The redeemed worshipper approaching the Tabernacle and looking though the gate would have his view arrested by the Brazen Altar dominating the court. It was nearest to the gate and could not be avoided or ignored. Of all the items in the Tabernacle for which measurements are given this was the largest. The fire on the Altar, consuming the sacrifices which had been placed thereon, flaming up into the sky, and at night lighting up the darkness; the smell of burning flesh; the heat radiating from that awful fire; the sight of priests preparing further sacrifices to be added to the flames; the blood shed by the victims; the ceaseless activity of those who attended upon the Altar - all these things made an unforgettable scene, impressing upon the onlooker the absolute, vital necessity of the shedding of blood.
Without this Altar no progress into the presence of God could be made, even by priestly men. With no Altar there could be no Holy Place or Holiest of All where worshippers could stand. It stood at the door: inescapable, unavoidable. Its demands could not be ignored; this Altar could not be bypassed.
It was a not a place for casual comfort, nor was careless sloth to mark those busy priests. It was not a place to be approached lightly by worshippers who brought their offerings. They were giving of their best and parting, doubtless, with animals for which they had affection. They were bringing of their wealth, giving to their God the choicest of their possessions. The world looking on would see this as waste; consigning to the devouring flames of the Altar that which was worth much in the currency of earth, but little realising the eternal worth placed on it by heaven.
It is a cause of worship to consider this issue today. All the sacrifices on the Brazen Altar are over, and never again will it be necessary to approach in the way that was done for generations. He who shed His blood at Calvary did so once and only once.
The construction of the Altar
The Brazen Altar was made of shittim wood overlaid with brass or, more likely, copper. The Altar was foursquare: it was 5 cubits long (approx 2.3 metres) and 5 cubits broad, with a height of 3 cubits (approx 1.4 metres). There were four horns, made also of shittim wood, overlaid with copper, each horn rising out of the top of one of the four corners. No indication is given of the shape or size of these horns, but they were of sufficient size for the blood of the sin offering to be applied to them (Lev 4.25). There would be little value in putting horns on each corner if they were not clearly seen.
The implements for use at the Altar were made of copper and consisted of
Pans to receive ashes: These were used for the ashes of the offerings.
Shovels: Necessary equipment for handling ashes or whatever had to be taken from the Altar.
Basons: For the blood of the sacrifices.
Fleshhooks: For handling the carcasses of the offerings.
Firepans: For dealing with the fire of the Altar.
A grate or network of copper was made, on the four corners of which rings were formed. This network was placed "even to the midst of the altar". Staves, again made of shittim wood overlaid with copper, were placed through the rings to enable the Altar to be carried.
The materials used
The shittim wood speaks of the incorruptible humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ. This wood was from a tree which grew in inhospitable conditions. Mature shittim-wood trees, while retaining a full head of foliage and beautifying the desert plain with fragrant, yellow flowers, bear the appearance of having survived adverse and hostile growing conditions. Was this not exactly the experience of the Lord Jesus when here on earth as dependant man? The wood is naturally resistant to disease and attack by pests. The wood of the Altar had already withstood these conditions, just as the Man who hung on the cross had moved through the desert of this world, holy, harmless, and undefiled. No matter the form or ferocity of the attack He emerged victorious without a stain on His perfect person.
The dimensions of the Altar
It has already been observed that this Altar dominated the court of the Tabernacle, not only by virtue of the fire and sacrifices upon it, but also by virtue of its dimensions. At five cubits long, five cubits broad and three cubits high it was the largest of all the items for which measurements are give. Five is the number of responsibility, and at the Altar is seen the work of the One who met every responsibility which was His, in living a perfect, holy life, in completely fulfilling all that was prophesied concerning Him, and in finishing the work that was given Him to do. There was no failure! But this Altar is foursquare, presenting the same dimensions to north, south, east, and west. His life and work is equally available to all, no matter who, no matter where. No one was excluded because of any shortcoming in respect of the Altar. It had none. Note also that no one was excluded because it was inaccessible. Immediately they entered the gate they faced this great Altar.
The position of the Altar
This Altar stood, as has been noted, immediately inside the gate of the Tabernacle, declaring the fact that there is no approach to God apart from the Cross. There was no other gate and no other way of approach. Without the shedding of blood entrance into the presence of God was impossible. This strikes a death-blow at any teaching based on an approach to God without the Cross. Ridout comments: "Never did blood flow from a sacrificial animal that was not divinely intended to show the atoning death of the Lamb of God".
Over the years thousands of sacrifices would be offered on this Altar, each one reminding the worshipper that if it was the shedding of blood that delivered from Egypt, it was also the shedding of blood that allowed the worshipper to approach God.
The fire on the Altar
The fire on the Altar was never to be put out: "The fire shall ever be burning upon the altar. It shall never go out" (Lev 6.13). Throughout the daylight hours and during the hours of darkness there were always to be flames rising from this Altar. It was never to be cold and dead.
The responsibilities associated with the Altar
Each morning and evening a sacrificial lamb was placed on its flames; Israelites brought their burnt and meal offerings. Peace, sin, and trespass offerings burned in its fire. All this speaks of the Cross. The Altar itself speaks of the One who endured the flames and was not consumed by them; the shittim wood encased in copper was preserved without charring or burning. The sacrifices told out the fact that His death at Calvary was accepted in heaven; that through and from the flames there came that which was for God. All the demands of the righteous throne of God were met, and provision was made for all the deeds of guilty, fallen man.
The morning and evening sacrifices have already been mentioned. There was placed before the people, in the book of Leviticus, instructions for bringing their sweet savour and non sweet savour offerings to the Lord; the leper who was cleansed brought his offering to be offered by the priest (Lev 14.10-14) etc. These offerings, and others, ensured that Israel was aware that the Altar was a central part of their lives. They could not exist without it.
Their responsibilities were, first, to show appreciation to the Lord for all His goodness towards them, and second, to ensure that they were kept clean. The freewill, sweet savour offerings of Leviticus 1-3 would be a delight to the Lord as the smoke ascended up to heaven. Here was the expression of the appreciation of redeemed people for all that the Lord had accomplished, the enjoyment of which they now experienced. The other necessary offerings, the non sweet savour sin and trespass offerings (Lev 4-6), showed that the offerer appreciated the seriousness of sin and the necessity of shed blood to deal with it.
And so the fire must never go out. After the subterfuge of the Gibeonites was uncovered it was given to this people to be "hewers of wood and drawers of water for the congregation, and for the altar of the Lord" (Josh 9.27). To them fell the responsibility of ensuring that a supply of wood was constantly available to fuel the Altar fire; in a later, sad, age, dealing with the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, one of the desires of Nehemiah was that he should be remembered for the wood offering - again that which was for Altar fuel (Neh 13.31). There is revealed at that late stage in the book named after him that one of the motives, indeed perhaps the prime motive, of Nehemiah in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem was that there might be conditions suitable for the Altar worship to continue.