The Horns of the Altar

The Old Testament tabernacle was plain compared to Solomon’s temple centuries later, but it was still a magnificent structure. The items inside were overlaid with pure gold, as were the wooden planks that comprised the walls. The curtain that separated its two rooms were made of linen and decorated with purple and scarlet fabrics. Every item was portable, carried by poles inserted in rings made of gold. But one of the most curious pieces was the bronze altar that stood in the courtyard.

 The altar was made for burning sacrifices every day, all day, so it was made of bronze. Square in shape, it was made for heavy work. Each of the four top corners featured a bronze horn. Archaeologists have discovered a similar Canaanite altar near the town of Megiddo, decorated with four horns. Why was the Israelite altar decorated this way? Horns were symbols of strength. The horns of animals were the strongest part of their bodies. Ram’s horns were fashioned into trumpets and treated with respect. On the altar they symbolized the strength and stability of God, that He could be depended upon to deal with their sins through the sacrifices offered there.

 They also offered refuge when someone was accused of a crime. In 1 Kings 1:50-53, David’s son Adonijah fled to the temple and took hold of the horns of the alter. His bid to become the king had failed and he was afraid Solomon would execute him. Here he found temporary safety in hopes his case would be examined more closely. Solomon granted him mercy. But in the next chapter, Joab, the former commander of David’s army, found no mercy when he grabbed the same horns of the altar. He was guilty of throwing his weight behind Adonijah’s grab for power, and he was also a murderer. His case was reviewed, but he was found guilty and executed on the spot. It seemed that Adonijah repented, but Joab did not.

In Hebrews 4:16 we’re told we have “fled for refuge in laying hold of the hope set before us.” While the statement may refer to the Jewish cities of refuge, the way the author phrased it makes us think of the horns of the altar. When we come to Jesus, guilty of our sins, we appeal to His grace and forgiveness. We’re much like the Jews who fled into the tabernacle and laid hold of its horns. We must repent and rely on the strength and grace of God to forgive us. And He will. The sacrifice of Jesus is better than any animal sacrifice ever was. Remember that when you approach Him for grace and help.

– Tim Johnson