Wilderness Instructions, Part 9: The Altar of Burnt Incense -- By Lyn Chaffart
Last week, in Wilderness Instructions, Part 8, Thus, the wilderness instructions regarding the obtaining of the oil to keep the lamps perpetually burning, reminds us that it is our responsibility to have enough oil to keep our spiritual lamps burning. We must have that steady supply! And God, who is not asking us to do anything difficult here, He simply waits for us to ask for more and more of His Spirit!

The last piece of furniture for the inner sanctuary was the altar of Burnt Incense. The instructions for this altar can be found in Ex. 30:

"You shall make an altar to burn incense on; you shall make it of acacia wood. 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." (Ex. 30:1-5)

It is interesting to note that even before the altar's size and composition is described, we are told the purpose of this special altar: "You shall make an altar to burn incense on..." (Ex. 30:1). Thus, the importance of incense burning surpasses the importance of gold and the ability to transport the piece of furniture! And just in case we forget, the Bible reiterates the purpose for the altar in verses 7 and 8: "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." (Ex 30:7-8, NKJV)

And just what is the importance of incense burning?

To answer this question, let's first consider the placement of this altar, as described in Ex. 30:6: "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."

Thus, the Altar of burnt incense was to be placed right in front of the mercy seat over the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, the only thing to separate the two was the veil (See next week’s Wilderness Instructions for details of the veil...).

But what is the meaning of incense?

It is important, first of all, to note that though the Altar of Burnt Incense was to be put in the sanctuary, instruction for its construction, described in Exodus 30, would not come until 3 chapters after the instructions for the other sanctuary furniture (Chapter 27). This is because it is the priests who must perform the required ministrations on the altar, and the priest hood isn’t actually introduced or described until chapter 28 and 29. And just what were the priests to do?

This is described for us in Ex. 30: "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...And Aaron shall make atonement upon its horns once a year with the blood of the sin offering of atonement; once a year he shall make atonement upon it throughout your generations. It is most holy to the LORD." (Vs 7-10, NKJV)

So the purpose was two-fold: First of all, it was for burning incense.

Incense is used in the Bible to represent prayer. Consider the following texts: "Let my prayer be set before You as incense, The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice." (Ps 141:2, NKJV); and "...and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints." (Rev 5:8, NKJV)

Thus the incense represents the prayers of the people, and the fact that the priests were to put it there and see to its burning shows us a picture of intercession.

Is not Christ our ultimate high priest? And is not the ministry of intercession one of His important responsibilities? Consider the following: "Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us." (Rom 8:34, NKJV)

Thus, the Altar of Burnt Incense reminds us that when we pray, Jesus, as our ultimate High Priest, sits at God's side, interceding on our behalf!

Secondly, the Altar of Burnt Incense was used in the atonement ceremony. Before going into the most holy place, behind the veil, the high priest would first make atonement on the horns of the Altar of Burnt Incense. Thus, the Altar of Burnt Incense tells us of God's provision for us to go in to Him.

In general, then, the Altar of Burnt Incense reminds us that Jesus, now seated at the right hand of God, is constantly engaging God on behalf of His children. He is presenting our petitions and our worship to His father in the sweet fragrance of His own perfections. Its position inside the tabernacle tells us of Christ having gone in to appear before God on behalf of His people.

But this little altar isn't the only important one mentioned in the wilderness instructions. Please join us next week for Wilderness Instructions, Part 10: You Shall Make a Veil...

In His love,

Lyn Chaffart, Speech-Language Pathologist, mother of two teens, Author and Moderator for The Nugget, a tri-weekly internet newsletter, and Scriptural Nuggets, a website devoted to Christian devotionals and inspirational poems, with Answers2Prayer Ministries.

** Archaeological Study Bible, Copyright 2005 by the Zondervan Corporation, p. 153, The Tabernacle and the Ark and p. 133, Commentary on Vs. 25:37.

(To access the entire "Wilderness Instructions" mini-series, please click here.)