The Altar of Incense

Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it. Every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps at twilight, he shall burn it” (vv. 7–8).

- Exodus 30:1–10

Daily life in the ancient world was anything but clean and sanitary, especially in agrarian societies. Living in close proximity to their animals, the smells and other elements of animal life objectionable to the human senses could not be escaped.

On account of this unpleasantness, incense was burned in the king’s presence to mask the odors of the livestock and to pay tribute to his position. It is therefore not a surprise that incense was also burned before the one, true creator God in the tabernacle of Israel, which was His earthly throne room under the old covenant. Exodus 30:1–10 describes the altar of incense that was placed alongside the lampstand and the table of showbread in the Holy Place outside the Most Holy Place (40:1–8).

Like the table of showbread and the lampstand, the altar of incense was made with materials fit for a king — gold and acacia wood (vv. 1–3). It was also outfitted with poles by which it could be transported like the table was (vv. 4–5). The similarities stop there, however, for while the lampstand and the table illustrated God’s work to provide His people with light, bread, and other necessities, the altar of incense represented work that the Israelites offered unto the Lord — the work of prayer.

Scripture often likens incense to the prayers of God’s people (Ps. 141:2; Rev. 5:8). This makes sense when we consider what happened on the altar of incense. Fine spices were mixed together and left to smolder on the altar day and night (Ex. 30:7–8, 34–38), the ascending smoke symbolizing that what was offered there went up to God, much as our prayers go up to Him. Being set outside the veil, the priest would see the smoke penetrate the curtain into the Holy of Holies even though He could not see past the curtain (v. 6). And is this not like prayer in that we know our prayers enter heaven itself even though we cannot yet see into that place?

The altar of incense reminded Israel to pray and assured the people their prayers were sweet-smelling to the Lord. Yet they were not inherently sweet, for atonement had to be made for the altar once a year (v. 10). John Calvin comments, “The altar of incense was purified by the sprinkling of blood, that they might learn that their prayers obtained acceptance through sacrifices.” Today, the perfect sacrifice of Jesus alone ensures that God hears our prayers (Prov. 15:29, 2 Cor. 5:21).

Coram Deo

Only authorized incense could be offered on the altar (Ex. 30:9), which shows that God is zealous to determine how He is worshiped. In fact, the Lord hates the worship and prayers of all those who do not approach Him in Christ Jesus, and so we must never join in interfaith services with an aim to worship the true God. Let us be zealous to protect the purity of worship and prayer, offering such things to Him only according to what He commands.

Passages for Further Study

1 Kings 8:22–53
Malachi 1:11
Colossians 4:2
Revelation 8:1–4

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 500 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred (where applicable). If no such link exists, simply link to www.ligonier.org.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: From Ligonier Ministries, the teaching fellowship of R.C. Sproul. All rights reserved. Website: www.ligonier.org | Phone: 1-800-435-4343