Updated: Nov 25, 2022
The Altar of Incense: “What’s That Smell?”
As the incense would lay upon the hot coals a sweet-smelling aroma or a fragrance would begin to rise. Often, this aroma is just called smoke, but it is not ordinary smoke, it was a “sweet” smelling fragrance or aroma.
The prophet Isaiah speaks of the Temple as a “house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7). In the book of Revelation 5:8 and 8:3-4 (KJV), written by the disciple John “the beloved,” near the end of his life, John has a revelation of heaven and envisions a golden censor full of incense:
And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints.
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 before God out of the angel’s hand.
When Aaron burned the incense at the golden altar the entire holy place was filled with the aroma. This sweet-smelling aroma went beyond the holy place as it wafted past the entrance to the tabernacle and eventually beyond the gate of the tabernacle. As one would approach the gate the smell of this incense could be detected. According to Jewish tradition, the sweet aroma of this incense could be detected approximately a quarter of a mile away from the Temple during the days of Jesus.
Purpose of the Altar
The altar of incense and the incense burned have both become a symbol of prayer and worship. King David paints a word picture in Psalm 141 (JPS 1917) when he describes the incense as a prayer:
Lord, I have called Thee; make haste unto me; give ear unto my voice, when I call unto Thee. Let my prayer be set forth as incense before Thee, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.
The burning of the morning and evening incense was connected to the menorah - the source of illumination inside the holy place of the tabernacle. The holy place had three holy vessels, a table of showbread, a menorah, and the golden altar of incense. In the holy place, we learn the truths of our Lord. The light of the menorah illuminated the holy place in the same way the spirit of the Lord illuminates our soul with wisdom, discernment, and direction. He guides us. The table of showbread is a reminder that we must acknowledge our dependence upon the Lord and that it is he who sustains us with our daily bread. The altar of incense is the place of prayer. Prayer connects us to the Almighty, who hears the yearnings of our hearts.
The Position of the Altar - Disagreement
The position of the altar is both interesting and disputed. “And thou shalt put it before the veil that is by the ark of the testimony, before the ark-cover that is over the testimony, where I will meet with thee” (Exodus 30:6). Just where is “before the veil” and “before the ark-cover?” Scholars place the altar in two very different positions within the holy place.
Christian commentators generally place the altar of incense directly in front of the position of the ark of the covenant and close to the veil that separates the holy place from the holy of holies. However, some Jewish commentators place the altar of incense near the center of the holy place after the entrance to the tabernacle (see illustrations below).
Aaron was instructed to burn incense of sweet spices in the morning when he “set in order” or dressed the individual lamps of the Menorah and again in the evening (twilight) when he lit the lamps (30:7-8).
The coals for burning the incense had to come from the altar of burnt sacrifice Aaron to burn incense of sweet spices in the morning when he “set in order” or dressed the individual lamps of the Menorah and again in the evening (twilight) when he lit the lamps (30:7-8).
The coals of fire used on the Altar of Incense were taken from the Altar of burnt Sacrifice which was originally lit by the Lord (Leviticus 9:24).
The burning of the incense was connected to the morning and evening maintenance of the Menorah. Authentic worship and prayer are illuminated with wisdom and revelation is imparted when our worship is illuminated by wisdom – (Exodus 30:8). This altar was the place of prayer and praise to the Lord. The hot coals from an earlier time had to be replaced with fresh burning coals for the scent of fresh incense to waft throughout the holy place.
When I am invited to a congregation to teach about the golden altar of incense, I often accompany my teaching sessions dressed as the high priest and burn incense on the altar. This is a unique experience for many. The incense is very potent, so I only use a quarter teaspoon. I have found that if I place too much incense upon the hot coal of charcoal it produces less smoke.
After the priest served his assigned duty at the golden altar, he would exchange his linen garments for his regular garments before departing for home. His family could smell the incense he had burned during his service work. Whenever I return home, my family knows when I've taught on the golden altar of incense. How do they know? The sweet scent of the incense can be detected on my hands and hair.
God was the source of fire on both of the altars.
After God lit the original fire of the Altar of Burnt Sacrifice it was the responsibility of the priests to keep the fire burning day after day. No other fire is allowed. This was the pattern set forth by God. Once the fire of our soul comes alive through the work of the Lord, it then becomes our responsibility to keep the coals glowing in our spiritual life.
Prohibition Against Strange Fire
We learn that “strange” fire led to the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, who did not obey the command of the Lord and offered strange fire. Only that which originated with God was allowed. There is debate as to what the "strange fire" was. Regardless, the results were devastating.
And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said unto Aaron: 'This is it that the Lord spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.' And Aaron held his peace. And Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said unto them: 'Draw near, carry your brethren from before the sanctuary out of the camp.' So, they drew near, and carried them in their tunics out of the camp, as Moses had said. Leviticus 10:1-6, JPS 1917
Symbolic Meaning of the Incense
The burning of the morning and evening incense was connected to the menorah - the source of illumination inside the holy place of the tabernacle. The holy place had three holy vessels, the table of showbread, a menorah, and the golden altar of incense. In the holy place, we learn the truths of our Lord. The light of the menorah illuminated the holy place in the same way the spirit of the Lord illuminates our soul with wisdom, discernment, and direction. He guides us. The table of showbread and the replacement of the bread each sabbath reminds us we must acknowledge our dependence upon the Lord and that it is he who sustains us and gives us the ability to make wealth.
Just beyond the veil separating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies was the innermost sacred space of the Tabernacle (Hebrew Mishkan - "dwelling place"). Beyond the veil was the Ark of the Covenant which contained the written covenant between man and the Almighty. This was the sacred space, not where the Lord resided, but where He chose to reveal his presence - the Shekinah (divine presence).
Exodus 25:20-22 JPS 1917
"And the cherubim shall spread out their wings on high, screening the ark-cover with their wings, with their faces one to another; toward the ark-cover shall the faces of the cherubim be. And thou shalt put the ark-cover above upon the ark; and in the ark thou shalt put the testimony that I shall give thee. And there I will meet with thee, and I will speak with thee from above the ark-cover, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel."
The priest burned the incense upon the golden altar and lifted his hands toward heaven, he was assured the Almighty heard the intercessions, prayers, and praises of the people, even if those prayers were no more than a mere groaning from the heart. The people depended upon the priest to serve as a holy vessel before the presence of the Lord. The priest had been set apart, sanctified, and made holy for this very purpose.
To be renewed daily we must pray daily. In the tabernacle, there were set times for prayer- morning and evening. Each one of us can benefit from setting aside regular time for study, prayer, and worship. It is not easy with all of the distractions we live with. When did Goliath come out to taunt and make fun of the army of Saul? Twice a day for forty days, Goliath came out every morning and evening. He threw his unholy insults to distract the military during the scheduled times of prayers back at the Temple in Jerusalem (1 Samuel 17:16).
Each morning and evening coals from the altar of burnt sacrifice were removed and carried inside to the Holy Place to be placed upon the golden altar to produce fresh fire for the incense to be burned before the presence of the Lord. If we want fresh revelation and wisdom, we must remain spiritually dependent or connected to the Lord. This connection is renewed during prayer. He hears our prayers. The hot coals from the brazen altar represented the "fire from heaven" and the fresh coals released the aroma from the daily incense which represented the praise, prayer and worship of the people.
The Risk of Offence
I have a concern that may offend some of my readers. It is not my intention to offend anyone but to speak to an issue I have noticed. There are times we must speak the truth as we see it at the risk of offending someone. I assume that risk now.
I sense that we have placed an extraordinary amount of pressure on our clergy, worship leaders, praise teams, choirs, and instrumentalists to produce the best "performance" possible for each service. It is natural to want to offer our best before the Lord. We must remember and be sensitive to the fact we are in a sacred space not just an auditorium with religious symbols. We are in a place that is set aside, made holy, and sanctified for praise, prayers, and worship of the Lord of Hosts. We stand before the presence of the Almighty! If we had an appointment to meet the President, Prime Minister, or, King, of our country, we would do whatever was necessary to prepare ourselves for this momentous occasion. Should we not treat our times of worship even more so? We are entering the presence of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.
The Natural Will Never Usher in the Supernatural
The "natural" will not usher in the "supernatural." Our natural talents of speaking, singing, leading, and even using our voices in prayer cannot become a substitute for the spiritual gifts the Lord endows upon us. The altar of incense was connected or aligned with both the veil of separation and the ark of the covenant. This is a reminder that authentic worship and prayer are centered upon or aligned with the Word of God - the two tablets in the ark. Our praise and worship must acknowledge His presence or Shekinah!
In my humble opinion, we have placed too much pressure upon our worship leaders and choirs to perform rather than lead us in authentic praise and worship. When people participate in our services, many are broken. They may have experienced layoffs from work, financial hardships, unexpected medical bills, sickness, strained relationships, deaths in the family and disappointments they cannot describe in human words. Or they may experienced some of the best days in their life and they want to come to express thanksgiving to the Lord. Both enter the sanctuary with a sense of anticipation or expectation. They are hoping and praying that their heart will be made whole in the Lord's house. Some days they are hoping beyond hope that the words of a prayer, Bible reading, lyrics of a song, will lift their spirits. They are pleading for that one moment to enter into the presence of the Holy One to sense His understanding, forgiveness, mercy, grace, and direction. Our music should pierce the darkness of the soul and prepare our hearts for the genuine adoration of the Holy One of Israel. There is a difference between performance and praise.
I've talked with numerous people who are afraid to volunteer to pray, read from the Bible/Torah, sing, and even read announcements in the service. Why? They fear someone in the congregation will be critical if they don't do it perfectly! Lord, please help us. Why is it that when our children come to the platform and sing or read, we get tearful, or we clap even when they stumble or forget their lines? It is because their singing and reciting is pure. It is true praise and not a performance.
My prayer is once we have concluded our praise, worship, and prayers that those we come in contact with that day will be able to sense we have been in a holy place in the presence of the Lord Almighty.