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An altar is an elevated surface (in the form of a table) on which the Sacrifice of the Mass is offered.
Al"tar, n. Etym: [OE. alter, auter, autier, fr. L. altare, pl. altaria, altar, prob. fr. altus high: cf. OF. alter, autier, F. autel. Cf. Altitude.]
Note: Altar is much used adjectively, or as the first part of a compound; as, altar bread or altar-bread. Altar cloth or Altar-cloth, the cover for an altar in a Christian church, usually richly embroidered.
-- Altar cushion, a cushion laid upon the altar in a Christian church to support the service book.
-- Altar frontal. See Frontal.
-- Altar rail, the railing in front of the altar or communion table.
-- Altar screen, a wall or partition built behind an altar to protect it from approach in the rear.
-- Altar tomb, a tomb resembling an altar in shape, etc.
-- Family altar, place of family devotions.
-- To lead (as a bride) to the altar, to marry; -- said of a woman.
---excerpt from the Illustrated Bible Dictionary
Altar - (Heb. mizbe'ah , from a word meaning "to slay"), any structure of earth (Exodus 20:24) or unwrought stone (Exodus 20:25) on which sacrifices were offered. Altars were generally erected in conspicuous places (Genesis 22:9; Ezekiel 6:3; 2 Kings 23:12; 2 Kings 16:4; 2 Kings 23:8; Acts 14:13). The word is used in Hebrews 13:10 for the sacrifice offered upon it - the sacrifice Christ offered. Paul found among the many altars erected in Athens one bearing the inscription, "To the unknown God" (Acts 17:23), or rather "to an [i.e., some] unknown God." The reason for this inscription cannot now be accurately determined. It afforded the apostle the occasion of proclaiming the gospel to the "men of Athens." The first altar we read of is that erected by Noah (Genesis 8:20). Altars were erected by Abraham (Genesis 12:7; Genesis 13:4; Genesis 22:9), by Isaac (Genesis 26:25), by Jacob (Genesis 33:20; Genesis 35:1, Genesis 35:3), and by Moses (Exodus 17:15, "Jehovah-nissi"). In the tabernacle, and afterwards in the temple, two altars were erected.
(1.) The altar of burnt offering (Exodus 30:28), called also the "brazen altar" (Exodus 39:39) and "the table of the Lord" (Malachi 1:7). This altar, as erected in the tabernacle, is described in (Exodus 27:1. It was a hollow square, 5 cubits in length and in breadth, and 3 cubits in height. It was made of shittim wood, and was overlaid with plates of brass. Its corners were ornamented with "horns" (Exodus 29:12; Leviticus 4:18). In (Exodus 27:3 the various utensils appertaining to the altar are enumerated. They were made of brass. (Compare 1 Samuel 2:13, 1 Samuel 2:14; Leviticus 16:12; Numbers 16:6 - 16:7.) In Solomon's temple the altar was of larger dimensions (2 Chronicles 4:1. Compare 1 Kings 8:22, 1 Kings 8:64; 1 Kings 9:25), and was made wholly of brass, covering a structure of stone or earth. This altar was renewed by Asa (2 Chronicles 15:8). It was removed by Ahaz (2 Kings 16:14), and "cleansed" by Hezekiah, in the latter part of whose reign it was rebuilt. It was finally broken up and carried away by the Babylonians (Jeremiah 52:17). After the return from captivity it was re-erected (Ezra 3:3, Ezra 3:6) on the same place where it had formerly stood. (Compare 1 Maccabees 4:47.) When Antiochus Epiphanes pillaged Jerusalem the altar of burnt offering was taken away. Again the altar was erected by Herod, and remained in its place till the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (A.D. 70). The fire on the altar was not permitted to go out (Leviticus 6:9). In the Mosque of Omar, immediately underneath the great dome, which occupies the site of the old temple, there is a rough projection of the natural rock, of about 60 feet in its extreme length, and 50 in its greatest breadth, and in its highest part about 4 feet above the general pavement. This rock seems to have been left intact when Solomon's temple was built. It was in all probability the site of the altar of burnt offering. Underneath this rock is a cave, which may probably have been the granary of Araunah's threshing-floor (1 Chronicles 21:22).
(2.) The altar of incense (Exodus 30:1), called also "the golden altar" (Exodus 39:38; Numbers 4:11), stood in the holy place "before the vail that is by the ark of the testimony." On this altar sweet spices were continually burned with fire taken from the brazen altar. The morning and the evening services were commenced by the high priest offering incense on this altar. The burning of the incense was a type of prayer (Psalms 141:2; Revelation 5:8; Revelation 8:3 - 8:4). This altar was a small movable table, made of acacia wood overlaid with gold (Exodus 37:25 - 37:26). It was 1 cubit in length and breadth, and 2 cubits in height. In Solomon's temple the altar was similar in size, but was made of cedar-wood (1 Kings 6:20; 1 Kings 7:48) overlaid with gold. In Ezekiel 41:22 it is called "the altar of wood." (Compare Exodus 30:1.) In the temple built after the Exile the altar was restored. Antiochus Epiphanes took it away, but it was afterwards restored by Judas Maccabaeus (1 Maccabees 1:23; 1 Maccabees 4:49). Among the trophies carried away by Titus on the destruction of Jerusalem the altar of incense is not found, nor is any mention made of it in Hebrews 9. It was at this altar Zechariah ministered when an angel appeared to him (Luke 1:11). It is the only altar which appears in the heavenly temple (Isaiah 6:6; Revelation 8:3 - 8:4).
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