in transcription (the alteration of a single letter would suffice); or it may be due to the fact that, for some reason not stated, 300 were struck off the Levitical total for the purpose of this census. Such a reason was found by the Hebrew expositors, and has been accepted by some moderns, in the fact that the Levites were taken and counted instead of the first-born, and that, therefore, their own first-born would have to he excluded. There is nothing to be said against this explanation, except that no trace of it appears in a narrative otherwise very full and minute. The first-born of the Levites may have been just 300 (although the number is singularly small), and they may have been considered ineligible for the purpose of redeeming other first-born; but if so, why did not the sacred writer say so, instead of silently reducing the total of "all that were numbered of the Levites"?

Numbers 3:43

Twenty and two thousand two hundred and threescore and thirteen. These were the first-born of the twelve tribes; but who were included under the designation "first-born" is a matter of grave dispute. The smallness of their number (not much above one per cent. of the whole population) has given rise to several conflicting theories, all of which seem to be artificial, arbitrary, and therefore unsatisfactory. It is urged by some that the expression "every male that openeth the womb" must be strictly pressed, and that there would be no "first-born" in those families (which form a considerable majority) in which either a girl was born first, or the eldest, being a boy, had died. It is further urged that only those first-horn would be counted who were not themselves fathers of families. These considerations will indeed reduce the probable numbers very largely, but not to the required amount. Others, again, give an entirely different turn to the difficulty by urging that as the command in Exodus 13:1-22. I was prospective only, so at this time only the first-born since the exodus were counted. This makes it necessary to assume an altogether unprecedented birth-rate during that short period. One other explanation strives to satisfy the arithmetical conditions of the problem by assuming that the whole of the Divine legislation in this matter was in reality directed against the worship of Moloch, and was designed to prevent the offering of first-born to him by redeeming them unto himself. As the rites of Moloch only demanded young children of tender age, only such were counted in this census. It may, indeed, be very probably concluded that their heavenly Father did claim these first-born, partly in order to save them from Moloch, because the people would thereafter be exposed to the fascination of that horrid superstition; but there is no proof whatever that they were acquainted with it at this time. These cruel rites, together with many other heathen abominations, are forbidden in Le Exodus 18:21 and Deuteronomy 18:10, in view of the entry into Canaan, where they were practiced. The prophet Amos, when he reproaches them with having "carried the tabernacle of" their "Moloch" even in the wilderness (Amos 5:26), absolves them by implication from any darker superstition; and the highly rhetorical passage Ezekiel 20:26 seems to refer to the consequences of disobedience at a later date, and can hardly be pressed against the entire silence of the Pentateuch. Anyhow it does not seem possible, on the strength of a supposed intention on the part of God of which no trace appears in the text, to impose a narrow and arbitrary limit upon the plain command to number "all the first-born, from a month old and upward." If we turn from these speculations to the reason and ground of the matter as stated by God himself, it will appear much more simple. It was distinctly on the ground of their preservation from the destroying angel in Egypt that the first-born of Israel were claimed as God's peculium now (see Ezekiel 20:13). The command in Exodus 13:1 was no doubt prospective, but the sanctification of the first-born was based upon the deliverance itself; and this command was intended not to limit that sanctification for the present, but to continue it for the future. Now if we turn to Exodus 12:29, Exodus 12:30, and ask who the first-born were whom the destroying angel cut off, we see plainly enough that they included the eldest son, being a child, in every house; that every family lost one, and only one. On the one hand, Pharaoh himself was in all probability a first-born, but he was not in any personal danger, because he ranked and suffered as a father, not as a son. On the other hand, the majority of families in which the first-born was a daughter, or had died, did not therefore escape: "there was not a house where there was not one dead." Taking this as the only sure ground to go upon, we may conclude with some confidence that the first-born now claimed by God in-eluded all the eldest sons in the families of Israel who were not themselves the heads of houses. These were the destroyed in Egypt—these the redeemed in Israel. How they came to be so few in proportion is a matter in itself of extremely slight importance, and dependant, perhaps, upon causes of which no record was left.

Numbers 3:47

Five shekels apiece. This amount had already been fixed

that every one who has some special call is a partner partly in the work of Christ, partly in the duty of the Church; he helps to carry on the one or to discharge the other (or both). The atonement indeed was made by Aaron—as by Christ—himself, alone; but the outward and subordinate matters of his office he discharged by means of the Levites, and he could not otherwise have discharged them. Even so does Christ outwardly and visibly fulfill his manifold office upon earth by the months and by the hands of his servants. Thus, if any preach the word, he is doing the work of Christ our Prophet; if any minister to the sick, of Christ our Healer; if any feed his lambs, of Christ our Good Shepherd; if any rule over men for their good, of Christ our King. Even if any suffer in the spirit of Christ, he is filling up the yet unfilled measures of the afflictions of Christ (Colossians 1:24), because it is appointed unto Christ to suffer, as once in himself, so now in his earthly members, until the cup be wholly drained (cf. Revelation 1:9; Revelation 14:12). So, on the other hand, every one that is devoted to some ministry is discharging the duty of all to all, and through all to God. The body of Christ, which is the Church, owes unto all her members spiritual and temporal care and tendance; unto God ceaseless worship, prayer, and praise. But as the natural body discharges many of its functions through separate members or organs, so does the body of Christ through individuals set apart thereunto.


I. THAT GOD CLAIMED, AS OF RIGHT, THE SERVICES OF ALL THE FIRST-BORN BECAUSE OF THEIR PRESERVATION THROUGH THE BLOOD OF THE (PASSOVER) LAMB IN EGYPT. Even so all who belong to "the general assembly and Church of the firstborn," which are enrolled not in the lists of Aaron on earth, but in the book of God in heaven (Hebrews 12:23), i.e; all Christian people, so far as they understand their high calling, are claimed as his, and wholly his, by God; and this because he redeemed them by the precious blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 6:19, 1 Corinthians 6:20; Rom 14:8; 1 Peter 1:19, etc.). And notice that this "hallowing" of the first-born was a kind of death. All the first-born throughout the land of Egypt were "anathema"—a thing devoted. God had claimed them. If then these are saved from the destroyer by the death of the substituted lamb, they are still regarded as dead unto the old, the ordinary, life of men who are sui juris, as living only for God, and unto God. And this is precisely and unequivocally the position of all redeemed souls. Christ did not die that they should not die, but that their death should take a happy and blessed form, instead of one dark and terrible (2 Corinthians 5:15; Colossians 3:3, &c.). Every soul, elect, first-born, redeemed, is hallowed and dedicated and marked as dead unto sin and self, alive only unto God.

II. THAT THE FIRST-BORN WERE NUMBERED BY NAME, EVEN TO THE LAST INDIVIDUAL; which does not seem to have been the ease even with the Levites. Even so there is no one of his redeemed, first-born, that does not come into separate remembrance before God, because a soul hallowed by the precious blood is of priceless worth.

III. THAT THE ODD NUMBER of the first-born over and above those redeemed by the Levites HAD TO BE REDEEMED WITH A PRICE; for they were his, and he could by no means renounce his rights over any. Even so all the assembly of the first-born are the Lord's, and he cannot forego his claims over any one of them, neither can any one of them say, "It does not matter about me—I shall not signify—I need not be counted." The services of all are due to Christ, and God will have this acknowledged without any exception.

Consider, again, as incidentally appearing—

1. That the whole matter begins with the genealogy of Aaron and Moses—the priest and the Ruler in Israel. Even so all questions of religion and devotion, however seemingly simple or entirely practical, do really begin with and from the "generations" of him who is both Priest and Ruler in Israel, of him who came forth out of Bethlehem, whose goings forth are from everlasting (Micah 5:2). And so do the Gospels begin with the human genealogy (Matthew, Luke), or the Divine (John), of the Anointed, or with the briefest summary of both (Mark—"the Son of God").

2. That Nadab and Abihu, priests of the line of Aaron, who offered strange fire, had no children. Even so the solitary priesthood of Christ is ministered visibly in the Church, and there are that attempt to minister it presumptuously and falsely, as though it were their own; but these are spiritually barren, and leave no children in the faith, because the blessing and power of God is not with their ministry, and because human ambitions are "strange" to the gospel of love.

3. That Moses and Aaron camped on the east of the tabernacle, as the place at once most central and most near the Divine presence. Even so our King and Priest doth so abide as that he may ever appear in the presence of God for us (Hebrews 9:24), and yet may ever be in the midst of his Church (Matthew 28:20; Revelation 2:1).


Numbers 3:1-51


The third and fourth chapters of Numbers form a section by themselves, and of this section the opening verse is the descriptive title: THE GENERATIONS OF AARON AND MOSES. According to the idiom of the Bible, this means that the two chapters which follow constitute the Book of the Families of Levi (compare the titles of the several sections of Genesis, viz; Numbers 2:4; Numbers 5:1; Numbers 6:9; Numbers 10:1; Numbers 11:27, etc.; also Matthew 1:1). The design of the book is to note the principal divisions of the tribe and allot to each its place and duties. Observe how the names of Aaron and Moses stand where we should have expected to find Levi's. The patriarch's fame has been quite eclipsed by that of his illustrious descendants, insomuch that here the tribe takes its title from them rather than from him. The book of the Levites is entitled the Book of Aaron and Moses.

I. IN THIS FAMILY BOOK THE PRE-EMINENCE IS GIVEN TO AARON. The name of Moses is inscribed in the title, but his family is otherwise of no note. The noble self-denial of Moses in this matter has been much commended, and with reason. He was superior to the ambition which seeks to build up a family at whatever cost to the nation. There is some reason to think that his sons were unworthy. Their mother was a Midianite, and seems to have had little sympathy with her husband's faith. It was otherwise with Aaron. His wife was a daughter of Amminadab, the prince of Judah and ancestor of our Lord (Exodus 6:23). Her name was Elisheba ("a worshipper of God"); and as the name became a favourite one among the daughters of the priestly house (Luke 1:5), it may be presumed that she was worthy of the name, the first of all the saintly Elisabeths. The sons of Aaron and Elisabeth, being the heirs of the priesthood, took precedence of the other families of Levi, and occupied the place of honour in the camp. They, with Moses, pitched their tents in front of the tabernacle, towards the east (verse 38). Note in passing how, at this early date, the two families which were to be pre-eminent for fifteen hundred years in respect of force of character, variety of services, and public honours are already marked out by the hand of God. On the march the prince of Judah leads the van (Numbers 1:7; Numbers 2:3, Numbers 2:9); in the encampment Aaron and his sons occupy the place of honour. In the family book of Levi the sons of Aaron and Elisabeth take precedence of all their brethren. Yet not so as to give any foothold in Israel to that sacerdotal pride which made the Brahmins of India and the priests of Egypt a sacred caste, and taught the people to bow before them as demigods. If Aaron and Elisabeth ever read this family register, their hearts did not swell with pride. The first sentences recall the tragedy of their house. Aaron's two eldest sons, with the oil of their consecration yet fresh upon them, sinned presumptuously, were smitten, and their names perished from Israel. Not even in the house of the godliest pair is grace hereditary. Aaron, the saint of God, and his saintly Elisabeth mourn over sons whom God has cut off in their sin. God will endure no rival in his house. His most honoured servants must be content to be only his servants, and the servants of all men for his sake. The Bible tolerates no hero worship. It tells the truth about the best of men, lovingly indeed, but without extenuation. In our family registers we are not bound by the same rule. We do not occupy the throne of judgment, and may bury domestic tragedies out of sight. But God is Judge, and his book, as it cannot err in its judgments, must speak without reserve, although the effect should be to "stain the pride of all glory" (Isaiah 23:9).

II. THE GREATER PART OF THIS FAMILY BOOK IS OCCUPIED WITH THE CENSUS OF THE LEVITICAL CLANS AND THE ALLOTMENT TO EACH OF ITS PLACE AND DUTIES. The particulars falling under this head do not call for special notice here. They concur with those related in the earlier chapters of this book in showing that the march of the tribes was performed with the most perfect order. Never was any great multitude more unlike a mob than the congregation in the wilderness. Moses in Egypt bad shown himself a man "mighty in deeds" (Acts 7:22). The tradition which makes him to have led victorious armies in his youth is probably true. Certainly the order laid down in Numbers for the march and the camp, for the nation in general and for the Levites in particular, shows everywhere the hand of the general accustomed to handle great bodies of men.—Care is taken to put on record the reason for the separation of the Levites to the service of the tabernacle. By primitive custom a certain sanctity was attributed to the first-born. The act of God in passing over the first-born of Israel in Egypt established an additional claim upon the first-born thenceforward (cf. Exodus 13:1-22, also Numbers 22:29, etc.). To have required the personal service of the eldest son of every house would have been inconvenient. Better let the tribe of Levi be substituted, and let them minister to Aaron their brother; an arrangement facilitated by the circumstance that the Levites were nearly the same in number as the first-born. (The equation is not without its difficulties. But there is great doubt as to who exactly were meant by the "first-born." Till that is settled it is too soon to charge the narrative with error.) It was needful to state very distinctly the reason for the separation of a whole tribe to sacred service. The tribe thus separated had to be supported by their brethren, besides being disabled for doing their share of military and other public service. The Israelites would be unlike the rest of mankind if they did not, by and by, grudge such a great expenditure. They are to be reminded that the separation of the Levites was in liquidation of a prior claim, and took place by way of accommodation to their convenience. When money or service is asked for religious or charitable objects there are sure to be grumblers, and it is very expedient to fortify the demand with a clear statement of the reasons.—B.


Numbers 3:4


There are various kinds of fire used in the service of God which, if not as hateful in his sight as that offered by Nadab and Abihu, are "strange." There is a fire which is appropriate and acceptable, because kindled by God; all others are "strange fire, which he commanded not" (Le Numbers 10:1). E.g.—

I. ILLEGITIMATE ZEAL, as seen in every kind of persecution (see Luke 9:51-56). Yet a writer on the origin of the Inquisition quotes the passage in justification of the burning of heretics: "Lo! fire the punishment of heretics, for the Samaritans were the heretics of those times" (Prescott's ‘Ferdinand and Isabella,' 1:319, n.). See Galatians 4:18. But let the zeal run in the path marked out for it by Christ towards enemies (Matthew 5:44), backsliders (Galatians 6:1), or heretics (James 5:19, James 5:20).

II. UNAUTHORISED SERVICES; whether offered by unauthorized persons, as Korah, who yet had the true fire (chapter 16:17, 18), or Saul (1 Samuel 13:9-14), or Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26:1-23.); or by God's servants, but in ways alien to his mind (Illus; Uzzah, 1Ch 13:9, 1 Chronicles 13:10; 1 Chronicles 15:13). Such are the "voluntary humility" and "neglecting of the body" condemned in Colossians 2:18-23, and all similar austerities. The fire God approves must be presented by accepted worshippers in an appointed way.

III. SUPERSTITIOUS DEVOTIONS. These may be presented through Christ "the way," and yet marred by ignorant fears of God, or unworthy fancies, or errors intertwined with God's truth in the many ways known to ancient or modern superstition (1 John 4:18; 1 John 5:13-15).

IV. ARTIFICIAL EMOTION. We need never dread the emotion caused by God's own truth, used in legitimate ways. Truth is like solid fuel that ought to keep up a glowing heat, whether of alarm (Acts 2:37; Acts 24:25) or of joy (Acts 2:41). But emotion excited apart from the communication of appropriate truth may be disastrous; or at best like a blaze of straw, soon leaving only blackness and ashes. All such "strange fire" tends to the injury, or even the destruction, of the offerers (John 4:24). To worship God in truth we must ourselves be "accepted in the beloved," enlightened by the Holy Spirit, and must present spiritual sacrifices kindled by his own celestial fire of love.—P.


Numbers 3:4


"And Nadab and Abihu died before the Lord," &c.

I. WHO THEY WERE THAT COMMITTED THIS SIN. Sons of Aaron; elder sons: in whom, therefore, a greater sense of thoughtfulness and responsibility might have been expected. They had also been duly anointed and consecrated. They could hardly plead ignorance and inexperience in the things of God. They had nothing else to do than attend to the tabernacle. They knew, or ought to have considered, that Jehovah had laid down instructions, even to the minutest points, as to what the priests were to do. It is a warning then to all who stand among peculiar privileges and enjoy greater light, e.g; those who live in a household where there is piety at the head, arid a continual regard in all things for the will of God (Matthew 11:20-24).

II. THE SIN THEY COMMITTED. They offered strange fire before the Lord. The fire to be used was the holy fire ever burning upon the altar (Le Numbers 6:13). To offer incense was to symbolize thanksgiving and supplication, and this, of all things, requires to be done in most careful conformity with Divine appointments. All offerings to God, to be worth anything, must be voluntary; yet even a voluntary offering may be an abomination before him when it is a random and reckless exercise of our own freedom. The highest of human actions is to do God's will with all our will, as seeing clearly that it is the right thing to do.

III. The TERRIBLE CONSEQUENCE. It was truly a mortal sin, a sin which on the very commission of it was followed by death, like the taking of some swift-working poison. It was as dangerous for a careless priest to take up the tabernacle services as for a man to take naked lights about a powder magazine. The fire of the Lord was a hidden thing, yet in a moment its full energy might be revealed, either to bless or destroy (cf. Leviticus 9:24 with Le Numbers 10:2). But though the sin was a mortal sin, it was not in itself worse than other offences against which sentence is not executed speedily. All sin is mortal, though the deadly result be spread over long periods. This sin was punished promptly and terribly, as were some other sins in Israel, not because they were worse, but because the people, and particularly the Levites, needed a lesson in the most impressive way in which it could be given. The fire of the Lord went out against the priests here, but soon after it went out against the people (Numbers 11:1). "Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish."

Lessons:—A worthy office may have an unworthy occupant. There are a Nadab and Abihu here; there were a Hophni and Phinehas afterwards, and a Judas among the apostles. Anointing, consecration, imposition of hands may have official value, but God only can give the faculty of true inward service. We may bring strange fire before God when we bring zeal not according to knowledge. There may be great fire and intensity and activity with nothing of the baptism of the Holy Ghost and of fire. Consider the lamentations of Paul over his persecuting days. There is here another instance of the letter killing. In the Old Testament punishment predominated over reward, because disobedience predominated over obedience.—Y.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Numbers 3". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tpc/numbers-3.html. 1897.
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