The Earthen Altar
The Lord came down on Sinai and gave the Ten Commandments. After hearing His voice and seeing His splendid majesty so strikingly revealed, the people begged to not hear His voice any longer. He agreed and from that point on it would be to Moses that He would speak and then Moses would relay the rest of the law to the people.
No sooner had this come about than He began to relay the words of the law to Moses. The first words are to avoid idolatry and then immediately came the instructions for the building of an altar to Him for offerings. On the surface, it does seem a bit disconnected. Doesn’t it? But it is not. One thing follows logically after the next.
The details are in the words and the words are there to reveal what is on the Lord’s mind. And so let’s look into them today with a sense of anticipation that we will learn more about His marvelous plan as it slowly unveils before us.
Text Verse: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; 23 for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:
TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.
Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you.” Acts 17:22, 23
Altars are found throughout the world because people throughout the world believe in “God.” They may have it wrong, but they intuitively know He is there. In today’s passage, the instructions for the building of an altar to the Lord are precise but simple. Why are we being told about it? What purpose do the details serve and what can they tell us about our interactions with Him?
Well, the answers are all to be found in His superior word. And so let’s turn to that precious word once again and… May God speak to us through His word today and may His glorious name ever be praised.
I. The Spoken Word of God (verses 18-21)
18 Now all the people witnessed the thunderings,
It is not unusual for one sense to be applied to all of them. The sense of sight then is given to describe not only what was visual, but also that which follows in the other senses – hearing, tasting, feeling, and smelling.
Here the thunderings which their ears heard are recorded in the sense of the mind’s eye as being seen. As a squiggle for your brain, this form of writing is known to grammarians as zeugma. It is where a word applies to two others in different senses. A funny example of a zeugma would be “John and his license expired last week.” Poor John.
The word for “thunderings” is ha’qolot – literally, the voices. Rather than the actual word for “thunder” which is raam, the idea of thunder has to be inferred from other passages in Scripture where the Lord’s voice is said to thunder.
This metaphor for thunder is used many times in connection with the Lord, and the sense of His power and His glory is seen in connection with it. But often His judgment is seen in connection with it as well. The thundering of the Lord in this manner was seen in the seventh plague upon Egypt where we read this –
“And Moses stretched out his rod toward heaven; and the Lord sent thunder and hail, and fire darted to the ground. And the Lord rained hail on the land of Egypt.” Exodus 9:23
Elsewhere throughout the Bible, the voice of the Lord is noted and it is often in the sense of judgment. A classic example of this is found in Isaiah 66 –
“Hear the word of the Lord,
You who tremble at His word:
‘Your brethren who hated you,
Who cast you out for My name’s sake, said,
‘Let the Lord be glorified,
That we may see your joy.’
But they shall be ashamed.’
6 The sound of noise from the city!
A voice from the temple!
The voice of the Lord,
Who fully repays His enemies!'” Isaiah 66:5, 6
The people of Israel heard this terrifying voice and they shuddered. And along with the voice came more as well…
18 (con’t) the lightning flashes,
ha’lappidim – literally, “the torches.” From this, we infer the idea of “lightning.” Interestingly, this word lapid wasn’t used to describe the scene in Exodus 19. It is, however, brought in now to explain a portion of the marvelous sight which was seen by the people. The word has only been used once before, in Genesis 15.
This was at the time that Abraham received the covenant promises from the Lord. At that time, this was what occurred –
And it came to pass, when the sun went down and it was dark, that behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a burning torch that passed between those pieces. 18 On the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying:
“To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates— 19 the Kenites, the Kenezzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.” Genesis 15:17-21
As I noted at that time, and again in Exodus 19, the two accounts are being tied together. The promise to Abraham and the Exodus, including the giving of the law at Sinai, are showing us the horror and dread of the Lord’s majesty.
18 (con’t) the sound of the trumpet,
v’et qol ha’shophar – literally, “the voice of the trumpet.” The sound, or voice, of the trumpet can be used as the herald of good news or of bad news. The symbolism which we are seeing at the giving of the law is that of warning.
Each law was spoken out with a terrifying display and it was intended to instill in the people that these words are God’s standard. They must be fulfilled or there can only be the expectation of wrath.
This is true with the sound of the shophar here and elsewhere. In Joel 2, we read these words concerning the coming of the Day of the Lord. It is a time of wrath on earth, specifically for rejecting the way of the Lord –
“Blow the trumpet in Zion,
And sound an alarm in My holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble;
For the day of the Lord is coming,
For it is at hand:
2 A day of darkness and gloominess,
A day of clouds and thick darkness,
Like the morning clouds spread over the mountains.
A people come, great and strong,
The like of whom has never been;
Nor will there ever be any such after them,
Even for many successive generations.” Joel 2:1, 2
Every detail of what occurred at Sinai speaks not of grace, but of judgment, condemnation, and wrath. The law was given to terrify the people concerning the absolute majesty of the Lord, and the absolute perfection that He demands. Who can attain to such perfection? Surely we are all condemned by these words.
The book of Revelation shows us that God’s judgment will come heavily upon the world. This judgment will include the seven trumpets which will be blown to usher in great and terrible destruction. This is the high cost of shunning the grace of Christ and deciding instead to pursue one’s own perverse course.
And this is why when we talk to people about the Lord. We need to explain to them that the law is what we must face if we reject His offer of grace. Adam Clarke notes this about the giving of each of the Ten Commandments in relation to the thunderings, lightnings, and the sound of the shophar –
“…here they seem to have been repeated; probably at the end of each command, there was a peal of thunder, a blast of the trumpet, and a gleam of lightning, to impress their hearts the more deeply with a due sense of the Divine Majesty, of the holiness of the law which was now delivered, and of the fearful consequences of disobedience.” Adam Clarke
He is probably right about this. Each individual commandment carries the penalty of the entire law. This is why James notes that to stumble at one point of the law thus breaks the entire law. In order to get the people to understand this, each command uttered was probably followed by the terrible sights and sounds.
18 (con’t) and the mountain smoking;
v’eth ha’har ashen – This is the first of only two times that the adjective form of smoke will be used in the Bible. The entire time that the law was being given, the mountain remained smoking. As I explained in Exodus 19, this smoke is a metaphor for “wrath.”
With each utterance the mountain continued to smoke because wrath, not love, is associated with the words. It is wrath at how man refused to even attempt to live in a godly manner. And the Lord knew that they would continue to refuse.
In Jeremiah 18, the Lord warned the people once again, as He had many times before. Rather than remember the terror of Sinai that they had been told of, or maybe because of the terror that they had been told of, they said that it was hopeless –
“Now therefore, speak to the men of Judah and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord: “Behold, I am fashioning a disaster and devising a plan against you. Return now every one from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good.”’”
12 And they said, “That is hopeless! So we will walk according to our own plans, and we will every one obey the dictates of his evil heart.”
What the people refused to see was that under the law, there was also grace to be found. The Day of Atonement was available to those with faith. But Israel of old, like the world today, has rejected both God’s commands and His grace.
Again, the smoke was seen to reveal God’s wrath at the sins of humanity. His standard is revealed in this law which is endlessly violated. If only people could see that the grace of Christ can and will free them from this wrath if they would just receive it.
18 (con’t) and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off.
This isn’t the best translation of these words. Instead of “trembled” it should say, they “moved” or “removed.” The word is nua and it means “to wander.”
When Moses first went up the mountain, it became apparent that some of the people actually thought that they could break through and come to the mountain where God was. Moses told the Lord that they had been warned, but He knew that they were going to push forward anyway. And so He spoke quickly and firmly –
“Away! Get down and then come up, you and Aaron with you. But do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the Lord, lest He break out against them.” Exodus 19:24
The haughty, arrogant attitude which was displayed before the law began to be given was quickly replaced with horror, fear, and dread. As each commandment blasted forth with its accompanying display of awesome splendor, the people probably backed up a little further.
This is what is implied by the word nua. By the speaking of the last commandment, it says they “stood afar off.” Imagine the sight! The first commandment blasts out and the congregation backs up. The second blasts out and they back up more. With each new utterance, they continued to back up until they were completely removed from the mountain.
The people of the world, all around the world, speak of someday meeting God as a friend. Maybe a pat on the back; maybe a question or two about why He was so unfair to them in their lives. If we understand who God truly is and the nature of His majesty, we would never speak in such a proud and overconfident manner.
Instead, we would shudder at the day of our death, pleading for it to never come about. And the fact that man fears death should show him that it is written deep in his heart. It won’t be a time of fist-bumping, but a time of terror. But there is good new for those who trust in Christ.
Probably thinking of exactly this verse, where the people backed up as they heard the terror of the law, the author of Hebrews shows that there is a difference in the New Covenant. Instead of removing ourselves from the presence of the Lord, we are welcomed to draw near to Him –
“For on the one hand there is an annulling of the former commandment because of its weakness and unprofitableness, 19 for the law made nothing perfect; on the other hand, there is the bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God.” Hebrews 7:18, 19
Thank God for Jesus Christ who takes away the terror and replaces it with grace.
19 Then they said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.”
The voices that were heard at the giving of the law were so terrible that the people asked Moses to alone speak to the Lord and for Him not to speak to them. Moses reminded them of this when the law was reiterated to them at the end of their wilderness wanderings and just prior to their entrance into the Canaan –
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear, 16 according to all you desired of the Lord your God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, nor let me see this great fire anymore, lest I die.'” Deuteronomy 18:15, 16
But it wasn’t just the people that were in fear. Their leader Moses was as well. In Hebrews 12, we read about that –
“And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I am exceedingly afraid and trembling.'” Hebrews 12:21
The request for a mediator by the people, and the fact that even Moses who was designated as such was terrified at the holiness of the Lord, showed that a different sort of Mediator was necessary. Moses told them that a Prophet would be raised up from among Israel to fill this role.
He would be able to speak the words of the New Covenant in a manner where any and all could hear and accept it. The Covenant at Sinai came with a display of fear and wrath; the Covenant in Christ’s blood removed the fear because He received the wrath. As Adam Clarke notes about this account –
“This teaches us the absolute necessity of that great Mediator between God and man, Christ Jesus, as no man can come unto the Father but by him.” Adam Clarke
20 And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear;
al tirau – not fear. Moses wanted them to not fear, but to have fear. There is a difference. The word here, yare, means to be affrighted. They were to receive the words of the Lord, apply them to their lives in the fear of the Lord, and thus they would not have to be in fear of the Lord. This is what is implied here because it is made explicit in the rest of the verse…
20 (con’t) for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin.”
The word for “fear” here is different. It means fear in a different way. It was first used in Genesis 20:11 in this way –
“And Abraham said, ‘Because I thought, surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will kill me on account of my wife.'” Genesis 20:11
God was testing the people so that they would have a reverential fear of Him. In turn, this would lead to obedience and the avoidance of sin.
Of importance is that the name Yehovah, or the Lord, is mentioned 8 times in the giving of the law, from verse 1-17. The term elohim or “God” is used to refer to him 7 times in those same verses. However, in verses 18-21, only the term elohim, not the name Yehovah, is used.
What adds to this is that when the people mention elohim in verse 19, there is no definite article. But when Moses refers to him here, and when the text refers to him in verse 21, both times there is an article – ha’elohim.
This might sound like, “Who cares!” But it shows that the people still have not grasped that there is but one God who is the Lord. Their failure to call him ha’elohim or “the God” in the previous verse perfectly explains why they rejected him and built a golden calf just a short time later.
They failed to grasp the fact that the Lord is the One and only God. Instead, after fashioning the golden calf, they will say this at the base of the very mountain that they are at now –
“This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!” Exodus 32:4
Verse 20, this verse, says that the God came to test the Israelites, that His fear would be before them, and that they might not sin. In one fell swoop, they failed the test, they showed no fear of the One they were to fear, and they sinned greatly. So much so that Moses knew what to expect if he did not immediately intercede for them –
“Oh, these people have committed a great sin, and have made for themselves a god of gold! 32 Yet now, if You will forgive their sin—but if not, I pray, blot me out of Your book which You have written.” Exodus 32:31, 32
21 So the people stood afar off, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was.
Here it says that the people stood m’rahoq, or at a far distance. The display had been such that they were completely terrified to come near to God. In Deuteronomy, a further explanation is given. Not only were they afar off, but Moses told them they could now go home –
“Go and say to them, ‘Return to your tents.’ 31 But as for you, stand here by Me, and I will speak to you all the commandments, the statutes, and the judgments which you shall teach them, that they may observe them in the land which I am giving them to possess.” Deuteronomy 5:30, 31
While they departed to their tents, it says that Moses alone drew unto ha’araphel, or the thick cloud of darkness where ha’elohim, or “the God” awaited him. As the people drew away, Moses alone drew near. From this point on, the Exodus account will have a dramatic change in its content.
Instead of being marvelous stories of adventure, excitement, and wonder, there will be minute details and much repetition as the law, and the details for its associated place of worship, is explained. This is the point where many who picked up their Bible for the first time and excitedly read the stories of Genesis and Exodus give up.
I am telling you this now because the sermons during these instructions will often be filled with details which seem unrelated to anything we might expect to be useful to our walk with Christ. It is probable that some of you will give up on attending here or listening on-line, just as some give upon their Bible reading, but God’s word is a unified whole and it is important to take it as such.
For those who remain and continue on through the coming chapters, you will have a far better understanding of the workings of God, even if the time you spend is less exciting than it otherwise could be. I will pray at this moment that you will be blessed as you continue to pursue the Lord’s word from here on out.
The mountain is filled with terror, an overwhelming sight
There are thunderings and torches of fire ever so bright
And the sound of the trumpet has filled us with fright
Surely this is an awesome display of the Lord’s power and might
Let us not again hear the Lord speak to us
Just receive His word and we will be obedient to it
We will obey and never cause a fuss
To His will, and to His commands, we will submit
And when the Messiah comes, we will be able to draw near
Through His work we will be spared and safe from harm
We will never again have terror or fear
Because of the comfort of the Lord’s right arm
II. An Altar of Earth (verses 22-26)
22 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel:
After the terrifying display of the giving of the Ten Commandments, a new means of God’s revelation is introduced in order to continue to bring His divine will to the people. He will speak directly to Moses and Moses will then instruct the people.
The words of the law were also recorded in writing and so they form the authoritative word of God. There can be no distinction between the spoken word to Moses and the written word from Moses. They are one in the same and they bear the same weight and authority.
How terrifying that churches, ministers, and teachers throughout the world cannot see this fundamental truth for what it is. For us to misrepresent the written word of God is to misrepresent the One who spoke those words out in order for them to be written.
And even if the error is unintentional, it is still error. When we err in doctrine, we sin. How much worse then for those who intentionally abuse God’s word, dismissing it as a book of mere human origin and one that contains only moral lessons for us to pick and choose from!
22 (con’t) ‘You have seen that I have talked with you from heaven.
The words of this sentence are in the plural. The Lord spoke to all of the people, and they all saw that He had spoken to them from heaven. What is apparent here is that the words issued out in a way that they could not have been perceived as anything but divine and directly from heaven itself.
Because of this, what will now be relayed to and through Moses to them bears the same Divine source. They had asked for Him to speak through Moses, He agreed, and now they were to accept the words from Moses as bearing that same authority.
23 You shall not make anything to be with Me—
lo taasun itti – not do make alongside Me. These words are a single proposition and thus they stand alone. Rather than the words of the first commandment which said, “You shall have no other gods before Me,” these say there shall be nothing alongside the Lord.
This is to be taken in one of two ways. The first is to not have anything in a parallel position to the Lord. In other words, there is not to be anything held in the same esteem as Him. There is One God; Yehovah. This was violated when they fashioned the golden calf. When they did, they exclaimed –
“This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!” Exodus 32:4
The second way these words apply is that there is not to be anything fashioned which is to be representative of the Lord. In other words, when the Israelites fashioned the golden calf, we will read this –
“So when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord.'” Exodus 32:5
In the first instance, the people placed the golden calf on the same level as the Lord. In the second instance, Aaron placed the golden calf as representative of the Lord. The wording in this proposition prohibits both of these cases.
The first commandment in the Decalogue was one of honoring the eternal significance of the Lord – He alone is to be worshipped. This law now is one of the proper means of worshipping Him.
The adoration of any images for any purpose is the very germ of idolatry. This is why the actions of many churches, especially the RCC, are so reprehensible. Though the law is set aside in Christ, the warning against idolatry permeates the New Testament as well.
23 (con’t) gods of silver or gods of gold you shall not make for yourselves.
This second half of the verse is its own proposition as well. It is used to explain the first. The words of the second commandment were more all-encompassing; these here are more specific. Gods of silver or gods of gold would be considered the most precious.
If one were to suppose they could honor the Lord with something tangible, the use of silver or gold would be preferred. But even silver and gold are a part of the creation. To make an image of even these precious metals would be to profane the name and glory of the Lord who created them.
Unfortunately, the rest of the Old Testament shows that these were the preferred elements for the idolatrous worship of the Israelis. Gold and silver are found throughout the rest of the Old Testament as the base material for creating their false gods.
24 An altar of earth you shall make for Me,
In a seemingly sudden transition from idolatry to the law of the altar, the Lord states that it is an altar of earth which is to be made for Him. One must ask, “Why this sudden jump from idolatry to a sacrificial altar?” The answer is that they two are intricately connected. As Keil notes –
“The altar, as an elevation built of earth or unhewn stones, symbolizes the elevation of man to the God who is enthroned on high, in heaven.” Keil
Lange then builds on that and says –
“Most especially it is a monument of the place where God is revealed; then a symbol of the response of a human soul yielding to the divine call.”
From the earliest pages of the Bible, man made offerings to God. The first was immediately recorded after the fall of man. Without any noted instruction, and without any recorded sin by man after Adam’s transgression, we read this in Genesis 4 –
“And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the Lord. 4 Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat.” Genesis 4:3, 4
In this offering without any recorded sin by the boys, it is implied that man is fallen and this fallen state is inherited. In order to make peace with the Creator, offerings were made. This is found in all places on earth and in all people groups.
To ensure Israel kept from idolatry – either self-idolatry or idolatry associated with the construction of the altar, the people are instructed to build an altar of earth. The interaction of raising to God in sacrifice was not to be defiled through any type of idolatrous practice.
24 (con’t) and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen.
The way that these words have been stated implies that these types of sacrifices were already in practice and known to the people. The burnt offerings or olah were first introduced into the Bible just after the flood. In Genesis 8:20, we read this –
“Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.” Genesis 8:20
Burnt offerings are also seen at the time of Abraham as well. The peace offerings, or shelem, must have been known to Moses, but this is the first time that they are mentioned in the Bible. Shelem comes from the word shalam, which means “to make amends.”
The peace offering then is one intended to satisfy the Lord and to bring about a sense of alliance or friendship. For this reason, some translations call them “fellowship offerings.”
24 (con’t) In every place where I record My name I will come to you, and I will bless you.
The regulation for the altar must be one which applies to either special or temporary occasions. The reason why this is true and certain is that Israel is now at Mt. Sinai. They will not depart from this mountain until after the tabernacle is constructed. And with the building of the tabernacle comes the place for sacrifices and offerings to be made.
Therefore, the Lord is speaking of specially selected places for particular purposes. One of those is recorded in Joshua 8. Others are noted at various places and times. Sacrifices were made at locations other than at the temple. In 1 Samuel, Saul was looking for Samuel. When he inquired about him, we read this –
“As soon as you come into the city, you will surely find him before he goes up to the high place to eat. For the people will not eat until he comes, because he must bless the sacrifice; afterward those who are invited will eat. Now therefore, go up, for about this time you will find him.” 1 Samuel 9:13
This would have been such an altar. It was to be erected in the way designated here, even in these earliest instructions to Moses by the Lord. The Lord’s words of this verse, “In every place” means there was no need for an impressive altar in a fixed location. Were it so, it would imply that His presence was there and thus not elsewhere.
Rather, He was present at any such altar were He caused His name to be remembered. The Pulpit Commentary notes this concerning such an altar and the Lord coming there and blessing it –
“The promise is conditional on the observance of the command. If the altars are rightly constructed, and proper victims offered, then, in all places where he allows the erection of an altar, God will accept the sacrifices offered upon it and bless the worshippers.” Pulpit
And in order to accommodate the making of such an altar that would be more permanent than one merely made of earth, stone would be considered acceptable for its construction with specific conditions being met…
25 And if you make Me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone;
A stone altar could be built rather than an earthen one, but it was not to be of hewn stone. The word for “cut stone” is entirely different than the word stone. The word for “stone” is eben. The word for “hewn stone” isn’t eben with some adjective attached to it. Instead it is a single word, gazith.
This is the first of only 11 times that this word is used in the Bible and it always indicates stones which have been worked by man, being cut or hewn. To understand this word, we need to look at its root which is gazah. This is a word which is used only one time in the Bible, in the 71st Psalm –
“By You I have been upheld from birth;
You are He who took me out of my mother’s womb.
My praise shall be continually of You.” Psalm 71:6
The idea is that it is the Lord who fashioned us in the womb and it is He who cut us from the womb. Our fashioning and our birth is a work of the Lord and not of man. So why shouldn’t the altar be made of hewn stone? Various reasons have been given, but the continuation of the verse itself gives its own clue…
25 (con’t) for if you use your tool on it, you have profaned it.
One theory is that by using iron on a stone, it would profane it because iron was a taboo metal. This incorrect theory comes from a misapplication of Deuteronomy 27:5 which says –
“And there you shall build an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones; you shall not use an iron tool on them.” Deuteronomy 2:5
The specificity of iron there is only given because it is the main tool that was used in cutting and shaping stone. Iron is found in rocks and such a rock isn’t forbidden from altar construction. Further, this verse in Exodus says nothing about iron.
Rather, the use of a tool profaning the stone is because the stone is something that God created. If man were to shape the stone, then it would include man’s efforts in it. Thus it would lead to either idolatry of the altar which man had made in order to fellowship with God, or it would lead to idolatry of self because the man had erected the place where God and man fellowshipped.
Either way, it is a picture of works-based salvation. It is man reaching up to God by his efforts rather than man coming to God through what God has done. He made the rocks. For us to add our effort into what God had made would then be contrary to the premise of the Bible. We are saved by grace, not by works.
The erection of the altar itself cannot be equated to a work anymore than the compilation of the Bible can be. God gave the words, man recorded the words, and through the words man meets with God. Likewise, God made the earth and the stones, man simply arranges them into an altar, and God then meets with man.
And in the specified materials and construction of the altar is a second intent, a picture. The earth or adamah, and the stone or eben, both picture the human nature of Christ. He is the altar where man has a right to fellowship with God.
The word adamah, or earth, is from the same root as adam, earth or man. In Genesis 2:7, it says that man was taken from the adamah or earth –
“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”
Likewise, Jesus was taken from Adam, being his descendant and the second Adam. Elsewhere, the eben, or stone is used to speak of the Lord and of the Messiah, verses which are then cited when speaking of the Lord Jesus in the New Testament.
It is God who cut Christ from His mother’s womb, fashioning Him as He chose. Thus to shape a stone for this altar would be to fashion a false “christ” of our own choosing. This is the reason for the specificity of wording. The earthen altar, or one of stone, pictures Christ who was alone fashioned by God.
To hew the stones would then say that we are fashioning a Messiah of our own, rejecting the only true Lord who is willing to meet with man. In the end, it is all about Jesus, not us – His work; our faith. He is the Stone of our help; let us not attempt to carve out another in His place.
As we progress through the Bible, we will see other altars that have different constructions. When we get to each, they will also picture Christ, but in different ways. God is slowly and progressively revealing the glory of Christ to us, one step at a time.
26 Nor shall you go up by steps to My altar,
This verse seems like an odd way to end the chapter where the Ten Commandments were revealed, unless one understands the reason for the Ten Commandments. The chapter began with these words –
“And God spoke all these words, saying:
2 ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.'” Exodus 20:1, 2
God is the Creator and the offended party in relation to man. The Lord God, or Yehovah Elohim, is the one who brought His people out of the land of Egypt. Egypt was a very clear picture of the world of sin. Israel was redeemed from Egypt; man is redeemed from the world of sin.
There is a place where man may meet the Lord and that is through offering made at His altar. And that altar is not to be high, thus requiring steps. The word step, or maalah, is used for the first time here in the Bible.
It indicates a step, things that come up, high degree, go up, etc. It comes from the verb maaleh which means “to ascend.” It is noted that around the world, altars to a god are usually built high, some exceedingly high. The higher the altar, the closer one feels they have come to their god. Consider of the tower of Babel!
The common thinking then is the more imposing the altar, the more maalah you go up and thus the more you will maaleh. Said in normal English, one does not ascend to God in order to be saved. God descended to man in order for him to be saved.
The term “high places” concerning altars of sacrifice is used dozens of times in Kings and Chronicles. It is a note of rebuke to the people of Israel. Even when a good king is noted for his goodness, if he allowed the high places to continue, a note of censure is placed on his record –
“And he walked in all the ways of his father Asa. He did not turn aside from them, doing what was right in the eyes of the Lord. Nevertheless the high places were not taken away, for the people offered sacrifices and burned incense on the high places. 44 Also Jehoshaphat made peace with the king of Israel.” 1 Kings 22:43, 44
When a king was specifically said to have “removed” the high places, it was with a note of commendation. If you ever wondered why these were considered wrong, now you know. It is because it was a part of man’s futile attempt to raise himself to God.
Instead, the altar being at a common level with man is a picture of Christ coming down to our common level. It is through His sacrifice, at our level, that the offerings rise to God. Our attempts at reconciling with God are insufficient and worse. They are sinful because they reject what God has first instructed and then what He did for us in what the instruction pictures – Christ.
But Charlie… the last words of the chapter don’t allude to that at all. Just read them! Go ahead Charlie. Ok, I will…
*26 (fin) that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.’
“See, this is a matter of decency and not letting people see your private parts. See!”
This is the explanation that almost every scholar gives and it has nothing to do with that. This verse is reaching back to the first moments of man’s existence on earth and all the way to the last book of the Bible. The translation is correct, “…that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.”
It is speaking of the altar and it is referring to the nakedness of sin. In Genesis 3:7, just as soon as Adam and Eve ate of the fruit, we read this –
“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings.”
Shame of nakedness is how sin first manifested itself. And it was the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life by which that sin came about. Man wanted to be like God, rising to His level. The altar was to be without steps because man cannot rise to the level of God.
The higher the altar, the greater the sin is revealed, and thus the more nakedness is exposed. God instead made it known that He would condescend to become a Man and meet us on our own level. In Revelation 3, as Jesus speaks to the churches, He says this –
“I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed.” Revelation 3:18
The nakedness of the body only pictures our revealed sin. Christ came to take that away and to cover us with His righteousness. It was He who hung naked on Calvary’s cross so that we could be covered by Him. What a marvelous story and what a beautiful verse to end our passage today.
From the first to the last, it is all about Jesus Christ. Writing about this most marvelous chapter of Scripture, where the law is revealed, and where the sufferings of Christ are pictured, Matthew Henry gives us words to end our thoughts today –
“This law, which is so extensive that we cannot measure it, so spiritual that we cannot evade it, and so reasonable that we cannot find fault with it, will be the rule of the future judgment of God, as it is for the present conduct of man. If tried by this rule, we shall find our lives have been passed in transgressions. And with this holy law and an awful judgment before us, who can despise the gospel of Christ? And the knowledge of the law shows our need of repentance. In every believer’s heart sin is dethroned and crucified, the law of God is written, and the image of God renewed. The Holy Spirit enables him to hate sin and flee from it, to love and keep this law in sincerity and truth; nor will he cease to repent.” Henry
He is right. The law received at Sinai is what all men will be judged by. It is a terrifying law by which only condemnation can result. But God, in His wisdom, allows that the condemnation of sin can be through the flesh of His Son on Calvary’s cross.
He is the Earthen Altar for our propitiation. Now you can see why the earthen altar is the first thing mandated by the Lord after the giving of the Ten Commandments. There was terror, horror, and dread and the people removed themselves from the presence of God as He spoke.
But at the Earthen Altar, our Lord Christ, pictured by the earthen altars of Israel, we can now draw near to God without fear, but in fellowship. It is Christ who is the center and focus of what we are being shown in the construction of it – His earth, His stones, shaped by Him for a place where the fear is replaced with fellowship.
It is either there in Christ, or God’s wrath will fall upon you when you stand before Him. I hope that you will choose wisely and choose Jesus. By God! I pray you will choose Jesus. Let me tell you how you can do it right now…
Closing Verse: “For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Romans 8:3, 4
Next Week: Exodus 21:1-11 Don’t beat your Hebrew servant until he ends up in a grave… (The Law of the Hebrew Slave) (57th Exodus Sermon)
The Lord has you exactly where He wants you. He has a good plan and purpose for you. Even if a deep ocean lies ahead of You, He can part the waters and lead you through it on dry ground. So follow Him and trust Him and He will do marvelous things for you and through you.
Christ our Altar
Now all the people witnessed the thunderings
The lightning flashes; the trumpet’s sound
And the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it
They trembled and stood afar off, not near around
Then they said to Moses, “You speak with us
And we will hear
But let not God speak with us, lest we die
This is the thing that we fear
And Moses to the people said
“Do not fear; for God has come to test you
And that His fear may be before you and so instead
You may not sin; that sin you may not do
So the people stood afar off
But Moses drew near
The thick darkness where God was
Where Moses himself was trembling with fear
Then the Lord said to Moses
“Thus you shall say to the children of Israel:
‘You have seen that I have talked with you from heaven
And these words to you I do now tell
You shall not make anything to be with Me—
Gods of silver or gods of gold
You shall not make for yourselves these certainly
Just as now you have been told
An altar of earth you shall make for Me
And you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings
And your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen
To Me you shall make these profferings
In every place where My name I record
I will come to you, and I will bless you
This is My spoken word
And if you make Me an altar of stone
You shall not build it of hewn stone
For if you use your tool on it, you have profaned it
You shall be obedient to My word alone
Nor shall you go up by steps to My altar, I do submit
That your nakedness may not be exposed on it
Oh! Sin is tempting, especially the sin of pride
We want to work to God instead of trusting Him alone
But it is He who did alone decide
That with His chosen Lamb our sin He would atone
No other way is possible for our reconciliation
It is only through the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus
And it is offered to all people in every nation
Great and marvelous things He has done for us
And so we praise You O Lord our God
We will receive what You have done and not add a thing
We receive your grace here on this earth we trod
And to You alone for ever will our praises ring
Hallelujah and Amen…