Surprising Stories of the Tabernacle: The Horns of Mercy

Mercy is a wonderful word! Mercy brought Israel to the promised land. Mercy was the unwavering foundation of the Davidic kingdom. Mercy gave Jeremiah the strength to look for another day. Mercy brought sight to the eyes and a Savior to the side of the son of Timaeus. Mercy has flowed to us from Calvary in a torrent that would overwhelm these Old Testament saints with wonder. Mercy allowed Moses to carve a second set of stones for the law. As the Lord entrusted these to Moses, He spoke of His mercy: “The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation” (Exo 34:6-7).1 As we embark on this series of surprising stories connected with the furniture of the tabernacle, you will see that the brazen altar was the site of mercy for ancient Israelites.

In 1 Kings chapter 1, Adonijah began the day seeking glory and power, but he would end that day thinking only of the need for mercy. His father David was weak, requiring constant nursing care, and was soon to lay aside his crown. In defiance, anticipating David’s impending demise, Adonijah held a feast of lamb and steak in honor of his own promotion, with the king’s sons and servants present to affirm his glory. While Adonijah partied and politicked at the En-Rogel spring, Solomon was anointed king just to the north at the Gihon spring. Trumpets sounded, flutes sang, and a great shout went up that shook the earth. As the noise and the news from the north cascaded upon Adonijah’s party, his feast and his future seemed to fade away. “And all the guests that were with Adonijah were afraid, and rose up, and went every man his way. And Adonijah feared because of Solomon, and arose, and went, and caught hold on the horns of the altar” (1Ki 1:49-50).

Why did Adonijah, in his desperation, immediately associate mercy with the horns of the altar? Why did he not flee to David? In the life of an Israelite there was just one place where they could come daily to seek the mercy of God. That was at the brazen altar, with a sacrifice tied to the horns of the altar. Adonijah found mercy that day from a man, his brother, King Solomon. How wise of that newly-crowned king to extend mercy to the undeserving. It was a far greater One than Solomon who proclaimed, “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy” (Mat 5:7). It is He who extends His mercy to you and me.

In 1 Kings chapter 1, King David made clear to Solomon that when he died, so too would end the day of mercy that he had granted to Joab and Shimei. Joab, ever the cunning man, felt he could obtain mercy in the manner in which Adonijah did by clinging to the horns of the brazen altar. The sword of Benaiah the son of Jehoiada fell upon Joab and the command of Exodus 21:14 was fulfilled: “But if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbor, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from mine altar, that he may die.” Joab lived a life in opposition to mercy and received a violent death of justice.

Please pause for a moment with me to consider the degree of mercy we have received from the hand of the Lord. Even David with all his mighty power could only extend a mercy that expired with his days. The mercy we have received knows no end of days! There is a rather beautiful contemporary song that takes up the words of Deuteronomy 7 to sing of a mercy that lasts to a thousand generations. But this Old Testament refrain falls short, for in eternity, when the time of a thousand generations has passed, the days of mercy will have only just begun.

Furthermore, the mercy we have received is not only greater in its duration, but it is greater in its depth. To the ancient Israelites the horns of the altar, the place of sacrifice and blood, were as far as they could travel down the path of mercy. Indeed, behind the veil there was the mercy seat that they would never see. It was shrouded in mystery, seen only by the High Priest on his one-day appearance behind the veil. But we stand in the oceans of mercy which find their source in a propitiated, satisfied God. Because of this, Peter joyfully expressed: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1Pe 1:3-5).

As we close our thoughts on the surprising stories connected with the brazen altar, we must recall the sad story of King Ahaz. Two-hundred and fifty years after Adonijah came to the altar in desperation, King Ahaz disregarded it. He marred the altar, minimized it, and moved it out of the place of prominence in favor of an altar of modernity. He felt that what he had seen in Samaria far exceeded the instruction Moses had received on Mt. Sinai. In our modern time, may we never be guilty of forgetting the irreplaceable and unending mercy of God toward us. Rather, may we respond to the imploring voice of Jude in the last mention of mercy in the New Testament, “But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (vv20-21).

1Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV.