TEST CASE # 2 :: The Altar of Incense (Exodus 30:1-10; 34-38)
For the last two days, we have looked at Exodus 29 and the consecration of the priesthood, today we will move to a section of the tabernacle furniture that is a little more obscure: The Altar of Incense. How should we understand this instrument in the law, in the prophets, in relationship to Christ, in the way it points to the gospel, and in our own lives? To answer such a question we must begin in the OT and work our way to the NT.
Again, following the five-fold model (Law, Prophets 1 &2, Christ, Gospel, Christian Application) presented here, our aim today is to better understand the “good news” of the altar of incense and how the Old Testament prepares us for Christ’s fulfillment of this golden altar.
1. God commands Moses to build an altar of incense. In brief, notice three things in verses 1-10—(1) the construction (v. 1-5); (2) the location (v. 6); (3) the function (v. 7-10).
Construction. Like everything else inside the holy place, the altar of incense was made of acacia wood, and covered with gold (v. 1, 3). It was to be about 18 inches across and 18 inches in depth, and it stood 3 feet tall (v. 2). Like the altar in the courtyard, it had horns on all four-sides. And like everything else in the holy place, it was made to be portable. Thus, it had rings of gold so that poles could be used to carry it. These two were made of acacia wood and covered in gold (v. 5).
Location. Also important is the location. In verse 6, Moses records, “And you shall put it in front of the veil that is above the ark of testimony, in front of the mercy seat that is avoe the testimony, where I will meet with you.” The location is important because it was the last piece of furniture the priest would pass before entering behind the veil; likewise, when the priests offered incense they were coming near to God. Leviticus 16:18 describes the location in these terms: “Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD and make atonement for it.”
So on the Day of Atonement, the priest applied the blood to the altar of incense after applying blood the mercy seat, and significantly the altar of incense sat in front of the veil.
Function. Verses 7-10 explain the function of the altar. Verse 7 says Aaron would burn incense on it. Morning and evening, fresh incense would rise for this little golden altar.
What was this incense? Verses 34-38 supply the answer:
The LORD said to Moses, “Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part), and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy. You shall beat some of it very small, and put part of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you. It shall be most holy for you. And the incense that you shall make according to its composition, you shall not make for yourselves. It shall be for you holy to the LORD. Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from his people.”
Clearly, there was God-ordained way to make the incense for the altar. We cannot reproduce it because we do not quite know what the substance are, or what the proportion were. But it was clear “You shall not offer unauthorized incense on it” (v. 9). Moreover, it was only to be used for incense and not a burnt offering, a grain offering, or a drink offering (v. 9b). And finally, like all the other elements of the tabernacle, it needed to be cleansed by the blood of the yearly sin offering (v. 10).
What does it symbolize? Location hints at its purpose, as does the imagery of the smoke rising to God. In fact, while some scholars have said that the incense served the purpose of covering the odor of the priests and their work; it is better to see that the smoke did not simply remain in the Holy Place. It went behind the veil. While Israel’s high priest could not enter behind the veil, but once a year. The incense was constantly wafting into the presence of God.
And it is no wonder that altar of incense became synonymous with prayer in Old Testament and the New Testament.
Psalm 141:1-2 makes this clear: “A Psalm of David. O LORD, I call upon you; hasten to me! Give ear to my voice when I call to you! Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!
Luke 1:8-11 is also helpful. While this passage is in the New Testament, it must be remembered that it is still an Old Covenant age: Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.
So clearly, there is a connection between the altar of incense and prayer. But there is also a connection between this altar and the bronze altar that stands outside the holy place. Philip Ryken helps us relate the two:
[B]y calling it an altar, God was making a connection between what happened on the great bronze altar out in the courtyard and what happened on the little golden altar inside the tabernacle. Both altars were square, and both had horns rising up on their corners. So there was something similar about their shape. Also, they were both used at the same time of day. Remember that the priests offered incense at dawn and at dusk. Something else important was happening at the same time, both morning and evening: Priests were out in the courtyard offering a sacrificial lamb. These daily religious rituals were synchronized. Thus there was a close connection between the two altars, in both their design and their function… The connection between the two altars served as a daily reminder that the life of prayer depends on having a sacrifice for sin. What secures a place for us before the throne of God’s grace is the atoning blood that was shed for our sins. This is why God hears our prayers (Exodus:Saved for God’s Glory, 927).
Now for the question: How did Israel do at keeping this law?
2A. Nadab and Abihu, sons mentioned in Exodus, burn unauthorized fire in Leviticus 10, and are struck dead because of their willful—and perhaps drunken—disobedience.
Leviticus 10:1-3. Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, 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. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD has said, ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.'” And Aaron held his peace.
2B. Uzziah, King of Judah, overcome with pride attempts to offer incense on the altar without prayer and without a priest. The result?
2 Chron 26:16-21. But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was unfaithful to the LORD his God and entered the temple of the LORD to burn incense on the altar of incense. But Azariah the priest went in after him, with eighty priests of the LORD who were men of valor, and they withstood King Uzziah and said to him, “It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the LORD, but for the priests, the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense. Go out of the sanctuary, for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from the LORD God.” Then Uzziah was angry. Now he had a censer in his hand to burn incense, and when he became angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead in the presence of the priests in the house of the LORD, by the altar of incense. And Azariah the chief priest and all the priests looked at him, and behold, he was leprous in his forehead! And they rushed him out quickly, and he himself hurried to go out, because the LORD had struck him. And King Uzziah was a leper to the day of his death, and being a leper lived in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the LORD. And Jotham his son was over the king’s household, governing the people of the land.
In addition to these historical (and prophetic) accounts, if you look at Ezekiel 8, you will find the prophet touring the temple and seeing false worship in all corridors, thus contaminating any sort of prayer life or altar of incense. The question is: Are there any hopeful prophesies for a better altar of incense?
3. Malachi, in the midst of God’s judgment, looks to a day when incense will rise before God from all over the earth—perhaps indicating a day when the temple is larger than a mountain in Jerusalem.
Malachi 1:11. For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incese will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the LORD of hosts.
What about in the New Testament? Do we have evidence that Christ fulfills this? We do, and we will check it out tomorrow.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss