Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth understood that sin is not an abstract concept but rather pollutes everything it touches. Having successfully murdered Duncan, she thought her deed would go unpunished. Yet she did not account for the lingering filth of her evil. Despite her best attempts to clean herself, she had to confess: “Here’s the smell of blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.”
The idea that sin brings pollution is thoroughly biblical, and the reality of this pollution was dealt with under the old covenant through the sin offering described in today’s passage. “Sin offering” is a perfectly acceptable translation of the Hebrew term in Leviticus 4, but what the sin offering actually accomplished is better seen in the words purification offering. The sin offering purified the sanctuary; it removed the defilement of sin that occurred when the people broke the covenant.
Our holy God cannot abide the presence of those people and things that are unclean (22:3), and each time people sinned under the old covenant, they dirtied themselves. The burnt offering solved the problem of the Lord’s wrath, but it did not purify the one offering the sacrifice. There still needed to be expiation, or the removal of sin’s pollution, from the worshipers and the instruments of worship. The blood of the sin offering accomplished this cleansing. The tabernacle that became defiled because it was located in the midst of a sinful people was cleansed by the blood of the sacrifice, and the sinner was made clean and able to stand before God again (4:1–5:13).
Unintentional sins and sins of omission were dealt with in the sin offering. These were sins people committed in ignorance of the Mosaic code or when they forgot those laws they had learned. Sins committed with a “high hand” were not covered (Num. 15:22–31). A high-handed sin is one a professing believer commits boldly and defiantly, not caring about the consequences and feeling no guilt about it once committed. It is a sin people commit fearlessly as they shake their fists, literally or figuratively, at the Lord. A sin committed with a high hand is not always the same thing as an intentional sin — all high-handed sins are intentional but not all intentional sins are high-handed. The truly converted will not commit high-handed sins, though they may commit sins of intention, albeit only after and during a struggle against the flesh (Rom. 7:7–25).
That an intentional sin is not always a high-handed sin is seen in God’s willingness to forgive sins that were clearly intentional (2 Sam. 11–12). Only those who are unconverted may sin with a high hand, for a converted person will express sorrow and contrition after an intentional sin, thereby proving it was never high-handed in the first place. As we repent over sins both intentional and unintentional, we are assured that we belong to Jesus.