Exodus 20: 24-26
The Two Altars
“An altar of earth thou shalt make unto Me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings and thy peace offerings, thy sheep and thine oxen: in all places where I record My name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee.”
If anything could enhance the value or add to the interest of this passage of Scripture, it is the context in which it stands. To find such words at the close of Exodus 20 is something which must strike the thoughtful reader. In the opening of this chapter we find God speaking from the top of Mount Sinai and laying down the law as to man's duty toward God and his duty toward his neighbor. This law is published amid thunderings, blackness, darkness and tempest. “Thou shalt do this” and “Thou shalt not do that.” Such are the terms in which God speaks from the top of the fiery mount. Thus is He compelled to erect around Himself and around His rights, certain barriers to keep man off. And in the same way, has man to be kept from infringing the rights of his fellow.
Thus much as to the opening of Exodus 20. There are no such words here as, “I will come unto thee.” Quite the reverse. The word was, “Beware lest thou come unto Me.” See Exodus 19: 12, 24. It was impossible for man to get to God by way of law. The barriers that were placed around that mount were insurmountable to man. “By works of law shall no man living be justified.” Under the law there is no possible way of access to God. “Keep off” is the stern utterance of the entire legal system — the expression of the very spirit and character of the whole Mosaic economy. Nearness and liberty are unknown under the law, and cannot possibly be enjoyed by anyone on legal ground.
Hence we may safely say with reverence that Jehovah was not at home on the top of Mount Sinai. It was not natural to Him to surround Himself with barriers. He was forced into that position by the legality of the human heart. Israel had taken upon them to say, “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do” (Ex. 19: 8). It was this that caused Jehovah to place Himself at a distance so that man might be tested and the offense might abound. He had just said to the people, “Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto Myself. Now, therefore, if ye will obey My voice indeed and keep My covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto Me above all people: for all the earth is Mine.”
To what “covenant” does He here refer? To the covenant made with Abraham — the covenant of grace. There was nothing of man's doing in this covenant. It set forth what God would do for Abraham and his seed, what He would give them and what He would be to them. It was on the ground of this covenant that Jehovah could say to Israel, “I have brought you unto Myself.” But the very moment Israel undertook to say, “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do,” we hear the command issued to “set bounds about the mount” that the people might be put at a distance.
However, this was not according to the loving heart of the God of Israel. It did not suit His nature and character to place Himself at a distance from His people. They had compelled Him to retire within the narrow enclosures of mount Sinai and to surround Himself with clouds and darkness, thunderings, lightnings and tempest. Man had undertaken to do, and he must be put to the test. “The law entered that the offense might abound.” Again, “By the law is the knowledge of sin.”
It is not our intention in this short article to dwell upon the subject of “the law.” We have merely referred to it to bring out the striking contrast between the opening and the close of Exodus 20. It would seem as though God were in haste to come down from the top of that dreadful mountain in order to meet man at “an altar of earth” — the place of grace — the place where man's doings are displaced by God's. “An altar of earth thou shalt make unto Me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings and thy peace offerings, thy sheep and thine oxen: in all places where I record My name, I will come unto thee and I will bless thee.”
What a contrast! It is as though He had said to them, “You cannot come to Me if I remain on the top of this mountain, but I will come unto you. If I remain here I must curse you, but I will meet you at an altar of earth and bless you.” Blessed be His Name, He delights not in cursing. Hence He would not record His Name on Mount Sinai, the place of distance and darkness where He could not come unto His people and bless them.
How blessedly all this tells out what God is! This teaching about the altar is like a ray of divine light piercing through the gloom which surrounded Mount Sinai, and shining on the spot where God would record His Name, where He could meet His people in all the fullness of blessing.
And let the reader note the character of the offerings referred to in verse 24. We have “burnt offerings and peace offerings.” Not a word about sin offerings and trespass offerings. Why is this? Surely this is the very place in which we should expect to find these latter introduced. But no. We have the burnt offering — the type of Christ surrendering Himself in life and in death to do the will of God. And we have the peace offering — the type of Christ as the Object on which the worshipper feeds in communion with God. And not a word about the sin offering or trespass offering. Why? Is it that these are not needed? Far be the thought! They lie at the very foundation of that altar where God and the worshipper meet. The sin offering is the type of Christ bearing the judgment of God against sin. The trespass offering is the type of Christ bearing our sins in His own body on the tree. These form the foundation of all worship. But they are omitted in Exodus 20: 24 because we have here the nature and character of the worship in which God delights, a worship in which the soul is occupied with Christ in the very highest aspect of His Person and work. This is what we have in the burnt offering, wherein Christ is seen making atonement, not merely according to our need, but according to the claims of God — not merely according to the measure of the hatefulness of sin, but according to the measure of the preciousness of Christ to the heart of God.
What a striking contrast between the opening and closing lines of Exodus 20! What lessons are here for our hearts! What a rebuke to all our legal tendencies! We are all prone to be occupied with our doings in some shape or form. Legality is natural to our hearts. And let us remember, it was this that forced Jehovah (to speak after the manner of men) to take up the position in which we find Him in Exodus 19 and 20. Abraham did not know God in such a position. It was not as a lawgiver that God revealed Himself to the father of the faithful, but as a God of grace, as a God of promise. There were no thunderings and lightnings, no blackness, darkness and tempest surrounding the Blessed One when He appeared unto Abraham in Ur of the Chaldees, or when He partook of his hospitality in the plains of Mamre. It was always God's delight to have His people near Him, enjoying the precious fruits of His grace, rather than afar off, reaping the bitter fruits of their works. This latter was simply the result of man's legal utterance, “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do.” Up to the fatal moment in the which these words were spoken, God had been speaking and acting in the same unqualified grace toward the seed of Abraham as He had toward that favored patriarch himself. But when Israel undertook to do, it was needful to put them thoroughly to the test. This was done by the law.
But, it may be asked, was it not always God's purpose to give the law? Was it not necessary? Is it not designed to be the abiding rule of man's conduct — the statement of his duty to God and man, the divine summary and embodiment of his righteousness? To all this we reply, Most surely God knew from the beginning what He would do. Moreover, in His infinite wisdom He overruled man's legal folly and made use of the law to raise the great question of righteousness and prove whether it was possible for man to work out a righteousness which could be accepted. But what was the result? Did man ever get righteousness by keeping the ten commandments? Never. “By the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in His sight, for by law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3: 20). Again, “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for the just shall live by faith” (Gal. 3: 10-11).
What, then, was the object of the law? Why was it given? What was its effect? “The law entered that the offense might abound” (Rom. 5: 20). “Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions” (Gal. 3: 19). “The law worketh wrath” (Rom. 4: 15).
Thus Scripture answers our three questions in the plainest possible manner. Not only so, it settles the entire law question in such a way as to remove every difficulty and every cloud from the mind that will submit absolutely to the authority of the Word.
When we sat down to pen this brief article, we had no thought whatever of entering on the domain of theology. It was merely our purpose to present to the heart and mind of the reader the striking lesson taught by the two altars in Exodus 20 — the altar of earth and the altar of hewn stone. In the former we have the very spirit of the dispensation of grace; in the latter the spirit of the dispensation of law. God wanted man to be near Him. Therefore He would have an altar of earth. In other words, man was to approach God without any efforts or doings of his own. “If thou wilt make Me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone (or, as the margin reads, “build them with hewing”): for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it. Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto Mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon.”
Oh! that men would only consider these things! How little are they understood! Man will be doing. He will lift up his tool in the building of his altar; the result is pollution. He will ascend by steps; the result is discovered nakedness. Thus it must be because man is a sinner and his very best works can only issue in pollution and nakedness.
One thing is certain. God does not record His Name in any place where man's doings are set up as the basis of worship. This truth shines with heavenly luster on every page of the sacred Volume, and it shines where we should least of all have expected to find it — at the close of Exodus 20. It is something perfectly wonderful, amid the thunderings of Mount Sinai, to catch such heavenly words as these, “In all places where I record My name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee.” These are words of purest grace, words flowing from the very heart of God, words expressing the very nature and character of God. “I will come unto thee.” Precious words! May they sink down into our hearts and there abide! May it be our aim and object ever to be found worshipping in that place where God records His Name, and where, instead of the nakedness and pollution which ever mark the efforts of man, we have the infinite preciousness of the grace of God and the fullness and excellency of Christ in His Person and work!