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flakThen he showed me the high priest Joshua standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this man a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.” And to him he said, “See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you in festal apparel.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him in the apparel; and the angel of the LORD was standing by.
Zechariah 3:1-5

Recently I was struck by the truth of the old maxim that “the devil lives very near the altar”. It happened as I was praying and beset by the feeling that my prayers weren’t really doing God or me any good. I was nagged by the sense that I was unworthy of God listening to me, and that prayer didn’t really get anything done. As I prayed I fretted that I might better use my time by doing something constructive and helpful to others. Then it hit me! I realized that the devil really does live near the altar, and that he “trembles when he sees the weakest saint upon their knees”. (From hymn by William Cowper, “What Various Hindrances We Meet”) I knew that the “father of lies” (John 8:44) always goes straight for the jugular. The “accuser of God’s people” (Revelation 12:10) harasses with all kinds of doubt, distraction and guilt when we pray. So I got back on my knees, steadying myself with the saying of WWII bomber pilots: “If you’re not catching flak you’re not over the target”.

I find today’s Scripture helpful as it provides a visual of what can happen when God’s people draw near the ‘altar’ for prayer and worship. The prophet Zechariah narrates his vision of the high priest ministering before the altar. As he ministers, Satan stands his right hand accusing him. Zechariah makes a play-on-words, saying literally, the “Accuser” (Hebrew: Satan) stood to “accuse” him. In this, the Satan, the Accuser, is acting in his characteristic role of accusing God’s people.

It is then that the Lord intervenes on behalf of the high priest: “And the LORD said to Satan (Accuser), The LORD rebuke you, O Satan (Accuser)!” Remarkably the high priest stands before the altar “dressed in filthy clothes”. The original Hebrew is more graphic as it says he is “dressed in excrement covered clothes”. Not exactly how anyone wants to go for worship. He is ceremonially unclean, unholy and unfit to minister before the altar.

Then enters “the angel of the LORD” that commentators explain is the Second Person of the Trinity, the pre-incarnate Christ. The angel of the LORD commands those nearby: “Take off his filthy clothes.” Then the angel of the LORD speaks words symbolic of the righteousness God gives to the sinner: “See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you in festal apparel.” The angel of the Lord, or Jesus Christ, takes away the sin of the sinner and clothes him in His own divine righteousness. What an amazing picture of God’s redeeming grace in Christ Jesus!

This is followed by the angel of the LORD’S command: “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” Remarkably, the high priest’s turban would have engraved on it: “Holy to the LORD” (Exodus 28:36; 39:30). They did as the angel of the Lord commanded: “So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him in the apparel; and the angel of the LORD was standing by.

Yes! The angel of the Lord is standing by! The Lord Jesus Christ stands with us as we go before God’s altar! He stands with us as we pray, as we worship. He takes away our guilt and sin and gives to us His very own righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Perhaps you also find it true that the devil lives very near the altar. Perhaps you catch lots of flak as you come over the target. You might, as I do, find helpful the words of Charles Haddon Spurgeon:

But stop, Christian! Do not think of renouncing your priesthood; do not let a sense of unfitness keep you from your service! Stand where you are; for remember, you are standing in the only place where pollution can be washed away— you are standing before the Angel of the covenant!

Just like the high priest we are “a brand plucked from the fire”. We are clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ, and like the high priest declared: “Holy to the LORD”.

Do not think of renouncing your priesthood! If you’re catching flak as you are praying, you are over the target!

Grace and peace,

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