Q: #581. Why did Adonijah (1 Kin 1:50), and Joab (1 Kin 2:28) "take hold of the horns of the altar" for protection?
A: It is interesting that only two people in the Bible are shown to have “taken hold of the horns of the altar” for protection: Adonijah (1 Kin 1:50), and Joab (1 Kin 2:28). Both were seeking protection from Solomon, who sought to have them killed.
Of course, the altar was found in the Tabernacle / Temple in the Bible. Its location within those places, and well as how it was to be made was determined by God (Ex 27:1-8)(Ex 38:1-7). The altar was the place where the blood sacrifices of animals were made (Lev 4:22-35)(Lev 5:1-10)(Lev 8:14-21). As part of the construction of the altar, “four horns” were created, one on each corner of the altar.
The Tabernacle / Temple, and everything within them, was in some way a picture of Jesus, the Messiah who was to come. Most agree that the “altar” itself, upon which a “blood sacrifice” (of animals) was made to atone for the sins of the people, was a picture of the “cross” (Heb 13:10), upon which Jesus made a “blood sacrifice” for the sins all people (Mt 26:28)(Col 1:14,20)(Eph 1:7).
“Taking hold of the horns of the altar” is shown nowhere in the Bible as something a person seeking protection should do. However, in (Ex 21:13-14)(NKJV), it says, “He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. (13) However, if he did not lie in wait, but God delivered him into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee. (14) “But if a man acts with premeditation against his neighbor, to kill him by treachery, you shall take him from My altar, that he may die.”
Based upon these verses in Exodus, it “sounds” like “seeking protection at the altar” may have been something that occurred before the events of 1 Kings. However, if someone sought protection at the altar for “premeditated murder,” he was to be “taken” from the altar, and killed.
Notice what happened to the two men: Adonijah and Joab, who “took hold of the horns of the altar” for protection. The life of Adonijah (Solomon’s brother) was spared by Solomon (he later killed him for rebellion: 1 Kin 2:13-25), while the life of Joab was taken by Solomon (while standing at the altar).
It is easy to see a picture of God’s judgment in these two instances, with “grace” being shown to Adonijah, and “justice” being served upon Joab (who had committed “premeditated murder” at least 3 times: 2 Sam 3:22-27, 2 Sam 18:1-18, 2 Sam 20:8-13).
In (2 Sam 22:3)(Ps 18:2)(Lk 1:69), the word “horn” is tied to “salvation” (“a horn of salvation”). In (Ex 29:12)(Lev 4:25-26,30,34)(Lev 9:9)(Ezek 44:20), “blood” was to be placed on the “horns of the altar” (shed blood on the cross = altar).
Therefore, summarizing, it appears that in OT times, there was a tradition (not God-ordained) for people who sought to be “saved” from being killed to run to the “altar” of God, and “take hold of the horns” for protection. Some who did so were given “grace,” while others faced “justice” (especially those who had committed “premeditated murder”). This was a picture of God’s “justice” (death to the guilty) or “grace,” (the guilty being forgiven through the blood sacrifice of Jesus on the “altar” (“cross”).
(Rom 5:8-9)(NKJV) “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (9) Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.”