Offering Strange Fire

A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper

Then 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 (LEV. 10:1,2).

The Tabernacle of Israel was one of the most impressive structures of the ancient world. It was a complete center of worship for the Jewish nation. Imposing in design and in the wealth of materials, it was a cathedral for nomads. Designed in every detail by the Lord Himself, it could be easily moved. This was important because it allowed the children of Israel to have it always in their midst, while also allowing them to travel throughout the wilderness as directed by the Lord.

The tabernacle was a simple structure, yet each element of its design signified a wealth of spiritual truth. The three main areas represented the three heavens, and the three degrees of our minds; that the ark containing the 10 Commandments was kept in the Holy of Holies signified the Lord’s constant presence with us in the inmosts of our life; and as the altar represented the Lord in respect to Divine good, it was the very holy of holies, and sanctified everything that touched it; …and therefore the fire upon the altar was perpetually burning, and was never put out; and from that fire was taken the fire for the incense, and from no other source; for by “the fire of the altar” was signified the Divine good of the Lord’s Divine love (AC 9714:3).

However, it is not our intention to study the significance of the tabernacle, but to focus on a particular incident which will reveal a great deal about the nature of the Lord’s love for us and how we can return His love in kind.

At certain times of the year the priests were required to burn incense as part of their ritual, and as just said, it was also commanded that the censers were to be started from the holy fire which in the altar of sacrifice, for by the holy fire which was from the altar was signified love Divine; but by “strange fire,” [was signified] infernal love, and [therefore] also evils and their cupidities (AC 10287:13; Cf. AC 1297, 9141).

In our text we read how Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron, apparently decided that it would be too much trouble to go all the way to the altar of sacrifice to get fire to light their censers, and instead used fire from another source, perhaps from one of the many cooking fires in the camp. We don’t know all the details, but we do know that as soon as they touched the “strange” or profane fire to the incense, the wrath of Jehovah was fired against them, and they were consumed by it. They were literally burned to death.

In the Word, “fire” also means self-love and its attendant desire. Heavenly love can never agree with that, and when they come together they fight and one or the other is destroyed. It was this conflict that destroyed Nadab and Abihu because they employed strange fire (LEV. 10:1,2). “Strange fire” means all self-love and love of the world, and every desire accompanying those loves (AC 934:3).

We are taught in the Heavenly Doctrines that heavenly love seems to wicked people to be a burning and devouring fire; and this is why in the Word devouring fire is attributed to the Lord, because this is how the Lord’s love and mercy appears to people engulfed in the fire of self-love and love of the world (AC 934:e). The anger and hatred that is felt is attributed to Jehovah … but it is in man himself and arises from the conflict of the Divine Good in the Lord with the evil that is within his will (AC 5798, 6997, 8282, 8483, 9143). The zeal of Jehovah is love and mercy, and it is sometimes called “anger” in the Word because it so appears to the wicked when they incur the penalty of their evil (AC 8875, 9143).

It is sometimes disturbing to us to think about the terrible punishments that were given to those who broke Jehovah’s rules: as when Achan stole a wedge of gold and a Babylonian garment from Jericho and he and his whole family were stoned (JOS 7:22-26); when Uzzah died because he touched the ark because he thought he needed to steady it when the oxen stumbled (2SA 6:6,7); and of course the punishment of Nadab and Abihu.

There was a very good reason for this, for the Jewish Church had its conjunction with heaven and the Lord solely by means of representatives, and therefore as soon as they did not act strictly according to the commanded rituals, their representative conjunction with heaven perished. And when their conjunction with heaven by means of representatives failed, they no longer had any protection from the hells. It was for the sake of their very spiritual lives that the Lord punished them so severely, so that they would not break away from the rituals lightly.

We must ask ourselves what principles are illustrated by this story that will help us guide our lives in the way the Lord Himself wants us to live? The story tells us quite clearly that there are two kinds of love: there is the love of what is good, that is, the love of doing what is of use to the Lord and to the neighbor, the love of looking above and outside of one’s self; and on the other hand, there is the love of what is evil, the love of doing anything and everything that favors self, no matter what harm it may do to others. It is these two basic kinds of loves that are signified by the two kinds of fire mentioned in our text.

Love is the very life of man, because without love there is absolutely no life; for from love every one has the heat and fire of his life. …From this it follows that such as is the love, such is the life; consequently such as is the love, such is the man; and therefore from [examining] his loves every one can know whether heaven is in him, or hell (AC 9434:2).

With those who are in heavenly love the Divine fire or love is continually creating and renewing the interiors of the will, and is continually lighting up the interiors of the understanding. But with those who are in infernal love the Divine fire or love is continually injuring and vastating. The reason is that with the latter, the Divine love falls into opposites, whereby it is destroyed; for it is turned into the fire or love of self and of the world, thus into contempt for others in comparison with one’s self, into enmities against all who do not favor one’s self, and therefore into hatreds, into revenges, and finally into cruelties. It is from this then that fire of Jehovah appeared to the children of Israel as devouring or consuming; for they were in the love of self and of the world, because they were in external things apart from internal (AC 9434:3).

In these passages by a “devouring fire” is meant the fire of the desires which arise from the loves of self and of the world, because this is the fire which consumes a man, and which vastates the church. This was also represented by the “fire from before Jehovah” which devoured the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, because they put strange fire into their censers; “putting strange fire into their censers” denotes instituting worship from some other love than heavenly love (AC 9434:4).

The loves in a man are the fires of his life (AC 9055, 9144). Evil loves, which are the loves of self and the world, are consuming fires, for they consume the goods and truths which belong to the life itself. These fires make the life of man’s will, and the light from these fires makes the life of his understanding. So long as the fires of evil are kept shut up in the will, the understanding is in light, and consequently is able to perceive good and truth. But when these fires pour forth their light into the understanding, then the former light is dissipated, and the man is darkened in respect to the perception of good and truth, and this the more in proportion as the loves of self and of the world, which are these fires, receive increase; until finally these loves stifle and extinguish all truth, together with all good (AC 9144:1).

When these loves are assailed, then fire from the will breaks forth into the understanding, and kindles a flame there. This flame is what is called “anger.” …This flame assails the truths and goods that are in the understanding, and not only hides, but also consumes them; and (this is a secret) when this evil fire breaks forth from the will into the understanding, the latter is closed above and opened below; that is, is closed where it looks toward heaven, and is opened where it looks toward hell. From this it is that when an evil man takes fire with anger, evils and falsities flow in, which kindle into flame (AC 9144:2).

We are all born with hereditary tendencies to evils of every kind, and to balance this, the Lord provides that we also have many lovely and tender experiences that we can draw on, and which balance out the evil. The end result is that through the Lord’s government of our individual spiritual states, we have inclinations to both good and evil, and these balance each other out exactly, and we are left in freedom. We are not dominated either by good from Lord, or evil from hell. We are free to choose our own course through life according to the things we know to be true from the Word and from experience. Through our choices, which are unique to each individual, we form our eternal spiritual character.

It is obvious from everyone’s experience that we do not immediately and instinctively know the right path to heaven. We learn a few truths, think we understand, and discover that we didn’t know as much as we thought we did. We experiment. We test. We make serious mistakes from time to time, but as long as we are looking to the Lord for guidance we will take more steps forward than steps back.

Eventually things begin to fall into place. We learn what works for us, and what does not. We learn what causes hurt to those we love, and what brings them joy. We fall down, we get up and try again, because that is the only way that we can really learn the truth about the world–by living it.

While we are in the process of learning, we sometimes guide our lives by the fire from the altar, and sometimes by “strange” fire. Sometimes our goals are elevated and honorable, sometimes not. Sometimes our reasons for doing things comes from study of the Word. Sometimes they come from other sources, and that is what “strange fire” signifies (AC 9375:2).

We need to be very clear about what is and what is not meant by this. Remember that the Lord had commanded that fire from the altar be used to light the incense, and this had in fact been the practice for some time. The priests had the command from the Lord, had lived according to it, and it had become a part of their lives. Then, for some reason, they decided to go back on what they clearly knew to be the proper thing to do; they went from a state of confirmed, established good to a state of evil, thus they profaned their previous state of good by mixing it with evil.

We all switch between states of good and evil during our life in the world, and that is not a problem as long as we are in the process of making a free decision between good and evil. The Lord understands the process of change, and forgives our backsliding as long as we are trying to go forward, and it is an honest mistake. But profanation is something quite different, for it is a state where we have already fought for and acquired a good love by shunning an evil as sin. The punishment comes when we return to the evil love. Then we are taking what is good, and from the Lord, and making it evil. Then we have profaned, or make it filthy, and since the Divine cannot be contained in a profane vessel, the conflict between the two causes the destruction of the vessel. Thus Nadab and Abihu were consumed by their “strange” or profane fire.

So how do we tell which kind of love is ruling our life? How do we avoid the danger of being consumed by the flame of our own evil lusts? By carefully, honestly, and frequently examining the course of our lives in the light of the three-fold Word. And in order to compare our lives to the truth of the Word, we must discipline ourselves to read the Word regularly, to seek out its guidance, and be willing to humbly admit our mistakes and to take a new course in life, a course that is guided by the Lord.

The children of Israel were a stiff-necked and difficult people, and yet the Lord was able to do great things with them if only they would obey the letter of His commands. How much more could he do with those of us who understand so much more about the nature of the Word and religion, if only we would allow Him to lead us? The only way for us to discover the wonderful places He may lead us is for us to follow Him. Let us then resolve to put away the “strange fire” from our lives, and instead let the fire of our life, our love, be lighted by the fire from the altar of sacrifice, which sanctified everything it touched.

Lessons: LEV. 10:1-6, Luke 9:51-56, AC 9434:3,4

6 thoughts on “Offering Strange Fire

      • Sounds like Swedenborg was an interesting character. I read a bit on him and there are a few warning signs of his doctrine. He rejects faith alone for Salvation and included charity (which Paul rejects in Galatians). He also claims direct, divine inspiration, though Revelation is the last book ordained and revealed by Jesus Christ. I’m not disputing his ability to interpret signs and meanings in the OT, which appear to be legit. But, I probably would be careful with him, in general.


      • I only read that one and it has all great points. I compared it to other commentaries, too, and they draw the same lessons. It’s tricky to navigate the commentators and preachers. I like your discernment.


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