“Then will I go unto the altar of God, unto God my exceeding joy.” – Psalm 93:4
Altars are mentioned many times throughout the Word. It is recorded that Noah built an altar unto the Lord, Abraham built an altar, Moses built an altar, Joshua, Balaam, Elijah, Gideon, and David built altars. Altars are mentioned also in the Gospels and in Revelation.
An altar is a symbol of Divine worship in general. In the tabernacle there was the golden altar of incense in the Holy Place and there was the great brazen altar in the outer court. Likewise in the temple built by Solomon there were the golden altar and the brazen altar.
We read in the writings that “Altars were made of soil, of stones, of brass, of wood, and also of gold; of brass, wood, and gold because these signified good” (A.C. 8940e).
From most ancient times men built altars for worship. The altar of stone represents worship from truth. The stones were to be used just as they were found in nature, to represent the fact that truths as found in the Word are from the Lord and that they must not be changed or altered to fit the desires of men.
The altar of incense, made of shittim wood overlaid with gold, was placed before the vail in the Holy Place, and on it incense was kept burning to represent the good affections of the heart engaged in worshiping the Lord, the incense itself representing prayers of gratitude and praise to the Lord. On the corners of the altar were horns, representing the power of prayer, and the rings and staves by which it was carried signify that a prayerful spirit should be with us always. There was a crown border round about the altar to represent the atmosphere of devotion which surrounds the soul in which there is love and worship of the Lord. The incense to be burned every morning represented the worship of the Lord every new day and every new state, seeking strength from the Lord and His blessing. The incense every evening represented worship at the close of each day, in acknowledgment of the Lord’s goodness.
John writes in Revelation, “And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne.”
No true religion can exist without devotion. We should begin everything we do in the spirit of prayer, looking to the Lord for direction. The Lord said, “Men ought always to pray, and not to faint.” But piety without charity and intelligence is blind, formal, and condemnatory. The altar was golden to show that all worship should be from love. We should not think of God as a vindictive judge. We are taught to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven.” He desires that we come to Him. It is His will that our life here on earth should be a happy one. He says, “Ask, and ye shall receive,” and “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.” If we would only forget self and cease from anxieties, we should find a new beauty in this world which is our present home. We have a thousand things to be thankful for, for every one we have of which we can rightfully complain. We live in the midst of innumerable gifts to our souls. Each person is a little universe of faculties capable of receiving blessings from the Lord. A dissatisfied spirit, like a speck of dust in the eye, may shut out a world of loveliness. The great bulk of our life is blessing; so it is written, “O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.”
The altar of gold – worship from love – has the power to give us strength in our regeneration from day to day. The power that comes from prayer was represented by the horns on the altar. Often this power alone will dissipate a host of anxieties and sorrows. That horns are symbolic of power is clearly seen from the Word. “He shall give strength unto his king, and exalt the horn of his anointed.” “All the horns of the wicked also will I cut off; but the horns of the righteous shall be exalted.”
Prayer is the opening of the soul to the Lord. A Divine power descends into us, and as surely as the stormy waves of the Sea of Galilee were stilled at the word of Him who said, “Peace, be still,” so surely will our spiritual storms and the powers that excite them pass away before the might of Him who is “an hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.” In our daily duties and in our daily life we must work and we should also pray. Some pray and do not work. Others work but do not pray. We are given freedom of choice; we do not seem to be dependent upon God, but we should recognize and acknowledge our dependence. We should work as if everything depended upon us, and pray as if everything depended upon the Divine providence. In this way we cooperate with the Lord. Then the Lord can bless us and give us strength. “Come unto me,” He says, “all ye that labour, and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” In our worship, as signified by the altar, is a Divine power, and when we go to the altar, we find protection and peace.
Aaron was to burn incense every morning on the altar when he dressed the lamps. The dressing of the lamps represents our progress day by day. Like the virgins of the parable, we should trim our lamps. In each new state we should deepen our convictions and enlarge our vision.
Instruction comes by an outward way, but light by an inward way. “O send out thy light and thy truth: let them lead me; let them bring me unto thy holy hill, and to thy tabernacles.” This should be our prayer. “For with thee is the fountain of life: in thy light shall we see light.” “Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart.”
If we read the Word always in the spirit of prayer, remembering its office of furnishing light unto our feet, we should have our minds opened to its truths in a way but little dreamt of by the worldly-wise. Prayer opens the mind to the perception of Divine truths and makes it receptive of Divine aid.
In the evening also when he lit the lamps the priest was to burn incense. Days, when distinguished from nights, represent states of brightness and clearness of mind as distinguished from states of obscurity. We have mental days and mental nights, and they alternate with one another. Sometimes we are happy and the way seems clear. At other times we are depressed and apprehensive, and doubtful of the way. Some of our nights are stormy and dark; grievous temptations afflict. And sometimes our mental nights are calm and peaceful, and we trust in the small instructions of heavenly knowledge which come out like stars in our mental sky; we are merely sensible that it is eventime.
Whether, however, the nights are calm or stormy, just as the priest each night lighted the lamps, so should we call to our remembrance the truths that we have learned. We should trust in the Lord. Then we shall be enabled to see something of His providence and of His kingdom. When we use the truth we have learned with prayer, we acknowledge that it is the Lord’s truth, not ours.
Next we are commanded not to offer strange incense on the altar. We recall the story about Korah, Dathan, and Abiram and the penalty inflicted upon them. We must not worship from selfish love; this would be using strange fire. Nor must we use selfish thoughts or vain aspirations in our prayers, for these make strange incense. That which is not in harmony with the Lord’s purposes as revealed in the Scriptures is strange incense. Sometimes robbers pray for success in their plunderings. All prayers for earthly blessings with regard to them alone, without thought of submission to the wisdom of Divine providence which has in view our eternal welfare, are strange incense. The true spirit of prayer is that which says, “Thy will be done.” “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” Love to the Lord should be in the heart and the truths of His Word in the mind; then we may ask what we will and it will be granted. So the Apostles asked, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
Burnt sacrifices and meat offerings were not to be offered on the altar of incense. Such offerings were to be made on the altar in the outer court, as they represent the virtues of religion in the daily routine of life. When in any trial we have renounced evil and received good and from love have acknowledged that it is so, we have offered our burnt offering. We must obey first, and worship afterwards. No incense is acceptable to the Most High which has not been preceded by obedience. We must do our work in the outer court and then come to worship in the inner. The first Christian duty is to “cease to do evil.” To those who make no effort to keep the commandments the Lord says, “When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me.”
And lastly we are told, “Aaron shall make an atonement upon the horns of it once in a year with the blood of the sin offering of atonements… throughout your generations: it is most holy unto the Lord.” The blood of atonement represents the spirit of the Lord flowing from His glorified Humanity. His blood is the symbol of living truth. It is by means of this that we overcome evil and are cleansed from our sins. This is the law which underlies all our spiritual progress. It is the law today and for eternity throughout all generations.