by John W. Ritenbaugh
Previously, we explored the sin of presumption using a number of models from the world and the church of God. The observance of Christmas and Easter are visible examples of presumption from the world, as is the doctrine that once one accepts Jesus as His Savior, his salvation is absolutely assured. Similarly, many in the church presume that, once converted, they will go to the Place of Safety.
These presumptions and many more have led to a wide variety of religions—actually mass confusion as to which is the true religion—and a world in which true values are lost in an ocean of conflicting opinions as to how to live. The corollary to this confusing state—that everybody is worshipping the same God—can lead a rational but carnal person to conclude that, in fact, God does not care what one believes or that correct doctrine is unimportant to daily life! Presumption reigns over the whole earth because Satan has deceived the whole world (Revelation 12:9).
Most people do not deliberately intend to go astray but drift or wander into their presumptions. For the truly converted Christian, to do this is a form of "neglecting one's salvation," as it is termed in Hebrews 2:1-3. Yet, whether one wanders into it or deliberately determines to do what is wrong, the result is the same. Proverbs 8:36 declares that such a one loves death! These processes have been taking place since Adam and Eve.
A huge body of religious beliefs and practices has accumulated, which Peter terms "aimless conduct" (I Peter 1:18). These presumptuous additions were deeply entrenched in the way of life of many Jews in Jesus' day, and He warned them that to follow these practices as part of the worship of God was vain, futile, and useless (Mark 7:7). They did not know it, but they loved death, as the proverb says, despite being quite religious.
Might God consider some practices of ours to be presumptuous? The line between assuming and presuming is often very thin. To assume is to take for granted and can include the stronger sense of "arrogating to oneself." At the base of much presumption is an assumption.
It has been a long time since God has reacted with dramatic suddenness during the course of anyone's presumptuous behavior. Nevertheless, a pattern of His displeasure with presumption is clearly established in Scripture. God's pattern of executing divine justice reveals that presumption is very serious business. The remainder of this article is devoted to these examples.
The first example involves a curious trespass with which many are unfamiliar:
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. 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. And Moses called Mishael and Elizaphan, the sons of Uzziel, the uncle of Aaron, and said to them, "Come near, carry your brethren from before the sanctuary out of the camp." So they went near and carried them by their tunics out of the camp, as Moses had said. And Moses said to Aaron, and to Eleazar and Ithamar, his sons, "Do not uncover your heads nor tear your clothes, lest you die, and wrath come upon all the people. But let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning which the Lord has kindled. You shall not go out from the door of the tabernacle of meeting, lest you die, for the anointing oil of the Lord is upon you." And they did according to the word of Moses. (Leviticus 10:1-7)
What did these men do that was so awful? They were priests, sons of Aaron, the High Priest, nephews of Moses. If anybody had a close relationship with God and would receive a measure of leeway in judgment, it was these two. Nevertheless, there was none; with God, there is no respect of persons in judgment (see Romans 2:11). He reacted swiftly and violently, wiping them out on the spot. This incident involved no Temple prostitutes, no human sacrifices, just "strange fire." Surely, such a little thing would not matter! God's reaction allowed no time for a trial; there was just a summary execution, a terrifying supernatural judgment by God.
Verse 6 contains an interesting sidelight to this violent event. Undoubtedly, Aaron was shocked into an emotional reaction that may have ranged from pitiful wailing to a consuming anger toward God, but Moses cautioned him to control himself and give no outward demonstration of his emotional state! Why? Moses understood that they had sinned grievously and got what they deserved. Aaron was told that, despite the shocking nature of what had happened, he should express no disagreement with God's judgment.
Consider this in a larger context. Beginning in Exodus 40:1, the Tabernacle, its altar, and the laver were erected and the interior furniture arranged, then all was consecrated in a solemn ceremony. At that point (verse 34), God came to dwell in the Tabernacle.
Leviticus 1 follows the sequence of events, showing God giving the sacrificial rituals to be performed at the Tabernacle. In Leviticus 8, Aaron and the priesthood are officially consecrated. In Leviticus 9:1, the priesthood's ministry formally begins. In verse 24, a startling occurrence takes place during that first offering: ". . . and fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar." This signaled God's acceptance, showing that all had been done according to His will.
However, there is more to this story, giving us understanding of the term "strange fire" that follows in chapter 10. Within the instructions regarding the sacrifices, Leviticus 6:12-13 gives the priests an interesting charge:
And the fire on the altar shall be kept burning on it; it shall not be put out. And the priest shall burn wood on it every morning, and lay the burnt offering in order on it; and he shall burn on it the fat of the peace offerings. A perpetual fire shall burn on the altar; it shall never go out.
The term strange means "what is alien to." Foreigners are called "strangers" in Scripture because they are aliens to Israel and to the covenant (Ephesians 2:12). In this case, the fire used by Nadab and Abihu was alien to what God had commanded regarding fire. Together with Exodus 30:7-9, their infraction becomes clear. The priests were to make the morning and evening incense offerings only with the special incense mixture God commanded, and they were to take the coals for these offerings only from the continually burning fire under the altar of burnt offerings, which He started in Leviticus 9:24.
Aaron was undoubtedly confused and displeased, not understanding what happened, but Moses gave him God's answer. In Leviticus 10:3, the Lord says, "By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; and before all the people I must be glorified." Nadab and Abihu were among those chosen to come near Him in service. They revealed their disrespect for Him by treating His command regarding the fire as something common. They simply did not follow His instructions.
They added or subtracted to what God said and did, attempting to get by with what they carnally assumed was acceptable to Him. By this incident, holiness is defined. Among those who are consecrated to serve God, His instructions must be explicitly followed. Thus, this example appears especially pointed toward the ministry.
The instructions are not ambiguous. Each step and instrument in the process is designed to teach certain spiritual concepts. They had been completely instructed, so they blatantly twisted God's teaching. In response to Moses, Aaron remained silent, knowing the judgment was correct. This incident is of special importance to us because of the context and because of who we are. The context is the consecration of the priesthood in service to God, and we are, according to I Peter 2, a royal priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices. By this incident, God shows, perhaps more clearly than in any other place, what holiness is in relation to Him.
Holiness is not merely consecration or dedication to a god, but it is both moral and ethical as well. True holiness is what results from His consecration, but the consecration must be combined with our submission to His commands. In pagan religions, a person could be dedicated but not moral, as is clearly shown by the ritual prostitution practiced at their temples. The prostitute was indeed consecrated to her god, but she most certainly was not moral—nor were they who used her services.
Today, a person may claim that his god is the Creator God, but if he is not obedient to the Creator God's commandments, he is merely deluding himself. Sincerity is only part of the picture. We are to worship in spirit and truth (John 4:24). The closer one is associated with God's work, the more necessary it is to ensure that the relationship with God is not marred by spiritual blemishes. Otherwise, the person cannot function properly as a channel for God to work through. God will not be glorified before the people unless His servants submit to His commands.
A similar careless notion got Cain into trouble. If we add or omit with knowledge, it is presumption, and presumption springs from pride. It is as if we are telling God He does not know what He is doing. We have elevated ourselves to His level. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else than His will must be our attitude.
As a final note, Leviticus 10:8-10 adds:
Then the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying: "Do not drink wine or intoxicating drink, you, nor your sons with you, when you go into the tabernacle of meeting, lest you die. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations, that you may distinguish between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean."
The influence of alcohol may have contributed to what Aaron's sons did. Perhaps they were not drunk, but had been drinking. Alcohol deludes one into thinking he is in control when he is not.
Uzza and the Ark
I Chronicles 13:1-3 introduces another episode containing a presumptuous act, immediately followed by a sobering display of divine justice. However, this time, one of the most respected names in Israelite history is directly involved. It is the story of Uzza's sudden death while moving the Ark of the Covenant, the most sacred and revered of Israelite objects. The Ark, representing the throne of God and containing the tablets of stone Moses received from God on Mount Sinai, normally resided in the Holy of Holies.
Then David consulted with the captains of thousands and hundreds, and with every leader. And David said to all the congregation of Israel, "If it seems good to you, and if it is of the Lord our God, let us send out to our brethren everywhere who are left in all the land of Israel, and with them to the priests and Levites who are in their cities and their common-lands, that they may gather together to us; and let us bring the ark of our God back to us, for we have not inquired at it since the days of Saul."
David desired to move the Ark to Jerusalem to continue to consolidate the kingdom under himself. As they were moving it on an oxcart, the oxen stumbled, and the Ark appeared to be toppling to the ground. Uzza, in what may have been pure reflex, put out his hand to steady the Ark, but upon touching it, he was immediately struck dead (verses 9-10)! At first, David was angry that God ruined his party (verses 8, 11)—as the whole atmosphere of the Ark's transfer was celebratory—but shortly after, he became extremely fearful (verse 12).
The Bible shows God to be longsuffering and slow to anger. Why did they not hear His voice from heaven saying, "Thank you, Uzza, for keeping the Ark from getting damaged and dirty"? Instead, He exploded in anger and slew Uzza on the spot! However, God had given strict instructions for transporting the Ark, found in Numbers 4:4, 15, 17-20:
This is the service of the sons of Kohath in the tabernacle of meeting, relating to the most holy things: . . . And when Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, when the camp is set to go, then the sons of Kohath shall come to carry them; but they shall not touch any holy thing, lest they die. These are the things in the tabernacle of meeting which the sons of Kohath are to carry. . . . Then the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: "Do not cut off the tribe of the families of the Kohathites from among the Levites; but do this in regard to them, that they may live and not die when they approach the most holy things; Aaron and his sons shall go in and appoint each of them to his service and his task. But they shall not go in to watch while the holy things are being covered, lest they die."
The Bible nowhere indicates that Uzza was a Kohathite. If he was, what God did is even more understandable. Everyone in the whole procedure from David on down was guilty of disobeying God's instructions regarding the most holy things. David failed to consult with the High Priest—or any priest, for that matter—regarding how the Ark should be moved. Evidently, no priest protested that proper procedures were not being followed.
The Kohathites were not even supposed to look on the uncovered Ark. To God, when Uzza reached out and touched the Ark as it seemed about to topple off the cart, it was no act of heroism but the final act of desecration, arrogance, and presumption. The last thing presumed was that Uzza's hand was less defiling than the earth that he feared would contaminate the Ark.
God's instruction in Exodus 20:24-25 regards building Him an altar. An altar made for His worship had to be constructed of earth or unhewn stones. No altar defiled by man's sinful hand was suitable. Dirt cannot sin; it always follows the nature God established. God did not want the symbol of His throne contaminated by the evil that manifested itself in a whole string of rebellions against His specific instructions. There was nothing arbitrary, capricious, or whimsical in God's action.
Jesus teaches us to address God as "Father," a title suggesting familiarity, yet we are also to pray, "Hallowed be Your name." God shows in these two incidents that, if reverence is due to the symbols used in His worship, how much greater reverence must be given to the realities of the New Covenant?
Those involved in this incident were well-intentioned, but it illustrates for all generations that God still requires conformity with His directives concerning holy objects. Deviation from orthodoxy can be deadly.
Ananias, Sapphira, and Deceit
The New Testament is not without an example of divine justice similar to those in the Old Testament. Acts 5:1-4 introduces the occasion:
But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession. And he kept back part of the proceeds, his wife also being aware of it, and brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles' feet. But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God."
We can perceive a mixed bag of Ananias and Sapphira's sins involved in this tragedy. Acts 4:36-37 informs us of Barnabas' sacrificial gift for the well-being of the newly formed church. Pride and desire for acclaim motivated the couple to give a gift but without the honesty or sacrifice exhibited by Barnabas and others.
"Why has Satan filled your heart" (verse 3) is the equivalent of "Why have you dared?" They were free to give whatever percentage they set, for Peter says that the entire property sale price was under their control. Their sin lay in deceitfully alleging that the amount they gave was the whole of the sale price, when it was actually only a part. They deviously exaggerated their offering.
Some think this judgment was harsh, but Peter did not. He spoke of the sin as inspired of Satan, and the passage makes clear that both Ananias and Sapphira were fully aware of what they were doing (verses 2, 9). Conscious deceit is spiritually disastrous because trust is completely violated. They should have known better.
God interpreted their action as tempting Him, seeing how much they could get away with. Their way of reaching their goals is so opposed to the gospel that God could not allow it to go unchallenged; it would have set the whole mission of the church off course. Honesty and integrity are the standard of God's way of life. Sin is no light thing with God.
These people were living behind a deceptive façade, one similar to the idea that, if one keeps the front windows clean, it does not matter how dirty the back ones are. They allowed themselves to become tools working to destroy the family relationship of trust within the church. God forcibly reminded them and us that He will not abide that.
We must treat one another with fairness and loving kindness, or we will not be in His Family. Ananias and Sapphira are shocking reminders to us that we will not get away with deceitfully cheating or taking advantage of our brethren. God may not appear to be in the picture, but only the faithless have this blindness. The penalty will be paid—unless repented of, it is only a matter of time. Ananias and Sapphira paid quickly as a lesson to us.
A King and His Rash Impatience
I Samuel 13:1-15 recounts the story of an act of presumption by another well-known figure, containing another valuable lesson for us. Saul arranged with the prophet Samuel to perform sacrifices in an appeal to God to intervene before Israel went into battle with the invading Philistines. Saul's sin was in presumptuously stepping in to perform Samuel's responsibilities when the prophet arrived later than the appointed time. Saul gave Samuel three justifications for his presumption: 1) The people were growing distressed and deserting him; 2) Samuel's late arrival; and 3) the growing threat of the Philistine army (verse 11).
On the surface, it appeared Saul and the Israelites were indeed in a difficult situation, yet Saul's reasons did not justify presuming to disobey what was commanded. He should have waited for Samuel to arrive and perform his responsibility. Saul, a Benjamite, could request a sacrifice be made and provide the animal for it, but he was not authorized by God to perform the sacrificial ceremony. Samuel was merely later than both he and Saul thought he would be.
Saul excused himself further by saying he "felt compelled." The King James Version records that Saul said, "I forced myself." This suggests that he was not ignorant of what he was doing but convinced himself it was more important to make the sacrifice than to obey God's instruction. He was immediately stripped of the opportunity of having his dynasty continue forever (verses 12-13), as God later promised David.
Many circumstances arise in a Christian's life when following God's commands runs counter to prevailing opinion and to our own fears about the threatening conditions we imagine are building around us if we obey God. Strong thoughts are then likely to mount, urging us to turn aside from what He says—"just this once"—to relieve the swelling pressures.
As our own children do not always understand what we tell them to do, we cannot always see why God tells us to do this or that. But can we trust God that His reasons are good? For instance, He tells us to give three tithes and to travel to far places to keep His feasts. He commands us to love our enemies and do good to them. He asks us to become like little children and to sacrifice ourselves in service when we would rather give orders. He tells us to submit ourselves to one another in love and to be subject to corrupt and unjust governments. Keeping these instructions is sometimes far easier said than done. Can we see God in the picture even in difficult circumstances and trust Him? In this case, Saul did not.
Rebellion, He Does It Again!
Sadly, Saul's rash presumption did not end there; he did not learn his lesson. In I Samuel 15:1-3, Samuel gave him clear instructions about a responsibility God laid on him:
Samuel also said to Saul, "The Lord sent me to anoint you king over His people, over Israel. Now therefore, heed the voice of the words of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts: 'I will punish what Amalek did to Israel, how he laid in wait for him on the way when he came up from Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.'"
Saul and the Israelites again took things into their own hands, devising what they thought was a better strategy, a way to honor God more: They would magnanimously save the Amalekite king's life and spare the best animals to sacrifice to God.
"Now the Lord sent you on a mission, and said, 'Go, utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.' Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you swoop down on the spoil, and do evil in the sight of the Lord?" And Saul said to Samuel, "But I have obeyed the voice of the Lord, and gone on the mission on which the Lord sent me, and brought back Agag king of Amalek; I have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. But the people took of the plunder, sheep and oxen, the best of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal." (verses 18-21)
Samuel then responded with God's sentence:
Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He also has rejected you from being king. (verses 22-23)
This time he paid more dearly for his carnal reasoning, which had given him permission to twist God's commands into something he thought was better. Such presumptuous, stubborn pride!
Saul was generally a brave and honest man, but he also had a streak of rash impatience. He sinned by not trusting God to fulfill His word through Samuel. This amounts to theological blackmail. By taking action into his own hands, he hoped to force God's hand to come to Israel's aid or to bless despite His commands not being followed.
By contrast, we have David's example and why God respected him so much. Adam Clarke's Commentary, in its explanation of I Samuel 13:14, gives four reasons why the Bible speaks so highly of David:
1. In his strict attention to the law and worship of God.
2. In his admitting, in the whole of his conduct, that God was King in Israel, and that he himself was but his vicegerent.
3. In never attempting to alter any of those laws, or in the least change the Israelite constitution.
4. In all his public official conduct he acted according to the divine mind and fulfilled the will of his Maker: thus was he a man after God's own heart.
Note also that David penned Psalm 19:13, in which he asks God to keep His servant from presumptuous sins.
Holiness, Justice, Sin, and Grace
These examples of divine justice may anger or offend us. At the very least, they are sometimes confounding in the face of what we have learned about a merciful and patient God of love. Perhaps we have difficulty because we do not understand the linkage between four vital, biblical concepts: holiness, justice, sin, and grace.
We may not grasp the seriousness of holiness by failing to see the purity God requires; we may have an unbalanced perspective of justice; we may misunderstand the deadliness of sin; and we may see little need for grace for ourselves. The stories of Nadab and Abihu, Uzza, and Ananias and Sapphira are clearly not examples of divine mercy.
Before we can understand divine mercy, we must first understand the seriousness of sin and the necessity of divine justice. Divine justice is linked to righteousness: God's justice is according to righteousness. Evil justice in God does not exist because His every judgment is according to His righteousness, for there is absolutely no unrighteousness in Him. The justice of God is always an expression of His perfect, righteous, holy character.
Biblically, justice refers to "conformity to a rule or norm." If life and salvation were a game, we would say that God plays by the rules. He sets them and never deviates from them. The norm of justice is His own holy character. What God does is always consistent with who and what He is. His righteousness is absolutely pure; there is no shadow of turning in Him (James 1:17). He is utterly incapable of an unholy, unrighteous act. We call people "crooks" because they are crooked. God is absolutely "straight." Genesis 18:23-25 speaks of this very issue:
And Abraham came near and said, "Would You also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there were fifty righteous within the city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that were in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?"
Never did a man ask a more rhetorical question. Abraham had no idea how far such an act was from God. There was never even the most remote possibility that God would kill the innocent along with the guilty! For God to do that, He would have to cease being holy and righteous—He would have to stop being God! God is the Supreme Judge of all the earth. As man's sordid histories show, if He is unjust, there is no hope that justice will ever prevail.
We know human judges can be corrupt, take bribes, and be partial. God, though, is never corrupt, cannot be bribed, refuses to show partiality, never acts out of ignorance, has every fact necessary for judgment, and never makes mistakes. Nadab, Abihu, Uzza, Saul, Ananias and Sapphira all got what they deserved. There is no injustice with God.
God's justice is never divorced from His righteousness. He never condemns the innocent; never clears the guilty; never punishes with undue severity; never fails to reward righteousness. His justice is perfect justice.
What Abraham fails to address in his question is sin. Mankind utterly fails to appreciate the seriousness of sin. God's Word clearly states that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23) and that sin is the transgression of God's law (I John 3:4, KJV). From the beginning in the Garden of Eden, God proclaims to mankind in the persons of Adam and Eve, ". . . in the day that you eat of it [sin], you shall surely die" (Genesis 2:17).
He does not say they would die immediately, but die they did. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). We have all earned this judgment by the way we live. Is God unjust because He warns Adam and Eve? No, the problem is that man in his pride thinks he deserves better.
However, God does not always act with justice—sometimes He acts with mercy. Mercy is not justice, but neither is it injustice, since injustice violates righteousness. Mercy manifests kindness and grace, doing no violence to righteousness. We may see non-justice in God, which is mercy, but we never see injustice in Him.
There Is a Way That Seems Right
Exodus 32:1-8 gives us one last look at presumption for the purposes of this article:
Now when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, the people gathered together to Aaron, and said to him, "Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." And Aaron said to them, 'Break off the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." So all the people broke off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf. Then they said, "This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!" So when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, "Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord.' Then they rose early on the next day, offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. And the Lord said to Moses, "Go, get down! For your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them. They have made themselves a molded calf, and worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, 'This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!'"
They did this in their ignorance and their impatience to get things moving. Even though most of the people wanted it, and a renowned religious figure proclaimed it "a feast to the Lord," it did not make it so. God was definitely not positively impressed, nor was Moses. In one of the gravest acts of presumption shown in God's Word, and one of the largest in terms of the number involved, they took it on themselves to add this to the worship of God. What they did was very seriously disrespectful to God; they attempted to configure the nature of God according to their own desires.
Proverbs 14:12 says, "There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death." People say they keep Christmas and Easter to worship Christ, but they are also defining the nature of God according to their own ideas. Just as surely as the ancient Israelites blended paganism with what God truly revealed, so people do today. This is the basic principle of acts of presumption, and each of us has done this, not once, but sadly, repeatedly, even though we may know better.
Jesus says in John 4:24, "God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth," meaning we must worship to the fullest of God's intent as revealed in His Word, with every act guided and determined by His revealed truth. Yet, how many corners do we cut when we feel it serves us better at the time?
All of us have plenty of repenting to do, for we are all guilty before God of acts every bit as bad as those highlighted in these articles. We are all guilty of making our own "adjustments," adding or subtracting to God's instruction when we feel the need fits our convenience.