“Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet, and I heard a voice speaking from the four horns of the gold altar that stands in the presence of God. And the voice said to the sixth angel who held the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great Euphrates River.” Then the four angels who had been prepared for this hour and day and month and year were turned loose to kill one-third of all the people on earth. I heard the size of their army, which was 200 million mounted troops.”
Revelation 9:13-16 NLT
A speaking altar. John’s vision clearly described it as being made of gold, with four horns, and positioned right there in God’s presence. There must have been something sacred and holy about it. And a voice came from it with an instruction that became the second terror, or woe. But what was the significance of the altar? To answer that question we have to look back into the Old Testament, where altar-building instructions can be found.
In Exodus 30, God gave Moses a blueprint for the golden altar, that was to be used for burning incense. We read, “Then make another altar of acacia wood for burning incense. Make it 18 inches square and 36 inches high, with horns at the corners carved from the same piece of wood as the altar itself. Overlay the top, sides, and horns of the altar with pure gold, and run a gold moulding around the entire altar.” (Exodus 30:1-3). God continued with instructions about what the altar was to be used for. “Every morning when Aaron maintains the lamps, he must burn fragrant incense on the altar. And each evening when he lights the lamps, he must again burn incense in the Lord’s presence. This must be done from generation to generation. Once a year Aaron must purify the altar by smearing its horns with blood from the offering made to purify the people from their sin. This will be a regular, annual event from generation to generation, for this is the Lord’s most holy altar.” (Exodus 30:7-8, 10 NLT).
So the golden altar in John’s vision was probably the same as the altar we read about in Revelation 8, “Then another angel with a gold incense burner came and stood at the altar. And a great amount of incense was given to him to mix with the prayers of God’s people as an offering on the gold altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, mixed with the prayers of God’s holy people, ascended up to God from the altar where the angel had poured them out.” (Revelation 8:3-4 NLT). Some theologians think that the golden altar with its horns was a “type” of Christ because His prayers of intercession are constantly rising up to God like incense.
Altars played a very important role in ancient Jewish worship. But what about today, in our Western churches? Pilgrims from a Catholic or Anglican background, and visitors to churches in these denominations, will be aware of a cloth covered table located at the front of a church building. The decorations and ornaments are beautifully ornate, with extensive use of gold and even precious stones, and someone like myself, brought up in an Anglican Church, feel a sense of reverence when approaching this object, what is referred to as an “altar”. From an early age I grew up with the thought that somehow God lives there. In Anglican liturgy it is at the altar that the priest undertakes various duties during a church service, with congregants looking on. Bodily responses such as genuflection or bowing are performed when passing in front of the altar, reflecting the reverence and awe afforded to this item of furniture.
A modern application of an altar is in the wayside shrines that crop up today. Perhaps where some unfortunate person was killed in a road accident, or, as in my local community, where a young man, apparently high on drugs, committed suicide. The person’s loved ones have erected an “altar” in their memory and regularly place flowers there. Another example of this is with the inclusion of plaques of remembrance being affixed to park benches. But an altar is nothing more than a place of consecration. A place where a memory can be immortalised.
But whatever our liturgy or upbringing, is an altar of any real relevance in our pilgrim lives? I would suggest there is great importance in an altar, but a personal one. In Jewish worship it was on the altar that animals were sacrificed as an act of worship to God. But in a personal way we develop an altar to commemorate our commitment to God. In my morning prayer walks, I have way points where I pause to offer up to God thanks and praise for something or someone in my life that has been significant. We all need something to associate our loving Heavenly Father and our relationships with Him. so we develop our own personal altars, where we praise and worship our God. Where we offer up our thanks with grateful hearts for His provision. Where we pray for petitionary prayers for our loved ones and even national issues. In our hearts we have a ready made home for our altars, a place far more precious than any cloth covered man-made edifice located at the front of a dusty old mausoleum.
Dear Father. Where else can we find You than on the altars of our hearts. We praise and thank You for dwelling there by Your Holy Spirit. We pray that You never leave us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.