Altar of Incense

The Tabernacle's Altar of Incense Symbolized Prayer

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Priest Tending the Altar of Incense. Getty Images

The altar of incense in the wilderness tabernacle reminded the Israelites that prayer must play a central role in the life of God's people.

God gave Moses detailed instructions for the construction of this altar, which stood in the Holy Place between the golden lampstand and the table of showbread.  The altar's inner structure was made of acacia wood, overlaid with pure gold.  It was not large, about 18 inches square by 36 inches high. 

On each corner was a horn, which the high priest would dab with blood on the annual Day of Atonement.  Drink and meat offerings were not to be made on this altar.  Golden rings were placed on both sides, which would accept poles used to carry it when the entire tabernacle was moved.

Priests brought the burning coals for this altar in from the brazen altar in the tabernacle courtyard, carrying them in censers.  The sacred incense for this altar was made from gum resin, a tree sap; onycha, made from a shellfish common in the Red Sea; galbanum, made from plants in the parsley family; and frankincense, all in equal amounts, along with salt.  If anyone made this holy incense for their own use, they were to be cut off from the rest of the people.

God was uncompromising in his orders. Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, offered "unauthorized" fire before the Lord, disobeying his command.  Scripture says fire came from the Lord, killing them both. (Leviticus 10:1-3).

Priests would refill this special mixture of incense on the golden altar in the morning and evening, so a sweet-smelling smoke issued from it day and night.

Although this altar was in the Holy Place, its fragrant odor would rise above the veil and fill the inner holy of holies, where the ark of the covenant sat.  Breezes might carry the smell outside into the tabernacle court, among the people offering sacrifices.  When they smelled the smoke, it reminded them their prayers were constantly being carried to God.

The altar of incense was considered part of the holy of holies, but since it required tending so often, it was placed outside that chamber so regular priests could care for it daily.

Meaning of the Altar of Incense:

Sweet-smelling smoke from incense represented the people's prayers ascending to God.  Burning this incense was a continuous act, just as we are to "pray without ceasing." (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

Today, Christians are assured their prayers are pleasing to God the Father because they are offered by our great high priest, Jesus Christ.  Just as the incense carried a  perfumed odor, our prayers are scented with the righteousness of the Savior. In Revelation 8:3-4, John tells us the prayers of the saints ascend to the altar in heaven before the throne of God.

As the incense in the tabernacle was unique, so is Christ's righteousness.  We cannot bring prayers to God based on our own false claims of righteousness but must offer them sincerely in the name of Jesus, our sinless mediator. 

Bible References

Exodus 30:17, 31:8; 1 Chronicles 6:49, 28:18; 2 Chronicles 26:16; Luke 1:11; Revelation 8:3, 9:13.

Also Known As

Golden altar.

Example

The altar of incense filled the tent of meeting with fragrant smoke.

Sources

amazingdiscoveries.org, dictionary.reference.com, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, General Editor; The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, R.K. Harrison, Editor; Smith's Bible Dictionary, William Smith