The first of which we have mention was built by Noah after leaving the ark (Genesis 8:20). The English (from the Latin) means an elevation or high place: not the site, but the erections on them which could be built or removed (1 Kings 12:7; 2 Kings 23:15). So the Greek bomos, and Hebrew bamath. But the proper Hebrew name mizbeach is "the sacrificing place;" Septuagint thusiasterion. Spots hallowed by divine revelations or appearances were originally the sites of altars (Genesis 12:7; Genesis 13:18; Genesis 26:25; Genesis 35:1). Mostly for sacrificing; sometimes only as a memorial, as that named by Moses Jehovah Nissi, the pledge that Jehovah would war against Amalek to all generations (Exodus 17:15-16), and that built by Reuben, Gad, and half Manasseh, "not for burnt offering, nor sacrifice, but as a witness" (Joshua 22:26-27).
Altars were to be made only of earth or else unhewn stone, on which no iron tool was used, and without steps up to them (Exodus 20:24-26). Steps toward the E. on the contrary are introduced in the temple yet future (Ezekiel 43:17), marking its distinctness from any past temple. No pomp or ornament was allowed; all was to be plain and simple; for it was the meeting place between God and the sinner, and therefore a place of shedding of blood without which there is no remission (Leviticus 17:11; Hebrews 9:22), a place of fellowship with God for us only through death. The mother dust of earth, or its stones in their native state as from the hand of God, were the suitable material. The art of sinful beings would mar, rather than aid, the consecration of the common meeting ground. The earth made for man's nourishment, but now the witness of his sin and drinker in of his forfeited life, was the most suitable (see Fairbairn, Typology). The altar was at "the door of the tabernacle of the tent of the congregation" (Exodus 40:29).
In the tabernacle the altar of burnt offering was made of shittim (acacia) boards overlaid with brass, terming a square of five cubits, or eight feet. three cubits high or five feet, the hollow within being probably filled with earth or stones. A ledge (Hebrew karkob) projected on the side for the priest to stand on, to which a slope of earth gradually led up on the S. side, and outside the ledge was a network of brass. At the grainers were four horn shaped projections. to which the victim was bound (Psalm 118:27), and which were touched with blood in consecrating priests (Exodus 29:12), and in the sin offering (Leviticus 4:7). The horn symbolizes might. The culmination's of the altar, being hornlike, imply the mighty salvation and security which Jehovah engages to the believing worshippers approaching Him in His own appointed way. Hence it was the asylum or place of refuge (1 Kings 1:50; Exodus 21:14).
So the Antitype, Christ (Isaiah 27:5; Isaiah 25:4). To grasp the altar horns in faith was to lay hold of Jehovah's strength. In Solomon's temple the altar square was entirely of brass, and was 20 cubits, or from 30 to 35 feet, and the height 10 cubits. In Malachi 1:7; Malachi 1:12, it is called "the table of the Lord." In Herod's temple the altar was 50 cubits long, and 50 broad, and 15 high; a pipe from the S.W. grainer conveyed away the blood to the brook Kedron. Except in emergencies (as Judges 6:24; 1 Samuel 7:9-10; 2 Samuel 24:18; 2 Samuel 24:25; 1 Kings 8:64; 1 Kings 18:31-32) only the one altar was sanctioned (Leviticus 17:8-9; Deuteronomy 12:13-14), to mark the unity and ubiquity of God, as contrasted with the many altars of the manifold idols and local deities of pagandom. Every true Israelite, wherever he might be, realized his share in the common daily sacrifices at the one altar in Zion, whence Jehovah ruled to the ends of the earth.
Christ is the antitype, the one altar or meeting place between God and man, the one only atonement for sinners, the one sacrifice, and the one priest (Acts 4:12; Hebrews 13:10). Christ's Godhead, on which He offered His manhood, "sanctifieth the gift" (Matthew 23:19), and prevents the sacrifice being consumed by God's fiery judicial wrath against man's sin. To those Judaizers who object that Christians have no altar or sacrificial meats, Paul says, "we have" (the emphasis in Greek is on have; there is no we) emphatically, but it is a spiritual altar and sacrifice. So Hebrews 4:14-15; Hebrews 8:1; Hebrews 9:1; Hebrews 10:1; Hebrews 10:19-21. The interpretation which makes "altar" the Lord's table is opposed to the scope of the Epistle to the Heb., which contrasts the outward sanctuary with the unseen spiritual sanctuary.
Romanisers fall under the condemnation of Hosea 8:11. The Epistle to the Hebrew reasons, servile adherents to visible altar meats are excluded from our Christian spiritual altar and meats: "For He, the true Altar, from whom we derive spiritual meats, realized the sin offering type" (of which none of the meat was eaten, but all was burnt: Leviticus 6:30) "by suffering without the gate: teaching that we must go forth after Him from the Jewish high priest's camp of legal ceremonialism and meats, which stood only until the gospel times of reformation" (Hebrews 9:10-11). The temple and holy city were the Jewish people's camp in their solemn feasts.
The brass utensils for the altar (Exodus 27:3) were pans, to receive the ashes and fat; shovels, for removing the ashes; basins, for the blood; flesh hooks, with three prongs, to take flesh out of the cauldron (1 Samuel 2:13-14); firepans, or censers, for taking coals off the altar, or for burning incense (Leviticus 16:12; Numbers 16:6-7; Exodus 25:38); the same Hebrew maktoth means snuff dishes, as "tongs" means snuffers for the candlesticks. Asa "renewed" the altar, i.e. reconsecrated it, after it had been polluted by idolatries (2 Chronicles 20:8). (See AHAZ (see) removed it to the N. side of the new altar which Urijah the priest had made after the pattern which Ahaz had seen at Damascus (2 Kings 16:14). Hezekiah had it "cleansed" (2 Chronicles 29:12-18) of all the uncleanness brought into it in Ahaz' reign. Manasseh, on his repentance, repaired it (2 Chronicles 33:16). Rabbis pretended it stood on the spot where man was created. In Zerubbabel's temple the altar was built before the temple foundations were laid (Ezra 3:2).
After its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes, Judas Maccabaeus built a new altar of unhewn stones. A perpetual fire kept on it symbolized the perpetuity of Jehovah's religion; for, sacrifice being the center of the Old Testament worship, to extinguish it would have been to extinguish the religion. The perpetual fire of the Persian religion was different, for this was not sacrificial, but a symbol of God, or of the notion that, fire was a primary element. The original fire of the tabernacle "came out from before the Lord, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat" (Leviticus 9:24). The rabbis say, It couched upon the altar like a lion, bright as the sun, the flame solid and pure, consuming things wet and dry alike, without smoke. The divine fire on the altar; the shekinah cloud, representing the divine habitation with them, which was given to the king and the high priest with the oil of unction; the spirit of prophecy; the Urim and Thummim whereby the high priest miraculously learned God's will; and the ark of the covenant, whence God gave His answers in a clear voice, were the five things of the old temple wanting in the second temple.
Heated stones (Hebrew) were laid upon the altar, by which the incense was kindled (Isaiah 6:6). The golden altar of incense (distinguished from the brazen altar of burnt offering), of acacia wood (in Solomon's temple cedar) underneath, two cubits high, one square. Once a year, on the great day of atonement, the high priest sprinkled upon its horns the blood of the sin offering (Exodus 30:6-10; Leviticus 16:18-19). Morning and evening incense was burnt on it with fire taken from the altar of burnt offering. It had a border round the top, and two golden rings at the sides for the staves to bear it with. It was "before the veil that is by the ark of the testimony, before the mercy seat;" between the candlestick and the shewbread table. In Hebrews 9:4, KJV, "censer," not "altar of incense," is right; for the latter was in the outer not the inner holy place.
The inner, or holiest, place "had the golden censer" belonging to its yearly atonement service, not kept in it. The altar of incense also was close by the second veil, directly before the ark (1 Kings 6:22), "by (Hebrew belonging to) the oracle," i.e. holiest place. Jesus' death rent the veil, and has brought the antitypes to the candlestick, shewbread table, and altar of incense into the heavenly, holiest place. This altar alone appears there, namely, that of prayer and praise. Christ is the heavenly attar as well as the only intercession, through the incense of whose merits our prayers are accepted. "The souls under the altar" (Revelation 6:9) are shut up unto Him in joyful expectancy, until He come to raise the sleeping bodies (Revelation 8:3-4). (See NADAB and (See ABIHU (see) were smitten for burning "strange fire" (i.e. fire not taken from the altar of burnt offering), thereby breaking the He between the incense altar and the sacrificial burnt offering altar. The incense daily offered symbolized prayer (Psalm 141:2; Luke 1:10).
As the incense on the altar within drew its kindling from the fire of the sacrificial altar without, so believing prayer of the heart within, continually ascending to God, rests on one's having first once for all become sharer in the benefit of Christ's outward sacrificial atonement. Therefore the inner altar was ornate and golden, the outer altar bore marks of humiliation and death. Nowhere is an altar in the sacrificial sense in the Christian church recognized in the New Testament The words "we have an altar" (Hebrews 13:10; note that it is not altars, such as apostate churches erect in their worship), so far from sanctioning a Christian altar on earth, oppose the idea; for Christ Himself is our altar of which we spiritually eat, and of which they who Judaize, by serving the tabernacle and resting on meats and ordinances, "have no right to eat." Our sacrifices are spiritual, not the dead letter; compare Hebrews 13:9; Hebrews 13:15-16.
The "altar to an unknown God" mentioned by Paul (Acts 17:22) was erected in time of a plague at Athens, when they knew not what god to worship for removing it. Epimenides caused black, and white sheep to be let loose from the Areopagus, and wherever they lay down to be offered to the appropriate deity. Diogenes Laertius, Pausanias, and Philostratus, pagan writers, confirm the accuracy of Scripture by mentioning several altars at Athens to the unknown or unnamed deity. "Superstitious" is too severe a word for the Greek; Paul's object was to conciliate, and he tells the Athenians: Ye are "rather religious," or "more given to religion" than is common, "rather given to veneration." In Ezekiel 43:15 "altar" is lit. harel, "mount of God," denoting the high security which it will afford to restored Israel; a high place indeed, but the high place of God, not of idols.