The Perpetual Fire

The fire on the altar of burnt offering should never go out. The point is made five times (vv. 2, 5, 6 [9, 12, 13]). It was the priest’s duty to keep the fire burning. The law focuses on the most difficult part of the task, is keeping the fire going all night. It was customary to offer a burnt offering every morning and every evening as in Numbers 28:3-8. On most days other offerings would be offered during the day, but after the evening burnt offering there would be nothing till the next day, and without careful tending the fire would go out. The priest must not allow this to happen: the fire must be kept burning …: it must not go out (v. 5).

In the morning the ash had to be cleared away Chapters 10-11. In approaching the altar the priest had always to wear the correct priestly clothes, especially designed to cover his flesh, i.e., his private parts Exodus 20:26; 28:42-43), even when he was not actually engaged in sacrifice but was merely clearing away the ashes. When he left the altar to carry the ash away to a place outside the camp, he had to put on other clothes. The holy garments were reserved for use in the sanctuary (v. 4). The holy and the common must not be confused (cf. Leviticus 10: 10).

What was the purpose of the perpetual fire of the burnt offering? What did it symbolise? Since it is never explicitly explained in Scripture. Here are several suggestions that have been made:

1. The first burnt offerings in the tabernacle and in the temple were lit by fire from heaven (Leviticus 9:24; 2 Chronicles 7: 1). The priests had to keep this fire going so “that the offerings should be burnt with heavenly fire.

2. The fire had to be kept burning because the burnt offering was the divinely appointed symbol and visible sign of the uninterrupted worship of Jehovah.

3. Possibly represented the continual consecration of the people to God. If the burnt offering was also seen as a propitiatory sacrifice, the perpetual fire served as a reminder of the constant need for atonement.

Whichever interpretation is adopted, Christians can draw a lesson from it. If the perpetual fire represents God’s eternal presence with his people, the Christian is reminded to keep the divine fire ever burning within him. In the words of Paul, “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:16ff.). If it speaks of our abiding need for atonement, we are reminded that Christ “always lives to make intercession” for us (Hebrews 7:25).



Categories: Theology

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