(1) And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which he commanded them not.
(2) And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.
This passage is shocking not just for what happened, but also for when it happened. In the chapter previous, Aaron and his sons had been anointed priests, the Tabernacle had been dedicated and a proper sacrifice had been offered before the Lord and miraculously consumed by Him:
And there came a fire out from before the LORD, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces. (Leviticus 9:24)
So how did Nadab and Abihu go from all of that to immediately offering strange fire on the altar and getting themselves killed? It might not have been immediately after. It may have been a day or two later. It was definitely during the dedication week because Aaron and his sons were instructed to remain in the Tabernacle for one week after their anointing (Leviticus 8:33). When Nadab and Abihu were killed, Moses sternly instructed Aaron and his remaining sons not to leave the Tabernacle to mourn them or they too would die (Leviticus 10:6-7).
So, within a span of less than a week, Aaron and his sons went from great blessing to great tragedy. So, how did it come to this? How did Aaron’s two oldest boys come to such misfortune? I think it’s explained in part by what the LORD said to Aaron after all of this:
(9) Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die: it shall be a statute [forever] throughout your generations:
(10) And that ye may put difference between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean;
Of all the things the Lord could have said to Aaron, why that? Nadab and Abihu may have offered strange fire upon the altar because they had become drunk. Perhaps given all the events that had occurred, their anointing, the dedication of the Tabernacle and the miraculous results of the first offering on the altar, Aaron’s two oldest sons celebrated but let it go a little too far. With their judgment impaired, they became careless and disobedient.
What we learn from this tragic incident is that God is no respecter of persons and that He expects a higher standard from His people than He does from anyone else. Peter tells us that believers are a “chosen generation, a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9a). As priests before God we, like Aaron and his sons, are held by God to a higher standard. By claiming for ourselves the name of “Christian” we single ourselves out and make ourselves more accountable before God and man. We must walk circumspectly, meaning “with caution” (Ephesians 5:15). That means we must not allow ourselves to become impaired in our judgment. We cannot be drunk with wine or anything else that might take us over but filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18).
For the believer, every day needs to be lived as a sacrifice to God. We must be careful that our lives do not offer “strange fire” before the Lord.