The word "altar" in Scripture means a place of slaughter and sacrifice, where blood was shed and death took place; it symbolised acknowledgement of, approach to, and appreciation of God, in other words "worship". The word first occurs in Genesis 8.20-22, where Noah sacrificed "clean" animals as burnt offerings to express his worship and a "sweet savour" arose to God. Altars had to be unpretentious and unembellished with human workmanship, but marked by utter simplicity to facilitate and encourage men to seek God (Ex 20.25; Acts 17.25; Ps 65.4). No doubt altars were used from the days of Abel, who first brought an offering by divine instruction. The later altars for the tabernacle and temple had to be constructed strictly according to divine design. They all foreshadowed the person and sacrificial work of Christ. The altar teaches us, in type, the importance of daily communion with God on the basis of the precious blood of Christ.
These four altars mark the unforgettable peaks of Abraham's spiritual experiences in the pathway of faith. We can identify with his experiences and learn valuable lessons as we stumble along the same route of faith.
An Altar of Praise (Gen 12.1-7)
This reminds us of Abram's (later changed to Abraham, 17.5) call, and the scope of divine blessing. Abram is not only the subject of blessing, but the medium of blessing to "all families of the earth" (vv.2-3); one of the most important time marks in human history. Without conditions, this covenant has been ratified and will be completely fulfilled; note the divine purpose, "I will", pronounced four times (vv.1-3). Abram arrived in the Land of Promise, at "Shechem" (shoulder) in the plain, the lowlands of "Moreh" (instruction); the meanings suggest vitality and vision. This was just what Abram needed, having left country, kindred and family for an unknown land; he had "forsaken all" in faith (Heb 11.8). He is immediately faced with a problem for "the Canaanite was in the land" - a cruel, corrupt and callous people. Abram and his company would be very vulnerable in this hostile environment. How like young believers discovering that faith has led them into a sphere where evil forces operate (Eph 6.12), yet finding that it is a sphere full of blessing and spiritual potential.
However, the Lord was with Abram in the land and a divine vision and voice welcomed him there: "And the Lord (Jehovah, the Eternal) appeared unto Abram, and said…" (v.7); thus all his fears were allayed. The promise was renewed and Abram was reassured. How good is the God we adore!
He had already been unconditionally blessed, but now God says, "Unto thy seed (i.e. Christ, Gal 3.16) will I give this land" (v.7). How does Abram respond to the grace of God? He lifted his voice in praise, "and there builded he an altar unto the Lord, who appeared unto him". Mark the principle - praise is ever focussed on the Lord Himself, based on revelation, not imagination, and is proportionate to our knowledge and experience of God. No altar could be raised in ungodly Ur or Haran, but only in the Land of Promise, the place of divine blessing and in the simplicity of faith. We also "have an altar (Christ Himself), and "By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually" (Heb 13.10,15).
An Altar of Prayer (12.8-13)
Note Abram's progress - he removes from the lowlands (the plain) to a mountain (v.8), the higher ground of faith so to speak. May this be our desire: "Lord, plant my feet on higher ground". Here faith found a new perspective (have we?); he pitched his tent between Bethel (House of God) and Ai (heap of ruins), signifying duty to God and duty to the world - worship and witness. The "tent" and the "altar" now characterised Abram, and he became a pilgrim, moving from place to place: he "passed through" (v.6), "he removed" (v.8), he "journeyed" (v.9), he settled nowhere, for "he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God" (Heb 11.10). Do we likewise? Where there is a "tent" (home), there should be an altar. Abram built a second altar, this time for prayer - "he called upon (invoked) the name of the Lord". This is the result of exercise and weakness, of dependence upon God. Such a spirit of prayer proves the power and presence of God. Alas, we then read that "he went down to Egypt" (vv.10-20), to escape the famine; "Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor 10.12). Abram then makes a selfish proposition to Sarah (vv.11-13); he was prepared to put his wife in danger to save himself "that it may be well with me" (v.13)! The expedition into Egypt resulted in fear, falsehoods, and failure. Let us beware of the world that Egypt typifies. Where was his faith in God now?
God in His merciful providence overruled his servant's folly (what a comfort to us who often fail). Abram was soon despatched unceremoniously by Pharaoh. He retraced his steps to Bethel where he pitched his tent and built his altar "as at the first" (13.3-4). Similarly we have to return to the point of moral or spiritual departure to learn by our mistakes and be restored to the Lord. Abram repeated the same prayer and again "called on the name of the Lord". What infinite pardon and pity there is in that Name! It was a humble prayer of repentance because forgiveness was immediately granted; the memory of his former sweet communion was revived. Have we strayed from the path of faith and lost our focus? Let us "call upon the Name of the Lord" (Jer 33.3).
An Altar of Peace (13.14-18)
Abram and Lot had acquired flocks and herds and tents; strife and division broke out among the herdsmen so that they could no longer "dwell together". Abram pleads, "Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee…for we be brethren" (cp Ps 133.1). Paul likewise pleads, "Let nothing be done through strife, or vain glory" (Phil 2.3). Strife often leads to separation, sometimes of necessity, but how tragic among brethren, for "the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle to all men" (2 Tim 2.24). Abram and Lot therefore decided to separate. Abram nobly allowed Lot first choice of the land, and what a fateful choice it proved to be. The yieldingness and generosity of Abram diffused the situation (what a salutary lesson in resolving disputes) and he was rewarded by being given further divine assurances that all the land within his vision would be for him and his innumerable seed. Thus Abram moved to Mamre (vigour) in Hebron (fellowship). He was now separated from Egypt, free from strife, and enjoying complete security; hence "he built there an altar unto the Lord" to enjoy the peace and presence of God. May we quietly spend more time in the divine presence "safe and secure from all alarms", and "be at peace" among ourselves (1 Thess 5.13).
An Altar of Provision (22.9-14)
This fourth altar is the most important of all - it was for Abraham and it is for us. Note the emotional pressure. As Abraham was building this altar on Mount Moriah his heart must have been breaking, for he was about to offer up to God his only beloved son, not only to be slain, but to be burnt to ashes as a burnt offering. He knew God must have Isaac, even though he was the heir of promise, so he raised the sacrificial knife "Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead" (Heb 11.19). But what was thought to be a moment of death became a moment of triumph - a substitute, a provision, was found and Isaac was spared. Abraham's faith had been tried to the limit and rewarded: "God will provide himself a lamb, for a burnt offering" (v.8); the glorious type of Calvary, where God "spared not his own son, but delivered him up for us all" (Rom 8.32). It has rightly been said that "God did not want Isaac, He wanted the heart of Abraham"; Abraham was really upon the altar, not Isaac! This supreme trial marked the summit of Abraham's faith. It had been a long and eventful journey of faith from Ur to Moriah, from idolatry to "worship…in spirit and in truth" (Jn 4.24). Are we on the altar for God, have we experienced our Moriah? Paul appeals, "I beseech you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service" (Rom 12.1).
But we never can prove
The delights of His love,
Until all on the altar we lay.
(John H Sammis)
It is no wonder that, under God, Abraham became the founder of a nation, the friend of God, the father of the faithful, and the fount of blessing to a lost world; he was truly a patriarch, a prophet, a prince, and a pilgrim.