What is the significance of the horns of the altar?

In 1 Kings 1:50 Adonijah ran and held onto the horns of the altar in the temple when he begged for mercy for his life from Solomon. Why did he run to this location? What was the significance of the horns of the altar?

The horns of the altar were first mentioned in Exodus as part of the furnishings of the tabernacle. In Exodus 29 they were used in the consecration of the priests (see verse 12). Exodus 29:37 describes the altar as "most holy." After giving instructions as to what must be offered on the altar, God said, "There I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory. I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar. Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate to serve me as priests. I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God" (Exodus 29:43-46).

When Adonijah feared for his life, he ran for the horns of the altar for one primary reason—safety. No one would dare kill a person at the same place where offerings were made to the Lord. From this secure location, Adonijah, fearing Solomon would kill him, begged for his life.

Interestingly, in 1 Kings 2 Joab likewise ran to the horns of the altar in an attempt to escape death. However, in this case, his life was not spared: "The king replied to him, 'Do as he has said, strike him down and bury him, and thus take away from me and from my father's house the guilt for the blood that Joab shed without cause. The LORD will bring back his bloody deeds on his own head, because, without the knowledge of my father David, he attacked and killed with the sword two men more righteous and better than himself, Abner the son of Ner, commander of the army of Israel, and Amasa the son of Jether, commander of the army of Judah'" (1 Kings 2:31-32).

The horns of the altar are mentioned on three other occasions in the Old Testament. In Psalm 118:27 we read, "The Lord is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us. Bind the festal sacrifice with cords, up to the horns of the altar!" The idea here includes a time of festivity and praise at the tabernacle.

In Ezekiel 43 a mention is also made of the horns of the altar that will exist in the future millennial temple. Verses 13-27 describe this future altar in much detail.

Finally, Amos 3:14 mentions the horns of the altar, saying, "the horns of the altar shall be cut off and fall to the ground." Used in connection with the altars of Bethel, this reference describes the altars of pagan worship in the divided kingdom of northern Israel.

The horns of the altar represented a holy place and were used twice in Scripture as a refuge for fugitives. However, today our refuge is found in Jesus Christ. As Hebrews 13:6 promises, "The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?"

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