by Ian McKee, N. Ireland
“Let my prayer be set forth before Thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” Ps.141.2.
The verse above links the thought of ascending incense with the acceptability of our standing before God; the potency of prayer and supplication in the value of a sacrifice which draws forth worship and adoration. These themes are interwoven in the consideration of the altar of incense.
We must note at the outset that details about the altar of incense (and the brazen laver) in the Tabernacle are given after those chapters about the Aaronic priesthood, Exodus chapters 28 and 29. Only then have we instructions about the construction and purpose of the altar of incense, Ex.30.1-10, and of the composition of the incense to be burned upon it, Ex.30.34-38. The laver and altar of incense are the two items of Tabernacle furniture associated with the approach of priests to God. They are necessary to maintain priests in condition and position in the presence of God in worship and service. There must be removal of defilement before the sanctuary can be accessed and the incense appreciated.
There are two altars in the Tabernacle service: the brazen altar and the altar of incense. There are distinct differences between these:
The brazen altar stood outside in the court of the Tabernacle, speaking of Christ’s finished work on earth; the altar of incense stood inside in the holy place, speaking of Christ’s ongoing work for believers in heaven;
The brazen altar could be approached reverently by most men in Israel; the incense altar could be approached only by priests;
The brazen altar had the largest capacity of those vessels for which measurements were given; the incense altar is the tallest of those measured items of furniture;
Animals were sacrificed on the brazen altar; no animals were sacrificed on the incense altar. That said, the altar of incense owed its standing to “the blood of the sin-offering of atonements” Ex.30.10. It was an altar and therefore had reference to, and was the result of, a sacrifice already presented on the brazen altar;
The brazen altar was overlaid with copper, speaking of judgment experienced by Christ on earth; the incense altar was overlaid with pure gold, speaking of Christ’s Divine glory in heaven;
The brazen altar had no crown; the incense altar had a crown;
The brazen altar speaks of perfection in sacrifice; the altar of incense speaks of perfection of intercession;
The brazen altar speaks of the work the Lord Jesus Christ completed on earth at Calvary, which all believers appreciate; the incense altar speaks of what the Lord Jesus Christ continues to do in heaven and fewer believers are as aware of that ongoing ministry on their behalf.
The Names Given to the Altar of Incense
There are various names given to this altar:
“The golden altar”, to distinguish it from the brazen altar;
“The altar of incense”, regarding its purpose;
“The altar before the Lord”, in relation to its location;
“The golden altar which is before the throne”, in relation to its perpetuity;
“The altar of gold for the incense”, in relation to its preciousness;
“The altar of sweet incense before the Lord”, regarding its abiding fragrance.
There are four passages in the Book of Exodus relating to the construction of this piece of Tabernacle furniture: Ex.30.1-10; Ex.30.34-38; Ex.37.25-29; Ex.40.5,26. These passages provide the information as to the materials used in its construction, its size, appearance, position relative to other vessels, purpose, etc.
The Principal Materials Used in the Construction of the Altar
The Lord’s instruction to Moses is: “Thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon: of shittim [acacia] wood shalt thou make it” and “Thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, the top thereof, and the sides thereof round about” Ex.30.1,3; compare Ex.37.25,26. Therefore, this altar of incense, like the ark of the covenant and the table of shewbread, is constructed of acacia wood overlaid with pure gold.
Acacia wood, white and resolute, speaks to us of the true, incorruptible, manhood of the Lord Jesus Christ. The pure gold speaks of His Divine majesty. The acacia wood and the pure gold were united but never blended, distinct yet indivisible, speaking of One “wholly God and wholly man in a mysterious hypostatical union impossible of definition”.1
- 1. Ruoff, Percy O. “The Spiritual Legacy of George Goodman”. Pickering & Inglis Ltd., London, 1949.
We are able from Scripture to distinguish the true and perfect humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ and His essential Deity and Divine glory. However, we must never seek to separate them. The writer to the Hebrews holds both aspects together: “Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus [answering to the acacia wood] the Son of God [answering to the pure gold], let us hold fast our profession. For we have not a high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” Heb.4.14-16. All the value and efficacy of His sacrifice and Priesthood are based upon the intrinsic worth of the Person and work of the One of Whom it is said, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt [‘tabernacled’] among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” Jn.1.14. The distinctiveness of His Person, that Blessed Man Who sojourned here and Who died to save us, is foundational to our blessings. He was typified by acacia wood and pure gold; something captured by the hymn writers:
- Christ, by highest heaven adored,
- Christ, the everlasting Lord,
- Late in time behold Him come,
- Offspring of a virgin’s womb:
- Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
- Hail the incarnate Deity,
- Pleased as man with man to dwell,
- Jesus, our Emmanuel.
- (Charles Wesley, adapted by George Whitefield)
The twofold nature of the Lord Jesus Christ, typified by pure gold and acacia wood, is a cause for meditation, wonder and worship: “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” Phil.2.6-8.
The Stability of the Altar
We are told: “A cubit shall be the length thereof, and a cubit the breadth thereof; foursquare shall it be” Ex.30.2; compare Ex.37.25. The ‘footprint’ of the altar of incense, at some eighteen inches (forty-six centimetres) by eighteen inches, is less than any of the other items of Tabernacle furniture for which measurements are given. Equality of dimensions and it being foursquare speaks to us of firmness, balance and stability. The foursquare altar of incense speaks of perfection in intercession; whereas the foursquare brazen altar speaks of perfection in sacrifice; the high priest’s foursquare breastplate speaks of perfection in representation; and the foursquare city speaks of perfection in habitation and administration, Ex.27.1; 28.16; 30.2; Rev.21.16. In these varied contexts foursquare is a pledge of eternal security.
The size of this altar is such that, reverently speaking, it could be embraced within the reach of the arms of the priest ministering at it. Tabernacle architecture is inherently coherent with the proportions of a man approaching God. To stand at the altar of incense with its foursquare cubit face should give assurance that all that is within the embrace of one’s prayer exercise and all that is within the capacity of one’s worship can be brought here to find acceptance. While this piece of furniture was small, it was nevertheless sufficiently large to serve its intended purpose. Long prayer beyond the scope of our feeling, or long expressions of worship beyond our experience, cannot be accommodated here, but that which is genuine, truly felt and appreciated can be presented. Oftentimes in prayer and worship, less is more!
It should be noted that all the Tabernacle vessels stood upon the desert floor, including the altar of incense. Irrespective of whether the terrain was fine sand, sharp grit, flint, etc., the ministry of this altar prevailed. If looking for a type to illustrate the fact that we can ‘pray at all times and under all circumstances’, then look no further!
The Height of the Altar
The altar of incense, however, is the tallest of all the measured items of furniture in the Tabernacle itself and is higher than the network of brass in the brazen altar in the Tabernacle court: “two cubits shall be the height thereof” Ex.30.2; compare Ex.37.25. Thus, it stood some thirty-six inches (ninety-one centimetres) high. While the central shaft of the golden lampstand was likely higher than the altar of incense, this altar was taller than the other measured vessels in the sanctuary, the ark and table of shewbread being a cubit and a half (twenty-seven inches or sixty-nine centimetres) high. The summit of this altar rose to a level commensurate with the dwelling place of God “above the mercy seat … between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony” Ex.25.22.
The height of this altar was essential to promote the ascension of the incense cloud to suffuse the holy place and cover the priests who ministered there and the vessels therein. Its height, having the highest operative surface, albeit with the smallest area, emphasises the heavenly character of this altar. It reminds us of One Whom God has set “at His own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come” Eph.1.20,21. On the basis that our Lord Jesus Christ was resurrected and exalted, we benefit from His unceasing intercession, our worship is made acceptable and we can expect to realise the power of prayer.
The aspect of proportion is again evident. To minister at this altar a man must stand upright and straight. Often we elevate in our estimation other forms of public service, vital though they are in their own place. Perhaps we are to learn from the altar of incense that our highest and most noble service is in worship and intercession: “true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship Him” Jn.4.23. Worship ascribes all honour and glory to God. While the foundation of our blessings is typified in the brazen altar and mercy seat, the altar of incense suggests occupation with Himself alone, which is superior to all other service.
The Strength of the Altar
The altar of incense, like the brazen altar, has horns integral to its structure: “the horns thereof shall be of the same. And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold” Ex.30.2,3; compare Ex.37.25,26. While the actual number of horns is not specified, we conclude on the basis of the precedent set in respect of the brazen altar, Ex.27.2; 38.2, that there were four horns in total, one at each corner.
Horns are typical of power and dignity and so speak of the strength and might of our Lord Jesus Christ in intercession. As the Tabernacle was erected on an east-west alignment we infer that the faces of the brazen and incense altars would be toward each of the four points of the compass, with the horns pointing to the four intermediate directions. This typifies that the efficacy of these altars, with their specific yet inter-related significance and strength, applies universally, with equal reference in value and power to all the host of the children of Israel.
No dimensions are given in respect of the horns. These unmeasured horns on the altar of incense are indicative of the strength of our Divine Lord in all the energy in which He prevails as our Intercessor and Offerer of His people’s worship. Every believer is presented by our Lord Jesus Christ in full perfection before God. If we realised His strength, we might better utilise the potential of prayer and more regularly resort to it in faith.
Some commentators, however, on the basis of wording relative to the rings and staves, suggest that the altar of incense was placed ‘cornerwise’ rather than ‘square’, with a horn facing the approaching priest. This will be discussed in more detail later when considering the rings.
Blood was placed on the horns of the altar of incense once a year, on the Day of Atonement, Lev.16.18, but, again, this will be considered later.
The Protection of the Altar
There were three items of furniture in the Tabernacle which had a crown of gold: the ark in the most holy place; and the table of shewbread and the altar of incense in the holy place. Each of these crowns acted as a protective rim, ledge or border to enclose respectively, the mercy seat, the shewbread and the censer with the burning coals and incense. In each case the crowns were functional rather than decorative. Indeed, there is no indication given of any decorative engraving. Nothing can be added to intrinsic worth, and nothing should detract attention from the presentation of that which speaks of Christ in His perfection.
The description is concise: “And thou shalt make onto it a crown of gold round about” Ex.30.3; compare Ex.37.26. The gold which enclosed the acacia wood construction of this altar of incense and that upon the horns of this altar is described as “pure gold”. This indicates that the practical results and benefits (seen in the altar and its horns) are related to that which is intrinsic and essential. However, the functional aspects of this altar (seen in the crown) are made from “gold”. This crown ensures that there can be no displacement of the coals or reduction of that holy fragrance in the holy place.
The crown reminds us that “He is able also to save them to the uttermost [unto the end or completion] that come unto God by Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them” Heb.7.25. That golden crown secures the believers’ position.
- The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,
- I will not, I will not desert to his foes;
- That soul, though all hell should endeavour to shake,
- I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.
- (Attributed to various authors)
While we read, “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and with honour …” Heb.2.9, that is not, I judge, what is typified by the golden crown round about the altar of incense (nor by those on the other vessels mentioned above). Nor is there any association with royal crowns.
While the height of the altar of incense is detailed as being two cubits (thirty-six inches or ninety-one centimetres), no measurement is specified in relation to the additional dimensions of this crown of gold (nor the horns). All we need to know is that it was sufficient for its purpose, retaining the censer with coals and incense within it. Nothing that speaks of the moral glories and beauties of our Lord Jesus Christ can be lost. The crowns of gold on each of the ark, table and altar of incense remind us that there can never be danger of any slippage from the Divine standpoint: all is eternally secure in Christ.
Carrying the Altar
Conveyance of the altar of incense required the provision of rings and staves: “And two golden rings shalt thou make to it under the crown of it, by the two corners thereof, upon the two sides of it shalt thou make it; and they shall be for places for the staves to bear it withal. And thou shalt make the staves of shittim [acacia] wood, and overlay them with gold” Ex.30.4,5; compare Ex.37.27,28.
Dealing first with the staves we note that, as functional components, the acacia wood poles are overlaid with gold, not pure gold. We are provided with no details as to the length or diameter of the staves, as, similarly, regarding the weight of the altar. What we can be sure about is that the staves speak of pilgrim character, and that this golden altar will accompany God’s people right through the wilderness until its final resting place. On our onward movement through life we appreciate the unceasing, intercessory ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ for us in heaven. We also understand that we can offer our worship and present our prayers at all times: “I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting” 1Tim.2.8.
The two rings are made of gold, again consistent with functionality. There is no question as to their purpose, being “places for the staves to bear it withal” Ex.30.4; 37.27. Similarly, these verses indicate that the rings are located just below the crown, therefore, near the top of the altar, which we recall was two cubits (some thirty-six inches or ninety-one centimetres) in height. However, it is the associated phrase “by the two corners thereof, upon the two sides of it” which raises questions of interpretation.
In relation to the ark of the covenant, the table of shewbread and the brazen altar it is clear that there were four rings, located at the corners, evidently providing two rings on each side to receive lateral staves to enable steady conveyance. This has led many to conclude, there being only two rings of gold to receive staves for the altar of incense, that the rings were at diagonal corners and therefore, this vessel was carried cornerwise, rather than square. Those who hold that view also query whether this altar may also have been placed before the vail so that one of the horns faced the door of the Tabernacle and hence the approaching priest.
However, that creates a problem (which could easily be demonstrated by the use of a curtain pole and curtain ring, no matter how closely fitting that ring is to the diameter of the pole). It is inconceivable how the altar of incense could be carried with the use of staves through rings at diagonal corners without the vessel swinging, sliding and swaying, particularly with the rings being just under the crown and with the weight and centre of gravity of the vessel being below that level. It is incongruous to contemplate that an altar which typifies the stability of intercession should ever oscillate in transit!
Meir Ben Uri, an Orthodox Jew, with a profound belief in the literal correctness of the Hebrew text, translates the Hebrew as ‘housings’ rather than “rings”. Contrary to the normal interpretation that poles were slipped through two rings on opposite corners, Meir Ben Uri contends that they passed through gold tubular housings along opposite sides of the altar2. That certainly would ensure balance and stability.
- 2. Olford, Stephen F. “The Tabernacle, Camping with God”. Loizeaux Brothers, Neptune, New Jersey, 1971, citing Meir Ben Uri, per Baker, Dwight L. “Tabernacle Furnishings, Recreating the Divine Design”. Christianity Today, March 12, 1971.
It was the responsibility of the Kohathites to carry the vessels of the Tabernacle. We read, “And upon the golden altar they shall spread a cloth of blue, and cover it with a covering of badgers’ skins, and shall put it to the staves thereof” Num.4.11. Covered with the heavenly colour and then overspread with that which is impervious, the golden altar of incense, with all its value and significance, is entrusted to men to carry. These men are expected to feel the weight of this altar and their responsibility. Presumably four Kohathites would need to move in careful step over as yet untraversed terrain in close fellowship with each other to ensure the stability of that which speaks of intercession, worship and prayer. Think not upon the fewness of the men, but on the greatness of their privilege and the value of that which it typifies.
This is clarified for us: “And thou shalt put it before the vail that is by the ark of the testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the testimony, where I will meet with thee” Ex.30.6; compare Ex.40.5,26. The golden altar of incense stood in the holy place, the first compartment in the Tabernacle, before the vail and in direct line with the ark and mercy seat, which were, of course, beyond the vail, in the most holy place. Hence it is referred to as “the altar that is before the Lord” Lev.4.7,18; 16.18. It stands in direct line, going east to west, from the gate of the court, to the brazen altar, the laver of brass, the door of the Tabernacle, the golden altar of incense, the vail and, ultimately, the ark and the mercy seat, the place of God’s habitation.
The altar of incense is one of three pieces of furniture in the holy place, the others being the table of shewbread and the golden lampstand. These three vessels speak of the present ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ in the sanctuary, that is, heaven itself, on behalf of His people. Indeed, each of these three vessels was similarly covered with a cloth of blue and then with badgers’ skins when in transit, Num.4.7-11.
To the priest entering the holy place, the altar of incense was straight before him, the table of shewbread would be to his right and the golden lampstand to his left, Ex.26.35. Only the relative positioning of these three vessels is provided, not actual measurements of the distances between each. Most illustrative diagrams portray the altar of incense as being close to the vail in a central position, with the golden lampstand and table of shewbread close to the Tabernacle’s sides. However, it should be obvious why the altar of incense, with coals of fire upon it, would never be placed so close to the vail as those diagrams suggest! “Before the vail”, therefore, indicates the priest’s view on entering, rather than absolute proximity. It also suggests that, while this altar has inter-relationship with the table and the lampstand, its primary relationship was with the ark and mercy seat. If only we knew in practice what this nearness to the presence of God typifies! How near is God to us when we truly pray or worship!
As precise instructions were given for the construction of the altar of incense, so the preparation of the incense itself was similarly detailed: “And the Lord said unto Moses, ‘Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense; of each shall there be a like weight’” Ex.30.34. The incense to be placed on this altar was composed of equal parts of these four sweet spices, a unique and singular composition used nowhere else per the record of Scripture. As stacte, onycha and galbanum are not mentioned anywhere else in Scripture, perhaps their singular mention is more important than trying to elucidate possible meanings from their Hebrew names.
The Constituents of the Incense
The root meaning of “stacte” is taken by some3 to mean to drop, or distil, and therefore to be suggestive of the gentleness of Christ falling with spontaneous beneficial effect: “Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb” S of S.4.11. If this falling is as a teardrop, it is reminiscent of the words, “And when He was come near, He beheld the city, and wept over it” Lk.19.41. Precisely which plant was the source of this spice remains unknown.
- 3. Young, Robert. “Analytical Concordance to the Bible”. Riverside Book and Bible House, Iowa; and
- Ridout, Samuel. “Lectures on the Tabernacle”. McCall Barbour, Edinburgh, 1976.
Some4 suggest that onycha is derived from the shell of a crab or mollusc, ground to a powder, which yields a fragrance when brought to the flame. However, creatures that live in the rivers or the seas, not having fins or scales, were not for human consumption but “shall be an abomination unto you” Lev.11.9-12. It is difficult to conceive a fragrance speaking of Christ having such a source. If stacte is from an unknown plant, it is probably better to conclude that onycha is also similarly derived.
- 4. Ridout, S., ibid.
This has been taken5 to refer to a resin or gum derived from a plant, which may speak of the energy of Christ in service, sympathy and consideration.
- 5. Young, R. and Ridout, S., ibid.
Unlike the other spices, we are familiar with frankincense, an aromatic resin from the Boswellia tree. This is the first reference to frankincense in Scripture. The name of this spice signifies whiteness and, with the added description of “pure”, it is, therefore, suggestive of the purity and priestliness of Christ. He was pure in all His ways, His actions and His thoughts, exhibiting outwardly all that He is intrinsically. We note in passing that pure frankincense was placed upon the shewbread for a memorial, thus linking the ministry of that table and this altar, Lev.24.7. There are occasions when frankincense is used in its own right, but here it is used in association with the other sweet spices.
The Unique Incense
Within the compass of a few short verses we have a number of phrases which convey to us the carefulness required in the preparation of this incense. The Lord’s direction to Moses is, “Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense; of each shall there be a like weight: and thou shalt make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure and holy. And thou shalt beat some of it very small, and put of it before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation, where I will meet with thee: it shall be unto you most holy” Ex.30.34-36. The multiplicity of those descriptions suggests fulness: of a Christ Who cannot be described by any single word, and where even all the superlatives combined fall short of adequacy.
The constituents of these perfumes are skilfully mingled together to give a fragrance unknown to us. The sweet spices and the frankincense are all of equal weight reminding us of the equality of balance in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. If the weight of each ingredient was equal so was its effect, with the means of composition ensuring that there should be no preponderance or dominance of any constituent fragrance within that of the incense produced. Each component balanced and enhanced the others to promote the fulness and true character of this unique fragrance. The sum of the total created an odour of singular sweetness, which the ingredients could not produce on their own. There was nothing in the Person of our Saviour that stood out beyond other features: “grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” Jn.1.17. There was no unevenness in Him, which is portrayed as clearly in the formation of the incense as it is in the preparation of the meal offering: “fine flour mingled with oil” Lev.2.4. So the incense is to be made:
- a “confection”, that is, an ointment or perfume;
- “after the art of the apothecary”, or the careful compounding as of one who prepares medicines, here applied to a perfumer or seasoner;
- “tempered together”, meaning to mingle or rub together the various ingredients;
- to produce that which is “pure and holy”;
- which then is “beat[en] … very small”;
- and only then may it be “put … before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation”, which refers to the golden altar in its central position before the vail in direct line with the ark and mercy seat beyond.
Like the incense, exercise in worship or prayer must be ‘beaten’, to feel the pressure and to become ‘very small’. Prayer is often made sweeter and more precious by the external pressure resulting from concerns and circumstances. How good to know that when we have difficulty articulating our deepest feelings, Divine assistance is available: “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” Rom.8.26.
Responsibility for the compounding of the sweet incense was clearly initially that of Eleazar: “And to the office of Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest pertaineth the oil for the light, and the sweet incense, and the daily meat offering, and the anointing oil, and the oversight of all the tabernacle, and of all that therein is, in the sanctuary, and in the vessels thereof” Num.4.16. Care in preparation preceded duties in public representation. Before Eleazar could ever succeed Aaron as high priest he had years engaged in handling that which speaks of Christ. Competence must be proven before commissioning into a public representational role. This was to continue from generation to generation throughout the family as only “Aaron and his sons offered … on the altar of incense” 1Chr.6.49. This was an exclusive privilege to the priestly family, as demonstrated by the Divine judgment upon Uzziah, King of Judah, who presumed to enter the Temple, censer in hand, “to burn incense upon the altar of incense” 2Chr.26.16-21.
This incense was of a comprehensive quality, with every partial grain or fragment being true to the fragrance of the whole. Minute examination of any part could not disclose anything inconsistent with the entirety, and there was no variation over time, as successive generations of priests prepared fresh incense to the same exacting standard. We have an unchanging Christ Who under examination and scrutiny displays consistency, evenness and balance. He is perfection personified. One who knew Him intimately could say, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (for the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you” 1Jn.1.1-3. The result of this skilled and careful handling produced a fragrance of such sweetness which could be appreciated by priestly men to some degree, but which was fully valued and understood by God.
- The Father only (glorious claim!)
- The Son can comprehend.
- (Josiah Conder)
Just as the burnt, meal and peace offerings on the brazen altar presented a sweet savour to God in the Tabernacle court, so the incense on the altar of incense presented a fragrance within the Tabernacle. The coals from the brazen altar were used on the altar of incense to cause the ascension of the fragrance within. The same standard of holiness that accepted those offerings on the brazen altar was the basis of the ascending perfume of prayer and praise from the altar of incense.
The concentrated essence derived from these plants represents all that was of value therein and, surely, speaks to us of the moral excellence of Christ as apprehended and appreciated by God.
Prohibitions in Regard to the Incense
This incense had only one purpose: that was to be burned on the altar of incense. It was for the exclusive pleasure of God, its significance being intensely spiritual. As such it could not be used for any personal, sensuous, commercial or other profane purpose. Nor could it be so used even with some slight adjustment in its composition in an attempt to subvert the prohibition. Any disobedience would incur the sanction: “And as for the perfume which thou shalt make, ye shall not make to yourselves according to the composition thereof: it shall be unto thee holy for the Lord. Whosoever shall make like unto that, to smell thereto, shall even be cut off from his people” Ex.30.37,38.
The serious consequence of disobedience, of adopting a casual attitude in the service of holy things, of disregard in matters requiring due reverence, is surely seen when Nadab and Abihu took fire, not from the brazen altar, but “strange fire”, into their censers and “put incense thereon” Lev.10.1. Their presumption, acting as seemed to them preferable and convenient, was fatal when the true fire of Divine holiness and righteousness “devoured them, and they died before the Lord” Lev.10.2.
So, making merchandise of the incense, or employing any close imitation or using any slightly deficient substitute, was not something to be countenanced. Those responsible in the preparation of the incense, as well as those using it, must have a healthy regard to ensure absolute compliance with the detail of Scripture.
Similarly, familiarity must never be allowed to engender complacency or toleration of evil. Eli accommodated his sons’ wanton evil in the discharge of holy things and incurred censure according to the privilege granted to Aaron and the Aaronic family: “Did I choose him out of all the tribes of Israel to be My priest, to offer upon Mine altar, to burn incense, to wear an ephod before Me?” 1Sam.2.28. The words of the man of God to Eli resonate still: “them that honour Me I will honour, and they that despise Me shall be lightly esteemed” 1Sam.2.30.
It is interesting to note that there is no mention of any censer in the Exodus passages associated with the altar of incense. Censers are mentioned in association with the Tabernacle in both Leviticus and Numbers: Lev.10.1; 16.12; Num.4.14; 16.6-46. We do not have any specific dimensions or shape specified for any censer in Scripture. However, we should remove from our minds any idea that the censer was similar to the globe shaped dispenser suspended on chains as used in, for example, Greek, Russian and Coptic Orthodox and Catholic services.
The Hebrew word translated as “censer” in all Pentateuch references simply means ‘firepan’. Its function was to carry burning coals from the brazen altar; it was then placed upon the golden altar and sweet incense was burned thereon. It seems likely that the censer would have a handle, perhaps removable, by which it could be carried, although this is not detailed.
Further detail is provided in relation to the disastrous attempt by Levites, led by Korah, Dathan and Abiram, to intrude into and subvert the Aaronic priesthood, Numbers chapter 16. Here the censers were clearly brazen, that is, of copper. Only the brazen censers remained after the fire from the Lord consumed the two hundred and fifty men that rebelliously offered incense. From these censers broad copper plates were made for a covering for the brazen altar, as a memorial and a warning.
Therefore, it may be inferred that the censer in daily use may have been a firepan of copper, which would be more durable to sustain repeated heating from the hot coals from the brazen altar. Given the dimensions of the altar of incense and the fact that it required a border of gold, it is probable that the censer was square in shape, to fit within that border and with edges that would be big enough both to rise higher than the golden border and to enable a handle to be inserted.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews, where the imagery relates specifically to the Tabernacle (not the Temple), we read: “Then verily the first covenant had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary. For there was a tabernacle made; the first, wherein was the candlestick, and the table, and the shewbread; which is called the sanctuary. And after the second veil, the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of all; which had the golden censer, and the ark of the covenant …” Heb.9.1-4. It is interesting that it is a golden censer that is here mentioned. Also, of all the vessels in the Tabernacle, the altar of incense is not specifically mentioned here, because the subject is the Day of Atonement, when incense was taken by the censer into the most holy place and placed before the ark and mercy seat. Also, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Lord Jesus Christ is not outside, but within or “through” the vail (there being no ‘rent vail’ in the Tabernacle nor in the Epistle to the Hebrews; the rent vail is in Herod’s Temple only, no matter what hymn writers have written).
A golden censer was appropriate on the Day of Atonement, as a brazen censer would have been incongruous in the most holy place: judgment being already past, with the blood and incense speaking of a finished work. Also, the golden censer beyond the vail on that annual day represented all that was typified by the altar of incense before the vail on the other days of the year. The golden censer is, therefore, an active component of the altar of incense. Its activity reminds us of our Lord Jesus Christ, the resurrected and ascended Man entering heaven itself by virtue of Who He is and what He has accomplished. He enters on the basis of the fragrance of His Person and the life that He gave in sacrifice, as evidenced by the shedding of blood. He added a new, sweet odour to the dwelling place of God.
Aaron had twice daily privileges and responsibilities in the holy place: “And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn incense upon it. And when Aaron lighteth the lamps at even, he shall burn incense upon it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations. Ye shall offer no strange incense thereon, nor burnt sacrifice, nor meat offering; neither shall ye pour drink offering thereon” Ex.30.7-9. When doing this the high priest was as close to the throne of God, the ark, as it was possible then to be.
Thus incense was placed upon this altar as the high priest tended the lamps on the golden lampstand every morning and evening. Typically speaking, prayer and testimony go together: there were fragrance and light through the night watches, and fragrance and light through the day as well. The incense of acceptability, Christ the light of the sanctuary, and Christ the food of His people are all typified by the three vessels in the holy place.
This twice daily continuum on the part of Aaron required regular and consistent attention to detail. Before the morning fragrance could wane that of the evening began and, similarly, before that of the evening could diminish, that of the morning ascended. The cloud of incense constantly rising from this altar typifies an active ministry, suggestive of continuous intercession presenting the ascending fragrance of what Christ is and what He has done to uphold His people in the presence of God, Heb.10.19-22. It surely reminds us of One Who “ever liveth to make intercession” Heb.7.25. Perpetual incense speaks of the merit of Christ, which ever abides. There is never a moment in heaven that is without the fragrance of Christ as He engages in His present intercessory ministry as great High Priest with God, and Advocate with the Father.
- Much incense is ascending
- Before the eternal throne;
- God graciously is bending
- To hear each feeble groan.
- To all our prayers and praises
- Christ adds His sweet perfume,
- And love the censer raises
- Their odours to consume.
- (Mrs. Mary Peters)
A practical application is to ask ourselves: are we as assiduous and regular in availing of our privileges of lingering in the light of Christ in the sanctuary, feeding upon the provision of Christ in His Word and interceding and worshipping in all the fragrance of His abiding
ministry? ‘Not as much as we should be’ is likely to be the correct and universal answer! Prayer is certainly the heritage and privilege of every believer, but it may not be our regular habit and practice. May it be true that:
- As o’er each continent and island
- The dawn leads on another day,
- The voice of prayer is never silent,
- Nor dies the strain of praise away.
- The sun that bids us rest is waking
- Our brethren ’neath the western sky;
- And hour by hour fresh lips are making
- Thy wondrous doings heard on high.
- (John Ellerton)
Even though this twice daily ministration within the sanctuary would, perhaps, only require an hour on each occasion, the smell of the incense would linger on the high priest throughout the whole of the day. Moses’ blessing of the tribes indicates, in that pertaining to Levi, that other
priests had also this privilege: “they shall put incense before Thee” Deut.33.10.
In practical terms could it be said of us that our regular daily devotions of reading, meditation and prayer have an abiding effect upon us? Fragrance that speaks of Christ can only be acquired in the sanctuary, a place apart, marked by its stillness and reverential awe. It will require more discipline in an increasingly fast and frantic society to draw aside and cultivate the atmosphere of the sanctuary in daily life.
Details in relation to the sin offering are provided, Lev.4.1-356. Different procedures apply if “the priest that is anointed do sin”; “the whole congregation of Israel sin”; “a ruler hath sinned”; or “one of the common people sin” Lev.4.3,13,22,27. For a priest versed in the Divine requirements it is not possible to sin through ignorance, whereas in the case of the other categories they have sinned through ignorance yet later discover their guilt.
- 6. Banks, W.M. “The Glory of The Offerings”, chapter 6, Assembly Testimony Publications, 2018.
In respect of the priest and the whole congregation the blood of the requisite sin offering is taken into the holy place and sprinkled seven times “before the Lord, before the vail of the sanctuary. And the priest shall put some of the blood upon the horns of the altar of sweet incense before the Lord” Lev.4.6,7; compare Lev.4.17,18.
Sin restricted a priest from his sphere of responsibility and
service, and interrupted his personal fellowship with God until the
blood of the sin offering was sprinkled in the holy place and applied to the horns of the altar of incense. Corporate failure involving the whole congregation also necessitated these particular actions. We cannot function either in priesthood or representatively as a redeemed company when we sin.
Restoration is costly. A reverent response is required, which betokens repentance. Restoration to service required the cleansing of the sphere of service by the blood, which reopened the access for worship and prayer. There is nothing casual here.
- Repentance is to leave
- The sin I’ve done before,
- And show that I in earnest grieve
- By doing it no more.
- (Leonard Ravenhill)
The fact that the Day of Atonement has featured in a number of earlier books in the ‘Glory’ series7 reflects the vital importance of this subject. It was not only a day important to the children of Israel, but its typical teaching is of continuing relevance. However, we wish to concentrate on the role and significance of the altar of incense on that special day; something that was anticipated when instructions were given in relation to its construction: “And Aaron shall make an atonement upon the horns of it once in a year with the blood of the sin offering of atonements: once in the year shall he make atonement upon it throughout your generations: it is most holy unto the Lord” Ex.30.10.
- 7. West, D.E. “The Glory of His Grace” chapter 5;
- West, D.E. “The Glory of The Lord’s Death” chapter 5;
- Banks, W.M., McAllister, D. & Boyd, W.A. “The Glory of The Offerings” chapters 6, 11 and 12,
- Assembly Testimony Publications, 2006, 2014 and 2018.
There are two principal passages detailing the preparation for that day and the procedures to be observed on it: Lev.16.1-34; 23.26-32. The second of those passages deals with the preparation for the people, and their observances. These include affliction of soul, and total abstention from work, with stringent penalty for non-observance. This was a solemn day, celebrated annually “on the tenth day of this seventh month” Lev.23.27, by a people conscientious in making timely preparation, both domestically and personally.
The first of those principal references, Lev.16.1-34, is specific to the priestly responsibilities, with the greatest resting upon Aaron, Israel’s high priest. He had no room for error, a fact reinforced by God’s recent summary judgment upon Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, and the need for care in the subsequent discharge of holy duties, Lev.10.1-20.
Detailed guidance was given by the Lord to Moses, and then relayed to Aaron, about the specific actions to be performed and their particular sequence on the Day of Atonement. It is only on that day annually that the high priest is allowed to enter “into the holy place within the vail before the mercy seat, which is upon the ark” under specific instructions “that he die not: for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat” Lev.16.2. Approach to the most holy place will require association with the altar of incense with its sweet savour and value.
Aaron will require a young bullock for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering for himself, and two kids of the goats for a sin offering and one ram for a burnt offering for the congregation, Lev.16.3,5.
Aaron must first “offer his bullock of the sin offering, which is for himself, and make an atonement for himself, and for his house” Lev.16.6. That will be at the brazen altar. He must also take the goats for the sin offering, which are on behalf of the congregation, “and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats: one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat” Lev.16.7,8. The goat on which the Lord’s lot fell will be offered as a sin offering, again at the brazen altar.
Then we have the importance of the altar of incense relative to the blood of the bullock of the sin offering for Aaron and his household: “And he shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from off the altar before the Lord, and his hands full of sweet incense beaten small, and bring it within the vail: and he shall put the incense upon the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the testimony, that he die not” Lev.16.12,13.
The fire which caused the sweet incense to ascend was that which had engulfed and consumed the sin offering on the brazen altar. Live coals are carried by Aaron from that altar in the golden censer, upon which he casts his handful of sweet incense and brings it within the vail. Aaron with his free hand will draw aside the vail from where it touches the side boards of the Tabernacle. With movements steady and deliberate, bearing before him the golden censer exuding clouds of incense, its fragrance suffusing the Tabernacle and covering himself as he goes, he moves with reverential awe into the most holy place and the presence of God. As Aaron draws aside the vail, lamplight from the holy place and Divine glory from the most holy place momentarily meet in the cloud of incense that is Aaron’s protection in God’s presence. The censer is then set down, presumably upon the ground, with the cloud of incense rising up to overspread the ark and mercy seat and fill the most holy place with its unique fragrance. Typically, it covers any and every ill-savour emanating from the nation and the worshippers as represented by the high priest.
With reverent demeanour, most likely with bowed head, Aaron will leave the censer in situ and withdraw, to then return with the blood of
the bullock of the sin offering for himself and for his household and “sprinkle it with his finger upon the mercy seat eastward; and before the mercy seat shall he sprinkle of the blood with his finger seven times” Lev.16.14.
Aaron then has to kill the goat of the sin offering for the people “and bring his blood within the vail, and do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it upon the mercy seat, and before the mercy seat” Lev.16.15. The blood on and before the mercy seat deals with propitiation and purging from before the eye of God.
Those two sets of sprinklings were essential: ‘once upon’, for the eye of God, and ‘seven times before’, assuring perfection of standing. Thus Aaron “made an atonement for himself, and for his household, and for all the congregation of Israel” Lev.16.17. We judge that Aaron must then have exited with the receptacle in which he had brought the blood, before going again through the vail, to carefully lift the censer and withdraw with reverent mien from the most holy place, with the ascending incense continuing to provide its protection.
Having concluded those ministrations in the most holy place, Aaron has duties to perform in the holy place: “he shall go out unto the altar that is before the Lord, and make an atonement for it; and shall take of the blood of the bullock, and of the blood of the goat, and put it upon the horns of the altar round about” Lev.16.18. This, I judge, refers to the altar of incense, not the brazen altar, as the focus on the Day of Atonement is national, maintaining a redeemed people, with all their personal flaws and failures, and their priesthood, in a proper relationship to God Who is holy and righteous. The blood of the sin offering for Aaron and his family and that in respect of the congregation is, therefore, applied to all four horns of this vessel. Blood on the horns of this altar is witness to the fact that the blood before the eye of God in the most holy place is here before the eye of the high priest. Sacrifice has been accepted
and is the basis for worship and intercession. As the value of Christ’s sacrifice endures eternally, so will the praise and worship of His redeemed people.
Then Aaron “shall sprinkle of the blood upon it [the altar of incense] with his finger seven times, and cleanse it, and hallow it from the uncleanness of the children of Israel” Lev.16.19. Thus this altar was cleansed and hallowed for another year from “the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions in all their sins” Lev.16.16. The altar of incense, cleansed from all defilement, is then ready to receive the burning coals and incense as if it had for the very first time been constructed and sanctified for that purpose.8 Incense ascending past the horns of this altar assures that intercession and worship are accepted in all the value of the blood applied.
- 8. Soltau, H.W. “The Tabernacle, the Priesthood and the Offerings”. Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1979.
Aaron’s ministration still continues in an outward direction: “And when he hath made an end of reconciling the holy place, and the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat” Lev.16.20. It is only after all duties are completed within the Tabernacle that the overtly manward responsibilities are discharged. Propitiation Godward precedes that which speaks of expiation manward. The value of the sin offerings as evidenced by the blood, and the excellence of Christ as evidenced by the incense, must first touch the mercy seat and then the horns of the altar of incense, etc. before Aaron emerges to guarantee that those duties within have been completed successfully. His external duties then commence relative to the scapegoat, which also died, not immediately, but eventually, far away and alone, never to return from a region beyond human habitation. What a picture of expiation and full remission! Not only is the throne of God satisfied; the way of approach to God is opened and assurance given in the type that “their sins and iniquities will I remember no more” Heb.10.17.
There were many other duties for Aaron to perform on the Day of Atonement, and for successive high priests of Israel on that annual day of fasting, affliction and confession. But when each Day of Atonement ended, the high priest would be relieved that his responsibilities had been fully discharged, that he had been in the awesome presence of Divine glory and lived, that the blood had been applied as specified and that the fragrance of incense had permeated the whole of the Tabernacle and lingered upon him still.
In contrast to the annually recurrent duties on the Day of Atonement, we appreciate the fact that the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ at Calvary was completed “once for all”, never to be repeated. Indeed, the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that, unlike Aaron and his successors, our Saviour “sat down”, His saving work having been completed. However, His work of intercession is continuous. The challenge is made to the universe and is answered: “Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us” Rom.8.34. The question is also answered in relation to a believer who sins: “And if any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” 1Jn.2.1.
Luke’s Gospel opens with details about the birth of John the Baptist and the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Zacharias, John the Baptist’s father, “while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course, according to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense” Lk.1.8-10.
This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Zacharias, a privilege by human arrangement regarding service at Herod’s Temple. However, that said, it indicated several continuing aspects: the burning of incense as exclusively a priestly function, and the association between the offering of incense and the prayers of faithful people.
Since “Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself” Heb.9.24, it should not be any surprise to read of the golden altar and incense in heavenly scenes in the Book of Revelation.
We read: “And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand” Rev.8.3,4. The incense added to the prayers of the saints gave these prayers acceptance before God.
It is the sweet fragrance and worth of His Person and work, and the abiding value of the intercession of our Lord Jesus Christ, which give confidence and assure us that we can enter into the presence of God to present acceptable worship and prayers. “Ye also, as lively [‘living’] stones, are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” 1Pet.2.5. “By Him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name” Heb.13.15. “For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ” 2Cor.2.15.
- O God we come with singing,
- Because the great High Priest
- Our names to Thee is bringing,
- Nor e’er forgets the least:
- For us He wears the mitre
- Where holiness shines bright;
- For us His robes are whiter
- Than heaven’s unsullied light.
- (Mrs. Mary Peters)