Chapter 8: The Lord's Death - Practical Lessons from some Old Testament Altars
by Brian Currie, N. Ireland
The first altar mentioned in the Bible is Noah’s, "And Noah builded an altar unto the LORD" Gen.8.20. The last mention in the Old Testament is in Mal.2.13 "And this have ye done again, covering the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping, and with crying out, insomuch that He regardeth not the offering any more, or receiveth it with good will at your hand." The first and last in the New Testament are respectively, Matt.5.23,24, "Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift"; and Rev.16.7, "And I heard another out of the altar say, ‘Even so, LORD God Almighty, true and righteous are Thy judgments.’" Thus we move from the first to the last books of each Testament of the Bible. Due to the vastness of the subject we must be selective. In deciding which altars to include, the content of other chapters in this book was considered and the conclusion was to deal, albeit not exhaustively, with the following three altars and seek both devotional and practical lessons:
- The Brasen Altar in Exodus chapter 27 - Sufficiency of the Sacrifice
- Gideon’s Altar in Judges chapter 6 - His Call and Consecration
- Elijah’s Altar on Mount Carmel in 1Kings chapter 18 - Repentance and Recovery.
THE BRASEN ALTAR IN EXODUS CHAPTER 27 - SUFFICIENCY OF THE SACRIFICE
It has five main titles:
- Ex.29.12, twice in this verse it is termed simply "the altar"- its Pre-Eminence
- Ex.35.16, "The altar of burnt offering ..." - its Purpose
- Ex.39.39, "the brasen [copper, J.N.D] altar …" - its Property of being able to withstand tremendous heat
- Mal.1.7, "The table of the LORD …" - its Provision
- Lev.17.6, "… the altar of the LORD …" - its Possession
In the Jewish system everything revolved around the altar. It was the first piece of furniture that an Israelite would have seen as he approached the tabernacle. It was situated inside the gate on the east, and God dwelt in the holiest of all on the west. We must approach the altar before we can ever get to God. Calvary is very definitely a work done for me, and in that each believer revels. However, it is more, since we need to appreciate that there is a work done in me. We must learn that when He died, I died. Paul recognised this: "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me" Gal.2.20.
So Calvary is not only the basis on which a sinner comes to God for salvation, but it is also the basis of the saints’ approach to God in worship. We note that it was the coals from the altar that linked the holy place and the holiest of all, Lev.16.12,13.
From Ex.27.1 we learn that the altar was 5 x 5 x 3 cubits. To give some understanding of the size it was about 9.5ft sq. x 5.5ft. high or approximately 2.9m sq. x 1.68m high. It was probably the largest of all vessels and so displays the vast, unlimited work of the Lord Jesus on the cross. This is emphasised by the fact that it was to be four-square. Each time we read of things four-square we are being reminded of universal sufficiency. There is the same dimension for each of the points of the compass. For example, the copper altar shows that the Sacrifice is Sufficient; the altar of incense teaches that His Supplication is Sufficient; the high priest’s breastplate highlights that His Sympathy is Sufficient; the four-square city in Revelation chapter 21 instructs us that the Splendour is Sufficient.
The dimension 5x5 may imply human responsibility with respect to the law, which was divided in two, with five Godward and five manward commandments. We are deficient in this but the altar covers all of our deficiency. Three cubits high indicates that His death and resurrection are inseparably linked. When the Lord spoke of His death He invariably spoke of His resurrection, as did the various apostles as they preached in the Acts. A gospel message that does not include the resurrection is deficient.
Shittim Wood – Ex.27.1
Trees or wood are usually a picture of humanity. For example, in Judges chapter 9 in Jotham’s parable regarding Abimelech, he illustrated the coronation of Abimelech as inviting a tree to reign over them. In Daniel chapter 4, Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a tree in the midst of the earth that grew unto heaven and then was cut down, was a picture of himself. Where the reference is to the Lord Jesus it implies His unique humanity. "He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground" Isa.53.2. His humanity was unique in that it was sinless. He was neither mortal (subject to death) nor sinful (subject to judgment). Adam’s humanity was innocent: we share in fallen humanity: His humanity was not innocent, since innocent humanity was capable of sinning and He was not, neither was it fallen; His was holy.
The altar presents Him as a Man Who came to die and it is noticeable that very often when His Humanity is presented there is an allusion to His death. Read, for example, Rom.8.3; Gal.4.4,5; Heb.2.14.
Brass – Ex.27.2
The brass or copper does not so much bring to our attention His glory, but rather it highlights His ability to sustain and exhaust Divine judgment.
The sturdiness and enduring quality of brass is seen in Deut.33.25, "Thy shoes shall be iron and brass" and again Mic.4.13, "I will make thine horn iron, and I will make thy hoofs brass." Is this not the truth of Heb.12.2, "Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God"?
It is recorded of Samson, Judg.16.21, and Zedekiah, 2Kgs.25.7, that they were "bound … with fetters of brass". As David mourned Abner he said, "Thy hands were not bound, nor thy feet put into fetters [lit. copper]" 2Sam.3.34. This depicts the One Who was strong enough to meet every claim of God’s throne. Only He could bind the strong man and spoil his goods, Matt.12.29. He alone destroyed him that had the power of death, Heb.2.14. He was strong enough to bear the full weight of our sins and to accomplish the will of God.
Cain said, "My punishment is greater than I can bear" Gen.4.13 but of our Lord it is written: Isa.53.4,12, "Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows … He bare the sin of many"; Heb.9.28, "So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many"; 1Pet.2.24, "Who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree"; Jn.1.29, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world". It is blessed to know that our great Burden-Bearer has carried our sins so far away that to all eternity there will never be found one who is strong enough to carry them back! In the language of Lev.16.22, our sins have been borne "unto a land not inhabited … [to] the wilderness".
Note the thought of security in 1Sam.17.5, "And he had an helmet of brass upon his head"; Jer.1.18, "I have made thee this day a defenced city, and an iron pillar, and brasen walls against the whole land ...". The ideas of protection, safety and security are not difficult to detect. We who are saved have found these at Calvary and that eternally. What a blessed truth, that in the midst of a shaking world, we have an unshakeable Saviour, an unrepeatable sacrifice and an unmoveable salvation.
Four Horns – Ex.27.2
As stated above, in Gen.22.13 we have the first mention of horns where we read, "… behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns". It is written in Ps.118.27, "bind the sacrifice with cords,even unto the horns of the altar." The reason for this was the reluctance and ignorance of the sacrificial victim. The contrast to the Lord Jesus is very stark. He was neither reluctant nor ignorant. We can do no better than quote Scriptures that highlight His willing devotion. Ps.40.8, "I delight to do Thy will, O My God: yea, Thy law is within My heart"; Jn.4.34, "My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me, and to finish His work"; Jn.6.38, "For I came down from heaven, not to do Mine own will, but the will of Him that sent Me"; Jn.17.4, "I have glorified Thee on the earth: I have finished the work which Thou gavest Me to do." The illustration of David is appropriate: "David hasted, and ran toward the army to meet the Philistine" 1Sam.17.48.
The horns also depict power as seen in Ex.21.29, "But if the ox were wont to push with his horn ...". His power was seen in His death, because He said, "No man taketh it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again" Jn.10.18. It is not said of the Lord Jesus that He was dying, but that He died. He did not go through a process in which He became weaker and weaker as He struggled to retain life, and had to succumb to death. "And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, He said, "Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit:" and having said thus, He gave up the ghost" Lk.23.46. It was not the voice of a defeated weakling, but of a triumphant victor. The following Scriptures all employ the aorist tense to record His death and thus a process cannot be permitted: Rom.5.6,8, "Christ died for the ungodly … Christ died for us"; Rom.14.15; 1Cor.8.11, "for whom Christ died"; 1Cor.15.3, "Christ died for our sins".
We also note that there were four horns, which implies that in the sufferings of the Lord Jesus on Calvary’s cross there is power to meet a universal need. This is required since "all have sinned" Rom.3.23. "And He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world" 1Jn.2.2.
Grate of Network of Brass – Ex.27.4,5
While some think that this was a flap that could be opened to allow the ashes to be removed, other scholars are happy to speak of it as the A.V. "a grate of network of brass … the net may be even to the midst of the altar". If this is a grating upon which the sacrifice was laid, then, being positioned in the midst of the altar, it was placed 1.5 cubits high. This is the same height as the table of shewbread, in the holy place and the ark of the covenant in the holiest of all. We learn that the work done on Calvary is the basis of our fellowship as it meets the claims of God’s throne.
The grate "in the midst" v.5, being the hottest part of the altar, brings to our attention the deep, inward sufferings of the Lord Jesus. This is far more than the suffering He endured from the cruelty of man. Isa.53.10, "Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He hath put Him to grief: when Thou shalt make His soul an offering for sin ...". It was Jehovah Who said, "Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd, and against the man that is My fellow, saith the LORD of hosts: smite the Shepherd …" Zech.13.7. Reference is made to His inward sufferings in Lam.1.12, "Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto My sorrow, which is done unto Me, wherewith the LORD hath afflicted Me in the day of His fierce anger. From above hath He sent fire into My bones, and it prevaileth against them ...". The fire on Jewish altars always came from above; man did not kindle it.
The depth and awfulness of His suffering for sin is seen, in that, when man ill-treated Him He was dumb, Isa.53.7, "He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so He openeth not His mouth". However, when God dealt with Him on account of sin we read, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me? why art Thou so far from helping Me, and from the words of My roaring?" Ps.22.1. The contrast between silence and roaring is immense.
- I heard a cry come up from far below,
- The deepest depth that mortal ever plumbed,
- That suffering humanity could ever know,
- A cry that leaves the spirit all benumbed;
- Earth shudders; and the darkened heavens on high
- Turn to mysterious night the startled day
- Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?
- The vast fountains quiver, and are still;
- Forever still, and blood drops down, Such blood!
- And there is peace, incomprehensible.
- (I. Y. Ewan)
Hollow With Boards – Ex.27.8
To permit the sacrifice to fit inside the altar and lie on the grate, the altar must be hollow. This teaches us of His humiliation, which was essential. Paul writing to the Philippians taught that His humiliation was a necessary pre-requisite to His death on the cross: "He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross" Phil.2.8.
Going alongside His humiliation is His poverty. He came from realms of glory to a cattle shed and onward to the cross. "For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that ye through His poverty might be rich" 2Cor.8.9. "… Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay His head" Lk.9.58. To purchase the church, the "pearl of great price", He "sold all that he had, and bought it" Matt.13.46. Daniel prophesied, "… shall Messiah be cut off, and shall have nothing" Dan.9.26.
Staves – Ex.27.6,7
The staves were to enable the altar to be carried as the nation journeyed through the wilderness. Thus there was a constant reminder of sacrifice. This is the truth of 2Cor.4.10, "Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body." We need to be continually reminded that we are linked with a rejected and suffering Man. We ought to count it a privilege to "go forth therefore unto Him without the camp, bearing His reproach" Heb.13.13. In Heb.13.12 the expression is "without the gate"; that is politically; v.13 it is "without the camp"; that is religiously, and the Christian ought to be apart from both the world’s politics and religion.
The sons of Kohath had the responsibility of carrying the altar, Num.4.13,14, and they would feel the weight of it. They were to bear it "upon their shoulders" Num.7.9. It is necessary, in the light of Calvary, that we feel the weight of the truth of His sufferings and death, and the impact of these on the testimony, recognising that they are not light matters that can be treated irreverently or casually.
Connecting Vessels - 27.3
Regarding the various vessels we read in this verse, "And thou shalt make his pans to receive his ashes, and his shovels, and his basons, and his fleshhooks, and his firepans: all the vessels thereof thou shalt make of brass."
Pans and Shovels
These were to collect the ashes, which were a record that sacrifice had taken place. The priest was to "put off his garments, and put on other garments, and carry forth the ashes without the camp unto a clean place" Lev.6.11. This is one of the few illustrations in the Old Testament of the burial of the Lord Jesus; a burial that was proof of the reality of His death. Then there was a man who would carry the precious body to a clean place. "And, behold, there was a man named Joseph, a counsellor; and he was a good man, and a just: (the same had not consented to the counsel and deed of them;) he was of Arimathaea, a city of the Jews: who also himself waited for the kingdom of God. This man went unto Pilate, and begged the body of Jesus. And he took it down, and wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a sepulchre that was hewn in stone, wherein never man before was laid" Lk.23.50-53.
These were for the blood of the sacrifice. It would take far more space than is available to trace the blood of sacrifice through the Scriptures. However, it may be helpful and suggestive to note the references in the Revelation, the final book of the Bible. In 1.5 it is sin-cleansing blood: "Unto Him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood". In 5.9 it is slave-releasing blood: "Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by Thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation." In 7.14 it is stain-removing blood: "These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." In 12.11 it is Satan overcoming blood: "And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb."
These would have been used to arrange the sacrifice in order upon the altar. Our worship ought to be orderly and not haphazard. Worship should be intelligent. The various parts of the animal should go in the correct place so that anyone looking into the altar would easily detect an identifiable animal. When a saint comes to God in worship, it is not to utter the first thing that comes into his head. There is a need for preparation so that we present our appreciation of the Lord Jesus in a spiritually intelligent fashion.
These would have been used to transfer the fire from one location to another. The fire was not allowed to go out. "And the fire upon the altar shall be burning in it; it shall not be put out" Lev.6.12. To put the fire out means it would have been done deliberately. Then we read in 6.13, "The fire shall ever be burning upon the altar; it shall never go out". That would have happened carelessly, by neglect.
Coverings - Num.4.13,14
Here we read, "And they shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth thereon: and they shall put upon it all the vessels thereof, wherewith they minister about it, even the censers, the fleshhooks, and the shovels, and the basons, all the vessels of the altar; and they shall spread upon it a covering of badgers’ skins, and put to the staves of it."
As we stand and watch we see firstly, the altar, next the purple cloth and finally the badgers’ skins. The teaching is obvious: there is suffering (the altar) before glory (the purple) and this is unattractive to the natural man (badgers’ skins).
In the four major colours that are employed in the tabernacle we can find the Lord Jesus as presented in the four Gospels. There is the white of the fine twined linen that shows His righteous, perfect, holy Manhood, which is His moral glory as seen in Luke’s Gospel. Then there is the heavenly colour, blue, that highlights His essential glory as revealed in John’s Gospel, where He is the Son of God. His sacrificial glory is seen in the scarlet, as Matthew presents Him, in the latter section of His Gospel, as the Son of Abraham. The colour we are considering presently is purple, which is Mark’s presentation of Him as the Son of Man in His universal glory.
Purple is the colour of Gentile royalty as can be detected in: Judg.8.26 "purple raiment that was on the kings of Midian": Esther 8.15 "Mordecai went out from the presence of the king in royal apparel of blue and white, and with a great crown of gold, and with a garment of fine linen and purple": Jer.10.9 regarding the people from Tarshish, "blue and purple is their clothing": in Acts 16.14, the Gentile woman Lydia was, "a seller of purple". Mark’s Gospel was for the Gentile mind and so it is Mark who records, "they clothed Him with purple, and platted a crown of thorns, and put it about His head, and began to salute Him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’" Mk.15.17,18. In the context of mocking His Kingship they clothe Him with purple, but we rejoice to know that as a result of His sufferings He will have universal glory.
It is not easy to come to a conclusion about the material used in the outer covering. Many suggest that the material was really porpoise skins, or sealskins. Both were plentiful in the Mediterranean and would have provided excellent protection from the elements. Such hardwearing and waterproof qualities would be required in Ezek.16.10, where it is stated, "I clothed thee also with broidered work, and shod thee with badgers’ skin". Both the R.V. and the A.S.V. translate "shod thee with sealskin".
The purpose was to keep the altar and all its associated vessels from being destroyed by the ingress of pollution from without. If there was any possibility of the "corruption that is in the world through lust" 2Pet.1.4, affecting our Saviour or the work of the cross, the whole of Christianity would crumble. However, James avers, "God cannot be tempted with evil" Jms.1.13. John’s comment is "in Him is no sin" 1Jn.3.5. It is not sufficient to say that He did not sin; the truth of Scripture is that He could not sin.
To look at from the outside the tabernacle would not have been very attractive. If we want to see the glory we must go inside and see the system in operation and that was only permitted to the priests. Only spiritual eyes will see His beauty and the majesty of the work He accomplished on Calvary. To others, "He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him" Isa.53.2; "He came unto His own, and His own received Him not" Jn.1.11. However, to us "He is altogether lovely" S of S.5.16. The contrast in attitude and blessing is emphasised by Paul, "For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God" 1Cor.1.18.
GIDEON’S ALTAR IN JUDGES CHAPTER 6 - HIS CALL AND CONSECRATION
The book of Judges is cyclic. That is, the nation moves away from God, God chastises them, they repent and cry for deliverance, and God graciously answers their prayer and raises a judge. All is well as long as the judge is alive, but when he dies the nation again backslides and the cycle recommences. The time of Gideon brings us to the fourth captivity in the book. We can but state the facts of the first three captivities and leave the reader to seek out the Scriptural substantiation of these facts. The first enemy was, "Chushanrishathaim king of Mesopotamia" 3.8. This illustrates for us the world. It is an attack on first principles since this is the place from which Abram was called. The second enemy was Eglon, "Eglon king of Moab: and Eglon was a very fat man" 3.17 and he is an obvious picture of the flesh. The third enemy was Jabin, who with Sisera, is a type of the devil and his hosts.
In the days of Gideon the enemies were the Midianites in association with the Amalekites and the children of the east: "And so it was, when Israel had sown, that the Midianites came up, and the Amalekites, and the children of the east, even they came up against them" 6.3. These enemies need to be identified.
Midian means ‘strife’, (Strong 04080). As a noun it is translated as ‘contentions’ in Prov.18.18,19; 19.13; 21.19; 23.29; 26.21; 27.15, and as ‘brawling’ in Prov.21.9; 25.24. Midian had an inauspicious commencement: "Then again Abraham took a wife, and her name was Keturah. And she bare him Zimran, and Jokshan, and Medan, and Midian, and Ishbak, and Shuah" Gen.25.1,2. Thus Midian was related to the nation, being a half-brother of Isaac. This highlights the fact that strife is not very far from any of us.
Amalek means ‘dweller in a valley’ (Strong 06002). In Gen.36.12, we read of his beginning: "And Timna was concubine to Eliphaz Esau’s son; and she bare to Eliphaz Amalek." He came from the fleshly man, Esau, through a concubine.
The Amalekites were first to attack the nation when they left Egypt and had partaken of the water from the rock. We had no bother from the flesh until we were born of the Spirit. "Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim" Ex.17.8. Thus Deut.25.17,18 "Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way, when ye were come forth out of Egypt; How he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, even all that were feeble behind thee, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God." This typifies the New Testament teaching: "For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would" Gal.5.17.
Children of the East
These represent worldly intelligence and philosophy and they combine with Midian and Amalek to bring the nation into bondage. This can be seen in the attack upon the Corinthian assembly, who prided themselves in their wisdom but they were sadly divided through their carnality. "For ye are yet carnal: (Amalek) for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, (Midian) and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; (children of the east) are ye not carnal?" 1Cor.3.3,4.
Was it carnality (Amalek) and the clash of personalities (children of the east) that allowed Midian to strike in Phil.4.2, "I beseech Euodias, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord"? Was Barnabas giving way to Amalek and natural reasoning when he wanted his relative to accompany himself and Paul, and this gave Midian the opportunity to strike: "the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other"? Acts 15.39.
So the enemy attacked and left saints, sisters and servants divided. How sad! Yet, it was not the power of the enemy that allowed their attack to be successful, but it was the nation’s perversion: v.1, "and the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD: and the LORD delivered them into the hand of Midian seven years".
The Consequences, 6.2-6
Space forbids detailing the lessons, but we must see the consequences of strife, carnality and worldly wisdom. The people were homeless: v.2, "… the children of Israel made them the dens which are in the mountains, and caves, and strong holds." They were fruitless: vv.3,4, "And so it was, when Israel had sown, that the Midianites came up, and the Amalekites, and the children of the east, even they came up against them; and they encamped against them, and destroyed the increase of the earth." They were foodless: v.4, "no sustenance for Israel, neither sheep, nor ox, nor ass." They were powerless: v.5, "For they came up with their cattle and their tents, and they came as grasshoppers for multitude; for both they and their camels were without number: and they entered into the land to destroy it." Destruction will be the result if division is allowed to go unchecked. "Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!" Jms.3.5.
The Communication, 6.7-10
"It came to pass, when the children of Israel cried unto the LORD because of the Midianites, that the LORD sent a prophet unto the children of Israel, which said unto them, ‘Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, I brought you up from Egypt, and brought you forth out of the house of bondage ...’" vv.7,8. That is, when they cried unto the Lord He sent an unnamed prophet to remind them of better days and past deliverance. They are reminded of their former deliverance and the expected outcome is that they will repent. This parallels the message to the church at Ephesus: "Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works" Rev.2.5. The message is designed to reach the heart by bringing them to an appreciation of their past redemption. In our day it would correspond to bringing the erring ones back in spirit to Calvary!
The Character - Gideon
We are now introduced to the kind of man who will deal with the foe of strife. The similarities between Gideon and Timothy, especially in 2Timothy, are remarkable. The following references are suggestive and not intended to be exhaustive.
- Both homes are in view, 6.15 and 2Tim.1.5
- Both are marked by fear, 6.27 and 2Tim.1.7
- Both are called according to His own purpose, 6.14 and 2Tim.1.9
- Both are to be partakers of affliction, 6.30 and 2Tim.1.8
- Both are called to endure hardness as a good soldier, 6.14 and 2Tim.2.3
- Both are called to purge themselves from all faithless influence, 7.3-7 and 2Tim.2.19-23
- Both are to be separate from worldly entanglements, 7.5 and 2Tim.2.4.
His Food: 6.11, "there came an angel of the LORD, and sat under an oak which was in Ophrah, that pertained unto Joash the Abiezrite: and his son Gideon threshed wheat by the winepress, to hide it from the Midianites." Many translations read "the angel of the LORD" indicating that this was a Christophany, which is a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ. This is proved by the references in subsequent verses: "the angel of the LORD" v.12; "And the LORD looked upon him" v.14; "And the LORD said unto him" vv.16,23.
Like Job, Gideon was watched by heaven and was unaware of it. This is very sobering and deeply challenging as we think that our activity is carried out in the sight of the Lord. However, it is comforting to know that in the midst of the difficulty God was watching and He will not abandon His people; and not only so, but He also has His eye on the deliverer, Gideon. His name means ‘hewer’ or ‘cutter down’ and this characteristic was essential to his victory. The other details given in 6.11 help us to see features that indicated his repentant spirit and his dependence on God. Ophrah means dust; Joash means despairing and Abiezrite means "my father is help". The dust of repentance, the despairing of self, and reliance upon God are the features that will overcome the pride and arrogance that usually are the source of division and strife.
When all around was destitute he had an exercise about food and not just for the present need, but he "threshed wheat by the winepress, to hide it from the Midianites", to provide a store for the future. If there is a dearth in the assembly, have we an exercise to help? Threshing is strenuous work but there will be no food without it. It highlights the need for serious, diligent Bible study, since only this will allow the treasures that are in the depths of the Scriptures to be mined. Paul instructed Timothy, "Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profiting may appear to all" 1Tim.4.15. It is vital that young saints give themselves to Biblical study when they are young so that a store will be gathered that will continue to yield its dainties in years to come. It involves the necessity of a disciplined life and it will mean a sacrifice of time and social engagements. It is diligent threshing that will generate the best rewards. Ruth, "gleaned in the field until even, and beat out that she had gleaned: and it was about an ephah of barley" Ruth 2.17; but in contrast, "The slothful man roasteth not that which he took in hunting: but the substance of a diligent man is precious" Prov.12.27.
He "threshed wheat", and we are reminded of Jn.12.24, "Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit". Thus there is an indication of the kind of food required to keep our souls sweet in the midst of strife, and that is Christ’s sufferings and death. Keeping close to Calvary is the panacea for every spiritual ailment. Well might we sing:
- Jesus, keep me near the cross,
- There a precious fountain,
- Free to all, a healing stream,
- Flows from Calvary’s mountain.
- (Fanny J. Crosby)
He "threshed wheat by [in] the winepress." In Judg.9.13 we learn that "wine … cheereth God and man" which implies that threshing wheat, or giving ourselves to Bible study, is not a burden but a joy. Such was the barrenness that grapes were not available to be pressed and Gideon threshed wheat in the winepress. He was low, alone and unexposed. These all have spiritual lessons to enable us to hear the "still small voice" 1Kgs.19.12. It was to this man the Angel said "The LORD is with thee, thou mighty man of valour" v.12. He had not gone to war or attacked the enemy, but God appreciated his devotion in the midst of trying circumstances. He had a private life with God before there was a life of public service. This is always the order. We do not give brethren responsibility to encourage them, but we give responsibility to those who are taking part and displaying a true exercise to help the work of God.
His Frankness: 6.15, "And he said unto Him, Oh my Lord, wherewith shall I save Israel? behold, my family is poor in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house." Here is a confession of his unworthiness and unsuitability. He has no money and no position. We learn throughout the Bible that it is from the most unlikely families and sources that God finds a man. We can think of Moses; David; a maid for Naaman; a lad with loaves and fishes for a multitude; fishermen for the work of God; the persecuting Saul of Tarsus becoming the preaching apostle Paul, and many more besides. We ought to be wary of those who push for place and prominence among the Lord’s people.
He identifies himself with the nation, even though he was right with God. "And Gideon said unto him, ‘Oh my Lord, if the LORD be with us, why then is all this befallen us? and where be all His miracles which our fathers told us of, saying, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?’ but now the LORD hath forsaken us, and delivered us into the hands of the Midianites’" v.13. In v.12 the Angel said, "The LORD is with thee"; but Gideon said, "if the LORD be with us". He, like Nehemiah and Daniel, identifies himself with the nation, and in picture he eats the sin offering.
To serve Him only two qualifications are necessary: v.14, "I sent thee"; this is his commission, and v.16 "I will be with thee"; this is his company. There is no mention of training in warfare, man management, strategic planning, computer technology, Bible Colleges and the like. When he had God, he had all that was required. A former generation taught correctly, "one man and God is a majority". Thus God says, v.14, "Go in this thy might", not My might. God had imparted to him all the strength that was required for the task. God’s appointment involves His enablement.
The Flame: vv.17-24 gives Gideon’s response to his commission.
"… ‘Depart not hence, I pray Thee, until I come unto Thee, and bring forth my present, and set it before Thee.’ And He said, ‘I will tarry until thou come again.’" v.18. The word ‘present’ means ‘offering’, so it involves the altar and sacrifice. He will worship before he moves in service and this order is vital. If we do not worship we have lost the moral right to serve. It is worship that maintains a devotion and warmth of spirit in service. The richness of his offering in a day of famine and impoverishment is remarkable. There was "a kid of the goats" v.19, Newberry: this was a burnt offering; then "unleavened cakes", which was a meal offering; and a "pot of broth", a drink offering. The problem in the Philippian epistle was division. How was it to be corrected? 2.6,7, "Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men", this is the meal offering; v.8, "became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross", this is theburnt offering;v.17, "Yea, and if I be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy, and rejoice with you all", this is the drink offering. On this basis the apostle wrote, "Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" vv.12-14. This was salvation from Midian.
Gideon’s offering was accepted and he was therefore accepted in it: "Then the angel of the LORD put forth the end of the staff that was in His hand, and touched the flesh and the unleavened cakes; and there rose up fire out of the rock, and consumed the flesh and the unleavened cakes. Then the angel of the LORD departed out of his sight … And the LORD said unto him, ‘Peace be unto thee; fear not: thou shalt not die’" vv.21,23.
It is at this point Gideon builds the altar, "Then Gideon built an altar there unto the LORD, and called it Jehovah-shalom: unto this day it is yet in Ophrah of the Abiezrites" v.24. Jehovah-shalom means ‘the LORD send peace’ which is the opposite of strife. It is reflected in Phil.4.7,9 "And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus … the God of peace shall be with you."
His Father: v.25, "And it came to pass the same night, that the LORD said unto him, ‘Take thy father’s young bullock, even the second bullock of seven years old, and throw down the altar of Baal that thy father hath, and cut down the grove that is by it ...’". This is a very sensitive and difficult problem. It brings to mind Lk.14.26, "If any man come to Me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple." It is important to note that before dealing with sin publicly, our private life must be right, and a moral fitness is required to give ministry and move in leadership: "if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?" 1Tim.3.5. I cannot teach with power and acceptance truth that is not practised in the sphere for which I am responsible.
His witness begins at home. We all must start as did the Lord Jesus: "And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up: and, as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read" Lk.4.16. It has been often said that He stood up where He had been brought up. This is the Divine pattern.
He is required to do in public what he did in private. In v.24 he built an altar privately and now, in v.26, he is told, "build an altar unto the LORD thy God upon the top of this rock ...". There is a correspondence between our private and public lives; we cannot do in public what we have not already done in private. This building of the altar is to be done "in the ordered place" indicating that it is done in an orderly manner, since there is nothing haphazard about God’s work: He is not the author of confusion. It is "the second bullock of seven years old" that is to be offered, v.25. Note v.1, "the LORD delivered them into the hand of Midian seven years." The very year they were delivered into the hand of Midian, God saw to it that a bullock was born which was destined for the altar when recovery would come. Another has said that He moves behind the scenes and moves the scenes He is behind.
His Fear: Gideon, like ourselves, is a strange mixture of faith and fear.
"And when Gideon perceived that He was an angel of the LORD, Gideon said, ‘Alas, O Lord GOD! for because I have seen an angel of the LORD face to face’" 6.22, this is good since it displays the fear of the Lord. "Then Gideon took ten men of his servants, and did as the LORD had said unto him: and so it was, because he feared his father’s household, and the men of the city, that he could not do it by day, that he did it by night" 6.27, this is bad since it displays the fear of man, which bringeth a snare. "And Gideon said unto God, ‘If Thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as Thou hast said, Behold, I will put a fleece of wool in the floor; and if the dew be on the fleece only, and it be dry upon all the earth beside, then shall I know that Thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as Thou hast said’" 6.36,37, this is good since it displays fear of self. He is not going in a display of self-confidence, but he is relying on the Lord. "But if thou fear to go down, go thou with Phurah thy servant down to the host ... Then went he down with Phurah his servant" 7.10,11, this is good since it displays a fear of the enemy and so reliance upon God. True faith sees the difficulties but goes on with God.
"Then Gideon took ten men of his servants, and did as the LORD had said unto him" 6.27, and so the altar and the grove were cut down. The men of the city were angry and sought his life: they "said unto Joash, ‘Bring out thy son, that he may die’" v.30. However, his father seemed to have been stirred by his son’s faithfulness and he became bold for God: "And Joash said unto all that stood against him, ‘Will ye plead for Baal? will ye save him? he that will plead for him, let him be put to death whilst it is yet morning: if he be a god, let him plead for himself, because one hath cast down his altar’" v.31.
His Fitness: v.34, "But the Spirit of the LORD came upon Gideon." The enemies are gathered against Israel, v.33. How could Gideon resist this? There was only power and that was God’s. The literal reading of v.34 is instructive: "the Spirit of the LORD clothed Himself with Gideon". That means the Holy Spirit was inside Gideon, as we are inside our clothes and so he was filled with the Spirit, but not permanently as in the New Testament, but for this particular task. Only Spirit-filled men can defeat strife. It is not done in the energy of the flesh, nor with heated arguments, bad temper or bad manners. Yet to be "filled with the Spirit" ought to be normal Christian experience: Eph.5.18, "be filled with the Spirit" or "be being filled with the Spirit".
His Following: vv.34,35 "he blew a trumpet; and Abiezer was gathered after him. And he sent messengers throughout all Manasseh; who also was gathered after him: and he sent messengers unto Asher, and unto Zebulun, and unto Naphtali; and they came up to meet them." The blowing of the trumpet is typical of using the Word of God to call the saints together. The truth of the Word never divides the saints, but disobedience to the Word always divides them. Now at last, the people were gathered together and all is in place to defeat the enemy and overcome strife and division.
It is not the intention to detail a full character study on Gideon but the reader may wish to pursue: His Fleece, 6.36-40; His Fellows, 7.1-8; The Figure, 7.13,14; His Fight, 7.15-8.21; His Folly, 8.22-32; Their Forgetfulness, 8.34.
ELIJAH’S ALTAR ON MOUNT CARMEL IN 1KINGS CHAPTER 18 - REPENTANCE AND RECOVERY
The sweep of this chapter, dealing with the recovery of the nation, is seen in the two phrases, one at the beginning and the other at the end: v.2, "sore famine" and v.45, "great rain". The chapter outlines the path of recovery moving from a situation of "a sore famine" to that of "a great rain". It is possible to see seven steps on the road to recovery.
Rebuke of Sin – vv.17,18
Unfounded Accusation – "Art thou he that troubleth Israel?" v.17
This is the accusation with which the sinful king Ahab greets Elijah. Often those who have no time for the truth of God lay this charge at the door of those who teach the whole counsel of God. The description of Isa.30.9,10 fits them well: "this is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the LORD: Which say to the seers, ‘See not;’ and to the prophets, ‘Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits: ...’" There is cause and effect. As previously noted, faithfully teaching the Word of God does not cause division; rather disobedience to the Word causes such. Rejection and reproach have been borne by all who have sought to be faithful to God and His Word, even from the days of Christ: "He stirreth up the people, teaching throughout all Jewry, beginning from Galilee to this place" Lk.23.5; Paul and Silas, Acts 16.20, "These men, being Jews, do exceedingly trouble our city"; Paul, Gal.4.16, "Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?"
Unmistakable Condemnation – "thou, and thy father’s house" v.18
Elijah does not mince his words but unmistakably he reveals the source of the problem: "thou, and thy father’s house" v.18. The cause was two fold. The first highlights their departure from the Lord: "Ye have forsaken the commandments of the LORD". The second highlights their allegiance to Baal: "thou hast followed Baalim". Baalim is the plural form of Baal, and it means that every form of Baal worship had been accepted and followed until there was hardly a mention of Jehovah in the land. Happy is the man that can truly say, "I have not troubled Israel".
Recognition of God - vv.18-24
Note the change that has taken place. In v.19 Elijah says, "Now therefore send and gather" and v.20, "So Ahab sent ... and gathered". The king is obeying the prophet! This shows that God is at work and is "the spirit and power of Elijah" Lk.1.17.
The Place – "Carmel" v.19
Elijah was ensuring that nothing was to be done in a corner. Public sin requires public rebuke. Neither questionable methods nor covert tactics, were to be used. In the upper room there were "many lights" Acts 20.8; in 2Tim.2.2 there were, "many witnesses". Nothing was to be done in the dark or secretly. The testimony in our day has been harmed by house meetings and private Bible readings and the like. All teaching is for all the saints and ought to be taught openly: "Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge" 1Cor.14.29.
The Picture - "How long halt ye between two opinions?" v.21
The picture is that of a bird hopping from branch to branch, or lurching from side to side. It is used in v.26 to describe the awkward leaping of the priests as they "they leaped upon the altar ...". It highlights vividly their double-mindedness and lack of conviction. They were as "children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine …" Eph.4.14. They wanted both God and Baal but Elijah demanded a commitment; a definite decision. They answered not a word, because to obey Elijah meant publicly denying Baal and Ahab, but to refuse meant publicly denying Jehovah. Thus they were silent.
The People – "Then said Elijah unto the people, "I, even I only, remain a prophet of the LORD; but Baal’s prophets are four hundred and fifty men"" v.22
The odds were stacked against Elijah. There were 450 prophets of Baal, plus 400 "prophets of the groves" v.19. What a sight: this hairy, leather-clad, wiry, sinewy, athletic prophet standing alone for God! Where were the 100 who were hidden by Obadiah, 18.4,13? Where were the 7,000, 19.18? Were these not willing to bear reproach? Sadly, we can remain in obscurity when public identity might harm us! We should be prepared to stand in a time of crisis and not leave some other brethren to shoulder the entire burden.
The Plan - Bullocks, no fire, call upon their respective God(s), vv.23,24
It is somewhat surprising that they accepted this suggestion. Had they, with Satanic power, called fire from above previously? We read concerning the second of Satan’s bestial men in the future, "he doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men" Rev.13.13.
The plan involved fire, "the God that answereth by fire, let him be God" v.24. In the midst of a drought, it would have been more logical to look for the God that answereth by water, since fire would only compound the problem. Perhaps they expected something more flamboyant, but Elijah knew there must be a return to the altar and that alone would give the power for victory.
Repair of the Altar - vv.25-37
The Commotion of the Prophets of Baal - vv.25-29
With total confusion, lots of energy and excitement with vain repetition, they called on the name of Baal and leaped upon the altar, v.26. They went as far as to cut themselves, v.28. In v.27, Elijah mocks them but does so in an intelligent way. "He is talking", that is, he cannot hear two people at once: he is not omniscient. "He is pursuing or on a journey", that is, he cannot be in two places at once: he is not omnipresent. "He sleepeth and must be awaked", that is, he must have a rest: he is not omnipotent.
The Composure of Elijah - vv.30-35
We are coming to the very core of restoration and that is to get back to Calvary. All that Elijah did was now dignified and reverent. No over-familiarity, no casualness, no commotion. When we think of Calvary, both individually and collectively, especially on a Lord’s Day morning, all must be done with a quiet dignity and godliness.
In v.30 he repaired the altar. He did not build a new one, but got back to first principles. Far too many professing Christians want a new and modern altar. Many of these innovations bring dishonour on His name and dilute the impact of the testimony. God must get His portion first and if He does not, it is unlikely that His people will receive blessing from Him. Has our altar broken down? Do we still erect the family altar or does that need repairing also?
In v.31 he used 12 stones, which implies that he recognised the unity of God’s people even though he was in Israel, the 10-tribe land. We should do all we can to maintain unity as enjoined in Eph.4.3, "Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace".
He used stones in accord with Ex.20.25,26. These were not hewn so there was nothing of human skill involved in worship. Neither eloquence, beautiful language, the natural talents of playing instruments or singing, are required to worship. There were no steps, so that nothing of the flesh was to be seen. When we are occupied with Calvary, all human pride and attainment ends. "God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth" Jn.4.24; "For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the Spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh" Phil.3.3.
"He built an altar in the name of the LORD" v.32. All is done in accord with His character and His Word, "I have done all these things at Thy word" v.36. "He put the wood in order, and cut the bullock in pieces, and laid him on the wood" v.33. Was Elijah a priest? Many of the prophets had a priestly background and the usual way for God to speak to the nation was via the priests, Mal.2.7, "For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts".
To ensure nothing underhand would be done, Elijah goes further than the original plan and saturates the altar with water, as well as filling the trench, vv.33-35. Twelve barrels of water were poured out, one for each tribe, thus highlighting the abject weakness of the nation: 2Sam.14.14, "we must needs die, and are as water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again." The question has been asked, "Where did the water come from in a time of drought?" The answer is that Carmel was not far from the Mediterranean Sea. Could the barrels be carried that far? The word "barrel" is translated "pitcher" in Gen.24.15 when Rebecca had "her pitcher on her shoulder"; and in Judg.7.19 when Gideon’s men "brake the pitchers".
Communion of Elijah - vv.36,37
The time when Elijah moved is very significant, "the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice" v.36. Both Ezra and Daniel were involved in prayer at this hour: "And at the evening sacrifice … I fell upon my knees, and spread out my hands unto the LORD my God" Ezra 9.5: "Yea, whiles I was speaking in prayer, even the man Gabriel … touched me about the time of the evening oblation" Dan.9.21: "Let my prayer be set forth before Thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice" Ps.141.2. This was at 3.00pm, exactly when the Lord cried, "it is finished" Jn.19.30; Lk.23.44-46.
Elijah had the faith to remind God of His unconditional covenant as he addressed Him as the "LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel" v.36. He had only God’s glory before him: "Hear me, O LORD, hear me, that this people may know that Thou art the LORD God …" v.37.
Repentance of the People - vv.38,39
What caused the people to repent and acknowledge God? It was a sight of the sacrifice being consumed, which brings us to Calvary. Note the consuming nature of this fire: "Then the fire of the LORD fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench" v.38.
"The fire of the LORD fell" reminding us of Lam.1.12, "From above He hath sent fire into My bones". The fire on the altar was not natural, nor was the judgment that the Saviour bore on Calvary. Wicked men had no part in the work accomplished by the Saviour that brought salvation to us. How blessed to appreciate that the fire fell on the sacrifice, not on the people who deserved it.
The fire "consumed the burnt sacrifice"; once again underlining the fact that God’s portion is first. Then we read, "and the wood". It was this that kept the fire burning: and since God was completely satisfied at Calvary, the wood and the fire are no longer required. The altar would not be needed again, so it states, "and the stones". How wonderful to realise "But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins, for ever sat down on the right hand of God" Heb.10.12. He has sat down in perpetuity and will never have to rise to deal with sins again. "And the dust" reminds us of death: "dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" Gen.3.19. As a result of Calvary Paul could write of "our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" 2Tim.1.10. It is in the glorious gospel message that we can have "everlasting life" Jn.3.16; 5.24. The next expression gives us security: "and licked up the water that was in the trench". In the Bible where we read of confined and still water, the Word of God is pictured. When it is springing water, we see a symbol of the Spirit of God. Where there are floods of water in copious amounts, it directs us to the judgment of God. That is all gone because of Calvary: "There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus" Rom.8.1.
The result is tremendous. "And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, "The LORD, He is the God; the LORD, He is the God"" 1Kgs.18.39. If, when we are cold in heart and away from God, we could get a glimpse of the Saviour’s mighty work accomplished on Calvary, we too would truly repent and acknowledge Him.
Rejection of the False Prophets – v.40
Once sin is disclosed it cannot be tolerated and must be judged. So it is here: "And Elijah said unto them, "Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape." And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there" v.40.
Reliance on God – vv.41-44
After the great victory, Elijah prays: "Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; and he cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees" v.42. James records, "he prayed again" Jms.5.18. It is often after victory that we are at our most vulnerable. Elijah with "his face between his knees" was very low before God. It has been said that the man who stands straightest in the presence of sin is the man who bows lowest in the presence of God.
His attitude, begotten of faith in God, was: Scriptural, v.1, "I will send rain"; Reverent, v.42, "put his face between his knees"; Persistent, v.43, he told the servant to "Go again seven times"; Definite, he wanted only rain; Believing, as soon as there was a "little cloud" v.44, he arose and made preparation to get to the city.
Refreshment of Rain – v.45
What a conclusion to a ‘dry’ chapter: rain and recovery! "And it came to pass in the mean while, that the heaven was black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode, and went to Jezreel" v.45.
In conclusion it is very precious to note the moral order of the chapter. Elijah was at the altar, implying Calvary; he goes to the top of Carmel, picturing our Lord’s ascension and priestly intercession; it is then that the water came, representing the Spirit descending on the day of Pentecost and subsequent blessing; sometime later he leaves the mount and comes to the city, a journey the Lord Jesus will take in the future, "Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, He is the King of glory. Selah." Ps.24.9,10.