The Family Altar


There are three characters in the book of Genesis whose lives are associated with an altar, demonstrating some of the secrets of happy fellowship with God that can be either enjoyed or missed in this present day. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all appear to have had direct communication with God and each one in turn built an altar unto the Lord. This is recorded five times of Abraham, and twice it is added that he called upon the name of the Lord. Once and only once we read of Isaac building an altar and calling on the name of the Lord, and only twice are we told that Jacob erected an altar.

Abraham’s Experience. Of these three characters, Abraham was the most outstanding, and with the exception of his stay in Egypt, he appears to have been in constant communion with the Lord throughout his life. Although this giant of faith was severely tried, he lived quietly and generally content with what God had for him. All the time he was surrounded by idolaters and lived alone in his faith and hope.

Magnanimous, he allowed Lot to go and live in the well-watered plain; with only three hundred and eighteen men he displayed outstanding courage in engaging the forces of Chedorlaomer and eventually rescuing his nephew Lot. He prayed for Abimelech and his barren wife and servants. He patiently and obediently offered up Isaac his beloved son; he wisely made provision for the burial of his household and for the marriage of Isaac. The incident making the strongest appeal to God’s servants on active service occurred when he successfully interceded for the life of Lot thus saving him from the impending destruction of Sodom. No wonder he is called the “friend of God”, since his life was spent in fellowship with God. Abraham was supremely a man of the altar, a man of prayer.

Isaac’s Experience. Although he had been bound to an altar, nevertheless during his life he had a particular interest in wells; there is, in fact, only one reference to a family altar in his experience. This one occasion follows a course of backsliding. When a famine arose, Isaac attempted to emigrate to Egypt but was prevented from doing so by God who told him to sojourn where he was. But Isaac dwelt there in the land of Gerar rather than sojourn, and consequently he fell into sin. The distinction is shown in the Authorised Version but missed in the Revised Version, although there are two distinct Hebrew terms used here and the former does not mean dwell but remain for a short time, Gen. 26. 1-6.

In consequence of his disobedience, Isaac yielded to temptation and compromised the safety of his wife and was eventually asked to leave the country. He then pitched his tent in the plain where his servants and the local inhabitants quarrelled over the possession of wells until he removed entirely from the land of the Philistines and returned to Beersheba, where God blessed him. Here it was that he built his only altar, and here he called upon the name of the Lord, 26. 25. A principle of major importance in this verse is very often overlooked, but believers who are accustomed to the family altar will notice that the altar is built before the tent is pitched or the water sought. In other words, God’s claims come first; the home second and business last. Under these circumstances we are not surprised that the servants were successful in finding water.

Jacob’s Experience. Jacob was a man who thought hard, schemed and organized his life carefully, and then reaped what he had sown. He used pious phrases but does not appear to have realised that there was a master plan for his life that God alone could open up for him. In consequence, it is not surprising that Jacob was constantly in difficulties, for instead of praying, he seems to have spent his life planning. His astute mind was more than a match for Laban, but had he been a man of prayer he would never have resorted to the devices that he employed to gain his ends. Jacob was sorely harassed in mind and body before he was finally free from Laban’s rule and reconciled to Esau his brother, and it was only by divine intervention that he eventually succeeded in arriving at Shechem where he bought land, pitched his tent and erected the first of the two altars he is reputed to have had. But God’s real plan for him is clear from Genesis 35. 1-3, where he was commanded to go and dwell in Bethel and there set up a family altar. We do not know to what extent Jacob resorted to his family altar for worship and guidance, but it would appear not to have been often since his whole life is described in his own testimony to Pharaoh as “years: few and evil”, 47. 9, a shocking admission from one who was so uniquely blessed.

It is not so many years ago when many of God’s people honoured Him in their homes by setting up what is commonly called

The Family Altar (family worship), either in the morning or evening or both. The breakfast hour would be arranged so that immediately the meal was over, the family, guests and servants., if any, engaged in a short period of Bible reading before the duties of the day were faced; some sang a hymn as well. The head of the family finally committed his loved ones to the Lord, asking blessing and help for any relatives and friends in special need. This was the normal procedure and only when it was over would the work of the day begin. This could, of course, never be very lengthy, as in a family children needed to leave for school and the father for business, but the time factor was easily overcome by commencing breakfast a little earlier.

Before going out to Morocco as a missionary many years ago, the writer was engaged in farming, and every morning all the family and farm workers joined in worship immediately breakfast was over. It was the right thing to do; it was God-honouring, and it certainly commanded God’s blessing. If the morning worship was interfered with in any way, the effect was felt throughout the whole day. What a surprise it was a few years later, when doing missionary deputation work, to find that this practice had in many cases entirely disappeared. When invited to take meetings, the missionary was usually given hospitality by one of the assembly elders, men who normally were very active in the customary weekly meetings, but it did not seem to make sense that brethren, devoted to the local testimony, should not feel the necessity of commencing the day with family worship under their own roofs. After staying overnight in the homes of scores of God’s people, we faced the fact that many seemed to live almost

Prayerless Lives, and that it was a rare thing for them to start or finish the day with family worship. Prayer is a holy exercise and those who honour God at the family altar are nearly always those who have already sought His face privately. I used to wonder how many people who gather to remember the Lord in the breaking of bread on the Lord’s Day gave five or ten minutes for prayer in the early hours before breakfast, then to unite as a family in worship and praise. Missionaries, as a rule, face many difficulties and dangers, and the glib “I will pray for you” would ring very hollow under these circumstances. Had we depended upon such men for prayer we should have been in sore straits, but instead we had faithful partners who never failed us, and we had our Lord Himself and the Holy Spirit. People who are prayerless are generally those who live

Careless Lives; rather, the Christian life should be entirely motivated by God’s Holy Spirit, “For it is God who worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure”, Phil. 2.13. If the Lord comes first, and if His counsel is sought, He will restrain us from backsliding and guide us in the ways of peace. It is possible that the reason for Isaac’s delay at Gerar and his fall into sin was the absence of the family altar. This would explain the strife with his neighbours over the wells, the deception by Rebecca and Jacob, and Esau’s marrying strange women. Jacob’s domestic troubles and his sharp practices were probably the inevitable result of not having a family altar, for “when a man’s ways please the Lord, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him’, Prov. 16.7. Then people who are living almost prayerless lives are generally living

Aimless Lives, whereas those who spend time with God live for a purpose. Every well-taught Christian learns to regard himself as an unprofitable servant, but the fact remains that God uses some people and appears not to use others. We may think of many evangelists, teachers and missionaries – men of prayer and of the Bible – who have been used of God, and it is impossible to imagine any of them starting the day without ample time for private and family prayer. The lives of such men are far from being aimless, but how many of God’s children are living and will continue to live aimless lives until they start the day on their knees and erect the family altar. Finally, a prayerless life is a

Fruitless Life. Fruit must be carefully distinguished from work. I may be a most prodigious worker and yet be sadly lacking in spiritual fruit, and no one can correctly discern spiritual fruit except the divine Gardener. Some of God’s people are more spiritual than others, and when they can discern fruit they rejoice. Often Christian people seek to impress others with all they are doing for God. This is the flesh and not fruit, and is to be deplored. We may be certain that just as Moses’ face shone as the result of his communion with God, so with God’s people; those who spend time with Him in the early hours and honour Him in family worship will not fail to reflect His glory as they rise from their knees and go out of their homes to mingle with the evil world around as ambassadors for Christ.


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