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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Leviticus 4



Verses 1-35

Sins of Ignorance

Leviticus 4

The expression, "If a soul shall sin through ignorance," opens a very wide region of thought. One would wonder whether it is possible that sin can be committed in ignorance—that is to say, whether the ignorance does not do away with the sinful character of the deed. Is not sin a wilful action? Is not its wilfulness the very essence of its guilt? So we would think; yet again and again in the ritual we find that ignorance is never made into a sufficient excuse for sin. The sense of mystery which we may feel in regard to this matter can only be relieved by looking for analogous instances in the field of nature. This I would lay down as an excellent law of Biblical interpretation. Thus, given instances of mystery which afflict the soul with a sense of burdensomeness, or even of injustice, to find out how far such circumstances are illuminated or explained by actions within the province of observation and reason take, for example, sins of ignorance in a strictly physical department of life. Suppose it to be possible for anyone not to know the nature of fire, and in that state of ignorance to expose himself to its action, would the fire cease to operate because the man is ignorant? would nature suspend her operations in pity, saying, This man does not understand the nature of heat, and therefore he shall not feel the effects of its excessive use or application? Nothing of the kind occurs in nature. Nature is full of healing and kindness and compassion, always seeking to comfort the wounded and to staunch the fountains of blood, and yet nature makes no note of the persons who misunderstand or misapply her laws. Suppose a man should exclude the living air from his habitation, will nature say that the Prayer of Manasseh , not understanding the utility of the atmosphere, must be excused because of his ignorance? Nature, like her Lord, teaches through suffering. There is no law written on all the dominion of nature with a broader and clearer hand than that all sin is followed by penalty. Exclude the air, and you exclude vitality; shut out the light, and you impoverish the life; doom yourself to solitude, and you doom yourself by the same fiat to extinction. It is in vain to plead that we did not know the nature of air, or the utility of light, or the influence of high things upon things that are low; we must be taught the depth of our ignorance and its guilt by the intensity and continuance of our personal suffering. Leaving the region of nature and coming into the region of civilisation, we find that even in legal affairs violations of law are not excused on the ground of ignorance. The judge upon the bench does not hesitate to inform the trespasser that he ought to have known the law of which he pleaded ignorance. Again and again this has been known to be the case. That some modification may be allowed, or some concession, is perfectly possible; but it is distinctly made as a concession, and in no sense as a right. The law has been violated, by neglect, or through ignorance, or wantonly; and whether in the one way or the other, there it stands in an offended attitude, and nothing can cause it to consent to change its posture. It insists upon the amendment of recognition and the compensation of suffering on the part of the offender. Turning from purely legal criticism of this kind, we find the same law in operation in social affairs. A man is not excused from the consequences of ill-behaviour on the ground that he did not know the customs of society or the technicalities of etiquette. He may be pitied, he may be held in a kind of mild contempt, his name may be used to point a moral; but at the root of all this criticism lies the law that the man is a trespasser, and that ignorance cannot be pleaded as a complete excuse. This canon of judgment has a very wide bearing upon human affairs. Were it to be justly and completely applied, it would alter many arrangements and relations of life. There are many things which we ought to know, and which we ought to be; and instead of excusing ourselves by our ignorance, we should be stimulated by its effects to keener inquiry and more diligent culture. That sense of ignorance will possibly show us in what critical conditions our life is being spent. Life is not a broad surface which any eye can read, and which any capacity can comprehend. Life is a mystery, a complication, a series of causes and effects, a most complex organism which requires continual study and vigilance We know not upon what we may be launched by the very shortest journey we can take. He is living the life of a fool who imagines that life is a simple affair lying between four visible and measurable points. There is a superficial existence which can be measured as it were by the foot-rule, and weighed in common scales; but life, as inspired and directed by the Holy Ghost, is a sublime mystery. It admits of distinctions, and of classifications absolutely infinite in number. It is the part of Christianity so to operate upon human life as to show the greatness of that life to itself. As the Bible is a progressive Revelation , so life is a progressive Apocalypse. To be told in plain and frank terms that man is made in the image and likeness of God is simply to startle the mind with a bold and possibly incredible proposition. That proposition does lie at the very base of Biblical Revelation , but its full explanation is only to be realised as the centuries come and go, and after a breadth of education stretching through the experience of many generations. The first thing that a man was told is the last thing which man can understand. Thus we come to the beginning from the end, and only by doubling life back upon itself do we begin to take in the profoundest meanings of the very first statements which were addressed to the reason and the imagination. It is only in the Apocalypse that we begin to understand the Pentateuch. Yet even in such expressions as "If a soul sin through ignorance" we begin to see the meaning of the mystery of the divine nature of man. What watchfulness is imposed upon us by the fact that it is possible to sin through ignorance! If sin were a mere act of violence, we could easily become aware of it, and with comparatively little difficulty we might avoid its repetition. But it is more and other than this. It is committed when we little think of its commission; we inflict wounds when we think our hands are free of all weapons and instruments; we dishonour God when we suppose we are merely silent about him. The voice of nature and of experience, as well as of Revelation , is—"The place whereon thou standest is holy ground." The sin may be in a look, in a far-off suggestion, in a tempting tone, in attitudes that have no names, and in breathings that are inarticulate. Neglect may be sin as well as violence. There is a negative criminality as well as a positive blasphemy. All this makes life most critical and most profoundly solemn. The commandment of God is exceeding broad. Being a divine commandment it comes of continual and minute exactions covering all life with the spirit and obligation of discipline. Not a moment is our own; not a single atom of all the stupendous universe comes within our proprietorship; to-day or to-morrow we may be translated into other spheres of existence; we cannot make a law of any kind that is not local and temporary—a mere convenience for a moment; all the great laws were written before the universe was formed, and they will continue to exist through all changes and developments and processes of being; by their very nature they are eternal, and being eternal they cannot be affected by the conditions which are continually changing the attitude and complexion of our earthly life. Let us be just to the Biblical revelation in all such matters as these sins of ignorance; let us remind ourselves again that we recognise such sins in nature, in law, in social etiquette, in all the various relations of life, and that when we come upon them in the Bible we ought to approach them with a familiarity which itself amounts to an exposition and a vindication. There is nothing arbitrary in these enactments and demands. The God of Providence is the God of the Bible. Providence is the Bible in action, and the Bible is Providence in exposition and contemplation.

The mercy is shown that a special offering was provided for the sin of ignorance. It was recognised as a specialty, and provided for as such. Our business should never be to find the excuse, but rather to confess the sin. The great and gracious law applies here as elsewhere: "If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." It is not our place to provide sacrifices. Even the Jews had no sacrifices to provide in the sense of inventing them. The part which the Jew had to act was simply a response to a divine enactment, and in reality that is exactly what we have to do. It is not our business to say how a way can be found out of this sin or that, or what argument can be set up in palliation of the crime which has been committed; the provision has been made, and that provision we must accept unless we are prepared to fall under a penalty which never fails to follow in the wake of evil-doing. The sin of ignorance never goes alone. Imagine a life so well lived that nothing can be charged upon it but sin due to ignorance! Such a life is an impossibility. It is also impossible for life to be marked only by what are called little or minor sins. There are no such sins, and in proportion as the mind leans to the thought that such sins are possible, is the mind the victim of a most mischievous, and may be fatal, sophism. Life cannot be reduced to a mere negation. We know not what the conditions of life may be in other worlds, but in the region which is described by time, life itself would seem to be steeped in sin, and sin may be regarded, in some sense, as a necessity of life; not a necessity as involving the sovereignty of God, but as revealing the mystery of human nature, under local and probationary conditions, to itself. If one righteous man could have been found upon the earth, the atonement of Christ would have been unnecessary. Atonement does not relate to Numbers , or to individuals, or to exceptional instances, as if Christ should have said, "I will die for those who are tainted, for the few or the many who have apostatised"; in that case his death would have been the mere romance of philanthropy, or the fanaticism of perverted divinity; Jesus Christ found no righteous Prayer of Manasseh , and therefore he tasted death for every man; he died for a world lying in the wicked one, and not for certain populations who had been less fortunate than other portions of mankind. Human nature is one. Human sin is one. Divine atonement is one. We disintegrate the universe and turn into trifling the sublime purpose of God when we individualise, and specialise, and make exceptions on behalf of the virtue of this class or that class. The solemn and appalling truth is that there is none righteous, no not one; and however the sin may be critically described, it is simply for the purpose of showing that the sacrifice provided is equal to the refinement and mystery of any new definition that may startle the imagination by its delicacy or unsuspected operation. Take this view of the sacrifices, and it will be shown that the divine mind has anticipated every possible form of human evil and offence. Happily, therefore, the mind can never be surprised into despair by having forced upon it the conviction that some new sin has been invented, or some new conditions have so surrounded a sin as to take the offence out of the catalogue of the crimes for which divine provision has been made. The specification of sins is not intended to show the keenness and breadth of the divine criticism, but to supply an answer to temptations that might assail the soul and drag it towards the darkness of despair. Let every soul, then, boldly say, as if in solemn monologue, Whatever my sin may be, it is provided for in the great Offering established as the way of access to the Father; I will invent no excuses; I will seek for no new methods of payment or compensation; I will bring no price in my hand, no excuse on my tongue, nor will I hide even in the depths of my consciousness any hope that I can vindicate my position before God; I will simply fall into the hands of the Living One, and look upon the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world. In that spirit I will go forward to judgment, and in that spirit I will encounter the mysteries of destiny.


It was in the sprinkling of the blood, the proper sacrament of sacrifice, that the distinction between the guilt offering and the expiatory offering, in the narrow sense, came most clearly to the front; and it is easy to understand why it would reveal itself most plainly here. As it was right that the blood of an expiatory offering for public transgressions should be made far more conspicuous to eyes and sense, so it was sprinkled on an elevated place, or even on one which was extraordinarily sacred. The way, too, in which this was done was marked by three stages. If the atonement was made for an ordinary Prayer of Manasseh , or for a prince, the priest sprinkled the blood against the high towering horns of the outer altar, and poured the remainder, as usual, out at its base; if it was made for the community, or for the high-priest, some of the blood was seven times sprinkled against the veil of the Holy of Holies, then some more against the horns of the inner altar, and only what was then left was poured out, as usual, at the base of the outer altar. The third, and highest stage of expiation was adopted on the yearly day of atonement. On the other hand, in the case of the guilt offering, no reason existed for adopting any unusual mode of sprinkling the blood. It was sprinkled, just as in other cases, round the sides and foot of the outer altar. As soon as this most sacred ceremony of the sprinkling was completed, then, according to the ancient belief, the impurity and guilt were already shaken off from the object to which they had clung.



Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Leviticus 4:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. 1885-95.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 20th, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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