The Altar of Incense

1 “You shall make an altar on which to burn incense; you shall make it of acacia wood. A cubit shall be its length, and a cubit its breadth. It shall be square, and two cubits shall be its height. Its horns shall be of one piece with it. You shall overlay it with pure gold, its top and around its sides and its horns. And you shall make a molding of gold around it. And you shall make two golden rings for it. Under its molding on two opposite sides of it you shall make them, and they shall be holders for poles with which to carry it. You shall make the poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. And you shall put it in front of the veil that is above the ark of the testimony, in front of the mercy seat that is above the testimony, where I will meet with you. And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it. Every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps at twilight, he shall burn it, a regular incense offering before the Lord throughout your generations. You shall not offer unauthorized incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering, and you shall not pour a drink offering on it. 10 Aaron shall make atonement on its horns once a year. With the blood of the sin offering of atonement he shall make atonement for it once in the year throughout your generations. It is most holy to the Lord.” – Exodus 30:1-10 ESV

Back in chapter 25, God gave instructions regarding the primary pieces of furniture to be contained in the Tabernacle. He includes the Ark of the Covenant, the Mercy Seat, the table for the bread of the presence, and the Golden Lampstand. Each of these intricately designed pieces was to be placed within the two inner chambers of the Tabernacle. But there was one item left off the list: The Altar of Incense. For some unexplained reason, God did not mention this piece until after He had outlined the ordination ceremony for the priests.

There has been much debate about this apparent “misplacement” of the altar’s description in the narrative. Some have argued that it provides proof that the book of Exodus was amended by outside editors. There is a long history among editorial critics of the Bible that the book of Exodus was not written by Moses but was compiled by a variety of authors and edited into its current form. But why would these editors have placed the design of the altar in chapter 30 rather than chapter 25? That makes no sense. If anything, the delayed introduction of the Altar of Incense was perfectly timed by God Himself. He revealed it to Moses at just the right moment.

The Altar of Incense would be a vital part of the worship of Yahweh performed by Aaron and his sons. The placement of the Altar of Incense reveals the nature of its importance. It was to be located within the Holy Place just in front of the veil that led into the Holy of Holies. On the other side of that veil was the Mercy Seat, which was intended to be the throne of God on earth. It was there that His divine presence would reside. So, this small wooden box, covered in gold, was to be placed before the entrance into God’s presence. God was very specific about its placement.

“Place the incense altar just outside the inner curtain that shields the Ark of the Covenant, in front of the Ark’s cover—the place of atonement—that covers the tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant. I will meet with you there.” – Exodus 30:6 NLT

The incense altar was to be flanked by the Golden Lampstand and the Table of Showbread. But only it led into the Holy of Holies. And God gave Moses strict instructions regarding its use.

“Every morning when Aaron maintains the lamps, he must burn fragrant incense on the altar. And each evening when he lights the lamps, he must again burn incense in the Lord’s presence. This must be done from generation to generation. Do not offer any unholy incense on this altar, or any burnt offerings, grain offerings, or liquid offerings.” – Exodus 30:7-9 NLT

This helps to explain the delayed description of this particular piece of furniture. Its use required the presence of a fully consecrated high priest. While the Golden Lampstand and the Table of Showbread also required the services of the high priest, the Altar of Incense was different. Its entire purpose was for burning incense before the Lord, and this ritual was to be performed twice a day for perpetuity. God even provided Moses with the recipe for making the incense.

“Gather fragrant spices—resin droplets, mollusk shell, and galbanum—and mix these fragrant spices with pure frankincense, weighed out in equal amounts. Using the usual techniques of the incense maker, blend the spices together and sprinkle them with salt to produce a pure and holy incense. Grind some of the mixture into a very fine powder and put it in front of the Ark of the Covenant, where I will meet with you in the Tabernacle. You must treat this incense as most holy. Never use this formula to make this incense for yourselves. It is reserved for the Lord, and you must treat it as holy. Anyone who makes incense like this for personal use will be cut off from the community.” – Exodus 30:34-38 NLT

Even the spice itself was set apart for God’s use. Its proprietary formula was reserved solely for the worship of God, and Aaron and his sons were prohibited from replicating it for personal use. So, every morning and evening, Aaron would enter the Holy Place dressed in his priestly robes and offer up the incense to God.

According to the book of Leviticus, Aaron was only to use coals from the Bronze Altar to burn incense before the Lord.

“Aaron will present his own bull as a sin offering to purify himself and his family, making them right with the Lord. After he has slaughtered the bull as a sin offering, he will fill an incense burner with burning coals from the altar that stands before the Lord. Then he will take two handfuls of fragrant powdered incense and will carry the burner and the incense behind the inner curtain. There in the Lord’s presence he will put the incense on the burning coals so that a cloud of incense will rise over the Ark’s cover—the place of atonement—that rests on the Ark of the Covenant. If he follows these instructions, he will not die. – Leviticus 16:11-13 NLT

God stressed the importance that Aaron use the Altar of Incense properly by threatening him with the possibility of death for any breach of protocol. And the book of Leviticus tells us that Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu chose to violate God’s commands and lost their lives in the process.

…each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. – Leviticus 10:1-2 ESV

It seems that rather than using coals from the Bronze Altar as God had commanded, they chose a different source. In doing so, the smoke from the incense became unacceptable to God, and they paid for this violation with their lives.

There is no explanation given regarding the real purpose behind the burning of the incense, but elsewhere in the Scriptures, it is tied to prayer. King David would write in one of his psalms:

O Lord, I am calling to you. Please hurry!
    Listen when I cry to you for help!
Accept my prayer as incense offered to you,
    and my upraised hands as an evening offering. – Psalm 141:2 NLT

In the book of Revelation, the apostle John records his vision of the throneroom of God in heaven.

…the four living beings and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp, and they held gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. – Revelation 5:8 NLT

Then another angel with a gold incense burner came and stood at the altar. And a great amount of incense was given to him to mix with the prayers of God’s people as an offering on the gold altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, mixed with the prayers of God’s holy people, ascended up to God from the altar where the angel had poured them out. – Revelation 8:3-4 NLT

So, as Aaron offered up incense each morning and evening, it represented the prayers of God’s people. Dressed in his sacred and sanctified robes, the high priest took coals from the Bronze Altar and lit the holy incense before the veil that led into God’s presence. The smoke, symbolizing the prayers of the people, would rise before God, whose divine presence resided on the Mercy Seat. This scene, repeated every day, twice a day, would foreshadow the role of the Holy Spirit after the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.

And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will. – Romans 8:26-27 NLT

God desires to intercede on behalf of His people. He hears and responds to their prayers. And, in offering up incense, Aaron would be symbolically presenting the desires of the people before the throne of God.

Centuries later, when Solomon dedicated the newly built temple in Jerusalem, God placed His seal of approval on it and made a solemn promise to hear and answer the prayers of His people.

“…if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place.” – 2 Chronicles 7:14-15 ESV

The key to understanding this passage is the issue of holiness. God expected His people to live holy lives. He gave the Decalogue and the Book of the Covenant so that they might know exactly how to conduct themselves as His chosen people. The entire Tabernacle was built upon the foundation of holiness. Every aspect of its design and every facet of its functionality was tied to holiness. Everything, including the priest and his garments, had to be purified and sanctified so that God could be worshiped properly. There was no room for error. The prayers of the people had to be offered in the right way if they wanted to hear from God. And even the Altar of Incense itself had to be purified annually so that the holy incense and the prayers of the people would rise before God as a pleasing aroma. There were to be no shortcuts. No concessions or compromises were allowed. Holiness was and still is the only acceptable standard.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

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