The third piece of furniture found in the Holy Place was simply a table used to burn incense upon. Yet it occupied a very unique position and offered a very different purpose than the Golden Candlestick and Table of Shewbread. In addition, it bore the title of "altar" from which we may observe a peculiarity in that no animals were ever slain upon it. It was at the Altar of Incense that Zacharias met the angel who told him he would have a son named John. Then too, this golden altar plays a part in the seven trumpets of Revelation 8. All of this makes the Altar of Incense a fascinating subject for this lesson.
Our text gives a complete description of the Altar of Incense and the associated service of the priests. Let us consider the following details each of which has a significant bearing on our further study:
Like most of the other furniture in the Tabernacle, the Altar of Incense was made of shittim would overlaid with pure gold. It was a square shaped table 1 cubit in width (1½ feet) and slightly taller (9 inches) than the Table of Shewbread being 2 cubits high (3 feet). It had a golden crown or border around the top as did the Table of Shewbread, and golden rings for transporting it with staves. Like the Brazen Altar, the Golden Altar (as it is also called) had horns at each of its 4 corners.
Of all the furniture in the Holy Place, the Altar of Incense had the most significant and important position for it was placed just in front of the veil separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. Our text is someone vague about which side of the veil the altar was situated and this is further confused by the reference to a "golden censor" being in the Most Holy Place (Hebrews 9:4) which some take to mean the Altar of Incense. However, according to Josephus and other Jewish authorities, its location was in the Holy Place. The most important point to consider though is that its position is said to be "before the Lord" (1 Kings 9:25) where God would meet with them.
Twice a day the priest was to burn incense upon the Golden Altar so that there would be perpetual incense before God: in the morning when he trimmed the wicks of the Golden Candlestick and in the evening when he lit them. Leviticus 16:12-13 explains how the priest would put burning coals (believed to be from the Brazen Altar) into a censor and put the incense upon these coals to burn it. The incense was to be a special formula of spices (Exodus 30:34-38) which was not to be duplicated for any other use. Only incense was to be offered upon this altar - no burnt animals nor grain.
We learned about the way to God from the furniture in the Outer Court, and we have learned much already about the way with God from the Golden Candlestick and Table of Shewbread. Now let us complete the picture of life in the presence of God by understanding the meaning and purpose of the Altar of Incense. Note that this time God employed the sense of smell to deliver His message. The incense was said to have a sweet odour in contrast to the sweet savour (that is taste) with the Brazen Altar.
From the special position before the Lord which this table occupied, we might suspect that there might be a difference in its meaning. Though the priests most likely enjoyed the smell of the incense, the sweet odour was directed (upward) more towards God. The burning of incense was used by the Egyptians in their worship of idols as well as idolatrous Israel. Considering all of this was well as the fact that this piece of furniture is referred to as an altar, it becomes clear that the meaning behind the Golden Altar has more to do with our relationship to God than our benefits from His relationship to us. The Golden Candlestick and the Table of Shewbread taught us about the quality of our life with God, but the Altar of Incense teaches us what our life ought to be like towards God.
What must the priests have thought when they saw the incense burning upon the coals and smelled that wonderful fragrance throughout the dwelling place of God?
There is definitely a relationship between incense and prayer. David said, "Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense" (Psalm 141:2). In Luke 1:10 we find the people of Israel praying at the time the incense was to be burned in the Temple. Revelation 5:8 says that the 24 elders had censors full of odours, which are the prayers of saints . The smoke of incense and sweet smell wafting up toward heaven is a picture of prayer (Revelation 8:4). Thus, life in the presence of God ought to consist of continual prayer unto God as Paul wrote "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Many Bible commentators stop with the connection between incense and prayer, and therefore miss out on the rest of the picture. Though an altar was usually a place where animal sacrifice took place, it was also a place where God was worshipped. Obviously this latter meaning is why this table of incense was referred to as an altar. The pleasant offering of fragrant spices "before the Lord" was a picture of worship or praise unto God. Nebuchadnezzar worshipped Daniel by offering sweet odours unto him (Daniel 2:46, see also Jeremiah 44:19). An even better example can be found in Isaiah 6:3-4 which contains one of the greatest verses of praise in Scripture. God's house was filled with smoke from incense and the Seraphims cried out, "Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory". Life in the presence of God ought to be one of worship, adoration, and praise of God which is the fulfillment of Revelation 4:11, " Thou art worthy, O Lord , to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created ".
If we consider, as perhaps did the priests, that God had created certain plants and flowers to give off a pleasant smell when crushed or burned, we might reach yet another conclusion from the Altar of Incense. According to Ephesians 2:10, we are created in Christ Jesus unto good works , which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them . Did you know that when you do right it is a sweet smell unto God? Paul told the Philippians that the gifts they had sent him were "an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, wellpleasing to God" (Philippians 4:18, see also Hebrews 13:16). Thus life in the presence of God involves pleasing Him through our good works. Paul says in Colossians 1:10 that we are to walk "worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work" (see also Colossians 3:20; Hebrews 13:21; 1 John 3:22).
There is a very important relationship between the Altar of Incense and the Altar of Burnt Offerings which is crucial to our understanding of everything that has just been written. As we shall see, missing this point could prove to be fatal. Not only were coals brought from the Brazen Altar in order to burn the incense, but on the yearly Day of Atonement blood from the sin offering was applied to the horns of the Golden Altar. The link between these altars shows that the offering of incense was dependent on the offering of an animal sacrifice. The blood which brought remission of sin was needed before the incense could be offered. Clearly prayer, worship, and good works are only acceptable unto God when sin has been properly taken care of - an atonement has been made. To put this in a more general way, as illustrated by the unique compound of incense, if we are going to worship God it must be performed in a way that is ordained and acceptable by God.
To further emphasize this let us consider the two times in Scripture when God's commands for the practice involving the Altar of Incense were disobeyed. The first time occurred shortly after the Tabernacle had been built when Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron, burned "strange fire" before the Lord. The result in the case was a swift execution by fire which came from God and devoured them (Leviticus 10:1-2). Much later in time, King Uzziah tried to offer incense before God. Because he was not a priest, God smote him with leprosy (2 Chronicles 26:18). All of these men were probably very sincere about worshipping God, but they failed to come to God on His terms. All such worship is in vain!
Though one can find references to the Golden Altar and burning incense throughout the rest of the Bible, one of the most interesting is found in Revelation 8. Somehow the Altar of Incense is linked to the awful judgements which take place when the 7 angels blow their 7 trumpets. The Altar of Incense is seen in heaven it the prelude to these judgements, taking place after the angels have been given their trumpets but before the first one is sounded. Now that we have a better understanding of this altar, perhaps we can better understand what God was trying to indicate with the trumpet judgements.
We find in verses 3-4 a somewhat familiar scene though it involves an angel rather than a priest and it takes place in heaven. Here one was about to offer incense upon the Golden Altar before the throne of God just as we have studied in the Tabernacle. Then strangely in verse 5 the angel casts the censor containing the fire and incense into the earth as if the earth were now to become what the Golden Altar had been in the Tabernacle. As the 7 Seals surrounded the Title Deed to the earth which Jesus was about to redeem, perhaps the 7 Trumpets show the steps toward making the earth a place of acceptable worship unto God.
This thought may seem more reasonable when we consider the story of Isaiah's call to service in Isaiah 6:1-8. In verse 6 of that passage, a Seraphim took a coal from the altar and touched the mouth of Isaiah. This result of this action is given in verse 7, "Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged". Consider too what happens after the last trumpet is blown in Revelation 11:15-19 when a voice from heaven cries out, "The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever". To this the 24 elders fall to their faces and worship God, and the Temple of God is opened in heaven revealing the Ark of the Covenant. Someday the earth will become the dwelling place of God and its inhabitants are going to worship Him proclaiming His glory and excellence for all eternity!