1.Speak unto the priests. All these things which follow tend to the same end, i.e., that the priests may differ from the rest of the people by notable marks, as if separated from ordinary men; for special purity became those who represented the person of Christ. It seems, indeed, as if God here gave precepts respecting small and unimportant things; but we have elsewhere said that the legal rites were as it were steps by which the Israelites might ascend to the study of true holiness. The declaration of Paul indeed was always true, that “bodily exercise profiteth little,” (1 Timothy 4:8;) but the use of the ancient shadows under the Law must be estimated by their end. Although, therefore, the observation of the things which are now treated of did not of itself greatly please God, yet inasmuch as it had a higher tendency, it was sinful to make light of it. Now though the priests were thus admonished that holiness was to be cultivated by them with peculiar diligence, as the sanctity of their office required; yet the principal design of God was to set forth the image of perfect holiness which was at length beheld in Christ. The first law contains a prohibition of mourning, absolutely and without exception as regarded the high priest, and as regarded the sons of Aaron with certain specified restrictions; for although God elsewhere forbids the people generally to imitate the custom of the Gentiles in excessive mourning, yet here he requires something more of the priests, viz., that they should abstain even from ordinary mourning, such as was permitted to others. This prohibition indeed was again repeated, as we shall see, arising from an actual occurrence; for when Nadab and Abihu, who had offered incense with strange fire, were consumed with fire from heaven, God allowed them to be mourned for by all the people, except the priests; (185) but on this occasion the general law was again ratified afresh, lest the priests should pollute themselves by mourning for the dead; except that there mourning was forbidden even for a domestic loss, that they might acquiesce in God’s judgment, however sad it might be. For by these means they were impeded in the discharge of their duties; because it was not lawful for mourners to enter the sanctuary. Therefore God threatens them with death, unless they should restrain their grief even for the death of a near relative But this (as is elsewhere said) is a rare virtue, so to repress our feelings when we are deprived of our brothers or friends, as that the bitterness of our grief should not overcome our resignation and composure of mind. In this way, therefore, the exemplary piety of the priests was put to the proof. Besides, abstinence from mourning manifests the hope of the blessed resurrection. Therefore the priests were forbidden to mourn for the dead, in order that the rest of the people might seek for consolation in their sorrow from them. (186) This was truly and amply fulfilled in Christ, who although He bore not only grief, but the extreme horror of death, yet was free from every stain, and gloriously triumphed over death; so that the very recollection of His cross wipes away our tears, and fills us with joy. Now when it is said, “They shall not profane the name of their God;” and in the case of the high priest, “neither shall he go out of the sanctuary;” this reason confirms what; I have just stated, that mourning was forbidden them, because it prevented them from the discharge of their duties; for their very squalidness would have in some sense defiled God’s sanctuary, in which nothing unseemly was to be seen; and being defiled too, they could not intercede as suppliants for the people. God then commands them to remain pure and clear from all defilement, lest they should be compelled to desert their office, and to leave the sanctuary, of which they were the keepers. Moreover, we learn that the fulfillment of this figure was in Christ, from the reason which is immediately added: viz., because the holy oil is on the head of the high priest; whereby God intimates that it is by no means right that His glory and dignity should be profaned by any pollution.
As to the words themselves; first, greater liberty is granted to the rest of the posterity of Aaron, than to the high priest; but only that they should mourn for their father, mother, children, their own brothers, and unmarried sisters. Lest ambition should carry them further, they are expressly forbidden to put on mourning even upon the death of a prince. Nor can we doubt but that the mourning was improper which God permitted to them out of indulgence; but regard was had to their weakness, lest immoderate strictness might drive them to passionate excess; yet God so spared them as still to distinguish them from the multitude. To “defile” one’s-self, (as we have elsewhere seen,) is equivalent to putting on mourning for the dead, celebrating the funeral rites, or going to the burial; because the curse of God proclaims itself in the death of man, so that a corpse infects with contagion those by whom it is touched; and again, because it must needs be that where lamentation is indulged, and as it were excited, the affection itself must burst out into impatience. As to the prohibition to make “baldness,” this was not allowed even to the rest of the people; but God expressly forbids it to the priests, in order to keep them under stricter restraint. With regard to the high priest, something greater seems to be decreed besides the exceptions, that he “shall not uncover his head, nor rend his clothes:” which is still enjoined elsewhere on the sons of Aaron. But here what would be allowable in others is condemned in the high priest; and it was surely reasonable that he should present a peculiar example of moderation and gravity; and therefore the dignity of his office, in which he was superior to others, is called to mind, that he may acknowledge his obligations to be so much the greater. This is indeed the sum, that since the priesthood is the holiness of God, it must not be mixed up with any defilements.