By Denzil Holman
There are within man an insatiable hunger for God and a desire to communicate with Him. We are more than fleshly bodies made of the elements of the ground. God breathed into man the breath of life, and he became a living soul. The “soul” or the inner man, which the Scripture refers to many times as the heart, is the seat of our emotions. We are emotional creatures which have the capacity to love, hate, laugh, cry, etc. We are also God-conscious with a need to worship God. We are lonely without Him although we are often surrounded by people. That emptiness and craving are not satisfied even when substitute gods are worshiped. We can try to fill that void with lustful pleasures and possessions, but the pleasure only lasts for a season. Our souls cry out ever louder, “Give me God!”
Man will worship God or fashion himself a substitute god. The history of civilization all the way back to ancient times indicates that men will worship something. Early in the Book of Genesis, we read that men began making idols.
As mentioned in the previous chapter, Abel brought an offering to the Lord from his flock and was accepted while Cain brought a bloodless sacrifice and was not accepted. His anger boiled over and he slew Abel after his offering was not acceptable. Cain left home and dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden. He went out from the presence of the Lord. The lines of separation between the bloodlines of Cain and Abel were more than physical ones as righteous men feared and worshiped God while the remainder began the worship of idols. Sin and evil don’t lie dormant but progress like a malignancy as men become more devious and wicked in their headlong pursuit of fleshly gratification. God looked on the world that He had made and repented that He had ever created it, for their hearts were on evil continually. The tremendous abilities that He had endowed upon man were being used for whatever evil schemes their imaginations could concoct. The harmony and beauty of fellowship between Him and the first family in Eden were in the distant past. Man had strayed far from the purpose for his very existence, which was to fellowship with and worship God.
And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them (Genesis 6:7).
God found Noah, a just and perfect man who walked with God. Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord, and He commanded him to build the ark for the saving of his family. The length of time for building the ark was a long one, and we can assume that he was the object of ridicule from neighbors and townsfolk. In our modern society, there would be media coverage and curiosity seekers to record the various stages of construction. There would be families who would come on vacation and camp nearby to watch the old man and his sons build this massive structure with no source of water nearby. Reporters would probably interview Noah’s sons for their various opinions about the project. Newspaper writers would pen editorials about the crazy man in the middle of the plain who was building this huge ship.
When God commanded them to go into the ark, He waited seven days before shutting the door. Those seven days were extended times of mercy before judgment came. When the rains came and the entire population outside the ark was destroyed, the Scriptures state: “And God remembered Noah” (Genesis 8:1).
When Noah and his family left the ark, he quickly built an altar unto the Lord. It was an altar of worship and thanksgiving. He had seen the judgments of God and was thankful to be alive.
We need to always be mindful of where God brought us from and His mercy in calling us out of sin. We can never thank Him enough for all He has done, and praise and thanksgiving will be continued in glory after this life is over. Until then our hearts will go on singing His praises and building altars of thanksgiving.
Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 5:20).
As men populated the earth and scattered, evil once again thrived and idol worship was prevalent. God called a man named Abram to leave his country and go to a land God would lead him to. He came from a family of idolaters in Ur of the Chaldees. This area was located approximately 140 miles southeast of Babylon in a city that was the center of worship to idols. They worshiped Nanna, the moon god, and his wife Ningal, the moon goddess. It was a city of wealth, and its location near the Persian Gulf brought ships bearing cargo from faraway places. There were many other gods worshiped, and lewd practices were part of their worship. In that evil environment, God found a man of tremendous faith who was willing to forsake all of his surroundings and set out on a journey across the desert to a country he had never seen. He was a man of great courage and resolve to live in such a vile and wicked society and not fall prey to the idol worship that his family practiced. There must have been tremendous pressure to conform and not be such an embarrassment to his family by being a son who refused to bow before their idols. It is interesting to note that Terah, his father, took their family and went to Haran and dwelt there until he died. The Lord commanded Abram to get out of his country and from his kindred to follow Him.
We don’t find any scriptural record of his building altars until after he had left Ur and Haran. The Scripture, in describing his journey, states: “and into the land of Canaan they came” (Genesis 12:5).
And the LORD appeared unto Abram, and said, Unto thy seed will I give this land: and there builded he an altar unto the LORD, who appeared unto him (Genesis 12:7).
The building of altars was significant to Abram because biblical history records their locations. He didn’t worship God in housed structures built for that purpose at that time but whenever and wherever he was when he desired to communicate with God. When he returned from living in Egypt, he went back to the area where his tent had been at the beginning, not far from Bethel. He called it “the place of the altar” and there he called on the name of the Lord (Genesis 13:4). There are specific experiences in our lives where we met God at an altar that are landmarks to us. We go to them in memory and they are an encouragement to us.
After he and Lot had separated, he dwelt in the plain of Mamre, which is in Hebron, and there he built an altar unto the Lord (Genesis 13:18). It was a time of stress in his life because he and his nephew had separated and Lot went toward Sodom. Lot saw the well-watered plain, and his covetous eyes desired the natural while Abram focused his attention on the promises of God. The Lord renewed His covenant with him about his inheritance, and Abram responded by building an altar.
The Lord changed his name from Abram to Abraham because he would be the father of many nations (Genesis 17:5). The supreme test came when God asked him to go to a mountain in the land of Moriah to offer Isaac upon an altar of sacrifice. He built the altar, laid the wood in order and bound Isaac, and then laid him upon the altar. He had the knife in his hand and was ready to slay him when God called out of heaven and stopped him. The Lord didn’t want a human sacrifice but was testing Abraham, who was willing to fully obey God and believed that He would raise Isaac from the dead to carry on his progeny.
The principles of surrender and commitment to the will of God have never been altered or discontinued. His precepts are not open for a referendum or discussion. He does not issue suggestions but gives us commandments. Many people draw a line in the sand and refuse to surrender to the will of God, but Abraham showed God that he would not withhold anything. It was difficult but he was willing to even place his son on the altar. He passed the test.
Because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws (Genesis 26:5).
Isaac had problems with the Philistines because he was blessed of God and they envied him (Genesis 26:14). The Philistines stopped up with earth the wells that his father had dug. Isaac was a peace-loving man and quietly dug again the wells and called them by the names that his father had given them. The herdsmen of Gerar fought with his herdsmen. Isaac moved to another location and the same scenario was repeated. He moved again and found a place where they would leave him alone. The Lord reassured him that He was with him.
And the LORD appeared unto him the same night, and said, I am the God of Abraham thy father: fear not, for I am with thee, and will bless thee, and multiply thy seed for my servant Abraham’s sake. And he builded an altar there, and called upon the name of the LORD, and pitched his tent there: and there Isaac’s servants digged a well (Genesis 26:24-25).
Jacob, a son of Isaac, was called the supplanter or heel catcher because he had a twin brother, Esau, who was born first.
And after that came his brother out, and his hand took hold on Esau’s heel (Genesis 25:26).
Jacob was after the birthright that belonged to Esau and waited for his chance to bargain for it. Jacob was the deceiver who was always the heel catcher and tried to outdo Esau his brother. When Esau came in famished from hunting, Jacob offered a trade of food for the birthright and Esau sold it. The Scriptures state that he despised his birthright (Genesis 25:34). Jacob understood the spiritual significance as well as monetary benefits of owning the birthright and wanted it. When Isaac grew old and nearly blind, once more Jacob was able to outdo his brother with the aid of his mother, Rebecca, and received the patriarchal blessing instead of Esau. Esau was angry and would have killed Jacob, but he fled for his life. When Jacob stopped for the night, he slept in the middle of the wilderness and used stones for a pillow. He had a glorious experience that night and received reassuring promises from the Lord.
And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; and thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of (Genesis 28:13-15).
When Jacob got up early in the morning, he piled up the stones that he had used for a pillow and poured oil upon the top of the heap. He called that place Bethel, meaning “the house of God.” When Jacob had a disagreement with Laban, his father-in-law, he erected a pillar as an agreement between them. After that, Jacob offered a sacrifice upon the mount (Genesis 31:46-54). After his reconciliation with Esau, he again built an altar.
And he erected there an altar, and called it El-elohe-Israel (Genesis 33:20).
He dedicated that altar to the honor of God. El elohe Israel means “God, the God of Israel.”
During the conquest of Canaan, the Israelites faced the defeat at Ai because of Achan’s sin. After Achan and his family were stoned and burned with fire, a new plan of attack was used and a victory was wrought. Joshua built an altar afterwards unto the Lord.
Then Joshua built an altar unto the LORD God of Israel in mount Ebel (Joshua 8:30).
After Israel was settled in Canaan, they developed a pattern of backsliding followed by God’s judgment and in their wretched state would soon cry for deliverance (Judges 2:13-19). The Lord would send a messenger and they would repent only to repeat their failures in the next generation. The words, “And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD” described their condition which was repeated many times.
The Lord delivered them into the hands of the Midianites for seven years, and they were impoverished because of their harsh treatment. The vast numbers of their adversary overwhelmed them, and the Israelites went into the dens and caves of the hills to hide. They cried unto the Lord again, and He sent a prophet to tell them of their sin. Against that backdrop, we read that God spoke to Gideon by sending an angel to tell him what to do. He needed assurance because the task seemed overwhelming and he felt inadequate. The Lord gave him a promise and confirmed that he would not be alone.
And the LORD said unto him. Surely I will be with thee and thou shalt smite the Midianites as one man (Judges 6:16).
Then Gideon built an altar there unto the LORD, and called it Jehovah-shalom: unto this day it is yet in Ophrah of the Abi-ezrites (Judges 6:24).
When we are facing the enemy and are overwhelmed by the ferocity of the attacks, we can build an altar and rest on the promises of God. Gideon’s altar meant: God is peace and there is peace in the midst of the storm when we lean on the Lord. God had given him a calmness and peace in spite of the size of the task before him.
If God be for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31).
Sometimes an altar experience is associated with a personal or national crisis. Israel had once again fallen into their old habits and did evil in the sight of the Lord. It was bad enough that God allowed them to be in the hands of the Philistines for forty years of bondage. An angel appeared to a certain woman of the Danites to tell her that she would conceive and bear a son even though she had been barren. Her son would be a special child whom God would use in delivering Israel. He would be a Nazarite from her womb and would have to adhere to certain stipulations regarding his lifestyle. He was to eat no unclean thing, no strong drink or wine, and no razor was to ever cut his hair.
Manoah, his father, wanted to meet the angel himself and entreated the Lord to send him again to them. The Lord sent the angel again and Manoah talked with him, asking questions and wanting to feed him, but the angel told him no and that if he would offer a burnt offering, he must offer it to the Lord.
So Manoah took a kid with a meat offering, and offered it upon a rock unto the LORD: and the angel did wondrously: and Manoah and his wife looked on (Judges 13:19).
An altar experience can be a refuge in time of trouble. When in times of distress, find your way to an altar and entreat God. That is what Israel did in a time of trouble when they were threatened by the Philistines again.
And the children of Israel said to Samuel. Cease not to cry unto the LORD our God for us, that he will save us out of the hand of the Philistines. And Samuel took a suckling lamb, and offered it for a burnt offering wholly unto the LORD: and Samuel cried unto the LORD for Israel; and the LORD heard him. and as Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to battle against Israel: but the LORD thundered with a great thunder on that day upon the Philistines, and discomfited them; and they were smitten before Israel (1 Samuel 7:8-10).
When Samuel came to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as the king of Israel, he came to offer a sacrifice. It was a transition time in Israel because Saul had been rejected by God for his disobedience and rebellion. It was a historical and sacred moment in Israel when David was anointed to be the next king. This was a special, solemn occasion, and they were to sanctify or prepare themselves for it. It was a time of dedication to the Lord. He sanctified Jesse and his sons by praying with them and instructing them. There were family preparations for the sacrifice, and Samuel assisted in the preparation of it.
And he said, Peaceably: I am come to sacrifice unto the LORD: sanctify yourselves, and come with me to the sacrifice. And he sanctified Jesse and his sons, and called them to the sacrifice (1 Samuel 16:5).
David offered burnt offerings when the ark of the covenant was brought into the Tabernacle.
And they brought in the ark of the LORD, and set it in his place, in the midst of the tabernacle that David had pitched for it: and David offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the LORD (2 Samuel 6:17).
When Solomon became king, he continued to worship and sacrifice like David, his father, loved to worship. He sacrificed in Gibeon, a city on a hill that was 2,600 feet above sea level. It was the religious center early in the reign of Solomon and was where the Tabernacle was located. Solomon was a worshiper who loved to offer sacrifices at the great high place. In Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream and said to him, “Ask what I shall give thee” (I Kings 3:5).
Only the people sacrificed in high places, because there was no house built unto the name of the LORD, until those days. And Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of David his father: only he sacrificed and burnt incense in high places. And the king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there; for that was the great high place: a thousand burnt offerings did Solomon offer upon that altar (1 Kings 3:2-4).
When Solomon built God the magnificent Temple, the dedication was a time of great celebration and worship.
And it came to pass, when the priests were come out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud: for the glory of the LORD had filled the house of the LORD (1 Kings 8:10-11).
At the conclusion of the dedication prayer, Solomon offered a sacrifice of peace offerings unto the Lord, 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep.
We are often influenced by those closest to us, and this can be positive or can be detrimental. Solomon started well, but his life took a turn toward idolatry due to the influence of his many strange wives. It is difficult to understand how a son of David who had built a house for God could bow to the idol Ashtoreth, but it happened.
For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites (1 Kings 11:4-5).
God will give us many things, but He will not share His glory and worship. We receive many bountiful gifts and blessings from God, have been redeemed by His blood, and are assured of many promises if we continue living uprightly. However, God will not tolerate idolatry, which is defined as the worship of false gods.
Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me (Exodus 20:35).
Idolatry is still prevalent today. There are places where sincere people will crawl up many stone steps on bloodied knees to pay homage to images that can neither hear nor see. Others will throw their babies as sacrifices into swirling waters to try to appease gods that don’t exist.
I have been in homes of people who practiced tenets of Eastern religions and saw their altars to various idols. There are people who build altars to Satan in the practice of witchcraft. I was tuning a piano several years ago in the home of people who practiced witchcraft, and I was very uncomfortable. I tuned the piano quickly and exited the premises. The Lord and I were not welcome there.
Idolatry is much more subtle in the ways that it ensnares unwary souls. Idol worship happens when something or someone displaces God as the Lord of our lives and receives worship instead of God. It may be a career, family members, possessions, sports, money, music, or many other cares of life that become an excessive obsession.
After the death of Solomon, the kingdom was divided between Rehoboam his son and Jeroboam. Jeroboam was a man without devotion to God and turned the people toward idolatry for personal gain and security. He had no personal integrity and began a series of changes that led the people on a course that would take them far from God. His behavior was so bad that many times God used his conduct as a measuring stick in comparing others’ sins (I Kings 15:34; 16:7, 19, 26).
Jeroboam made two golden calves, a house of high places, and priests that were not Levites; he sacrificed in Bethel to the golden calves he had made and placed in Bethel the priests whom he had made. God saw what took place and sent a man of God to prophesy against what he had done and to tell of a coming king named Josiah who would turn the nation back to God.
There were several kings after Jeroboam who did evil in the sight of the Lord, but when Ahab came to the throne, he had the distinction of being the most evil of all during those times.
And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the LORD above all that were before him (1 Kings 16:30).
And Ahab made a grove; and Ahab did more to provoke the LORD God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him (1 Kings 16:33).
Elijah was the prophet who lived during the reign of Ahab and was the one who called the false prophets and him to Mount Carmel to allow the true God to answer by fire. After the prophets of Baal had tried all day to pray to an idol god and received no answer, Elijah repaired the altar of the Lord that was broken down and built an altar to God.
And with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord: and he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two measures of seed (1 Kings 18:32).
He carefully prepared the sacrifice and then commanded them to pour a total of twelve barrels of water on the sacrifice and also fill the trench with water. He began to pray.
Then the fire of the LORD fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench (1 Kings 18:38).
If idolatry is present today, there is a remedy but it is not to be ignored, because idolatry is a sin. We must confess our sin, repent, and seek God for forgiveness. We must remove the idolatry from our lives and rebuild an altar unto the Lord. It is not enough to remove the idols, but we need to love the Lord with all of our hearts and serve Him.
As mentioned earlier, Josiah came to the throne as a young boy and began to turn the people back to God. They found the book of the law in the house of the Lord where it had been neglected (II Kings 22:8). Josiah and the people made a covenant to walk after the Lord and to keep His commandments and His statutes with all of their hearts. He then took action and began the process of cleaning out the idolatry.
And the king commanded Hilkiah the high priest, and the priests of the second order, and the keepers of the door, to bring forth out of the temple of the LORD all the vessels that were made for Baal, and for the grove, and for all the host of heaven: and he burned them without Jerusalem in the fields of Kidron, and carried the ashes of them unto Bethel. And he put down the idolatrous priests, whom the kings of Judah had ordained to burn incense in the high places in the cities of Judah, and in the places round about Jerusalem; them also that burned incense unto Baal, to the sun, and to the moon, and to the planets, and to all the host of heaven. And he brought out the grove from the house of the LORD, without Jerusalem, unto the brook Kidron, and burned it at the brook Kidron, and stamped it small to powder and cast the powder thereof upon the graves of the children of the people. And he brake down the houses of the sodomites, that were by the house of the LORD, where the women wove hangings for the grove (2 Kings 23:4-7).
During New Testament times, the Greek and Roman societies were idol worshipers. When Paul visited Mars’ Hill, he saw an altar and began preaching to them.
For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you (Acts 17:23).
The Gentiles of that day practiced idolatry because they lived in an idolatrous society and it was commonplace in their lives. The Jewish people understood monotheism and that the Lord commanded them to believe, obey, and follow the one true God.
Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord (Mark 12:29).
When the Gentiles were converted, they had to be admonished to flee idolatry because it was so commonplace in their world (I Corinthians 12:2; II Corinthians 6:16; I Thessalonians 1:9; I John 5:21). The Gentiles are still prone to worship idols unless they are saved and admonished to build an altar unto the one true God.
This article “Altar Builders in the Bible” was excerpted from the book The Altar Builders written by Denzil Holman. It may be used for study & research purposes only.