The Unadorned Altar

As Israel stood at the base of Mt. Sinai, God gave them important information. Exodus 20 preserves this information for future generations, and it deserves careful study. In addition to the celebrated ten commandments found in this chapter, there is also instruction about altars upon which sacrifices would be offered.
One thing about the altar that strikes the reader is how deliberately plain it was to be. Verse 24 gives directions about making an altar out of earth; it’s hard to envision such a structure being visually impressive. Verse 25 gives another possibility for an altar: “And if you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone; for if you use your tool on it, you have profaned it” (NKJV).
We’ve seen examples of elaborate stonework in buildings and parks. The skill of the mason is apparent as we examine carefully chiseled edges and note how the stones fit perfectly together. But such human craftsmanship was to be absent from the altar of God. If anyone used a tool to shape any of the stones of the altar it would be “profaned”.
This writer sees only one explanation for such prescribed plainness: God wanted there to be nothing to distract the worshiper. It was not the altar that should be the focus of the sacrifice, but the one to whom the sacrifice was being offered. Such unadorned altars would not have been the choice of many people, but it was God’s choice. Isn’t that all that mattered?
In the new covenant under which we live (see Hebrews 8), we don’t utilize altars. But we continue to make sacrifices. Hebrews 13:15 gives direction to Christians: “Therefore by him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to his name.” When I join my voice with fellow Christians in singing praises to God, I am offering a sacrifice to him. If the song comes from my heart, my sacrifice pleases him.
Some today want to make worship more elaborate than that of our ancestors. By using human “tools” to adorn our worship, do we run the risk of profaning our worship? Are we drawing attention to the altar instead of putting our focus on God?
Many consider simple congregational a cappella singing to be downright plain. But it is what the Lord prescribed for Christians. No mention of human instruments can be found in any New Testament passage which speaks of music in Christian worship. Shall we be content with what the Lord has instructed, or will we follow the desires of our hearts to “adorn” our worship to him?
An adorned altar was not God’s desire. Adorned singing is nowhere suggested in our covenant. Let us give to God precisely what he has requested.

Is there a principle behind God’s plan for his altar?

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