The Altar In The Heart
“I will wash mine hands in innocency: so will I compass thine altar, O Lord.”—Psalm 26:6
There is an altar in the heart of God and there must be an altar in your heart and mine. Throughout the Word of God wherever the altar is found, its ultimate meaning is the altar of Calvary where the Lord Jesus as the Lamb of God was offered for our sin. It is that altar which is in the heart of God. It is that altar which is the heart of the Word of God. It is that altar which is in our verse “I will compass thine altar, O Lord.”
In the heart of God, there was an altar of sacrifice, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life”—that altar of the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ where God manifest in the flesh died for man’s sin—an altar of sacrifice in God’s heart.
But it is also an altar of dependence in the heart of God. God depends upon that altar for everything that He longs to accomplish in all creation. And our Lord Jesus Christ in His risen glory is in the midst of the throne still as a Lamb that has been slain, and God is depending upon that finished work solely and completely for the accomplishment of every purpose He has in all the world and every purpose He has in your individual life and mine. God looks nowhere else except to that altar, for there at that altar when the precious blood of Jesus was shed, when He gave that triumphant cry “It is finished,” there in that finished work alone everything that ever needs to be done in the whole work of redemption was done. God depends utterly upon that altar for all of His redemptive purposes. The answer to life for you and me as Christians is simply this, to learn to depend upon that upon which God Himself depends. When we make our dependence that same finished work life is set free from all the power of sin, from all that can bring defeat and we are able to enter in to that rest that remains for the people of God when we rest ourselves in that altar in which God is resting.
When David uses the words “compass thine altar,” he is speaking in language which becomes very meaningful to us when we remember that after the Feast of Tabernacles each year in the city of Jerusalem which lasted for seven days, on that eighth day, the Jews at the Feast, led by the priests, with palm branches in their hands, would slowly march round that great altar of sacrifice in the Temple. As they marched round that altar seven times they called it “compassing the altar.”
An Object Lesson
Now what they were doing was giving a sort of tremendous object lesson of the day that God commanded Joshua to have the people march round the city of Jericho once each day for six days and then on the seventh day to march round the city seven times, give the shout of faith, and God would deliver the city into their hands. You see, the Feast of Tabernacles which had just concluded the day previous to this ceremony in Old Testament time commemorated itself those forty years in the wilderness when the people of Israel had lived in tabernacles or tents. After they camped those seven days in tabernacles made out of branches, thinking again and again upon those scenes back in the wilderness years, on the last day of that great Feast of Tabernacles referred to in the seventh chapter of John, the priests would form a solemn procession beginning down at the pool of Siloam and with the golden vessels from the Temple they would draw water out of the pool of Siloam and carry it in a solemn procession up toward the Temple steps in the city of Jerusalem. The people would line both sides of this procession which began at the pool of Siloam and as the priests walked carrying those vessels of water, they sang the twelfth chapter of Isaiah. That is the chapter which begins with the words “With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.” And it’s the chapter which ends with the words “for great is the Holy One of Israel in the midst of thee.”
As they would walk along singing that chapter from the Word of God, drawing water into these vessels, a picture of the water that was to be drawn out of the wells of salvation, when they reached the Temple steps they poured that water out of those golden vessels and it came down those Temple steps. It may have been just about that point that they reached the end of their song and they were singing “for great is the Holy One of Israel in the midst of thee” and at that point Jesus stood out from that crowd and cried, saying, “If any man thirst, let him come unto Me and drink, and he that believeth on Me, out from him shall flow rivers of living water.”
He called them away that day, recorded in John 7, from all the emptiness of a ceremony, from all the poverty of mere religion. He called them away to Himself, “If any man thirst, let him come to Me.” No thirsty heart could be satisfied in watching that ceremony but any thirsty heart could be satisfied by taking the living water of that smitten rock that followed them in the wilderness, for that rock was Christ. And there He stood Himself, that day, and called them to Himself, “If any man thirst, let him come to Me and drink.”
Then it was the day following, continuing the spiritual significance through their ceremony of what actually took place back there in that period of Old Testament history. You remember the first event of conquest that followed that wilderness experience was this conquest of the city of Jericho, and so on the first day after the Feast of Tabernacles, they would compass the altar, carrying out in that pageantry that way by which God had delivered Jericho into their hands.
Now it seems to me that they may well have done better than they knew as they compassed that altar. It may well have been that they were not too well aware of how apt was this picture that they were enacting on that day following the Feast of Tabernacles, because as I turn back to that day when Joshua stood before Jericho and the Lord Jesus gave him his orders for taking the city, I remember that these words are in Joshua 6, beginning with the first verse, “Now Jericho was straightly shut up because of the children of Israel: none went out and none came in, And the Lord said unto Joshua, See, I have given into thine hand Jericho.” And the king thereof and the mighty men of valour…And ye shall compass the city.”
I have given, ye shall compass. There is the mighty principle by which God always does His work in human lives. Actually, as those Jews marched around that altar in Jerusalem seven times, compassing that altar, it was a glorious picture of the fact that when their forefathers compassed that city, in their hearts they were really compassing that altar where God has already given every victory that ever His people need. I have given—in the finished work of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, I have given Jericho. As a result of that work and that work alone,—because of that victory at that altar, I have given Jericho, you are to compass that altar, compass that city and see what I have already given.
But now there is a way by which alone we can compass the altar where God has already given us every single victory that ever we need. There is only one pathway to that altar—that altar of an accomplished victory, that altar of a finished work, only one path to that altar, “I will wash my hands in innocency, so will I compass thine altar.”
When David speaks of washing his hands in innocency, he is speaking of something very specific and very definite.
I think we get something of its meaning when we think of that day when the Lord Jesus was talking with the Pharisees on one occasion and they began to accuse Him and they said, “Why did your disciples eat with unwashen hands?” And the Holy Spirit in giving us that account in the Gospel record explains that the Jews, the Pharisees with their tradition, washed their hands ceremonially many times each day. They would never eat without going through that ceremonial cleansing. It was not for them simply a matter of sanitation but it had the religious connotation of cleansing and they went through it scrupulously again and again throughout the day, they had a superstition that all during the night the devil sat upon their hands and then as soon as daylight came and they were awake they started these ceremonial washings to cleanse them from that defilement that had come because the devil had sat on their hands during the night.
So they said that day to the Lord Jesus, “Why is it that your disciples do not wash their hands like this?” And then you remember His answer, “That which goeth into a man doth not defile the man but that which cometh out of the man defileth the man, for out of the heart proceeds evil thoughts, adultery, fornication, wrath, envy and such like.” All of these come from within, they defile the man.
There stood those Pharisees with hearts that were utterly corrupt, these man that at other times Jesus described as whited sepulchers, cleaning up the outside but inside full of dead men’s bones. There stood these men with hearts full of lust, hearts full of greed, hearts full of cruelty, hearts full of self-seeking and covetousness, washing their hands, and criticizing Him and His disciples because they did not follow the same path of conformity, never dealing with sin, simply washing in ceremony their hands.
Hypocrisy feeds on ceremony. Godliness feeds on repentance. That day when David said “I will wash my hands,” he did not say “I will wash my hands in water.” “I will wash my hands in the innocency of a heart repentance.” I’m not dealing with outward things, I’m dealing with that which really defiles within my own heart, said David, that’s why “I will wash my hands in innocency” is the cry of a genuine man, a man who honestly faces the need of his own corrupt heart and his own needy life and is not going through the motions of an outward hypocritical dealing but is going to the heart of his sin and is breaking with all his purpose of desire, with the true sin that is polluting his life. That’s what he meant when he said, “I will wash my hands, as it were, not in water but in the innocency of an honest dealing with my own need.” That’s the pathway to that altar. No man ever comes to that altar where God has already given, except he comes with the kind of heart that David had.
Now does that mean that we must make ourselves clean in order to come to the altar? That would be an utter contradiction of terms. If we could make ourselves clean, we would need no altar. We must not qualify in the sense of making our lives fit to come to take from God that which we need at that altar, but we must with a heart as clear as sunlight desire honestly for that cleansing and that deliverance which we can find at that altar. No man ever in heart comes to that altar except in his own heart is a longing to be clean and to be free from the sin that is ruining his life. But wherever God sees that hunger and that thirst after righteousness however anxious that man is to do it for himself, God honors the hungry heart of the man that is thus washing his hands in innocency instead of hypocrisy. There at the altar, God meets him with the cleansing and deliverance that he hungers for.
Consider then with me for a moment the altar that justifies, the altar that cleanses and the altar that sanctifies for service—that altar which we may compass, that work which God has already given and He tells us to take, to take to our own hearts in simple appropriating faith, because on the altar it was all finished and there it is already given.
The altar that justifies. Two men went to the Temple to pray, the one a Pharisee, the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, O God, I thank Thee that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And there he stood, he had walked right into the Temple precincts, he had gone right past that altar that stood at the great entrance, he had walked right in as far as any man could go, except the high priest himself, and everything about his bearing shows that he thinks that he has a perfect right to be there in his own merit. And then he stands with his eyes lifted up to Heaven, no humility, no sense of sin, no sense of need, “I thank Thee that I am not as other men are.”
But that poor publican, standing afar off, standing away out at the very entrance of the Temple precincts, out where that altar was, not so much as lifting up his eyes to Heaven, but rather with his eyes cast down upon that altar cries from the heart “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” O God, when you look at me, look at me only in terms of what you see on this altar. O God, deal with me on the basis of this altar, not on the basis of what is in me for in me there is nothing but sin. O God, be Thou propitiated to me, a sinner. Be Thou to me as One who does a work on the basis of the precious propitiating blood that is on this altar at the hour of sacrifice. O God, my eyes are on this altar. Won’t you look where I look? I’m not looking at myself for any good. I’m looking at this altar alone. O God, will you look where I look? God longs to look where the sinner looks when he looks to that altar.
You see this publican was washing his hands in innocency, he came with utter honesty of heart, utter lack of pretense, whenever that kind of an honest clean heart comes to the Lord on the basis of that altar and claims what was done there for him, it rejoices the heart of God.
The Lord Jesus went on to say, this man, this publican, went down to his house justified rather than the other. The Pharisee said, I’m alright, God said, you’re all wrong. The publican said, I’m all wrong, God said, now you’re alright. You see, he had compassed the altar. God had given the cleansing and the forgiveness he desperately needed. He had given it at that altar and he came to that altar and he took it for himself.
Then there is the altar that cleanses. It is the same altar of course, but a different aspect of the glorious eternal provision of the finished work of Jesus Christ. This time we think of that pure-hearted young prophet of Israel, a man who had already known what it was to be justified by the blood of that altar, a man who one day in the year King Uzziah died saw the Lord, sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and he heard the cry of those seraphim, Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of His glory. There came from the heart of that justified man a confession that he needed constant cleansing notwithstanding, a man who was saved but a man who in himself had the same sinfulness, the same need as ever, and he lifted his heart that day with a cry of his need as a saved man, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” He did not mean that he used language that was unclean but he was speaking in the year that King Uzziah had died of leprosy and he was speaking in the times of a leper who must put his hand over his lips wherever he went, crying “Unclean.”
That day, Isaiah as he saw the Lord, saw himself in his own nature and his own humanity nothing but an utter leper. O God, I could go everywhere just crying “Unclean” a man with his hands over his lips, then flew one of the seraphim with a live coal in his hand which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar. And he laid it upon my lips and he said “Lo this hath touched thy lips, thine iniquity is taken away and thy sin is purged.” If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with one another and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us continually from all sin.
For the awful sinfulness of my very self, God has already given constant cleansing, not only deliverance from its guilt, but constant deliverance from its power, and I can compass that altar for deliverance in the present moment from sin’s power as surely as I can compass that altar for deliverance from sin’s guilt. I can be as sure of deliverance in the present from sin’s power as I can of forgiveness from all of sin’s guilt because of the work of that altar that provides both.
The altar that sanctifies for service. Again remember the words of the Lord Jesus when on another occasion He said “Which is greater, the gift or the altar which sanctifieth the gift?” Which is greater? We are told to present our bodies a living sacrifice to the Lord, to make as it were that gift, that living sacrifice, to put ourselves upon that altar. Now tell me, which is greater, the gift or the altar which sanctifieth the gift?
You see, we are not sanctified in order to place ourselves on that altar. We are sanctified by that altar the moment we place ourselves just as we are upon that altar. We are not to be made clean in order to be filled with the Holy Spirit. We are made clean by the filling of the Holy Spirit the moment we yield ourselves to the Lord.
Which is greater—the gift of yourself, or the altar which sanctifies that gift? God’s voice may be speaking to some of this altar, telling you with absolute honesty and facing you with all your pretense and hypocrisy, Give yourself utterly, honestly to the Lord. Then in that moment with joy that altar sanctifies the gift, sets you apart in the power and anointing of the Holy Spirit to that for which God has been calling you and through which He has been leading you these past years. Everything in your heart longs to be all that God would have you be and yet you realize your unworthiness, you realize your pitiful lack, there is an altar for you to come to this morning and in simple glorious confidence embrace in your heart that altar of surrender. That of itself guarantees that you be set apart for the Lord Jesus.
Just as I can trust Him for forgiveness of sin, through the provision of that altar, I can trust Him for the anointing of His Holy Spirit, simply because He has given that anointing at that altar and bids me take. “I have given, ye shall compass.”
Ready for Use
“In a great house, there are vessels not only of gold and silver, but also of wood—some to honor and some to dishonor, the man therefore who shall purge himself from these he shall be a vessel unto honor, sanctified, meet for the Master’s use.”
I don’t know about you but I would rather be meet for the Master’s use than have ten million worlds. Listen, if a man purge himself from these, if he wash his hands in innocency, if he will just be real and honest in his whole purpose, and thus if he will simply take what God has already given, he shall be sanctified by that altar and meet for the Master’s use. Jeremiah went down to the potter’s house and he saw the potter working a work on his wheel. That vessel in his hand became marred, there was something in it that would not yield, that was hard and it resisted those skillful hands of the potter and the whole vessel was spoiled. But thank God, when I read on, “he made it again, another vessel as seemeth good to the potter to make it.” I don’t care what your past has been, I don’t care how marred, if you come with an honest heart to that blessed altar of the finished work of Jesus Christ, in all honesty if you yield to Him and then take His cleansing, take His anointing with His Holy Spirit, just simply take it because He has already given, He will make it again another vessel meet for the Master’s use.