I learned early on in life what an altar was. There was one that spanned the entire front of our church, as well a fold-down altar in every pew. At various prescribed times in the church service, the altars would be placed down and everyone would kneel. The liturgical book, followed throughout the service, was also clearly marked for these occasions. I like altars. They serve as a beautiful symbol of the consecration that needs to take place in our hearts.
The very first mention of an altar in the Bible is the occasion of Noah finally being able to disembark from his ship on to dry ground. I think I would do the same if I had just spent an entire year on the water, with no inclination of what my future held. Reminds me of a trial or two in my life that just seemed to go on longer than was needed! The ending calls for a sigh of relief and a renewed consecration going forward.
“Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.’” Gen. 8:20-21 Shortly afterwards, God established His covenant with the human race, with the sign of a rainbow. Altars and covenants are often linked in the Bible, as is repentance and worship. Altars represent holy encounters with God.
Even before the Flood, the bringing of offerings and sacrifices to God was a common form of worship. There is no mention per se of an altar, but as early as the time of Cain and Abel, we see offerings made before the Lord and the importance of exactly how that is done. Heb. 11:4 Interesting that the first recorded act of worship and the first murder, all take place in one chapter of the Book of Genesis.
Following Noah, all the fathers of the faith, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, built altars before the Lord. Years later, in the Tabernacle of Moses, God desired that there be two altars. The Altar of Burnt Offering, also known as the Brazen Altar, was located in the outer courtyard of the tabernacle. This was the place for burning animal sacrifices, showing the Israelites that the first step for sinful man to approach a holy God was to be cleansed by the blood of an innocent creature. It was God’s command that the fire on this altar be burning continually. It’s significant that the altar stood raised on a mound of earth, higher than the surrounding furniture. What a beautiful metaphor of Christ, our sacrifice, lifted up on the cross, His altar, which stood raised on Calvary’s hill.
The Altar of Incense was located in the inner court and was a place of worship. The fire was to be kindled on this altar, using elements of the fire on the Brazen Altar – establishing an intrinsic connection between the two fires. It was also called the Golden Altar, and it was here that the high priest burned incense, signifying prayer and worship unto the Lord. This is also the only altar that appears in the heavenly temple. Rev. 8:3-4
As we segue into later years, we see that the temple of Solomon also contained these altars, and this leads me to my main point. There was a king in Judah whose name was Ahaz. Our background narrative is from the Book of Second Kings, Chapter 16. Ahaz did not follow the ways of the Lord and was guilty of severely compromising the altar. Under attack from other nations, he turns to the king of Assyria for assistance, sending messengers laden with silver and gold, sacred articles taken from the temple of the Lord. After being rescued by the king of Assyria, Ahaz goes to pay him a visit.
While visiting in Damascus, Ahaz comes upon a heathen altar which he admires, so much so, that he has a detailed sketch and construction plans drawn up, and sent back to Uriah the priest in Jerusalem, with instructions to have it built prior to his return. When Ahaz returns, he offers sacrifices on his new altar and then makes a bold, and unwise, decision. “As for the bronze altar that stood before the Lord, he brought it from the front of the temple—from between the new altar and the temple of the Lord—and put it on the north side of the new altar.” 2 Kgs. 16:14 Personally, I would not recommend rearranging the furniture in God’s house without first checking with Him!
To make matters worse, Ahaz gives orders to Uriah the priest, that burnt offerings were to be offered on the new, heathen altar, but that he would continue to use God’s holy altar for the purpose of seeking guidance. He took the liberty however, of modifying the construction on the holy altar. 2 Kgs. 16:15-18 Another account of these acts, lends further insight to the depravity of Ahaz.
“In his time of trouble King Ahaz became even more unfaithful to the Lord. He offered sacrifices to the gods of Damascus, who had defeated him; for he thought, ‘Since the gods of the kings of Aram have helped them, I will sacrifice to them so they will help me.’ But they were his downfall and the downfall of all Israel. Ahaz gathered together the furnishings from the temple of God and cut them in pieces. He shut the doors of the Lord’s temple and set up altars at every street corner in Jerusalem. In every town in Judah he built high places to burn sacrifices to other gods and aroused the anger of the Lord, the God of his ancestors.” 2 Chr. 28:22-25
While the account of Ahaz is an extreme one, the enemy of our souls has the very same intention for the life of every believer. We must recognize the importance of having an altar set aside exclusively for God and beware of the options that will be presented to us in our culture that may seem to be an asset or make things easier, but in reality are compromising the altar of God, and may eventually lead to our downfall.
Next Week: Maintaining Our Personal Altars