Scripture Imagery: 85. Death in the Sanctuary

 •  6 min. read  •  grade level: 9
Directly after the tabernacle has been set up and consecrated with such imposing solemnity and happy anticipation, a frightful event occurs. Nadab and Abihu, Aaron's sons, are stricken down dead before the altar by a blast of divine wrath.
They had offered “strange fire.” As though the burning inspiration of the God-given afflatus, already there, were not sufficient, they provide from their own artificial resources—and perish. No! Other things men may and should provide, but not that. Moses explains to his brother that this was the reason; but it may well be doubted whether this explanation in any way assuaged the horror and anguish of the venerable high priest, as he saw the charred corpses of his sons carried out from the sanctuary. With that calm dignity, however, which characterized him and veiled the real weakness of his nature, he “held his peace.” But what awful and agonized questionings there are sometimes under the peaceful exterior.
Why should this terrible sorrow fall on him just at this moment when he had done all that the Lord had commanded, and was more than at any former time in accord with the divine will? If it had happened when he sinned in making the golden calf, for example, none would wonder, but now—! Could not God have prevented the young men's sins, (which seemed so much more to partake of the character of rashness than wickedness)? Could He not—seeing whose sons they were—have arrested so fearful a judgment?
The flippant mind has a ready tongue to answer all such questions as these. It is another question whether such facile answers are satisfactory. Aaron had sinned and now his sin had found him out. He must have brought up his family badly too, like Eli, and this is the natural result. “I told you so.” “See how the prohibition against wine is brought in just there.” These answers do not always proceed from coarse brutality as one might think: they generally come merely from levity, heartlessness, and self-sufficiency. “My dear brothers,” as Cromwell used to say, “I beseech you to consider that it is possible you may be wrong.” And consider too, that whether you are wrong or not, such explanations as those are only likely to fill the sufferer with indignation and draw down a rebuke from God on the Zophars, Bildads, and Eliphaz's who torment His stricken servants with their shallow conceits.
There is another class of those who, with much better intentions than these, yet are perhaps more irritating. They approach the sufferer with an airy cheerfulness, and with complaisant smiles tell him that it is all for the best. “This is sent for his good” (fancy a man consoled by the thought that, for instance, his sons are struck down for his good!), and again “there are millions worse off” than he: this last form of consolation is doubly irritating to a right-minded person, as in the first place it insults the sufferer by assuming that he can be consoled, instead of pained by the fact that other people are suffering more than himself; and, secondly, it takes away that little morsel of consolation that everyone finds in believing his own misfortunes are peculiar. Solomon knew these people and said it was like taking away a garment in winter to sing songs to those who have a heavy heart. We are not told by the All-wise to rejoice with them that weep.
But we are told to act as He did Whose mission it was to comfort those who mourn: “Jesus wept.” To “weep with those that weep”, and not to pretend to know too much of the mysterious causes of their suffering. It is possible we may be mistaken in our judgments. Why is it that one of the most honored and influential of God's servants at this time on earth, who has for years endured continual extreme bodily suffering and domestic sorrow, is (now while I write) protractedly struggling with pain and death, just at the time when we would think his powerful voice most needed to combat those attacks on the foundations of the faith which he has already withstood? Why should Carey, when translating the Bible into twenty four heathen languages, be obliged to hear the screaming of his mad wife from the adjoining room?
“ Teach thy tongue to say, I do not know.” From the Jewish Talmud comes that advice, but it is sound and good. Nothing produces so much infidelity as the idea that we have to account for everything, or that there is any human being who can—in respect of its absolute origin—account for anything. Goethe's Doctor begins by thinking he knows all things (though, as a few matters have been discovered since his time, be probably would not pass a modern school-board examination). He had thoroughly and painfully studied, he says, Philosophy, Jurisprudence, and Medicine, und, leider! auch Theologie—"unfortunately” indeed, for when a man exhausts all that, there is nothing but Demonology left, and it is no wonder he took to it. Yet he could not then tell the cause of the restlessness in his own heart, nor find a means to cure it. How much he must have known, that Doctor then, by his own account of what he had durchaus studirt! Yet I think that the man knew more, who discovered the laws of the solar systems and said he was only like a child picking up shells on the shore while the ocean of truth stretched beyond him out to infinity. Did it ever occur to you when such and such an one has been followed by calamities, and men said God was chastening him for his sins, that perhaps the truth was, the devil was punishing him for his righteousness? Such mistakes have been made since Job's time.
How patiently we can bear the trials—of others. We are optimists then: everything is for the best. But when sorrow knocks at our own door, we are pessimists; then we think Schopenhauer may be right after all, and “think that the bottom is come out of the universe when our own gallipot leaks.”
“ Teach thy tongue to say, I do not know.” “If any man think that he knoweth anything, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought.” He knows merely the outsides and secondary causes of things: of the primal causes, the inward origin, the “fourth dimension,” of even the simplest object we know nothing. If the Learned Critic can explain to me what it is that makes one little brown seed come up with a red flower and another little brown seed come up with a blue flower, I will explain to him every mystery in every part of the universe, from the Bathybius to the Gadarene pigs.
We know some things however, though not yet indeed as we ought—that knowledge, though a good thing, puffeth up, and that intellectual pride was the original damnation, and it is the special danger of the present day; that, whilst knowledge puffeth up, charity buildeth up. We know that, if a man love God, the same is known of Him. We know that our blessed Redeemer wept in sympathy with human sorrow, and that in all our afflictions He is afflicted; and we know that there have been some here on earth who in the midst of the most crushing disasters could calmly say, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him” that there is
“A faith which sees the ring of light
Round nature's last eclipse! “