The Altar of Incense in the Sanctuary:

Christ, Our Advocate with the Father

30:1-10, 22-38 and 37:25-29

    DIG: What does incense, as used here, symbolize (Psalm 141:2; Revelation 5:8, 8:3-5)? Where is it placed? When does it burn? Who attends it? What meaning does the incense have when God is present to meet His faithful children (30:6 and 36)? What meaning does it have the rest of the time when no people are present?

   REFLECT: Do you think you “smell” like a believer? How can you tell? What reaction from others would you expect if you did? How can you become a fragrant aroma to the LORD (Second Corinthians 2:14-16)? The rabbis characterize incense in terms of prayer, holiness, purity, compassion and hope. What characterizes your prayer?

    There were seven pieces of furniture in the Tabernacle, and the altar of incense would be fifth that the priest would come to. As he entered the Holy Place, it would be directly in front of the inner veil that covered the entrance to the Most Holy Place. The golden lampstand would be on his left and the table of bread of the Presence would be on his right. Unlike the larger bronze altar in the courtyard, the altar in the Holy Place was for the burning of incense, symbolic of the prayer and praise that ascends to God as a fragrant offering from His grateful people.589

    The description began with its size. ADONAI said to make an altar of acacia wood for burning incense. It was to be square, a cubit, or one and a half feet long and a cubit wide, and two cubits, or three feet high, with horns on each corner. The top, all the sides and the horns were to be overlaid with pure gold, and a gold molding around it. Two gold rings were to be made to hold the poles used to carry it. The poles were to be made of acacia wood and overlaid with gold. The altar was to be placed in front of the inner veil in the Holy Place (30:1-6; 37:25-28). It may have been placed there because on the Day of Atonement some of the blood of the sin offering was sprinkled on the altar of incense seven times (Leviticus 16:19), just as it was on the ark and mercy seat.590

    And so, those two altars were linked together by the command of ADONAI. Without the bronze altar with its fire, there could have been no worship at the golden altar of incense. The coals from the bronze altar were taken inside the Sanctuary and placed upon the altar of incense. It was upon those coals that sweet incense was burned. In our study of the bronze altar in the courtyard, we saw that bronze spoke of judgment of sin. The death of the sacrifice on that altar foreshadowed the vicarious sufferings of Jesus, the Lamb of God. Without the fire from the bronze altar, there could be no burning of sweet incense. Without the death of Jesus, there could be no Intercessor for us at the throne of grace to hear our prayers. Christ Jesus, who died - more than that, who was raised to life - is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us (Romans 8:34).591 There will be no altar of incense in the Millennial Temple because the Messiah Himself will dwell in the midst of His people and hear their prayers (see my commentary on Isaiah Db - The Nine Missing Articles in Messiah's Coming Temple).

    Even though Moses said that the altar was to be placed in front of the inner veil in the Holy Place (30:6; 37:28), the writer to the Hebrews seems to disagree about its placement there. He refers to the Most Holy Place as having a golden altar of incense (Hebrews 9:4). At first glance, this seems to suggest that there is a contradiction between Exodus and Hebrews. However, while the altar of incense stood in the Holy Place in front of the inner veil, its ritual use on the Day of Atonement was connected with the Most Holy Place. The high priest would take coals from the altar of incense to be burned within it (Leviticus 16:12-13). The writer to the Hebrews was merely referring to the altar of incense in terms of its religious ritual on the Day of Atonement, rather than its physical location in the Holy Place. So there really is no contradiction.592

    Then ADONAI gave special instructions on the making of the fragrant incense that was to be burned on the altar. Only incense, and only a special kind of incense, was to be placed there. It was holy to the LORD. Four spices, gum resin, onycha, galbanum, and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts, were made into a fragrant blend of incense. Salt was to be added to the mixture, because it made white smoke when burned and added to the fragrance.593 Ground into powder, these spices were to be placed upon the altar that was in front of the inner veil. Because of its sacred nature, this special incense was not to be used anywhere except the altar of incense or the priest would die (30:34-38).

    Throughout the day and throughout the night the smoke of the sweet incense went up before ADONAI filling the Sanctuary with its fragrance. Twice a day Aaron and his sons burned incense on the altar. This was considered to be one of the five key duties of the priesthood. Aaron was commanded to burn the fragrant incense on the altar every morning when he replaced the oil and wicks in the lamps of the golden lampstand. And he did the same thing at twilight so incense would burn continually before ADONAI (30:7-8). The continual burning of incense is an example of the need for persistent prayer (Psalm 16:8, 55:17; Luke 18:1-8; First Thessalonians 5:17-18).

    The priests were not to offer any other incense on that altar, or any burnt offering or grain offering. Neither were they to pour a drink offering on it. If they burned any other incense than the formula they were given, they would be killed (30:9). Later, Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s two sons, disobeyed this command and offered unauthorized incense before God. So fire came out from the presence of ADONAI and consumed them, and they died (Leviticus 10:1-2).

    No offerings were to be made on the altar of incense, whether they were animal or grain (30:9). The next verse provides the only exception. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, Aaron was to make atonement for the sins of the nation by smearing blood on the horns of the altar of incense. This annual atonement had to be made with the blood of a sin offering. It was most holy to ADONAI (30:10).594

    Scripture clearly shows that incense is a symbol of prayer. The Psalmist said: May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice (Psalm 141:2). The Apostle John said: And when the Lamb had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before Him. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints (Revelation 5:8).

    You will notice that this altar was in the Holy Place. Only the priests could worship there. Even King Uzziah was inflicted with leprosy when he tried to worship there (Second Chronicles 26:16-21). Only priests can pray today, and every true believer in Christ is a priest. There is a great deal of sentimental rubbish being spread around today that a person can lead any sort of sinful life he pleases, reject Jesus and then, in time of trouble, he can get on his knees and expect an answer. Motion pictures have shown scenes like this, and some sentimental pastors or rabbis talk about such things happening, but God says He will not answer prayers like this. Let me be very clear. The altar of incense is where priests go. The only prayer a sinner can pray is: God, be merciful to me, a sinner (Luke 18:13b). The LORD will hear and answer that prayer when it is offered to Him.595

    Sacred oil of dedication was also to be blended from various fragrant ingredients. Its formula was as unique as the product was holy. It was made of about 12.5 pounds of liquid myrrh, 6.25 pounds of fragrant cinnamon, 6.25 pounds of fragrant cane, 12.5 pounds of cassia (from the fragrant bark of a tree), and about four quarts of olive oil. When mixed, they made a fragrant blend (30:22-25).596

    It was to be used to dedicate the Tabernacle and its furnishings as well as the members of the priesthood for ministry. The priests were to use the oil to dedicate the Tabernacle, the ark of the Covenant, the table of the bread of the Presence and all its articles, the lampstand and its accessories, the altar of incense, the bronze altar and all its utensils, and the bronze basin with its stand. The dedicating set them apart for the LORD’s work, and whatever touched them would be most holy. But things were not only to be dedicated, people were also to be dedicated. Moses was commanded to dedicate Aaron and his sons so they could serve ADONAI as priests (30:26-30).

    The death penalty associated with the incense also applied to the oil of dedication. No unauthorized use was to be made of it. ADONAI said it was His sacred dedicating oil for the generations to come. The priests were not to put it on their bodies, nor were they to make any oil with the same formula. It was sacred, and they were to consider it sacred. Whoever made perfume like it or whoever used it other than a priest would be cut off from his people, a Jewish expression for being executed (30:31-33). The significance of this was Christ being dedicated, or set apart, by the Holy Spirit for His ministry (Isaiah 61:1; Acts 10:38).

    Just as the golden altar was the last object to be reached as the priest traveled from the gate in the courtyard to the inner veil that hid the mercy seat from view; likewise, worship is the highest state to be reached on earth and the object for which all other things in this life are merely preparations. God seeks worshipers. This was the desire that led Yeshua to go through Samaria to meet a sinner (John 4:1-26), to turn her heart from her sins by filling it with the satisfying portion of grace, that she might meet Him and give that praise and worship that only a forgiven sinner can give (John 4:39-42). And this is what led Jesus to leave the heaven of light and peace and come down to the cross of suffering and shame. He still seeks worshipers today. He seeks those who, having tasted the love of God as no angel can possibly taste, might from a heart overflowing with love for Him, pour out the fragrant incense of praise.597


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