(Were the Old Testament Animal Sacrifices Effective?)

Question: There is a hymn by Isaac Watts that seems to suggest that the Old Testament sacrifices were ineffective. If that's the case, was there any purpose in the Lord commanding them?

Answer: The hymn referred to is likely Watts's Not All the Blood of Beasts. It begins:

Not all the blood of beasts
On Jewish altars slain
Could give the guilty conscience peace
Or wash away the stain.

All the blood...all the beasts! What an uncountable number of Old Testament offerings are summed up in that little word “all,” in the opening line of the hymn. Century after century, altar after altar, thousands upon thousands of animals slain. But…

Was it “all” for nothing? All useless? No, the Lord would hardly command something that had no point and purpose.

1) First, we must see the last two lines above in the ultimate sense. No, there was no possibility that the death of an animal could pay finally for the sins of a man or woman. The sacrifices didn’t have the power to “take away” sins (Heb. 10:4).

However, they did cover over sin, in the eyes of God, and secure forgiveness for the sinner, because He saw them as anticipating what Christ would do in the future.

When the offerer recognized that he had broken God’s Law, and saw the offering as involving the death of an innocent substitute taking his place, it was accepted by the Lord as efficacious.

Repeatedly, in the instructions given regarding the Day of Atonement, it is said that the sacrifice atoned for all the sins of the people. “On that day the priest shall make atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the LORD” (vs. 30, cf. vs. 16, 17, 21, 22, 33, 34).

2) In addition to providing real forgiveness, the sacrifices were a foreshadowing of the final remedy. The death of an innocent substitute in place of the guilty sinner was enacted each time a sacrifice was offered. That principle of substitutionary atonement was finally and fully brought to fruition on the cross.

Christ was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29), “a lamb without blemish and without spot” (I Pet. 1:18-19; cf. 2:22). “Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12). “Christ died for our sins” (I Cor. 15:3). As Dr. Watts's hymn puts it:

But Christ, the heav’nly Lamb,
Takes all our sins away;
A sacrifice of nobler name
And richer blood than they.

3) There is, further, in the almost ceaseless repetition of the Old Testament sacrifices, a vivid reminder of the absolute holiness of God, and the terrible universality of sin. Habakkuk says of the Lord, “You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness” (Hab. 1:13). And Isaiah reminds the people, “[Our] iniquities have separated [us] from our God” (Isa. 59:2).

Each one of us is disqualified from standing in the presence of God, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). God must punish sin, and all have sinned. Of that, the many sacrifices were an ongoing reminder.

4) Finally, the animal sacrifices demonstrate again and again the necessity of a personal appropriation of God’s remedy for sin. Just reciting words and going through rituals was not enough (Mk. 7:6). The words and actions of the offerer needed to be a meaningful expression of an attitude of heart.

In the Old Testament, when an offerer laid his hand upon the head of the sacrificial animal (Lev. 1:3-4), he was saying, “This represents me. This is what I deserve. This animal is dying in my place.” And we do likewise, when we turn, as sinners to the Saviour, and say sincerely, “I believe that Jesus died for me. He bore the punishment that I deserve, upon the cross.”

My faith would lay her hand
On that dear head of Thine,
While, like a penitent, I stand,
And there confess my sin

While the Old Testament sacrifices were not (and could not be) the final remedy for sin, the were definitely effective and meaningful, in their time, and in a limited sense.