The Purpose of the Wilderness Tabernacle: The Altar of Incense
This is part twelve of the Tabernacle series that studies the Old Testament structure that enabled the children of Israel to meet with a Holy God and typifies the New Testament Christ who made that possible for all.
This installment will cover the lessons of the Altar of Incense. The spices that were used with this item of furniture were already discussed in part eight of this series and therefore, won't be covered in depth here, apart from brief mentions that apply to this furnishing's purpose.
The Altar of Insense: A Meeting Place
These were the instructions for the Incense Altar.
a cubit shall be its length and a cubit its width—it shall be square—and two cubits shall be its height. Its horns shall be of one piece with it. And you shall overlay its top, its sides all around, and its horns with pure gold; and you shall make for it a molding of gold all around. Two gold rings you shall make for it, under the molding on both its sides. You shall place them on its two sides, and they will be holders for the poles with which to bear it. You shall make the poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. And you shall put it before the veil that is before the ark of the Testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the Testimony, where I will meet with you.
— Exodus 30:1-6
The phrase "I will meet with you", underlined in the verse above, is mentioned three times in reference to the Tabernacle construction and arrangement. The first two appearances of this phrase are in reference to the Altar of Incense with its second mention occuring with the instructions for the Holy fragrance that was burned upon this altar.
And the Lord said to Moses: “Take sweet spices, stacte and onycha and galbanum, and pure frankincense with these sweet spices; there shall be equal amounts of each. You shall make of these an incense, a compound according to the art of the perfumer, salted, pure, and holy. And you shall beat some of it very fine, and put some of it before the Testimony in the tabernacle of meeting where I will meet with you
— Exodus 30:34-36
As was discussed in part eight of this series concerning the fragrance, it was learned that the prescription of spices was carefully designed to affect both memory and emotional experience both of which are tied to the reward center of our brains. The aroma of the presence of God was designed to connect us with Him at this meeting place.
This particular altar was significantly positioned in front of the Holy of Holies as was noted in the previous verse, where the Ark resided. The Third mention of this phrase, once again, strongly connects us with the function and purpose of both of these furnishings.
You shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark, you shall put the Testimony that I will give you. And there I will meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are on the ark of the Testimony
— Exodus 25:21-22
Incense and Prayer
The Ark of the Covenant was connected with God speaking to us.
I will speak with you from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are on the ark of the Testimony, about everything which I will give you in commandment to the children of Israel.
— Exodus 25:22
The Incense Altar is associated with us speaking to Him. The smoke that arose from the burning incense on the altar was to illustrate our prayers ascending before Him.
The book of Revelation makes this connection with both Incense Altar and Ark in the following verse.
Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand.
— Revelation 8:3-4
The Gospel of Luke gives us an illustration of the connection between prayer, incense and God hearing us when Zechariah the priest who is attending to this very altar in the temple. It is at this time and place that he is visited by a messenger from God during his service.
So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood, to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard
— Luke 1:2-18
The Intercession of Christ Jesus Our Heavenly High Priest
This altar, like the Ark where God's presence dwelt, and the Table of the Bread of Presence that was associated with communion, was made of Acacia wood and overlaid with gold. All three of these stations were tied to concepts of intimate fellowship with God. This fellowship of heaven and earth that had not been priorly possible since the Garden before the fall, required that God become a man.
For such a chief priest did become us -- kind, harmless, undefiled, separate from the sinners, and become higher than the heavens
— Hebrews 7:26 (YLT)
The Acacia wood speaks of Christ's incorruptible humanity. And the gold represents Heavenly origin. The Altar of Incense shows us our great High Priest from heaven who intercedes for us in prayer with a total understanding base on His experience of what it's like to be one of us. The altar's location at the very heart of this entire structure is in keeping with this thought.
Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God,let us hold fast our confession.For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses but was in all points tempted as we are,yet without sin. Let us, therefore, come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need
— Hebrews 4:14-16
All three furnishings: Ark, Table, and Altar of Incense had a crown suggestive of Christ's kingship.
Grace to you and peace from Him who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth
— Revelation 1:4-5
High Priest, King, and Most High God
The Altar of incense was the tallest piece of furniture in the Tabernacle measuring two cubits high. This measurement speaks of a higher order eternal priesthood that would come in Christ. The writer of Hebrews explains this and includes the role of intercession which was one of the High Priestly duties that was executed at this altar. Notice as well that the offices of King and Priest, once again, are combined in this explanation.
For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, to whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all, first being translated “king of righteousness,” and then also king of Salem, meaning “king of peace,” without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, remains a priest continually...
...in the likeness of Melchizedek, there arises another priest who has come, not according to the law of a fleshly commandment, but according to the power of an endless life...
...‘You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek’ ”,
by so much more Jesus has become a surety of a better covenant.
Also there were many priests, because they were prevented by death from continuing. But He, because He continues forever, has an unchangeable priesthood. Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.
For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens;
— Hebrews 7:1-26
The narrative of Abraham's encounter with Melchizedek uses the same language in terms of height and the connection between heaven and earth. The relationship between the Table of the Bread of Presence, depicting communion with Christ, as was shown in the last article concerning that furnishing, and the Altar of Incense, is made once again as well.
Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said:
“Blessed be Abram of God Most High,
Possessor of heaven and earth;
And blessed be God Most High,
Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”
And he gave him a tithe of all.
Now the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, and take the goods for yourself.”
But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have raised my hand to the Lord, God Most High, the Possessor of heaven and earth, that I will take nothing, from a thread to a sandal strap, and that I will not take anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich’—
— Genesis 14:18-23
The Altar of Incense had four horns. In Scripture, horns were symbols of power. When Jesus taught His disciples to pray an inclusion of this thought is highlighted at the end what is known as "The Lord's Prayer"
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
— Matthew 6:9-13
The four signifies the things of the earth. As it concerns this piece of furniture it points to the universal, (four corners of the earth North, South, East, and West), scope of God's plan. Since Christ ever lives to make intercession to save, we too are called to intercede for all.
Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth...I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting
— I Timothy 2:1-5
The Incense altar was one cubit long and one cubit wide. One indicating the one and only true God. Paul continues with the application in connection with Christ as intercessor in his letter to Timothy.
For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all
— I Timothy 2:6
The Fire on the Altar
The fire that was burned on this altar came from the coals of the Altar of Sacrifice which will be studied in an up and coming study. The origin of this fire is rooted in God's acceptance of the sacrifice that He required.
Then Aaron lifted his hand toward the people, blessed them, and came down from offering the sin offering, the burnt offering, and peace offerings. And Moses and Aaron went into the tabernacle of meeting, and came out and blessed the people. Then the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people, and fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar. When all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces.
— Leviticus 9:22-24
"Strange fire" was not permitted. Nadab and Abihu were the first to experience the consequence of doing so. The narrative surrounding this event can be found in rest of Leviticus chapter nine.
Kevin J. Connor in his book "The Tabernacle of Moses" explains what this means.
"God only accepts that Fire which originates with Himself on the basis of the blood atonement. "
The fire was then to be kept lit continually it was never to be put out.
And the fire on the altar shall be kept burning on it; it shall not be put out. And the priest shall burn wood on it every morning, and lay the burnt offering in order on it; and he shall burn on it the fat of the peace offerings. A fire shall always be burning on the altar; it shall never go out.
— Leviticus 6:12-13
So it was with the Altar of Incense.
“Aaron shall burn on it sweet incense every morning; when he tends the lamps, he shall burn incense on it. And when Aaron lights the lamps at twilight, he shall burn incense on it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations.
— Exodus 30:7-8
The Lord Jesus illustrates for us the application in terms of prayer and intercession with His own prayers at both morning and evening.
Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed.
— Mark 1:35
He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. Now when evening came, He was alone there
— Matthew 14:23
The Psalmist too exhibits the pattern of continuity of prayer...
Evening and morning and at noon
I will pray, and cry aloud,
And He shall hear my voice
— Psalm 55
...Along with Daniel
Now when Daniel knew that the writing was signed, he went home. And in his upper room, with his windows open toward Jerusalem, he knelt down on his knees three times that day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as was his custom since early days
— Daniel 6:10
And finally, Paul addresses the Thessalonians with a similar understanding.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you
— I Thessalonians 5:16-18
This particular altar did not burn anything but the prescription of incense that God required. All of which spoke of Christ's sufferings on our behalf. As was noted at the beginning of this study, a study on the details of each spice can be found in part eight of this series that is linked in the introduction of this installment.
The Only Blood Related to this Altar
A concluding note; once a year on the day of atonement, blood that was shed at the Sacrificial altar was sprinkled seven times on the Altar of Incense and applied to its horns.
Christ's blood the sin offering was the foundation of all intercession only His blood gives power to the incense of prayer"
— Kevin J. Connor
Henry W. Soltau writes:
"This incessant service of intercession is the result of and is grounded upon, the shedding of His blood. It is the perpetuating the voice of that precious blood in God's presence, and it shelters those who have been atoned for by that blood under the full fragrance of Him that shed it."
Before the Throne of God
Another thought on the position of the Altar of Incense being before the Ark. The throne of God and the Ark are related as described by King David in reference to it being the footstool of God's throne.
Then King David rose to his feet and said, “Hear me, my brethren and my people: I had it in my heart to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and for the footstool of our God...
— I Chronicles 28:2
Henry W. Soltau in his book "The Tabernacle the Priesthood and the Offerings" observes that there were no chairs or places to sit in the Tabernacle, yet Christ being seated, in reference to the Heavenly Tabernacle and His completed work, is given four mentions in the book of Hebrews.
His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high
— Hebrews 1:3
Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens
— Hebrews 8:1
And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.
— Hebrews 10:11-13
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author andfinisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
— Hebrews 12:1-2
I will conclude this part of the series with a final note from Soltau.
"other priests had to stand daily and yearly. No seat was provided for them...for their work was never finished. Sins were never put away. The worshippers were never purged...But our High Priest has sat down on the right hand of God for atonement has been made to God. God's will has been accomplished. God's holiness has been forever satisfied. God's indignation against sin has been forever appeased...Thus the fact that Christ is seated at the right hand of God is the sure ground of peace to the soul of the believer."
The next part of this series, part thirteen, will study the Copper Altar where the Sacrifice was made. As we have seen in this study there is a relationship between these two altars.
Credits and Sources
"The Holy Vessels and Furniture of the Tabernacle" by Henry Soltau Published by Kregel Publications in 1971. Originally published in 1851 by Yapp and Hawkins, London, England.
"The Tabernacle: God's Portrait of Christ by J. Vernon McGee. Published by Van Kampen Press in Wheaton Illinois.
"The Tabernacle of Moses" by Kevin J. Connor. Published by City Christian Publishing in Portland Oregon. Copyright 1976
"The Tabernacle" by M.R. Dehaan, M.D. Published by Zondervan Publishing House. Copyright 1995
"Portraits of Christ in the Tabernacle" by Theodore H. Epp. Published by The Good News Broadcasting Association. Copyright 1976
"Seeing Christ in the Tabernacle by Ervin N. Hershberger. Published by Vision Publishers. Copyright 2007
"Spiritual Application of the Tabernacle" by Witness Lee. Published by Living Streams Ministries. Copyright 1987
"Temple Treasures" by Steven Fuson. Published by Bridge-Logos. Copyright 2010
"The Tabernacle: Shadows of the Messiah by David Levy. Published by The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry Inc. Copyright 1993
The Tabernacle: Its Priests and Its Services by Willia Brown. Published by Hendrickson Publishers. Copyright 1996. Originally published in 1899 by Oliphant, Anderson, & Ferrier, Edinburgh, and London.