1 “You shall make an altar on which to burn incense; you shall make it of acacia wood. 2 A cubit shall be its length, and a cubit its breadth. It shall be square, and two cubits shall be its height. Its horns shall be of one piece with it. 3 You shall overlay it with pure gold, its top and around its sides and its horns. And you shall make a molding of gold around it. 4 And you shall make two golden rings for it. Under its molding on two opposite sides of it you shall make them, and they shall be holders for poles with which to carry it. 5 You shall make the poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. 6 And you shall put it in front of the veil that is above the ark of the testimony, in front of the mercy seat that is above the testimony, where I will meet with you. 7 And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it. Every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, 8 and when Aaron sets up the lamps at twilight, he shall burn it, a regular incense offering before the Lord throughout your generations. 9 You shall not offer unauthorized incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering, and you shall not pour a drink offering on it. 10 Aaron shall make atonement on its horns once a year. With the blood of the sin offering of atonement he shall make atonement for it once in the year throughout your generations. It is most holy to the Lord.”
Smell is a powerful sense. It is not merely physical. It is also psychological. A smell, a scent has the ability to trigger in your mind memories of people or places or events. People often speak of the smell of their loved ones. Consider, for instance, how the smell of pipe tobacco might lead some to remember their grandfathers, or the smell of cologne might lead some to remember their fathers. For me, I think of the perfume that my grandmother wears. I have one remaining grandparent, my grandmother, and she wears a particular scent. If ever I come across it, a whole flood of memories comes rushing in. I was privileged to see her over Thanksgiving recently and once again smelled that perfume that will forever make me think of her.
Smell can trigger memories of places. The same can happen with epic events in your life. Take Zechariah, for instance, the father of John the Baptist. In Luke 1, we read of the angel coming to Zechariah to tell him the astonishing news that he was going to become a father. What is interesting is that when Zechariah received this shocking visitor and shocking revelation, he was doing his priestly duty in the temple: he was offering incense to the Lord.
8 Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9 according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
I suspect that for the remainder of his days, whenever Zechariah looked at John the Baptist, he smelled that incense. For a priest, however, it would have been an even more intense experience because of what the incense signified in their worship. For Zechariah, he had the combination of (1) a shocking announcement, (2) a powerful scent, and (3) the sacred dynamic of worship before a holy God.
What was this incense that Zechariah was offering and where did this idea come from?
Smell was a vital component of Israel’s worship. There were the smells of the sacrifices and the smells of the offerings. But in Exodus 30 we find the prescription for an intentionally olfactory dynamic to worship: the altar of incense.
The Altar of Incense: What?
The chapter begins by describing what the altar of incense is.
1 “You shall make an altar on which to burn incense; you shall make it of acacia wood. 2 A cubit shall be its length, and a cubit its breadth. It shall be square, and two cubits shall be its height. Its horns shall be of one piece with it. 3 You shall overlay it with pure gold, its top and around its sides and its horns. And you shall make a molding of gold around it. 4 And you shall make two golden rings for it. Under its molding on two opposite sides of it you shall make them, and they shall be holders for poles with which to carry it. 5 You shall make the poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold.
What are the basic elements of the altar of incense?
- It was an altar.
- Incense was burned on it.
- It was made of acacia wood.
- It was of a particular size. The measurements of the altar of incense in our terms would be “18 inches square and 3 feet high.”
- It was covered in gold.
- It had horns like the altar of sacrifice
- It had rings and poles for mobility, like all of the other elements of the tabernacle.
- The poles were likewise made of acacia wood and covered with gold.
What emerges from these details is a small table-like structure on which incense was burned.
The Altar of Incense: Where?
As with all the other elements of the tabernacle, the location of the altar of incense was very important.
6a-b And you shall put it in front of the veil that is above the ark of the testimony, in front of the mercy seat that is above the testimony
According to Exodus 30:6, then, the altar of incense was “in front of the veil,” that is, it was in the holy place but not in the Holy of Holies. Readers of the New Testament have been struck, however, by what appears to be a conflict between the description of the placement of the altar in Exodus 31 and the description of the placement of the altar in Hebrews 9.
2 For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. 3 Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, 4 having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant.
The writer of Hebrews said that the “Most Holy Place,” the Holy of Holies, “had the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant.” The problem is that Exodus appears to place the altar of incense outside the Holy of Holies but Hebrews appears to place the altar inside the Holy of Holies.
Space does not permit an exhaustive exploration of this question, but in a very interesting Christian Courier article by Wayne Jackson entitled, “The Altar of Incense: Where Was It Located?”, he proposes that the altar of incense belonged to the holy of holies but not technically in the holy of holies.
The most popular opinion among conservative scholars argues that Hebrews 9:4 refers not to a censer, but to the golden altar of incense. It is carefully pointed out, though, that this passage does not actually say that the altar was within the most holy place.
The text literally reads: “behind the second veil was a room which is called the holy of holies, having [echousa, present participle] a golden altar of incense.” The verb echo can be employed in the sense of “belonging to,” i.e., in close “association with” something (cf. Hebrews 6:9).
Marcus Dods observed that “the change from en he [within] of verse 2, to echousa [having] [Hebrews 9:2, “For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place.”] is significant, and indicates that it was not precisely its local relations he had in view, but rather its ritual associations” (1956, 328).
Theodor Zahn stated that the Hebrew writer was describing an “ideal relation” of the altar to the holy place (1973, 364).
John Ebrard contended that one is not required to interpret echousa “in a local sense” in this verse. As an example, he cited verse one of this very chapter: “Now even the first covenant had [echein] ordinances” (1859, 492).
That there was a very strong connection between the altar of incense and the most holy place is evinced by several suggestions in the Old Testament. Note the following.
First, there was a ritualistic association between the ark of the covenant and the altar of incense in that the high priest sprinkled blood upon both of them on the annual Day of Atonement (Exodus 30:10).
Second, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest carried live coals from the golden altar, along with incense, into the holy of holies (Leviticus 16:12). Thus, on that day, once a year, the fire pan, in which the coals were transported, became an extension of the altar. In that sense, it might be said that the altar “belonged to” the most holy place.
I quote that at length simply to observe that the altar of incense stood in a special relationship with the Holy of Holies though it appears that it actually resided outside of the veil in the holy place.
The Altar of Incense: Why?
Verses 6-10 offer us some interesting clues as to why incense was offered at all.
6 And you shall put it in front of the veil that is above the ark of the testimony, in front of the mercy seat that is above the testimony, where I will meet with you. 7 And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it. Every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, 8 and when Aaron sets up the lamps at twilight, he shall burn it, a regular incense offering before the Lord throughout your generations. 9 You shall not offer unauthorized incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering, and you shall not pour a drink offering on it. 10 Aaron shall make atonement on its horns once a year. With the blood of the sin offering of atonement he shall make atonement for it once in the year throughout your generations. It is most holy to the Lord.”
Obviously, the offering of fragrant incense was important, but nothing like an exhaustive statement as to the reason behind it is given. However, there are some very helpful insights offered and some very probable reasons that are not explicitly mentioned.
It may have served (in part) a practical function.
It should be briefly noted that the burning of incense may almost certainly have had a practical function that was not merely incidental. William Propp notes that “some suppose that it covered the stench of sacrifice” though he personally doubts “Israelites were as sensitive as Americans to the fetor of butchery, which in any case was mitigated by the appealing odor of sizzling flesh.” “Still,” Propp surmises, “the incense may have repelled insects attracted by slaughter in the Plaza.” Perhaps that is so, though it should be said that while these peripheral effects were like not incidental, neither were they primary. The intent of the altar of incense was certainly more doxological and theological than pragmatic.
It signified the presence of God with His people.
The unique relationship between the altar of incense and the Holy of Holies has already been noted. That is an important concept to grasp. The Lord says in verse 6 that the incense is to burn just outside the veil of the Holy of Holies “where I will meet with you.” In some sense, then, the burning of incense signified the presence of God with His people.
Perhaps there was something not only in the scent of the burning incense but also in the haze of its smoke. Roy Honeycutt believes that “the most likely background of the incense was the thundercloud often associated with the theophany, and especially the ‘pillar of cloud’ which was so characteristic of the exodus.” In other words, the smoke of the incense would have brought to mind the thunderclouds and pillar of smoke in and through which God had previously come before His people.
It might also be that the smoke of the burning incense made a statement by further obscuring the Holy of Holies. For instance, The IVP Bible Background Commentary sees the altar of incense as therefore “represent[ing] the Presence and protect[ing] humans by veiling the Presence from their eyes.” This seems most probably, for the presence of the smoke before the veil would have heightened the obvious facts that no man may see God and live and that, while God was clearly with and among His people, there was yet a distance between God and His people because of the fallenness of humanity. Thus, the burning incense would have highlighted the transcendence of God and the separation between Him and His people.
It signified the presence of God’s people before God.
Yet it was an offering to God. Meaning, the burning incense also communicated that God’s people were standing before Him. Again, the “where I will meet with you” in verse 6 is most important here. The smoke may have spoken to some extent of separation, but it also spoke of forgiveness and the presence of God. But if it spoke of the presence of God among His people it necessarily spoke of the presence of God’s people before Him!
In this regard, it is fascinating to note that Revelation twice links the imagery of burned incense with prayer. We see this first in Revelation 5:
6 And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7 And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. 8 And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
Then again, in Revelation 8:
1 When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. 2 Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. 3 And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, 4 and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.
That the incense altar meant the presence of God’s people before God and the offering of their prayers to Him was envisioned by John in Revelation and was certainly envisioned by Israel as well.
It was pleasing to God.
Furthermore, it was quite simply a pleasing and good offering that God received with gladness when offered first from the hearts of His people and then on the altar. While the Bible attributes physical characteristics to God in an effort to paint a picture of profound truths that might be accessible to us, that picture’s primary point is clear enough: God is pleased with the faithful offerings of His people.
Consider, for instance, how the aroma of delivered Noah’s sacrifice in Genesis 8 pleased the Lord.
20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. 22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”
In the New Testament, the loving and faithful actions of God’s people is depicted as a kind of incense to God. Thus, in Philippians 4, Paul would say this about the love that the Philippians had shown him in his imprisonment.
18 I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.
The significance of this is that it reveals that the incense was no crude, primitive, mechanical offering to appease an angry God. The point was not the incense. The point was the faithfulness of God’s people that was behind it. The point of sacrifice and offering has always been that they are pleasing and acceptable when they are offered in sincerity and integrity and faithfulness to God by His people. Without obedient hearts, they are just a show and are, in fact, noxious to God.
We might approach this another way by saying that the greatest, sweetest, and most pleasing incense that has ever been offered to God by His people was, is, and ever will be the faithful lives of His people.
It foretold the sweetest offering to come.
Perhaps this is why the New Testament depicts the obedience of Jesus on the cross as the ultimate sweet fragrance. It was the ultimate sweet fragrance because it was the greatest act of faithful, loving obedience the world has ever seen. Paul, in Ephesians 5, writes:
2 And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Once again we return to the foundational truth of all sacrifices and all offerings: they were preparatory, anticipatory, and foreshadowing. Every waft of incense smoke was yearning for the sweetest aroma of all: the obedience of Jesus to the point of death, even death on a cross.
The sweetest aroma to ever be carried to Heaven was the voice of Jesus saying, “Father, forgive them!”
What a fragrance! What an aroma! What a glory!
The incense altar of the tabernacle played its part and played it well.
Now let us offer the incense of faith, hope, and love. Let us follow the Son, take up our crosses, and follow Him.
 John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p.113.
 William H.C. Propp, Exodus 19-40. The Anchor Bible. Vol.2A. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2006), p.513.
 Roy L. Honeycutt, Jr. “Exodus.” The Broadman Bible Commentary. Vol.1, Revised (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1969), p.430.
 John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews and Mark W. Chavalas, p.113.