In speaking of judgment, God says, “The horns of the altar shall be cut off and fall to the ground” (Amos 3:14). What were these horns of the altar? Why were they important?
The “horns” were horn-like projections at the four corners of the altar of burnt offering. God’s instructions for the altar’s construction specified “horns”: “Make a horn at each of the four corners, so that the horns and the altar are of one piece” (Exodus 27:2).
During Amos’s day, the Israelites had apostatized and had erected altars to false gods. First Kings 12:26-30 speaks of two such pagan altars set up in Israel, one in Dan and one in Bethel. These altars had been constructed with horns at the corners, akin to the altar in Jerusalem.
When God says that the horns of the altar would fall off, He is assuring Israel that He would judge their idolatry. Indeed, God says earlier in the same verse, “On the day I punish Israel for her sins, I will destroy the altars of Bethel.”
The horns of the altar in Jerusalem had provided a refuge for fugitives. Those who caught hold of the horns of the altar were granted asylum (1 Kings 1:50-53). This use of the horns sheds additional light on God’s statement in Amos 3:14. Some scholars believe that God’s promise that the horns of the altar would fall to the ground meant that there would be no place of asylum, no place to escape the coming judgment.
Amos 3:15 indicates that the judgment would have deeply felt effects: “‘I will tear down the winter house along with the summer house; the houses adorned with ivory will be destroyed and the mansions will be demolished,’ declares the Lord.” No amount of material prosperity would be able to save the wicked. God’s judgment would destroy both the places of spiritual and material significance.
Yet the people of Israel would not be completely destroyed. Verse 12 says, “As the shepherd rescues from the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear, so shall the people of Israel who dwell in Samaria be rescued, with the corner of a couch and part of a bed.” A remnant would survive. In their lowly state, they would be left only “the corner of a couch,” living in a state of poverty.
God’s desire in this prophecy was twofold. First, He longed for Israel to repent and turn from following other gods. Second, since these predictions did come true, they attest to God’s supernatural ability to foretell the future.
The destruction of the horns of the altar represents the downfall of idolatry and the removal of all safe havens. When God’s people refuse to heed His Word, He brings a just and curative discipline upon them.