Gleanings In Exodus
by A. W. Pink
53. The Golden Altar
There were two altars connected with the Tabernacle. Both were made of wood, but covered with a different metal: the one with brass, and so named after it "the brazen altar’" (Ex. 38:30); the other with gold, and so called’ "the golden altar" (Ex. 39:38). The one was placed outside the building in the court, just before the entrance; the other was inside the holy place, and stood before the veil. These altars were closely connected, but served different uses. Their characteristic names point out their distinctive designs: the former being designated "the altar of burnt offering" (40:6), and was the place of sacrifice; the latter was termed "the altar of incense" (30:27), and was the place of worship. Both altars were needed to set forth our one and only Altar, of whom it is written, "we have an Altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle" (Heb. 13:10).
Some have wondered why the incense altar was not mentioned in Exodus 25 and 26, where five of the other pieces of the Tabernacle’s furniture are referred to, and where the holy place in which it stood is described. Three reasons may be suggested for this. First, the omission of the golden altar from those earlier chapters may have been because of what was typically set forth by the various holy vessels. Those enumerated in Exodus 25 and 26 speak of God in Christ coming out to His people, displaying the riches of His grace; whereas the two which are before us in Exodus 30 tell of the provisions God has made for us to go in to Him, expressing the fullness of His love. Beautifully has this been expounded by another:
"Why, then, does the Lord, when giving directions about the furniture of the ‘holy place’ omit the altar of incense, and pass out to the brazen altar which stood at the door of the Tabernacle? The reason I believe is simply this: He first described the mode in which He would manifest Himself to man, and then He described the mode of man’s approach to Him. He took His seat upon the throne as ‘The Lord of all the earth’ (Josh. 3:13). The beams of His glory were hidden behind the veil-type of Christ’s flesh (Heb. 10:20); but there was the manifestation of Himself in connection with man, as in the pure table and by the light and power of the Holy Ghost, as in the candlestick. Then we have the manifested character of Christ as a man down here on this earth, as seen in the curtains and coverings of the tabernacle. And, finally, we have the brazen altar as the grand exhibition of the meeting place between a holy God and a sinner. This conducts us as it were, to the extreme point, from which we return, in company with Aaron and his sons, back to the holy place, the ordinary priestly position, where stood the golden altar of incense. Thus the order is strikingly beautiful" (C.H.M.).
A second reason may be suggested as to why the description of the golden altar and the laver should have been postponed until the 30th chapter of Exodus was reached. This is plainly intimated in Exodus 28 and 29, where we have the appointment, investiture and consecration of the priesthood. Thus, the golden altar was not mentioned until there was a priest to burn incense thereon! It was at the laver the priests washed, and it was at the golden altar they ministered; there, too, it was where Aaron presented himself before Jehovah. Thus the contents of chapters 28 and 29 were needed to bring before us the priestly family before we learn of the two holy vessels with which they were more directly associated. So, too, experimentally, we apprehend that of which the preceding chapters speak, before we value that which chapter 30 sets forth.
A third reason lies in the application of the teaching of the holy vessels to believers. The primary application of each of them is to Christ Himself, but there is a secondary application to His people. As we shall yet seek to show, one of the fundamental things prefigured by the golden altar is worship, and as this is the highest exercise of our priestly privileges, suitably was this the last piece of furniture met with as the sons of Aaron approached unto Jehovah.
"Just as the golden altar was the last object to be reached in the journey from the gate to the veil which hid the mercy-seat from view, just so is worship the highest state to be reached on earth and the object for which all other things are preparations. The Father seeks worshippers (John 4:23), and this it was that led the Lord to go through Samaria to meet that sinner, to turn her heart from her sins, by filling it with the satisfying portion of grace, that she might meet the desires of Divine love and give that praise, that worship, that only a sinner (a cleansed sinner) can give. And this it was that led the Lord to take that larger journey from the heaven of light and peace down to the cross of suffering and shame. He sought sinners, He seeketh them still; seeketh them that, having tasted as no angel can possibly taste, the love of God, they might then from a heart overflowing with the consciousness of its indebtedness to the Savior, and the appreciation of His own excellence, pour forth the fragrant incense of praise" (C. H. Bright).
1. Its Significance.
"And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon" (v. 1). It is striking to note that before anything is said about the materials of which the altar was made, its size and shape, or the position it was to occupy, we are first told of the purpose for which it was to be used. It is this which places in our hands a sure key to its spiritual interpretation. Attention is directed straight to the altar and the incense which was burned thereon. The altar speaks of Christ Himself, and the incense was a figure both of His intercession and the praises which He presents to God.
The fact that the golden altar comes before us in Exodus immediately after the investiture and consecration of Aaron and his sons, at once tells us that what is here portrayed is the ministrations of our great High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary. Though He is now seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high, yet He is not inactive. He is constantly engaged before God on behalf of His redeemed, presenting to the Father—in the sweet fragrance of His own perfections—both the petitions and worship of His people. The position occupied by the golden altar confirms this. It was not situated in the outer court—all connected with which adumbrated the manifestation of Christ here on earth; but in the holy place, which tells of Christ having gone in to appear before God on behalf of His people. Further confirmation that this is the central thought in our present type is supplied in the words at the close of v. 3: "And thou shalt make unto it a crown of gold round about." Thus, it is Christ in heaven, not on earth, "crowned with glory and honor" (Heb. 2:9).
Unutterably solemn is it to contemplate Christ at the brazen altar there made sin for us, suffering, enduring judgment, bowing His head beneath the awful storm of God’s wrath. But unspeakably blessed is it to behold Him at the golden altar, risen from the grave, alive for evermore, maintaining the interests of His people before God’s throne, presenting them in all His own excellency and preciousness. "If when we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life" (Rom. 5:10). This is the point which the Spirit of God reserves for the climax in His unanswerable reply to the challenge "Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?" it is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemmeth? it is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us" (Rom. 8:33, 34).
"Let my prayer be set forth before Thee as incense; and the lifting up of mine bands as the evening sacrifice" (Ps. 141:2). This gives us the emblematical meaning of "incense." So again in Revelation 5:8 we read, "having every one of them harps, and golden veils full of incense, which are the prayers of saints." The incense burned upon the golden altar, then, foreshadowed Christ in heaven, praying for His people. As we read in Hebrews 7:25, "Wherefore He is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them." Christ’s intercession is not for the purpose of completing the believer’s justification, for that would show His sacrifice of the cross was insufficient; by that one offering He has perfected us forever (Heb. 10:14); rather does it crown it with glory and honor. The precious incense of our Lord’s priestly intercession maintains us (through our wilderness journey) in the place of fullest acceptance as a sweet savor unto God.
A striking typical illustration of the wondrous efficacy of our great High Priest’s intercession is furnished in Numbers 16. There we see, first, how Korah and his company repudiated Aaron as their high priest, claiming equal nearness to God for all Israel, see v. 3. But a sinful people could have no standing before the Holy One save through the priest who offered the sacrifice. This, the rebellious people were made to feel (v. 35). The "gainsaying of Korah" (Jude 11), then, was the practical denial of Christ’s person and sacrificial work. Then, in Numbers 16, we also behold how the grace of God shone forth: Aaron the high priest was told to "take a censer, and put fire therein from off the altar, and put on incense, and go quickly unto the congregation, and make an atonement for them" (v. 46). Blessed was the sequel: "And he stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stayed" (v. 48). What a foreshadowing of the mediatorial intercession of Christ, interposing on behalf of His erring people, and that, on the ground of His sacrificial death.
It is a mistake, made by most of the commentators, to limit the "incense" as pointing only to the Savior’s intercession; it includes also His offering of praise to God. Did He not say, "In the midst of the church will I sing praise unto Thee" (Heb. 2:12)? So also in Hebrews 13:15 we are told, "By Him, therefore, let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually." He is the One who receives the praises of His people and presents them to God. So again in 1 Peter 2:5 we are told, "Ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer us spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ." Christ is the one who makes our worship acceptable to God. Therefore. the incense has to be burned upon the altar.
2. Its Composition.
"And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon it: of shittim wood shalt thou make it" (v. 1). This, as we have seen in earlier types, symbolized the perfect humanity of Christ. "This accacia wood, the emblem of the incorruptible and spotless humanity of the Son of God entered into the composition of the altar of burnt-offering outside in the court, and was covered with brass, enabling it to endure the fire that consumed its victim. The same accacia wood entered into the composition of the table of shewbread; it also entered into the composition of the altar of incense, which was covered and crowned with gold, for no atonement for sin was ever offered or needed at that altar; all that was finished. It also entered into the composition of the ark of the covenant within the veil, identifying all these with the person and salvation-work of our Lord Jesus Christ, teaching us that His perfect humanity—made in all things like His brethren, sin excepted—in all the modifications of His covenant engagements and offices of our behalf, whether at His incarnation, His birth, His walk with God on earth, His death on the cross, or after His resurrection, when He was seen of His disciples for forty days, or after His ascension to the right hand of God, where He ever liveth to make intercession for us—was ever one and the same immortalized humanity in the person of our living and glorified Head, Substitute, and Representative" (Mr. Rainsford).
"And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, the top thereof, and the sides thereof round about, and the horns thereof" (v. 3). This is very lovely, speaking, as it does, of that Divine glory into which the Man Christ Jesus has entered. As the sons of Aaron approached this altar—figures of worshipping believers now drawing near to God—they would see nothing but the gold. So it is not a dead Christ on the cross who is the object of our worship, but a living Christ who has been "received up into glory" (1 Tim. 3:16). Therefore are we bidden "if ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God: Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth; for ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God" (Col. 3:1-3). As another has said, "God saw only the gold—that which was suited to Him, suited to His own nature. The remembrance of this gives boldness when bowing in His presence. It is indeed a wondrous mercy that Christ is before the eye of God, and before the eye of the worshipper, Himself the meeting-place between God and His people, as well as the foundation of His people’s acceptance" (Ed Dennet).
3. Its Dimensions.
"A cubit shall be the length thereof, and a cubit the breadth thereof; foursquare shall it be; and two cubits shall be the height thereof: the horns thereof shall be of the same" (v. 2). The dimensions of the golden altar differed considerably from those of the brazen altar, the latter being five cubits long, five cubits broad, and three cubits high (27:1). Herein we may see the wonderful accuracy of these types and their perfections down to the minutest detail. The brazen altar was much larger than the golden altar. The former foreshadowed the sacrificial death of Christ; the latter, His present ministry in heaven. But does He not now appear before God on behalf of all for whom He died? In one sense, yes; in another sense no. Representatively He does, actively He does not. John 11:51, 52 shows that He died for two distinct companies—"that nation (Israel) and the children of God scattered abroad—God’s elect among the Gentiles. But at present Christ is not interceding for Israel, nor is He presenting their praises before God! It is only on behalf of the Church that He is now actively engaged: Israel will be taken up in the Day to come, and this will be at His return to the earth, as the brazen altar in the outer court denotes. Thus, there is a wonderful propriety in the golden altar, within the holy place, being smaller than the brazen altar.
May not the fact that it was but one cubit in length indicate to us that Christ needs not to repeat His plea on our behalf—once is sufficient, for the Father hears Him always (John 11:42). Though He ever liveth, it is not said, "He ever intercedeth." The tense of the verb (in the Greek) implies that Christ prayed but once for Peter in Luke 22:32. The breadth being one cubit would point to the "one body" as the extent of those for whom He now intercedes—"I pray not for the world" (John 17:9)! The two cubits of its height would perhaps denote that Christ presents to God both the praises of His saints which are now in heaven as those yet on earth. Its being "foursquare" tells us that the objects of His intercession are scattered abroad, reaching to the four corners of the earth. Though we may forget to remember His blood-brought ones in far distant places, He does not!
"Foursquare shall it be" (v. 2). In its application to Christ Himself this tells us that His intercession embraces all His people, "scattered abroad." In its application to us we find the New Testament equivalent in 1 Timothy 2:1, "I exhort, therefore, that, first of all, supplication, prayers, intercessions, giving of thanks, be made for all men." In Ephesians 6:18 we are bidden to make supplication "for all saints." How little of this there is today! How self-centered we are, how narrow are our hearts! How little our "altar" answers to the foursquaredness of the incense altar! May the Lord enlarge our hearts.
4. Its Ornamentation.
"And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, the top thereof, and the sides thereof round about, and the horns thereof" (v. 3). The "horn" is the symbol of power (Hab. 3:4), so that what we are shown here is Christ’s intercessory power with God. A more literal rendering of the Hebrew would be, "Of itself shall be its horns:" all that Christ is in His wondrous person gives Him power with God; blessedly is this seen in John 17.
It will be noted that the number of its "horns" is not given. Many conclude that it had one at each corner, as had the brazen altar (38:2). As there is nothing in Scripture without spiritual significance, even its very omissions manifesting its Divine Authorship, we must inquire, Why has not the Holy Spirit told us there were four "horns" here? The answer is not far to seek. Four is the number of the earth, and the golden altar foreshadowed Christ’s priestly ministry in Heaven; thus we may see that the mention of the "four horns" would have cast a blemish on the perfection of our type.
"And thou shalt make unto it a crown of gold round about" (v. 3). Three of the seven pieces of the tabernacle’s furniture had a "crown" upon it. First, the ark of the covenant (25:11), in which were preserved the two tables of stone. This was the crown of the law, which Christ "magnified" and "made honorable" (Isa. 42:21). Second, the table of shewbread (25:24). This was the crown of fellowship: the Christian’s highest honor and supremest privilege is to enjoy communion with Him who has been crowned with glory. Or, if we look at it from the dispensational viewpoint, the table with its twelve loaves would speak of Israel in a coming day, restored and in fellowship with Christ—this would be the crown of the kingdom. Here, in connection with the golden altar, it is the crown of the priesthood, and reminds us that Christ, our great High Priest, is seated upon "the Throne of Grace!"
5. Its Rings and Staves.
"And two golden rings shalt thou make to it under the crown of it, by the two corners thereof, upon the two sides of it shalt thou make it; and they shall be for places for the staves to bear it withal. And thou shalt make the staves of shittim wood, and overlay them with gold (vv. 4, 5). Thus provision was made for the altar to be carried with them as Israel journeyed from place to place—it was not stationary, so that they had to make pilgrimages to it. Typically, this tells us that God’s pilgrims today, while they are here below, are enjoying the blessings of Christ’s priestly intercession on high. Two "rings" are the number of witness, and speak of the Holy Spirit who is here to "testify" of Christ (John 15:26); their being of "gold" announces that He is a Divine person. The "staves" of wood, overlaid with gold, intimate that it is the God-man whom the Spirit is here to glorify.
In its practical application to us, the lesson taught by the rings and staves is both searching and blessed. It is only as we maintain our pilgrim character, in separation from that religious world which rejects Christ, that we can really appropriate and enjoy that which the golden-altar prefigured. There is a striking passage in Hebrews 13 which speaks in the language of our present type: "Let us go forth therefore unto Him without the camp (man’s organized Christianity), bearing His reproach. For here have we (in affections and aim) no continuing city, but (as pilgrims journeying) we seek one to come. By Him (the antitype of the altar) therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise (the burning of incense) to God continually, that is, fruit of our lips giving thanks to His name" (vv. 13, 15).
6. Its Use.
"And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense" (v. 7). The altar was used for one thing only. We gather from Leviticus 16:12, 13 and Numbers 16:46 that the fire on which the incense was laid had been taken from off the brazen-altar, where the sin-offering was consumed. There was, therefore, a very intimate connection between the two altars: the activities of the latter being based upon those of the former; in other words, the incense was kindled upon that fire which had first fed upon the sacrifice; thus identifying the priest’s service at both altars. This, in figure, tells us that our great High Priest pleads for no blessings which His blood has not purchased, and asks pardon from Divine justice for no sins for which He has not atoned. The measure of the blessings for which He pleads is God’s estimate of the life which He gave. Note how in John 17, before He presents a single petition concerning His people, that Christ said, "I have glorified Thee on the earth; I have finished the work which Thou gavest Me to do" (v. 4). That was the foundation on which all His pleas were based and urged.
There are other scriptures where the two altars are linked together. As another has said, "Fittingly therefore does the Psalmist in speaking of the house for the lonely sparrow and a nest for the restless swallow, refer to these two altars. ‘Yea, the sparrow hath found a house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even Thine altars O Lord of Hosts, my King and my God’ (Ps. 84:3). Both altars are thus connected together and form the solid and abiding rest for the poor and needy soul. "Thus too, when Isaiah saw the glory of the Lord in the temple, and the adoring seraphim with veiled faces celebrating the majesty of the thrice holy triune God, he was overwhelmed with the sense of his own and Israel’s uncleanness, until one of those burning ones (suggesting, perhaps, the fire of God as seen in His executors of judgment) flew with a live coal which he had taken from. off the altar, and touched his lips, saying, ‘Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged’ (Isa. 6:7). The coal of Divine holiness had already consumed the sacrifice and was also consuming the sweet incense. Thus symbolically the prophet’s lips were cleansed according to God’s estimate of the value of the sacrifice and person of our Lord" (Mr. Ridout).
A most solemn contrast from this is presented in the opening verses of Leviticus 10. There we are told, "And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He commanded them not. And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord" (vv. 1, 2), These sons of Aaron were consumed by Divine judgment because they "offered strange fire before the Lord," that is, the incense in their censers was not burned on fire taken from off the brazen altar, but was of their own kindling. They had departed from the plain word of Jehovah, who had already instructed them as to the mode of their worship. God was very jealous of His types (compare 2 Kings 5:26, 27). By their actions Nadab and Abihu were signifying that worship may be offered to God on another foundation than acceptance through a crucified Christ; and for this He slew them.
The incense was to be kept sacredly for tabernacle service and he who manufactured any for his personal or family use had to pay the death-penalty for his presumption (30:28). None but the priests of the seed of Aaron were allowed to handle it. When king Uzziah attempted to usurp the priest’s office and daringly challenged the holy God by presuming to burn incense before Him, his impiety was severely punished—see 2 Chronicles 26:16-21. Even royalty must bow in abasement before Jehovah!
The composition and preparation of the sacred incense are specified in Exodus 30:34, 35. Upon the nature, costliness, and distinctive typical import of the respective spices we cannot here comment. That which we would specially notice is the three things which are said about the incense as a whole. First, it was, "sweet" (v. 7). Exceedingly fragrant must have been its odor, telling of the acceptability and preciousness of Christ’s intercessions and praises before God. Second, it was "pure" (v. 35): unlike ours, nothing whatever of the flesh enters into the priestly ministrations of the Redeemer. Third, it was "most holy" (v. 36): Christ’s exercises within the heavenly sanctuary are in all the excellences of His peerless person. "Of each shall there be a like weight" (v. 34) should also be observed: no one grace or attribute predominates in the Lord Jesus, there is a perfect balance between all.
It is striking to see how the lighting of the lamps is here linked with the golden altar: "And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn incense upon it. And when Aaron lighteth the lamps at even, he shall burn incense upon it" (vv. 7, 8). The maintenance of the light was inseparably associated with the service of the altar. Typically, this tells us that the gift and ministry of the Holy Spirit (as the Spirit of Christ, Romans 8:9) is the consequence of the Savior’s intercession—cf. John 14:16. In its practical application to believers we may see here a setting forth of the fact that, every fresh kindling or exercise of the Spirit in our hearts, results in new outbursts of praise unto God: our worship is ever in proportion to the manifestation of the Spirit’s power.
"He shall burn incense upon it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations" (v. 8). This is very blessed. The fire upon the altar was always burning and the fragrance from the sweet incense was continually rising. So Christ is ever before God, in all the merits of His person and value of His work, on His people’s behalf. One third of our lives is spent in sleep; but He never slumbers: "He ever liveth to make intercession for us," and because of this He is "able to save unto the uttermost (to the end of their wilderness journey) them that come unto God by Him" (Heb. 7:25). Thus the golden-altar is a pledge of our eternal security.
"Ye shall offer no strange incense thereon, nor burnt-sacrifice, nor meat-offering; neither shall ye pour drink-offering thereon" (v. 9). For the Levites to offer these upon this altar would be to confound it with the brazen-altar. The same sad mistake is made now when Christians gathered together for worship take their place at the cross, instead of within the rent veil. Instead of being occupied with our sins and Christ’s sacrifice for them, we should be contemplating the Lord Jesus Himself as He appears in the presence of God for us; nothing short of this will enable us to occupy our true priestly position and exercise our joyous priestly functions.
"And Aaron shall make an atonement upon the horns of it once in a year with the blood of the sin-offering of atonement: once in the year shall he make atonement upon it" (v. 10). This is most blessed. The congregation of Israel could approach unto God only at the brazen-altar; but Aaron and his sons (figure of Christ and His heavenly people) came to the golden-altar, in the holy place. How this tells us that a position has been secured for us within the heavenly sanctuary in all the value of the sin-offering! This interpretation is confirmed by the fact that there is no mention of the golden-altar in Ezekiel’s temple, which typifies Israel’s millennial relations to God! But we also need to ponder this tenth verse from the practical viewpoint. Looked at thus its teaching is. parallel with that word in Exodus 28:38, "That Aaron may bear the iniquity of the holy things," cf. Leviticus 5:15. Our prayers are so faulty, our praises so feeble, our worship so far below the level of what it ought to be, that even our "holy things" needed to be cleansed by the blood of atonement. How humbling this is!
7. Its Coverings.
"And upon the golden altar they shall spread a cloth of blue, and cover it with a covering of badgers’ skins, and shall put to the staves thereof" (Num. 4:11). How this confirms, what has been said above. The golden-altar being wrapped in a "blue" cloth speaks plainly of the present heavenly ministry of Christ. But this was not made known to the earthly people, as the outer covering of the badgers’ skins indicates. May the Lord add His blessing to this meditation.