Gleanings In Exodus
45. The Brazen Altar
In Exodus 25 and 26 we have had before us the vessels that occupied and the materials which composed the Holy of Holies and the Holy Place. Here in chapter 27, we are conducted to the Outer Court. But there is one notable omission: the golden or incense altar, which stood in the Holy Place, has not been mentioned, nor is it referred to till the thirtieth chapter is reached. The reason for this we shall, D.V., endeavor to indicate when we come to that chapter. Suffice it now to say that the golden altar "is not spoken of until there is a priest to burn incense thereon, for Jehovah showed Moses the patterns of things in the heavens according to the order in which these things are apprehended by faith" (C.H.M.).
The Brazen-altar, which we are now to contemplate, was the biggest of the Tabernacle’s seven pieces of furniture. It was almost large enough to hold all the other vessels. Its size indicated its importance. It was placed "before the door" (Ex. 40:6), just inside the Outer Court (40:33), and would thus be the first object to meet the eye of the worshipper as he entered the Tent of the congregation. It is designated "the brazen altar" (38:30), to distinguish it from the golden altar. It was also called "the altar of burnt offering" (30:28).
The Brazen-altar was the basis of the Levitical system. To it the sinner came with his Divinely-appointed victim. There was a fire continually burning upon it (Lev. 6:13), and the daily sacrifice was renewed each morning. There it stood: ever smoking, ever blood-stained, ever open to any guilty Hebrew that might wish to approach it. The sinner, having forfeited his life by sin, another life—an innocent one—must be given in his stead. When the Israelite brought his offering, before killing it he laid his hand on the animal’s head, thus becoming identified with it, and thereby the acceptableness of the flawless victim passed to him, while his sin is transferred to it. So, too, this Altar stood in the path of the priests, as they went in to minister within the Holy Place. At this Altar the high priest officiated on the great day of atonement (Lev. 16). Seven things concerning it will now engage our attention:—
1. Its Position.
The Brazen-altar was not placed outside the Gate, but just within the Court (40:33): thus it would be the first object encountered as the Israelite entered the sacred precincts. Herein we may admire the accuracy of the type, and, too, discover in this detail a refutation of much which now passes for sound Gospel-preaching. The New Testament does not teach universal salvation, nor does it represent the sacrifice of Christ as offered for all mankind; rather was it designed for those who believe. The Old Testament types are in perfect accord with this. No lamb was provided for the Egyptians on that night when the angel of death smote the firstborn. On the day of atonement the high priest confessed over the head of the scapegoat only the sins of Israel (Lev. 16:21). So in our present type: the Altar was provided for none save the Chosen People. Had it been designed for the wilderness-tribes also, it had been placed outside the Tabernacle’s court; but it was not!
Within the Court, the Altar was placed facing the Door into the Tabernacle proper. It was there that Jehovah met with His people (Ex. 29:11; 33:9; Leviticus 15:14). As a matter of fact the Laver stood between the Altar and the Door, yet so vital is the connection of that which spoke of Divine judgment with that which gave entrance into the Divine presence, that in several scriptures nothing is said of the Laver coming in between the two (see 40:6, etc.). How forcibly this tells us of the intimate relation between sacrifice and access to God! The Tabernacle could not be entered till one had first passed the Altar. Blood-shedding is the basis of approach to God.
2. Its Materials.
"And thou shalt make an altar of shittim wood . . . and thou shalt overlay it with brass" (vv. 1, 2). Excepting the "taches" for the Curtains (26:11), and the "sockets" for the "pillars" of the Door (26:36), this is the first time we have had "brass" before us. in the former cases the "brass" would be invisible. Those who entered within the inner compartments would see nothing but a dazzling display of gold, and the lovely tints of the inner Curtains, and the Veil. But here in the Outer Court naught but brass met the eye. There is some doubt as to the precise nature of this metal. So far as we can now ascertain, the ancients had no knowledge of "brass" (which is a mixture of copper and zinc), the Romans being the first to use it. Therefore some students prefer to render the Hebrew word "copper," others think it may have been bronze that was used (a mixture of copper and tin). However, we shall continue speaking of it as "brass."
The symbolical import of "brass" in Scripture is as definitely defined as is that of gold and silver. As gold speaks of glory and silver of redemption, so brass signifies judgment. This may be gathered from the connections in which it is found. The serpent (reminder of the one who was responsible for the bringing in of the "curse") which Moses was ordered to make and affix to the pole, was made of brass (Num. 21:9). When Jehovah made known the sore judgments which would come upon Israel for their disobedience (see the whole of Deuteronomy 28), among other things He threatened, "and thy heaven that is above thy head shall be brass (v. 23). When describing the millennial blessedness of Israel, following their long alienation from God, the promise given is "for brass I will bring gold" (Isa. 60:17), i.e., judgment shall give place to glory. When Christ appears in judicial character. inspecting His churches, pronouncing sentence upon them, we read that "His feet (were) like unto fine brass as if they burned in a furnace" (Rev. 1:15).
Many are the references to "brass" in the Old Testament, but it is invariably found in an evil association. The first time that it is mentioned is in connection with the descendants of Cain (Gen. 4:22)! Samson was bound with "fetters of brass" (Judg. 16:21); so, too, was Zedekiah (2 Kings 5:27). Goliath’s helmet and armor were of "brass" (1 Sam. 17:5, 6). Saul’s armor was of the same material, but David disdained it (1 Sam. 17:38). In delivering His people from the prison-house in which sin had placed them. the Lord says, "He hath broken the gates of brass and cut the bars of iron in sunder" (Ps. 107:16). When remonstrating with His wayward and rebellious people, God said, "I know that thou art obstinate, and thy neck is an iron sinew, and thy brow brass" (Isa. 48:4).
"The acacia wood, of which it was made, need occupy us but briefly, as we have already learned its meaning. It speaks of the incorruptible, sinless humanity of our Lord, and therefore not subject to death. How fitting, then, that it should be connected with the constant witness of death—the altar. Our Lord need not die, therefore He could ‘lay down’ His life! On all others, judgment had a claim; none, therefore, could make atonement even for themselves, much less for others. We see then our Lord as ‘the Altar that sanctifieth the gift’ (Matthew 23:19). But how necessary was this humanity if there was to be an atonement. The very word for altar is connected with ‘slaughter’—the shedding of blood. Therefore the one who was to be the true altar must be capable of dying, and at the same time One upon whom death had no claim" (Mr. S. Ridout).
The wooden boards, overlaid with brass, tell us that the Altar points to the capability of the Sin-bearer to endure the judgment of God. The incarnate Son was no feeble Savior: "I have laid help upon One that is mighty" (Ps. 89:19) was Jehovah’s witness of old. The shittim wood spoke of the humanity of the Redeemer; the brass of which it was overlaid told of His power to "endure the Cross."
3. Its Meaning.
This is the easiest to interpret of all the holy vessels. Being the place where sacrifice was offered to God, it spoke, unmistakably, of the Cross of Christ. It pointed to the most solemn aspect of Calvary. The Lord Jesus was the Antitype of both the altar and its sacrifice, as also of the priests who there officiated. That which is distinct in our present type is what is set forth by the brass. This is the hardest of all metals, possessing a greater resistance to fire than gold or silver: in Deuteronomy 33:25 and in Jeremiah 1:18 "brass" is used as the symbol of ability to endure. Our Savior was the true Brazen-altar, possessed of that power of enduring, in its awful intensity, the fires of God’s holiness. He only could endure the Cross. He only could, stand, unconsumed, under the storm of Divine judgment. As the brass plates on the Altar protected it from the fervent heat and prevented it from being burnt up, so, Christ passed through the fires of God’s wrath without being consumed. He is mighty to save, because He was mighty to endure.
As we have shown above, "brass" in Scripture symbolizes judgment. Hence we see the solemn propriety of Moses being instructed to make "a serpent of brass" to place upon the pole. Many have wondered how it was possible for the Holy One of God to be represented by a "serpent"—surely that was the last of all objects suited to portray Him who is fairer than the children of men! But no mistake was made. As a fact, the "serpent" was the only similitude of all created things which could suitably picture that particular aspect of the Redeemer’s death which was there foreshadowed. The "serpent" was the reminder of the "curse" (Gen. 3), and in Galatians 3:13 we are expressly told that Christ was "made a curse" for His people. It was because that uplifted object, presented to the eyes of the bitten Israelites, pointed forward to the Lord Jesus as "made a curse," that it was designed in the form of a serpent. For the same reason, that serpent was made not of silver or gold, but of brass. As made a curse for us, the judgment of God descended upon Christ, and the sword of Divine justice smote Him (Zech. 13:7).
It was at the Brazen-altar that the holiness and righteousness of God were displayed: His hatred of sin, and His justice in punishing it. Have you ever considered the holiness of God, dear reader, and how that your sins have unfitted you to come before Him? When Isaiah, the best man in all Israel of his day, was brought into God’s presence, and saw the unsullied purity of His person, and beheld the seraphim (who had never come into contact with defilement of any kind) veil their faces with their wings and cry, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts," there was wrung from his heart that word, "Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips" (Isa. 6:5). When he saw the holiness of God, the righteousness of His throne, the profound reverence of the heavenly intelligences, on the one hand; and on the other, his own sinfulness and the iniquities of the people among whom he lived; he saw also the awful distance there was between his soul and God, and he cried, "Woe is me!"
As another has pointed out, "In the preceding chapter Isaiah had pronounced six woes on six different classes in Israel; but when brought into the Lord’s presence, he pronounced the seventh upon himself. His neighbor’s sin troubled him no more, but his own did. These must be attended to at once; and, thank God, they were, but not by Isaiah. How could he put them away by the power of his hand? or wash them away by his tears? or have them removed by any efforts of his own? Ah, no; but thank God, if a sight of God and His throne, and a sight of his own unfitness for the presence of One so holy, led him to pass judgment upon himself and take his place in the dust, it also brought him low enough to see another thing, and that was the altar, and the provision of the altar. The live coal had done its work; the sacrifice had been consumed; and nothing remained but ‘the live coal’; this was applied to Isaiah’s lips, and the sweet and blessed assurance given, ‘thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin is purged" (Isa. 6:7). The look of anguish passes from his face, and there comes instead the light of holy joy as he believes what is said to him" (Gospel Add. on the Tab., by A.H.).
Does the reader understand what is portrayed in Isaiah 6? The "altar" is Christ: the sacrifice consumed on it by the live coal speaks of His work on the cross for poor sinners. The "live coal" is a figure of God’s holiness consuming that which offends Him. When Christ was "made sin" (2 Cor. 5:21) for all who shall believe on Him, it pleased Jehovah to "bruise" Him, to "put Him to grief," to "make His soul an offering for sin" (Isa. 53). It was then that the "live coal" reached Him, and He exclaimed, "My heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of My bowels" (Ps. 22:14). Yes, the coal had done its work, its "strange work" (Isa. 28:21); a sacrifice had been presented—all had gone up to God. And that "live coal" (figure of God’s holiness) lies now upon the Altar, waiting for the sinner to take the place Isaiah took, and pass judgment on himself, as he did; and the moment he does so his iniquity is taken away and his sin is purged.
The Brazen-altar, inside the Court, faced the door into the Tabernacle proper, and it was at this place Jehovah met with His people: "There will I meet with the children of Israel" (Ex. 29:42, 43). So the Cross is now the meeting-place between God and the sinner. "It is on the foundation of what was accomplished there that He can be just and the Justifier of everyone that believeth in Jesus. There is no other ground on which He can bring the sinner into His presence. If the Israelite rejected the brazen altar, he shut himself out for ever from the mercy of God, and, in like manner, whoever rejects the cross of Christ, shuts himself out for ever from the hope of salvation" (E. Dennett). Inexpressibly blessed are the words of Exodus 29:37, "everything that toucheth the altar shall be holy": so every sinner who, by faith, lays hold of Christ is cleansed—cf. Mark 5:27-29.
It is very striking to observe that of the different vessels in the Tabernacle the two "altars" alone are spoken of as being "most holy." The other pieces of furniture are called "holy," but the golden altar (30:10) once, and the brazen altar twice, is termed "most holy" (39:37; 40:10). The reason for this is not far to seek: it was at Calvary, pre-eminently, that the holiness of God was so signally and solemnly manifested. So holy is God that He would not spare His beloved Son (Rom. 8:32) when the sins of His people were laid upon Him.
Though the Altar had no "steps" up to it (Ex. 20:26), yet it is clear from Leviticus 9:22 that it stood on elevated ground, for there we read of Aaron ministering at the Altar, and then he "came down." Most probably the ground in the Outer Court was made to slope upwards, and on the top of this ascent stood the Altar. How this reminds us of the "lifted up" Savior upon that Hill called Golgotha!
4. Its Dimensions.
"Thou shalt make an altar of shittim wood, five cubits long, and five cubits broad; the altar shall be foursquare: and the height thereof shall be three cubits" (v. 1). The measurements here are very striking and blessed. Five, as we have shown before, is the number that tells of grace, and this was stamped both on the length and breadth of the Altar. Nowhere was the wondrous grace of God to poor sinners so clearly displayed as it was at the Cross. What could we possibly do which would call for such a costly Sacrifice on our behalf? A ransom so precious was utterly unmerited. It was provided by the pure benignity of God. Nor was it a sudden impulse on the part of the Father to bestow favors on those who had no claims on Him. As we are told in 1 Peter 1:20, the Lamb was "foreordained before the foundation of the world." So in 2 Timothy 1:9 we read, "Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began." Here then is the length: grace appointed the antitypical Altar long ere time began. The breadth is also measured by grace. "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion" (Rom. 9:15) expressed this truth. Its height—three cubits—speaks of manifestation. At the Cross, God, man, sin, Satan, holiness, righteousness, grace and love were exhibited as nowhere else.
"The altar shall be foursquare." Thus it faced each point of the compass, telling of the world-wide aspect and application of the Cross. Christ’s death was not only for the Israelitish nation, but also for the children of God "scattered abroad" (John 11:51, 52). He is a propitiation for the sins of "the whole world" (1 John 2:2), which does not mean all mankind, but that it was not restricted to Israel, but was also designed for favored sinners among the Gentiles too.
5. Its Horns.
"And thou shalt make the horns of it upon the four corners thereof, his horns shall he of the same" (v. 2). These horns were for the binding of the sacrifice to the Altar: see Psalm 118:27. In Scripture the "horn" is the symbol of power or strength (see Habakkuk 3:4). Typically, the "horns" on the Altar pointed to the unfaltering purpose of the Savior, and the strength of His love. It was not the nails which held Him to the Cross. Christ was bound to the Altar by the constraint of His devotedness to the Father (John 10:19; Philippians 2:9). While on the Cross, His enemies challenged Him to come down; His refusal to do so evidenced the cords which bound Him to its "horns."
6. Its Utensils.
"And thou shalt make his pans to receive his ashes, and his shovels, and his basins, and his fleshhooks, and his fire-pans: all the vessels thereof thou shalt make of brass" (v. 3). The "pans" were used in receiving the ashes of offering and removing them to their appointed place (Lev. 6:10, 11). The "ashes" testified to the thoroughness of the fire’s work in having wholly consumed the offering. They also witnessed to the acceptance of the sacrifice on behalf of the offerer, and so they were to him a token that his sins were gone. The words of Christ from the Cross express the fulfillment of this detail of our type: "It is finished" announced that the Sacrifice had been offered, accepted, and gone up to God as a sweet savor.
The "shovels" were no doubt employed about the fire, collecting the dead embers. The "basins" were receptacles for the blood, in order to convey it to each place of sprinkling. The "fleshhooks" would be for arranging the different parts of the sacrifice on the fire of the Altar. The "firepans" are identical with the "censers,’ which formed the necessary link between the two Altars (Lev. 16:12, 13). "The utensils speak of all that was necessary in order that the offerings might be presented and dealt with in a suitable manner. We can understand in the case of Christ how perfect it all was: it was ‘by the eternal Spirit’ that He ‘offered Himself without spot to God.’ Every detail connected with the offering up of Christ has been provided and arranged and carried out according to God’s mind and glory. The Scriptures have been fulfilled in every detail" (C. A. Coates). Each utensil had its own distinctive typical significance, which becomes apparent through prayer, meditation, and comparing scripture with scripture. That all were made of "brass" emphasizes, again, the prominent and dominant truth associated with this Altar—the unsparing judgment of God upon the believing sinner’s Substitute.
"And thou shalt make for it a grate of network of brass; and upon the net thou shalt make four brazen rings in the four corners thereof. And thou shalt put it under the compass of the altar beneath, that the net may be even to the midst of the altar" (vv. 4,5). The Brazen-altar was hollow within, and in its midst was fixed a "grate" on which the fire was built and where the severed parts of the offering were laid. This brings before us the most solemn aspect of all in this type. It tells of the inward sufferings of the Savior as He endured the wrath of God.
"Our Lord did not bear the fire of Divine judgment in any external, superficial way. It is but a feeble and a partial view of those sufferings which would enlarge upon the persecution of ungodly men, or even the malice of Satan who urged them on. These might explain the bodily anguish to which our holy Lord permitted Himself to be subjected, but the fire of Divine holiness, the heart-searching judgment against sin, went down into the utmost center of His being. Reverently may we tread upon such holy ground. Sin is not an external thing, though it mars the outward man. Its source is in the heart, the center of man’s being; and therefore in the sinless Substitute the flame searched down into His holy soul. Atoning suffering, like the sin of man, was in the heart. The piercing of the nails, the crown of thorns, the jeers of the people, the spear-thrusts, did not set forth the deep essence of His sufferings. God only, who searcheth the heart, knew what it meant. The Son, who bore the judgment, knows the intensity of that fire which burned down into His soul when made an offering for sin" (Mr. Ridout). In wondrous accord with this fire being within the altar, is the fact that its grate was "even in the midst" (v. 5). The Savior suffered on the Cross for six hours, and they, too, were divided in the midst: the first three He suffered at the hands of men; the last three (when darkness overspread the earth) He suffered at the hands of God!
7. Its Covering.
The details recorded in Exodus 27:6, 7 show us that provision was made for its carrying about when Israel were on the march. In Numbers 4:13, 14 we are told how it was then covered: "And they shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth thereon... and they shall spread upon it a covering of badgers’ skins." This was the only piece of the Tabernacle’s furniture which was wrapped in purple—the royal color. Was not this to denote how closely connected were Christ’s "sufferings" with the "glory which was to follow"? (Luke 21:26; 1 Peter 1:1). Over the purple cloth was spread the badgers’ skins; once more telling us of the world’s incapacity to discern the preciousness and the value of the Death Divine. The repentant thief discerned the royal purple over the Altar—the Cross—as his words "Lord, remember me. when Thou comest into Thy kingdom" clearly denote. His wicked and scoffing companion saw naught but the rough badgers’ skins!
Let us summarize. The Brazen-altar was the place where sin was judged and its wages paid. If the Veil told of separation because of sin, the Altar says, death is the consequences of sin. But the Altar also speaks of sin remitted. Nature knows nothing of this: break her laws, and you must suffer the consequences; repent, but she knows no mercy and shows no pity. Science is equally powerless: it endeavors to relieve the effects entailed, but has no remedy for the disease itself. Divine revelation alone makes known an adequate provision—the Cross of Christ. There the uncompromising judgment of God dealt with sin; not by punishing the sinner, but by smiting the sinner’s Substitute—"Who His own self bear our sins in His own body on the tree, that we (believers), being (legally) dead to sin, should live unto righteousness, by whose stripes we are healed" (1 Pet. 2:24). Thanks be unto God for His unspeakable Gift.