An Altar of Earth: A Word on Worship or Earthy Altar

Exodus 20:23‑26  •  8 min. read  •  grade level: 11
"Ye shall not make with Me gods of silver, neither shall ye make unto you gods of gold. 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. And if thou wilt make Me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: 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." Exod. 20:23-2623Ye shall not make with me gods of silver, neither shall ye make unto you gods of gold. 24An 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. 25And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it. 26Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon. (Exodus 20:23‑26).
In this well-known chapter the Lord is presenting Himself to the people of Israel in two distinct characters. In the first part of the chapter He is seen in His majesty as the righteous dispenser of law. In the close of it He exhibits Himself as the attractive source of grace. The correspondent effects of the one revelation and of the other on the minds of the people are also given.
When the majesty of the Lawgiver is before them with His holy requisitions, the effect is to fill the minds of the people with terror, and to throw them to a distance from God. "All the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off." Chap. 20:18. Thus, in a figure, we are presented with the truth that under the dispensation of the law there exists no possible ground of a sinner's approach to God. For in the first place it may be observed that the commands of the law, almost without an exception, are prohibitory and are as a hedge of restraint around the rights of God, either in direct connection with Himself or in connection with man as His creature. And in the next place, if it were possible that all the requisitions of the law could be fulfilled, it does not appear that under it there is any ground of communion or intercourse with God. It leaves man, so far as appears, in the distance of a creature under subjection to authoritative commands of the sovereign Creator.
Hence it is said in Heb. 12, which is an inspired commentary on this chapter: "Ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire," etc. Their fathers were gathered to mount Sinai, with the effect that we have seen. For even "Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake." But it is emphatically said that they were not come to this mount, which was the symbol of law and of terror, but to mount Zion, the symbol of heavenly grace, and to all the array of blessing which follows, and which inspires the heart with confidence and joy.
So here. For while it is said the people "stood afar off," it is added that "Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was." How striking is this expression in contrast with the words, "Having... boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus... let us draw near." As mediator he receives the instructions of grace for the people; and in connection with the altar we read the gracious declaration of God, "In all places where I record My name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee." The altar is the meeting place of the worshiper with God.
The first thing that is presented in these directions about the altar and worship relates to the absolute separation of God from every rival object of man's esteem. "Ye shall not make with Me gods of silver, neither shall ye make unto you gods of gold." No symbol of creature holiness, nor expression of righteousness in the creature, is for a moment to be associated with God. "An altar of earth thou shalt make unto Me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings," etc. Whatever is expressive of acceptance on the part of God, as the burnt offering, or of communion between the worshiper and God and the priest who offers it, as in the peace offering, is connected with the altar of earth. For it was on earth that "Christ" gave "Himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savor." And on earth He made peace through the blood of the cross, and came and preached peace to those that were afar off and to them that were nigh.
It is in the excellency of the Lord Jesus Christ in His Person and accomplished work, as accepted of God, that we find the elements and grounds of worship. It is for the soul to be occupied with these in the presence of God, in the expression of wonder, gratitude, joy, thanksgiving, delight, anticipation, hope, and desire, in order to present true and acceptable worship. The altar of earth is surely found in the cross, the symbol of which Christ has ordained, and should constantly be brought before us when we gather together in His name. And so, exactly answering to the declaration here, "In all places where I record My name," is the promise of the Lord, "Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them."
But in connection with this worship of the altar of earth, two things expressive of man's work and man's order, are forbidden. "If thou wilt make Me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: 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."
Nothing can be more important than for our souls to bear in mind that in worship we have nothing to bring to God, nothing to work out by way of effort, nothing by way of external form, or by an effort of internal feeling, to raise ourselves up to God. He meets us at the altar of earth. God comes to us where we are. It is to have our souls filled with the sense of what His grace has done, and how He has come down to meet us where we are, and to be occupied with the sweet savor of Christ, "who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God." For worship is the reflex of this, the heart expressing its delight and satisfaction, its adoration and praise for what Christ is for us as this blessed provision of God.
Now it may very well be that where human works are rejected, and human order in worship is eschewed, there is still the presence of the two things, in a more subtle form, that are here forbidden. The bowings, and crossings, and sprinklings, the attitudes and order of ritual may be refused, while, at the same time, there may be an attempt to raise the feelings in order to come to God by some mental process, altogether different from the occupation of the heart in God's presence with what Christ is and what He has accomplished. It may be thought indeed that the generality of the saints are so occupied in the world during the week that it is necessary to act on their feelings when they come together, in order to produce in them the tone of worship on the Lord's day. But this is a wrong assumption. A life of leisure is not necessarily a life of greater spirituality than one of toil. Where the Lord is owned as ordering our worldly circumstances, and is acknowledged in our daily walk of life, the heart, when brought into His presence, will naturally respond to the exhibitions which He gives of His grace when gathered to worship in His name. Moreover, worship, if true, is that of the assembly, and not the effort of an individual to act on the minds and feelings of the saints in order to bring them up to his sense of what is fitting in the tone of worship.
In the first place, the very constitution of the assembly, as composed of the children of God, is that they may be able to worship; for "the Father seeketh such to worship Him." Another thing is, that being possessed of a nature in common that can delight in God, it is the proper and spontaneous action of that nature to worship when brought into His presence. Besides this, believers being partakers of the Holy Spirit, each member in his measure is made responsible for the worship of the assembly. Worship is for spiritual persons who are led by the Spirit. To lower the character of communion in order to meet the assumed unspiritual condition of some who may be supposed to be present, is emphatically to make steps up to the altar. Rather let spiritual worship proceed; and if there be souls that cannot join in it, let them judge their condition in the Lord's presence on account of it; but let us not attempt to set up that which God forbids.