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<022001> EXODUS The Ten Commandments expressed the obligations of man in his original state, while enjoying free and open communion with God. But the state of innocence was quickly departed from, and as the offspring of fallen Adam, the children of Israel were sinners, unable to comply with the righteous requirements of God. Fear and shame therefore made God’s approach terrible, as He appeared in His holiness, as a consuming fire. The effects upon Israel of the manifestation of Jehovah’s majesty at Sinai are next given “And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off. And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die” ( 20:18, 19).
Here was a plain acknowledgment from Israel that they were unable to deal with God directly on the ground of the Decalogue. They felt at once that some provision needed to he made for them. A mediator was necessary: Moses must treat with God on their behalf. This was alright so far as it went, but it failed to meet fully the requirements of the situation. It met the need from their side, but not from God’s. The Lawgiver was holy, and His righteous requirements must be met. The transgressor of Hits Law could not be dealt with simply through a mediator as such. Satisfaction must be made: sin must be expiated: only thus could the inexorable demands of Divine justice be met. Accordingly this is what is brought before us in the sequel. The very next thing which is here mentioned in Exodus 20 is an ALTAR!
The “altar” at once tells of the provision of Divine grace, a provision which fully met the requirements of God’s governmental claims, and which made it possible for sinners to approach Him without shame, fear, or death; a provision which secured an agreement of peace. On such a basis was the Siniatic covenant ratified. Not that this rendered null and void what Jehovah had said in Exodus 19:5, “Now therefore, if ye will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto Me above all people.”
The Siniatic covenant was an agreement wherein God proposed to deal with Israel in blessing on the ground of their obedience. Governmentally this was never set aside. But provision was made for their failure, and this, right from the beginning! Israel’s failure to appropriate God’s gracious provision only rendered the more inexcusable their subsequent wickedness.
We read of no “altar” in Eden. Man in his innocence, created in the image and likeness of God, needed none. He had no sin to be expiated upon an altar: he had no sense of shame, and no fear of God in coming into his Maker’s presence and communing with Him directly. It was man’s sin which made necessary an “altar,” and it was Divine grace which provided one. There are two things to bear in mind here in Exodus 20: Jehovah was not dealing with Israel on the alone ground of His righteousnes, but also according to His rich mercy!
It is vitally important to see the relation between the two great subjects of our chapter: God giving the Law and God furnishing instructions concerning the altar. If it was impossible for Israel to enter directly into the Siniatic covenant (a mediator being necessary), and if they (as sinners) were unable to keep the Decalogue, why propose the one and give the other? Three answers may be returned:
First , to show to Israel (and the race) that man is a sinner . A fixed standard which definitely defined man’s fundamental relations both with God and his fellows, a standard holy and just and good in all its parts, revealed to man his want of conformity to God’s Law”. I had not known sin (its inner workings as lust) but by the Law... that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful” ( Romans 7:7,13).
Second : to bring to light man’s moral inability. The Law with its purity and its penalty, disclosed the fact that on the one hand, man was unable (because of his corrupted nature) to keep the Law; and on the other hand, unable to atone for his transgressions of it — “Sin taking occasion by the commandment wrought in me all manner of concupiscence... For I was alive without the Law once; but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death” ( Romans 7:8,10).
Third : to show man his need of the Savior. “Wherefore then serveth the Law? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made... But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the Law was our schoolmaster unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” ( Galatians 3:19,23 24).
It is therefore abundantly clear that the Ten Commandments were never given to men or to Israel as a means of salvation, i.e ., being saved through obeying them. They were not given in statutory form till after man had become a sinner, and his nature so corrupted that he had neither ability nor desire to keep them. The Law was not a way of life, but a rule of conduct.
The writing of the Ten Commandments on tables of stone long after man had become a fallen being, was to show that God’s claims upon His creatures had not been cancelled, any more than has the right of a creditor to collect though the debtor be unable to pay. Whether unfallen, or fallen, or saved, or glorified, it ever remains true that man ought to love God with all his heart and his neighbor as himself. While ever the distinction between right and wrong holds good, man is under obligation to keep God’s Law.
This is what God was enforcing at Siani — His righteous claims upon Israel, first as His creatures, then as His redeemed. It is true that Israel were unable to meet those claims, therefore did God in His marvellous grace, make provision both for their failure and the upholding of His claims. This we see in the “altar.”
Before we examine the typical significance of the “altar” we would call attention to a most lovely thing not found here in Exodus 20, but given in a later scripture. As Israel beheld the fearful phenomena which manifested the presence of Jehovah upon the Holy Mount, they said unto Moses, “Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us lest we die” ( 20:19).
Now it is exceedingly blessed to mark God’s response to this. But not to the careless reader is this discovered. It is only by prayerfully and diligently comparing scripture with scripture that its exquisite perfections are revealed, and only thus are we able to obtain a complete view of many a scene. In Deuteronomy 5:22,27 Moses reviews the giving of the Law at Sinai and the effects which that had upon the people. Then he says, “And the Lord heard the voice of your words, when ye spake unto me, and the Lord said unto me, I have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they have spoken unto thee: they have well said ALL that they have spoken.” Now if we compare with this Deuteronomy 18:17,18. we discover the full response which the Lord made to Israel’s request: “And the Lord said unto me, They have well spoken that which they have spoken. I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and I will put My words in His mouth; and He shall speak unto them all that I shall command Him.” The desire of Israel for a mediator, for one of their own number to act as God’s mouthpiece unto them was to be realized, eventually, in the great Mediator, the chief Prophet or Spokesman of God. How blessedly does this reveal to us the thoughts of grace which Jehovah had unto Israel even at Sinai! How refreshing to turn away from the miserable perversions of many of the modern commentators and learn what the Scriptures have to say concerning that memorable day at Sinai! “And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was” (v. 21).
Following this, Moses returned to the people with this message from the Lord: “Ye have seen that I have talked with you from heaven. Ye shall not make with Me gods of silver, neither shall ye make unto you gods of gold” (vv. 22, 23).
Idolatry was expressly forbidden. It was God, once more, insisting upon His unrivalled supremacy. And then immediately after this, instructions are given concerning the “altar.” “An altar of earth shall thou make unto Me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and they peace offerings, thy sheep and thine oxen” (v. 24).
The Tabernacle had not yet been erected. Clearly then, what we have here were Divine instructions for Israel’s immediate compliance: an altar was to be built at the foot of Sinai! It was not the future which was in view, but the present. All doubt as to the correctness of this conclusion is forever removed by what we read of in Exodus 24:4 — what intervenes being a connected account of what Jehovah made known unto Moses on the Mount to be communicated unto the people. Here we are told, “And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord, and rose up early in the morning, and builded an altar under the hill, and twelve pillars, according W the twelve tribes of Israel.” That there may be no possibility of failure to identify this “altar,” it is immediately added. “And he sent young men of the children of Israel, which offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen unto the Lord. Here then was the “altar” (of earth), and here were the “burnt offerings” and the “peace of offerings.” And why has the Holy Spirit been so careful to record these details here in Exodus 24?
Why, if not to show us the fulfillment of Jehovah’s word unto Pharaoh: “Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Let My people go, that they may hold a feast unto Me in the wilderness” (5:1)!
The “peace-offering” is the one offering of all others specially connected with feasting: “And Solomon awoke; and, behold it was a dream. And he came to Jerusalem, and stood before the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and offered up burnt offerings and offered peace offerings, and made a feast to all his servants ( 1 Kings 3:15, cf. 8:64, 65, etc). “In all places where I record My name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee” (v. 24).
Plainly this begins a new sentence and is connected with what follows, as the first words of v. 25 clearly show, Jeremiah 7:12 affords an illustration of what is meant by God recording His name in a place: “But go ye now unto My place which was in Shiloh, where I set My name at the first.” Let the interested reader look up the various references to “Shiloh.”
Compare also “Bethel” and “Zion” where God’s name was also recorded. “And if thou wilt make Me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it thou hast polluted it” (v. 25).
The connection between this and the last clause of v. 24 is most significant and important. God had promised to “come unto” Israel and “bless” them in all places where His name was recorded. But if Israel were to come unto Jehovah an “altar” must be erected, an altar where blood should flow and fire consume: blood to propitiate God; fire to signify His acceptance of the sacrifice.
The first thing to notice about this altar (like the one in the previous verse) is its extreme simplicity and plainness. This was in marked contrast from the “gods of sliver” and “gods of gold” (v. 23) of the heathen The altar which Israel was to erect unto God must not be made of that which man had manufactured, nor beautified by his skill: there should be in it no excellence which human hand had imparted. Man would naturally suppose that an altar to be used for Divine sacrifices should be of gold, artistically designed and richly ornamented. Yes, but that would only allow man to glorify himself in his handiwork. The great God will allow “no” flesh to glory in His presence” ( 1 Corinthians 1:29). Solemn indeed are the words “If thou liftest up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.” “Not by works of righteousness which we have done” ( Titus 3:5) is the New Testament equivalent. Sinfulness cannot approach the thrice holy God with any thing in hand which his own labors have produced. That is why the Lord had not respect unto the offering which Cain brought to Him: Cain presented the fruits of the ground, the product of his own labors; and God rejected them. And God still rejects all the efforts of the natural man to propitiate Him. All the attempts of the sinner to win the notice and merit the respect of God by his efforts at self-improvement are worse than vain.
What God demands of His fallen creatures is that they should take the place of lost sinners before Him, coming empty-handed to receive undeserved mercy. “Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto Mine altar” (v. 26).
The meaning of this is not difficult to perceive. It is parallel in principle to what was before us in the previous verse. “Steps” are a human contrivance to avoid the strain of rising from a lower level to a higher. Man cannot climb up to God by any stops of his own making. What God requires from the sinner is, that he shall take his true place before Him — in the dust.
There God will meet with him. It is true that morally and spiritually man is separated from God by a distance, a distance far too great for man to ever bridge. But though man cannot climb up to God, God, in the person of His Son, has come down all the way to the poor sinner. The second chapter of Philippians describes that marvellous and gracious descent of the Lord of glory. Five distinct, “steps” are there marked — the number of grace. He who was in the form of God and thought it not robbery to be equal with God (1) “made Himself of no reputation,” (2) “took upon Him the form of a servant,” (3) “and was made in the likeness of men.” (4) “Being found in fashion as a man He humbled Himself,” (5) “and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”
Self-evident is it then that there are no “steps” for man to climb! “Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto Mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon” (v. 26).
Remarkably is this brought out in the very chapter which records the entrance of sin into this world. As soon as Adam and Eve had eaten of the prescribed fruit we are told. “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons” ( Genesis 3:7).
But of what avail were those aprons before Him who can read the innermost secrets of the heart? The very next thing we read is “And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.” Their fig-leaf “aprons” did not now even satisfy themselves! But that is not all: “and the Lord God called unto Adam. and said unto him, Where art thou?” And what was our guilty forefather’s response? This: “And he said I heard Thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because. I was naked; and I hid myself.” The apron of figleaves only served to make manifest and emphasize the fact that he was naked — naked even with the “apron” on! How true, then, that man’s very efforts to climb up to God do but expose his shame!
It should be pointed out, in conclusion, that the two “altars,” the one of “earth” and the other of “stone,” both point to the person of the Lord Jesus, bringing out His varied perfections. On this we cannot do better than let Mr. Grant interpret for us: — “The material which God accepts for His altar, then, is either earth or stone, things which are in contrast with one another; ‘earth’ deriving its name from its crumbling character (eratz , from ratz , to crumble away, says Parkhurst, of the Hebrew word); and ‘stone,’ which resists pressure, and is characterized by its hardness and durability. Of the dust of the earth man is made, and as this is fertile as it yields to the hand that dressed it, so is man to God, as he yields himself to the Divine hand. Earth seems thus naturally to stand for the creature in its frailty, — conscious of it, and accepting the place of weakness and subjection, thus to the bringing forth of fruit to God. While ‘stone’ stands for the strength that is found in another, linked with and growing out of the consciousness of weakness: ‘When I am weak, then am I strong.’ “Now in both respects He who was perfect, who came down to all the reality of manhood to know both its weakness and the wondrous strength which is wrought out of weakness, thus waiting upon and subject to God. It was thus in endurance He yielded Himself up, and endured by yielding Himself to His Father’s will.”
The “earth” then, corresponds in thought to the “fine flour” of the meal offering (Leviticus 2), speaking of the perfect yieldedness of Christ’s to the Father’s will.
Most blessedly was this evidenced in Gethsemane, where we hear Him saying, “Nevertheless, not My will, but Thine be done.” The “stone” points to the same thing as the “brass” in the Tabernacle altar. It showed there was that in Christ (and in Him alone) capable of enduring the fearful fires of God’s wrath. The fact that the stones of this altar must not be “hewn,” shaped by human chisel, shows once more how jealously God guarded the accuracy of these types. The stones must be left just as the Creator had made them — man must not change their form. The antitype or this would be that Christ, as it were, retained the “form” which God had given Him, And all the pressure of circumstances and all the efforts of men and Satan could not alter it. When the Lord announced the Cross (the “altar” on which the great Sacrifice was to be offered. Peter said, Spare Thyself”: that was Satan, through man, attempting to “hew” the “stone”; but the Lord suffered it not.
May God stir up writer and reader to a more diligent and prayerful searching of the Scriptures.