Part 6: The Golden Altar of Incense

With thanks to Flora O’Sullivan for her notes on the subject.

The significance of God’s order for setting up the Tabernacle

As we continue our reflections on the symbolism of the tabernacle the significance of the order in which it was set up becomes apparent. Beginning in Exodus 25 Moses was instructed to take up an offering for the construction of the tabernacle and all its furnishings. Then he was instructed to make the Ark which contained the tablets of the Law, followed by the table for the Bread of the Presence and the Menorah – signifying that he is both our life and light. He was then given instructions for the Tabernacle itself followed by the Altar of Burnt offering for the sacrifices. Following this the LORD told Moses to command the people to bring pure olive oil for the Menorah (Chap. 27), and gave instructions for the making of the elegant and intricately designed garments that the priests were to wear (Chap. 28). This all being accomplished, very explicit orders were given for the consecration of all these things (Chap.29). This consecration involved animal sacrifices – for before our worship is acceptable to God sin must be dealt with – and was to continue for seven days. After all this the LORD said, “Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God: they will know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the LORD their God” (Exodus 29:45).

It was only AFTER the seven days of sacrifices and consecration that God told Moses to make the Altar of Incense:
“Make an altar of acacia wood for burning incense. It is to be square, a cubit long and a cubit wide, and two cubits high–its horns of one piece with it. Overlay the top and all the sides and the horns with pure gold, and make a gold moulding around it. Make two gold rings for the altar below the moulding–two on opposite sides–to hold the poles used to carry it. Make the poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. Put the altar in front of the curtain that is before the ark of the Testimony–before the atonement cover that is over the Testimony–where I will meet with you. Aaron must burn fragrant incense on the altar every morning when he tends the lamps. He must burn incense again when he lights the lamps at twilight so incense will burn regularly before the LORD for the generations to come. Do not offer on this altar any other incense or any burnt offering or grain offering, and do not pour a drink offering on it. Once a year Aaron shall make atonement on its horns. This annual atonement must be made with the blood of the atoning sin offering for the generations to come. It is most holy to the LORD” (Exodus 30:1-10).

The ministry of Jesus, and particularly the last week – his triumphant entry into Jerusalem accompanied by crowds shouting “Hosanna” followed by his symbolic cleansing of the temple and denouncement of false religion, the final Passover meal with his disciples, his arrest and crucifixion and finally his triumphant resurrection on the first day of the week – all reflects the same order of consecration and sacrifice that preceded the making of the Altar of Incense. He came proclaiming the word of life, presenting himself as the bread of life that comes down from heaven and as the true light of the world. He instituted the New Covenant among his small band of faithful disciples who constituted the nucleus of the true temple in which his Spirit dwells. He then laid down his life as a willing sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. On the first day of the week, (which is also the eighth day), the same day that God had ordered Moses to make the Golden Altar of Incense, he arose from the dead to present his own blood as the final atonement for sin and to sit at his Father’s side as our permanent high priest who is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them (Hebrews 7:25).

Edersheim makes the observation that the Altar of Incense “symbolized prayer; and hence could only come in after the institution of the mediatorial priesthood.” This fellowship in prayer – the worshipful beholding of God, is the highest of all service, to which everything else stands related as the means towards this end.1

Animal sacrifices were never intended to cleanse man of sin. They were intended to point to the atoning sacrifice of the Saviour. And at the very moment the Saviour died on the cross, that curtain that had separated the Hebrew nation (and, in reality, all mankind) from God’s Presence—this curtain which was a type of Christ’s flesh (Heb. 10:20)—was ripped in two from top to bottom (Mt. 27:51), opening the Way into the Presence of God for all who would believe.

The symbolism of the Altar of Incense

The Altar of Incense which stood in the Holy Place was a type of Christ as our Intercessor. It was made of acacia wood (shittim wood) which speaks of Christ’s humanity; overlaid with pure gold, his divinity; with a crown of gold round about, his exaltation to the right hand of God, the horn at each corner of the altar signifying the power in prayer through our Intercessor. The rings and staves denoted mobility, for our prayers are heard from anywhere at any time; no longer need we go up to Jerusalem to worship in the temple for we have the assurance that our prayers and worship are presented faultless to our Father in heaven by our Advocate and Intercessor, Christ Jesus.

The Altar was placed directly in front of the Ark of the Presence, separated only by the thickly woven curtain (or veil). He himself said, “I am the way” (John 14:6), and the Altar of Incense signified that the only way that our confessions, prayers and petitions are heard by God is when they are mingled with the fragrant incense from the Golden altar that has been kindled from the coals of the altar of sacrifice. This was pointing to the baptism of fire that our Lord went through on the Cross of Calvary—the death of the Innocent for the guilty. Twice a day, at the morning (9 a.m.) and the evening (3 p.m.) sacrifices, the priests were to burn holy incense before the Lord. (It should be noted that Jesus was crucified at about 9 a.m. and died at about 3 p.m.). At the same time as the priest was offering the daily sacrifice on the Altar of burnt offering, those on whom the lot fell for the burning of incense and the trimming of the lamps would enter the Holy Place to perform their sacred duties.

While the priest burnt the incense in the Holy Place the worshippers that were assembled in the outer court offered up prayers to God. As we noted in the previous section, no worshipper could even approach the temple except via the altar of sacrifice. Sin separates us from God and has to be atoned for before he will hear our prayers. If we do not acknowledge the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ which cleanses us of all unrighteousness we cannot draw near to worship: Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear (Isaiah 59:1-2).

The sacrifice of our lips must be combined with the sacrifice upon the altar of burnt offering if it is to be acceptable to God. David wrote in the psalms: O LORD, I call to you; come quickly to me. Hear my voice when I call to you. May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice. Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips. (Psalm 141:1-3).

The smoke from the incense was symbolic of the prayers of the worshipers filling God’s temple and rising to heaven, to God’s throne of grace. In Revelation 5:8 we read, “And when he (Jesus) had taken the book (with seven seals that only He could open), the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours which are the prayers of the saints.” And in Revelation 8:3: 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.”

The account of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, who was serving as a priest in the temple, illustrates the importance and significance of this ritual as it related to the prayers of the worshippers: Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside (Luke 1:8-11). The angel Gabriel appeared to him at the right side of the altar of incense to tell him “your prayer has been heard.” When Zechariah betrayed his doubt by asking “How can I be sure of this?” he was struck dumb and remained unable to speak until the promise that the angel had given was fulfilled and his wife gave birth to the son who was to prepare the way for the Lord. This account underscores the attitude of reverence with which we enter into the presence of Almighty God. …the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him (Habakkuk 2:20).

We do not enter casually into the house of God: Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong. Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. As a dream comes when there are many cares, so the speech of a fool when there are many words (Ecclesiastes 5:1-3).

When God reveals his glory men are silenced. This reminds us of Job’s ordeal. After all the futile speculation everyone, including Job, was brought to complete silence when the LORD spoke: Then Job replied to the LORD: “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:1-6).

Not for common use

The incense used on the Altar was made precisely as God ordered and could not be duplicated for personal or any other use without incurring God’s judgement. It was holy unto the LORD:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Take fragrant spices–gum resin, onycha and galbanum–and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts, and make a fragrant blend of incense, the work of a perfumer. It is to be salted and pure and sacred. Grind some of it to powder and place it in front of the Testimony in the Tent of Meeting, where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you. Do not make any incense with this formula for yourselves; consider it holy to the LORD. Whoever makes any like it to enjoy its fragrance must be cut off from his people” (Exodus 30:34-38).

The special incense that was reserved for use in the temple had also to be salted. This figuratively spoke of our lips which must be sanctified by the coals from the altar. Isaiah’s vision of the glory of the heavenly temple left him in a state of utter despair and ruination until his lips were touched with the coals from the altar and his guilt removed:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” (Isaiah 6:1-6).

Salt was used as a preservative. In the same way our speech should be such that it counteracts the corruption of this world. We must endeavour to use every opportunity to speak words that bring God’s light and wisdom to bear on every situation. The apostle Paul wrote: Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone (Colossians 4:2-5).

Jesus said, “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:33-37).

Like Isaiah we live among men of unclean lips. Most of us are eager to find acceptance with our peers, but we should be more concerned with finding acceptance in God’s sight: May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer (Psalm 19:14).

As with everything in the sanctuary, the Golden Altar had to be cleansed by sprinkling with the blood of the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement before it was made acceptable for use in the service to the LORD. God also commanded that a holy anointing oil be made of myrrh, sweet cinnamon, sweet calamus, cassia and olive oil. All the articles in the Tabernacle, including, of course, the Altar of Incense as well as the congregation, the priests and their garments, were to be anointed with this holy oil. This brings to mind the apostle Paul’s exhortation that we are to be cleansed so that we will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work (2 Tim 2:20).

Like the sweet smelling perfume from the altar of incense, God spreads the fragrance of life and the knowledge of Christ through those who believe and submit to his purpose in Christ (2 Cor. 2:14). The apostle Paul wrote: But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life (2 Cor. 2:14-16). Is it not ironic that Maimonides remarked that the sweet aroma arising from the burning of the incense was to counteract the offensive smell of the sacrifices?

No “strange fire”

The Israelites were not only warned against using the incense for common purposes, but God demonstrated his wrath against Aaron’s sons for offering “strange fire” before the LORD:

Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered strange fire before the LORD, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD, Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD spoke of when he said: ‘Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honoured.’” Aaron remained silent. (Leviticus 10:1-3).

Nadab and Abihu’s sin was to act presumptuously, thinking that they could approach God in a manner of their own choosing. The “strange fire” is typical of the false doctrine that is being taught today that diminishes the importance of Christ’s work on the Cross and glorifies the ingenuity of man and religion. One often hears the platitude, “we all worship the same God,” but Scripture is clear that there is worship that is acceptable to God and that which is not. Nothing may be added to the finished work of Christ. Only that which has been purified through the sacrifice of Jesus is acceptable worship – anything else amounts to burning “strange fire” and will ultimately be judged in the same manner as were the sons of Aaron. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31).

Before the Lord punished the people of Israel by sending them into exile in Babylon he warned them through the prophet Jeremiah that he would not listen to them in their time of distress because they have returned to the sins of their forefathers, who refused to listen to my words. He rebuked them for burning incense to Baal and warned them that disaster was about to overtake them for their sins. He told Jeremiah, “Do not pray for this people nor offer any plea or petition for them, because I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their distress” (Jer. 11:9-15). Like wise the prophet Isaiah wrote: Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen (Isaiah 1:14). Many people cry out to God when they are in trouble, but he will not hear our prayers unless we come to him in sincere repentance through the Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Praying according to the will of God

Jesus said, “… the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name” (John 15:16), but we are warned against using the Lord’s name in vain. The seven sons of Sceva learnt this the hard way when they thought that they could invoke the name of Jesus for their own ends (Acts 19:13-20). What does it really mean to pray in His Name? According to the model that he gave us for prayer we approach God in awe and reverence, acknowledging him as King and humbly submitting to his will and purpose. We acknowledge that he sustains us, both physically and spiritually, and we ask him to forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. If this forms the basis of our prayers then we have this assurance: This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything ACCORDING TO HIS WILL, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us–whatever we ask–we know that we have what we asked of him (1 John 5:14).

Just as a diplomat representing his country does not express his private opinion, but that of his government, as ambassadors of Christ, when we pray in His name, our prayers must express his will. We may end our prayers by saying “in Jesus’ name,” but if we are merely praying according to our own selfish desires we are not praying in his name. The apostle James rebuked the believers for this very reason:

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God (James 4:1-4).

Jesus taught us to pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” but many people pray as though God should give his approval to their selfish plans and purposes. Such prayers amount to using the sacred incense for common purposes, a sin for which an Israelite was to be cut off from God’s holy assembly. The apostle Paul wrote, “…pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests” (Ephesians 6:18). To pray in the Spirit is to pray according to the will of God and not according to our own selfish will. Prayer is more than just making our requests known to God – it is hearing his still voice in the midst of all the noise and confusion of daily life: We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will (Romans 8:26-27). Just as the Spirit takes what belongs to Christ and makes it known to us, to pray in the Spirit is to pray in complete submission and harmony with his will and purpose. This is our priestly duty.

Regarding the two-fold intercession of Christ with the Holy Spirit, Samuel Chadwick says that, while Christ, the High Priest, intercedes in heaven, “the Holy Spirit intercedes within the Temple of the consecrated soul. There is such unity of purpose and harmony of method in the two intercessions that the two are one, and what is prayed by the intercessor on earth is prayed by the Intercessor in heaven. The Spirit takes of the things of Christ – the deep things of God, and makes intercession according to the Divine will. He works in us both to will and to do the good pleasure of His will.2 ” But “He cannot intercede in the heart of an unyielded will.”3

We are to pray in the name of Jesus, according to God’s will which is illuminated by the lamp, the word of God, through the Holy Spirit. Our prayers must be kindled, not by our own selfish desires, but by the coals from the Altar of sacrifice by which we offer ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – which is our spiritual act of worship. Then we will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:1). The prayers of the righteous kindled with the coals of the Altar of burnt offering and salted for preservation, rise as fragrant incense before the throne of grace.

Our priestly duty of Intercession

The duty of the priesthood was two-fold – representing the people before the LORD and representing the word of the LORD to the people. The priest who burnt the incense in the temple was symbolic of Christ who was destined to become our high priest offering prayers of intercession on behalf of the redeemed of Israel and the nations: 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). For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors (Isaiah 53:12).

In Jesus Christ Today, Neil R. Lightfoot defines the verb “intercede” (Gr.εντυγχάνω, entunchano) as having “a variety of meanings. It can mean to light upon, to fall in with, or meet with; to converse with, talk to, appeal to, petition or pray…” It is commonly used in the papyri for making a petition; for example, “…seeing that night and day I pray to God for you” (2 Timothy 1:3). The term is used infrequently in the New Covenant, and means to appeal to (Acts 25:24), to plead against (Rom. 11:2), or to plead for (Romans 8:27, 34). In Romans as well as in Hebrews, Christ is represented as interceding for His own. This He did while on earth (Luke 22:32; John 17:6-26); and this He continues to do (eutunchanein, present infinitive) in heaven (1 John 2:1). Even in the heavenly state He lives not for Himself but for others. As Priest, He stands at the mid-point between God and man, representing strengthless believers at the throne.” 4

The Greek word for mediator is (μεσίτης mesítes) which can also be translated as reconciler. Doesn’t that beautifully describe our Lord’s ministry for us? Through Him and Him only can we be reconciled to God because He was the only acceptable Sacrifice—the only One who could die for us and the only One who can intercede for us. Christ stands before Almighty God as our Advocate—mediating on our behalf: The apostle John wrote:

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense–Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:1).

Just as Jesus our High Priest is always interceding for us at the right hand of the Father, we too have a priestly duty of intercession:

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone– for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men–the testimony given in its proper time (1 Timothy 2:1-5).

Andrew Murray says that “It is in intercession that the Church is to find and yield its highest power. Christ’s life is one of ceaseless intercession – an example…” Paul exhorted the believers to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:16). Just as the temple in Jerusalem was intended to be a “house of prayer for all nations,” the symbol of fellowship with God, the temple built of living stones remains a house of prayer from which constant intercession for this fallen world goes up before God’s throne of grace:

He must burn incense again when he lights the lamps at twilight so incense will burn regularly before the LORD for the generations to come (the KJV translates this as a perpetual incense…. (Exodus 30:8).

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise–the fruit of lips that confess his name (Hebrews 13:15).


1. Alfred Edersheim – Bible History Old Testament p.215
2. Chadwick, pp. 80-81
3. Chadwick, pp. 82-83
4. Neil R. Lightfoot, Jesus Christ Today (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970), pp. 146-147
5. Andrew Murray, With Christ In The School of Prayer (Chicago: Fleming H. Revell Co. 1885), p. VI