Profane Fire which He had Not Commanded
Leviticus 10:1-11

According to God's decree under the old covenant, only Aaron and his descendants could serve as priests. Aaron had four sons: Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar (Ex. 6:22). What a privilege! From among the millions of descendants of Abraham, they were chosen to be priests of God.

Aaron's two oldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, accompanied Aaron, Moses and the seventy elders when they climbed the mountain to meet with God (Ex. 24:1,2,9-11).

Aaron was anointed as high priest and his sons were dedicated as priests (Lev. 8:1-36). Their dedication lasted seven days. On the eighth day they offered sacrifices for the people (Lev. 9). God accepted their sacrifices: "And Moses and Aaron went into the tabernacle of meeting, and came out and blessed the people. Then the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people and fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the burnt offering and the fat on the altar. When all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces" (Lev. 9:23,24).

Then something terrible happened. "Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. So fire went out from the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, 'This is what the Lord spoke, saying: "By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; and before all the people I must be glorified."' So Aaron held his peace" (Lev. 10:1-3).

What was the great sin of Nadab and Abihu? Did they do something immoral? No. They were duely appointed priests. They used censers that were acceptable in the rightful worship. They offered incense that was also used in the rightful worship. Yet, what they did was profane. What they did was not holy. Why? Because it was something God had not commanded them to do! When they worshipped as God commanded, what they did was dedicated to God, it was holy, it was acceptable to God. When they worshipped God by doing something that He had not commanded, their actions were profane. Their sacrifice was unholy, it was not acceptable to God.

Some translations have the more literal 'strange fire' in verse 1. The word 'strange' in this context refers to something that is unholy or profane because it is not authorized for use in a sacred setting.

True worship is an expression of submission and respect for God. By offering a sacrifice that God had not commanded, Nadab and Abihu demonstrated arrogance and presumption before God. They did what they wanted to do instead of abiding by what God told them to do. Had God forbidden them to do what they did? Not specifically. But God has always made it clear that people are to worship Him according to His word, and not according to their own ideas.

They had disregarded a command of God: "By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; and before all the people I must be glorified" (Lev. 10:3). At Mount Sinai God had said: "Also let the priests who come near the LORD sanctify themselves, lest the LORD break out against them" (Exodus 19:22).

Nadab and Abihu died without having children (Num. 3:4). But they have a multitude of spiritual children! Or should we call them 'unspiritual' children?

In our time millions of people worship God by doing things He has not commanded. Unauthorized forms of Christian worship are also 'strange' elements in a sacred setting and are therefore unholy. Such 'worship' is profane. It shows disrespect for God and His word.

This is the most fundamental difference between the true church that Jesus established and denominations of human origin. Human churches worship God in ways that He has not commanded. This shows arrogance, not submission. It shows presumption, not respect. Their worship is therefore worthless. Do you know what Jesus called such people? "Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: 'These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honour Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men'" (Mat. 15:7-9).

They who worship God in spirit and in truth will be submissive and humble, being careful not to go beyond what is written (1 Cor. 4:6).

Members of human denominations, who are accustomed to doing all kinds of things God has never commanded, find it strange, for example, that churches of Christ do not observe Easter and Christmas as religous holidays, that they do not use incense, candles or instruments of music, and that they do not have a central organization. But these are all things God has not commanded for His church.

True worshippers celebrate the resurrection of Christ each first day of the week when they come together to break bread as the first Christians did (Acts 20:7). God has never asked us to celebrate Easter or Christmas. Such things are profane. They are unholy. Why? Because it is something God has not commanded!

True worshippers praise God from the heart by singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, as commanded (1 Cor. 14:15; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). To use incense, candles and instruments of music in worship is to offer profane fire before the Lord. It is unholy. Why? Because it is something God has not commanded!

True believers form congregations with elders, servants, evangelists and teachers as God has commanded (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9). Central ecclesiastical organizations are profane, they are unholy. Why? Because they are things God has not commanded.

We must worship God in accordance with His word, which means that we must omit from our worship things He has not commanded. Our worship will not be accepted if we offer profane fire before the Lord.

We will now examine this fundamental principle from the Scriptures with regard to the music God has commanded for Christian worship.

"And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him" (Col. 3:15-17).

"And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Eph. 5:18-20).

This is the music God has commanded for Christian worship.

And during the first six hundred years after Christ this is the music that was used in worship to God in all Christendom. The Orthodox Church preserved the original practice and never started using instruments of music. Because Christian music was originally, and for so long, exclusively vocal, the expression 'a cappella' (Latin for 'as in church') is still used in music terminology to refer to singing without instrumental accompaniment.

It was not until 666 A.D., under the leadership of Pope Vitalianus I, that instruments of music began to be used in a few churches.

In "An Illustrated History of Music" by Thomas Tapper and Percy Goetschius (London: John Murray, 1915), Chapter Five "Music of the early Christian Church" we read on page 34: "Both sexes joined in singing; but instruments of every kind were prohibited for a long time."

Almost all Protestant reformers opposed the use of instruments of music in worship, which they rejected along with the use of incense, candles and other elements of Roman Catholic worship that are not found in the New Testament. In the meantime, however, most Protestant churches have reintroduced this Roman Catholic innovation.

Except in areas where the Orthodox Church is prominent, the use of instruments of music in so-called Christian worship is now so prevalent that most people find it extremely strange that we believe Christian music should be exclusively vocal. Some people even ridicule us for refusing to tolerate the use of musical instruments in connection with the singing of spiritual songs. But actually, due to their lack of knowledge or understanding of church history, they are ridiculing the first Christians and all of Christendom during the first six centuries after Christ.

Singing is an important part of Christian worship. Of Christ himself it was prophesied that He would sing praises to God: "For this reason I will confess to You among the Gentiles, And sing to Your name" (Psalm 18:50 quoted in Rom. 15:9). "I will declare Your name to My brethren; In the midst of the congregation I will sing praise to You" (Psalm 22:23 quoted in Heb. 2:12).

Christians sing praises to God in all circumstances, not just in the assemblies. James wrote: "Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms" (James 5:13). Paul and Silas sang in prison: "But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them" (Acts 16:25). Most of the passages on singing are not limited to the assembly.

From 1 Corinthians 14:26 it is certainly clear, however, that singing was done in the Christian assemblies: "How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification."

Along with other passages, this Scripture teaches that singing is to be done for edification.

The words of Christian songs should communicate an upbuilding message. Paul said: "I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding" (1 Cor. 14:15).

Prayer and song are to be directed to God in the spirit, but in the assembly others must be edified as well. Paul says: "I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue" (1 Cor. 14:19).

Mechanical music does not meet either of these qualifications. An instrument is a 'dead thing' as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:7. An instrument has no spirit and has no understanding. It does not edify. Five words that people can understand are worth more, according to Paul, than ten thousand meaningless sounds. The same deficiency applies to rhythmic sounds made with the voice, hands or feet. Instruments and meaningless sounds, may please the carnal ears of man, but they do not edify.

The singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs is commanded by God in his holy word. Such worship is holy because it is done in submission and in obedience to God. The use of instrumental music in worship is offering profane fire before the Lord. It is unholy because it is something God has not commanded. It shows a wrong attitude toward God and His word, an attitude that invariably leads to all kinds of other departures from the word of God as well.

What are some of the false arguments people sometimes make to try to justify the use of instruments?

Some say: "The use of instruments in worship is not expressly forbidden." Were Nadab and Abihu expressly forbidden to do what they did? No, they simply did something "which He had not commanded them".

The notion that you can do anything in worship unless it is expressly forbidden, causes all kinds of departures from the word of God. Have we been forbidden to use hamburgers on the Lord's table? No, but we have been told what to use, and it would be profaning the Lord's Supper for us to add anything else. In the same way, musical instruments profane worship. It is something God has not commanded.

Some say: "Instruments were used in Old Testament worship, so there can't be anything wrong with it."

We are now supposed to worship God according to the New Testament, not the Old (Hebrews 8:7-13). What if someone wants to use the following in worship: incense (Malachi 1:11), dancing (Ps. 87:7; 150:4), lamps (Ex. 27:20) or an ark (Ps. 132:7,8). What if someone wants to celebrate the new moon (Ps. 81:4), build an alter and a temple (Ps. 43:4; 122:1-4), or offer animal sacrifices (Ps. 66:13-15)? All these things are also found in Old Testament worship. And, indeed, there are people who do all of these things, but they are not worshipping God according to the covenant He has given us through His Son, Jesus Christ.

Not one of the examples mentioned, including instruments of music, has been authorized as Christian worship. They are all things the Lord has not commanded.

The argument that we read about instruments in Revelation is similar. If one misuses the symbolic language in Revelation to try to justify the use of instruments of music in worship, he can also find an excuse to use incense, an altar, an ark and a temple, for all these things are found in Revelation as well (Rev. 8:3,4; 11:1,19).

The desire for instruments of music in worship is a sign of worldliness.

Many aspects of worship under the law of Moses were, as we read in Hebrews 9:10, "fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation".

Worship under the New Testament is simple and spiritual, as Jesus told the woman at the well: "But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:23,24).

As we already saw in connection with singing with the spirit and with the understanding, this explains why instruments of music were used in the Old Testament temple service, but are not included in New Testament worship.

Why do some want to play or listen to instruments in connection with worship? God has not commanded it. Why do they want to do it? Is the motive spiritual or worldly? Can instruments speak or praise God? Do they have understanding or a spirit? Paul calls them "lifeless things that make sounds" (1 Cor. 14:7) and someone without love is compared to "sounding brass or a clanging cymbal" (1 Cor. 13:1). What is the spiritual value of that?

Since instruments are lifeless things that cannot speak, and since God has not commanded their use, why are they used by certain people in their worship? For worldly reasons. Some think they make the singing sound more beautiful. Beautiful for whom? For God? What is beautiful to God? A beautiful sound? or a beautiful heart? A heart that submits to God and worships Him in accordance with His word.

Even if you have a voice like a frog, you can obey God's command: "be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Eph. 5:18-20). If you make melody in your heart to the Lord, to Him it will be beautiful.

Let us not offer profane fire before the Lord in our worship. Let us do what He has commanded. "Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come; and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water" (Rev. 14:7).

Roy Davison

The Scripture quotations in this article are from
The New King James Version. ©1979,1980,1982,
Thomas Nelson Inc., Publishers unless indicated otherwise.
Permission for reference use has been granted.

Published in The Old Paths Archive