THE TABERNACLE : NR 6
THE ALTAR OF INCENSE
Scripture: Exodus 30: 1 – 8; Hebrews 7: 24, 25, 9: 24
On the altar of incense, no animal sacrifices were brought, but the priest had to burn incense there. Particularly once per year on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16) when the High priest entered behind the curtain.
What is the meaning of this pleasant aroma?
Ps 141:2 “May my prayer be set before you like incense”. Also Rev 5:8 and 8:3-4 – a direct connection between incense and prayer. Rev 5:8 – the incense IS the prayers of the believers. Rev 8 – makes mention of the golden altar and of incense that goes up to God together with the prayers of the believers.
In antiquity, the purpose of burning incense was to pay HOMAGE. On the way, a red carpet is rolled out for dignitaries.
We mostly regard prayer as “ask and receive” – “Please give” and “please can You”. Shopping list.
The altar of incense though, shows us that prayer is about GIVING. But then not God who must give, but for me who is giving myself in paying homage.
How can that be? What have we, as insignificant humans, to honour the eternal God with. We have nothing that we can give as a pleasing aroma.
One receives peace of mind when one realises that it is the LORD who is giving the incense on the altar. Yes, it is the human who is praying to pay homage, but in reality, it comes from God. It is His incense. The incense is burnt with the coals which are taken from the bronze altar – there where the atonement offering was sacrificed. You see a very clear correlation. The atonement sacrifice is the only merit by which prayer can succeed. Without the coals from the bronze altar, the incense from the altar of incense could not burn. Therefore: Our insignificant prayers have value only because the atonement sacrifice of Jesus makes them effective.
That is why we do not have to ask in distress: “but how/what can I give in prayer”. Prayer is now no longer a stern master who mercilessly drives me, and leaves me full of feelings of guilt. When we start to understand the Scriptures’ teaching about the altar of incense, prayer becomes such a thrilling matter, that we WANT to pray. Only because you understand it correctly.
See whether you can follow it with me. I want to summarise it in three main points:
1 Look at the place where the altar of incense is placed. Where is the incense set to burn? In front of the curtain that is before the Ark of the Testimony and the Atonement Cover. That was the throne of God. The altar of the incense was situated so close to the Ark that Heb 9:4 says in retrospect that they were together.
Yet there was a barrier: the heavy curtain separated them.
The heavy curtain was a barrier separating God and man (as a result of the Fall in paradise) before Jesus came. The curtain prevented the aroma of the incense to reach the throne. Except once a year on the Day of Atonement when the High Priest took the incense behind the curtain for the aroma to fill the Holy of Holies like a cloud. Only then did he sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice (from the bronze altar) on the Atonement Cover.
During that short time, the curtain was – so to speak – “removed”. The atonement blood “removed” the curtain to enable the incense (prayer) to reach the Ark, and so the priest could remain alive in the immediate presence of God.
That was a foretaste of how it would be after Jesus’s death when the curtain was permanently torn from top to bottom and the pleasant aroma of prayer could 365 days, 24 hours rise to the throne – thanks to the blood of Jesus Christ. By His blood, the curtain of separation was permanently removed.
The pleasing aroma of our prayers now means so much to God the Father, because it shows that the barrier has been removed by the blood of His Son. In that way, Christ now becomes the pleasant aroma that rises to God by our prayers. That is the way how the Christ-believer pays homage in prayer. We present CHRIST, who is living in our lives and who removed the curtain of separation by His blood.
Prayer is true prayer when God the Father sees that Christ is alive in our lives. Jesus is the red carpet/garland/homage paid to the Father. That is why prayer gives the Father so much joy, because it is homage paid to Him, and all the time the homage paid to Him is His own Son.
One can almost say: If we neglect our prayers, we deprive God of the joy of His own Son. Put positively: He highly regards our prayers, because He receives the honour through Jesus himself who removed all barriers by His death and resurrection.
Do you see that it is absolutely not about us? It is not about our methods/correctness/fine words/our earnestness/devotion. It is not our piousness that passes a heavenly test – so that our prayers can be effective and acceptable! What a deliverance!
2 WHO had to set the incense alight? Only the priest. No one else. It was the work of the priests to stand as mediators between the people and God. They had to make the people acceptable to God by making sacrifices and interceding on their behalf. That is why the incense first had to pass through the priest’s hands. He had to first “purify” the incense.
Significant that, according to Luke 1, Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist) as a priest, was in the temple at the hour for the lighting of the incense. And, at the same moment, the nation was standing outside, praying. You see the connection between the prayer and the burning of incense. But see also the role of the priest. His lighting of the incense makes the prayers of the people acceptable before God.
Today there is only one priest (Hebrews 7): Christ at the right hand of the Father. He is the link, the Counselor. He recommends our prayers to God. He intercedes.
That is the second way in which we pay homage to the Father through prayer. We do NOT draw God’s attention to ourselves, but to his Son at His right hand as High Priest who makes our prayers acceptable by His intercession. And how does the Father not rejoice Himself in this!
However pathetic our prayers may be all that matters is the Priest at the throne. Christ is the actual fulfilment of the altar of incense as the Great Counselor (Heb 9:24) – continuously offering incense prayer (at the altar of incense) in favour of those whom He bought with His blood (at the bronze altar).
So wonderful: At the bronze altar Jesus dies to reconcile sinners with God. At the golden altar of incense, Jesus LIVE forever to intercede for those whom He reconciled – His LIFE in His Father’s presence deals with OUR daily struggle and defectiveness, and in that way, we are daily delivered by Him who is standing in front of God as our Advocate in His presence – as a pleasant aroma. In that way, we are PRESERVED forever and ever. In that way, we remain saved.
3 How is the incense prepared? Exactly according to the plan the LORD gave for it. Incense is not to be prepared according to man’s pious arbitrariness and own discretion, but the way the LORD decided.
That is the entire point: We cannot do it the way the Lord wants it to be done! We just simply do not know how to do it. We do not have the ability. We cannot follow His recipe. We are completely clothed with weakness. We are NOT prayer giants!
Romans 8:26: “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us in our weakness”. Who is this talking about here? The great man-of-prayer, Paul. But look what he is saying here: WEAKNESS. He is including himself because he is talking about “we”.
The Holy Spirit through helps us in our weaknesses. He intercedes with groans that words cannot express. There is a Helper present in our lives that assists. That way only the incense can be according to the will and plan of God.
In ourselves, we just simply do not know how, but we can fully depend on the Counselor (who was given to us at Pentecost). Only He knows exactly how to give honour to the Father. He makes our prayers acceptable to the will of God. And the Father hears the groans of the SPIRIT when we pray. And that gives the Father great joy. It is like a pleasing aroma.
When we look at prayer like that, we realise how glorious it really is. It is not only a shopping list with which we run to the Father. It does not depend on our fine and correct expressions. Also not on our earnestness and piousness. It is not meant to create endless tension together with feelings of guilt (because we are not praying long enough or correct enough according to the standards of the prayer gurus).
No, it is something wonderful. To know that by HIS work through us, we can bring glory to the Lord all day long. May this liberating Gospel message encourage and motivate each one of us to be men and women of prayer.
Thank God for the altar of incense in that tabernacle, which throughout the centuries, has reflected a glorious message. A message which we can understand and experience here in 2022 through our connectedness with our Lord.
Translated by Marthie Wilson