What image pops into your mind when you hear the word incense? Some see a shaggy-haired hippie wearing a tie-dyed shirt sitting cross-legged on a beanbag surrounded by weird-smelling incense candles. For others, a single word comes to mind: voodoo.
God sees something vastly different: He sees our prayers ascending into His majestic throne room as a sweet-smelling cloud of incense!
Notice Revelation 8:3: “And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne.”
The Apostle John is talking about spiritual incense and the spiritual incense altar. Notice what editor in chief Gerald Flurry wrote about this verse: “Here is the incense altar where the prayers of the saints are offered to God! The ministry—or the altar—is used by God to direct the spiritual lives of the saints. The ministers are responsible to see that the saints are approaching God, motivated by the Holy Spirit” (Trumpet, February 1992).
Spiritually, the incense altar today is God’s ministry inside His Church, and incense is the prayers of God’s people!
Anciently, there were two altars in the tabernacle, and later in the temple. One was the incense altar, on which incense was burned; the other was for offering sacrifices. Is the physical incense altar and the priestly practice of burning incense relevant to us today?
Absolutely! In fact, learning about the role of physical incense in the ancient temple can help us become more effective at preparing and offering spiritual incense to God today!
God’s instruction concerning the ancient incense altar is in Exodus 30. It is wonderfully detailed, and contains clear, practical and profound parallels that will, upon reflection, improve the way we offer spiritual incense to our Father. God’s instruction regarding this crucial part of the tabernacle service shows that He took it very seriously, and that He wanted the priests and the people of Israel to as well.
In verses 1 through 6, God describes the construction (the materials and dimensions) of the incense altar and its position inside the tabernacle. Then God begins His instruction to Aaron on how to burn incense.
Incense: Offered Twice Daily
“And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn incense upon it” (Exodus 30:7). Preparing the incense and then offering it on the altar was the priest’s first priority upon arriving at the tabernacle each day. Other priestly duties, such as trimming the lamps and offering sacrifices, were to be performed only after he had prepared the incense and it was burning away on the altar.
God’s people are king-priests in training (Revelation 1:6). Like Aaron, our first duty in the temple, or Church, each day is to prepare and offer incense to God. Our daily responsibilities need to be performed after we have burned our incense. How seriously do we take this instruction? Aaron wasn’t given an option as to when he burned the incense. It was a requirement of his job and calling as a priest that his first priority each day was to make sure incense was burning on the altar.
Do we place this level of importance on morning prayer? Do we consider it part of our job description as king-priests? Jesus Christ did: “And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, he [Christ] went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed” (Mark 1:35). Like Aaron, Jesus made burning incense His first priority each morning. King David did likewise (Psalm 5:3).
“And when Aaron lighteth the lamps at even, he shall burn incense upon it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations” (Exodus 30:8). The priest had to prepare and burn incense at least twice a day. Aaron was instructed to close the day by burning incense.
Think upon this practical symbolism. God wanted Aaron to get into the habit o f preparing and burning incense as soon as he arrived in the morning and right before he left in the evening. The Eternal wanted him to open and close his day by burning incense to Him!
Incense: Meticulously Prepared
Incense burned in the temple was not a hodgepodge mix of herbs and spices casually tossed on the fire of the incense altar. God provided the priests with detailed instructions about the ingredients, the portioning and the manner in which the incense was to be offered.
God cared deeply about the quality of incense!
Notice verse 34: “And the Lord said unto Moses, Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight.”
God gave the priests the exact recipe for making incense. He didn’t want the priests haphazardly concocting their own incense, so He gave them a specific formula they were expected to follow.
He does the same for us when we pray. God doesn’t leave us alone to try and figure out how to pray properly. In Matthew 6, Jesus Christ gave us the recipe for creating spiritual incense! And He didn’t merely provide the ingredients for successful prayer. He gave us the outline, the focus and even an idea of the portions for creating a powerful prayer that pleases God!
“And thou shalt make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure and holy” (Exodus 30:35). Perfume means incense. At the time this instruction was given, making perfume was a widely practiced art in Egypt and across much of the Orient. God expected the priests to delight in and take tremendous care, and to be constantly honing and perfecting their ability to make incense.
He wanted them to make it a form of art. God wants the same from His priests today: He wants His people to hone and perfect the way they pray. He wants His priests to develop the art of prayer!
Verse 36 continues: “And thou shalt beat some of it very small, and put of it before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation, where I will meet with thee: it shall be unto you most holy.” For incense to burn properly, and to ascend as a cloud over the altar, it had to be beaten fine.
For the priest, this meant “elbow grease.” There were no blenders or stores selling pre-ground herbs and spices in Israel. Beating the herbs and spices until they were fine demanded physical energy, patience and an attention to detail. It also took time. Creating incense was an art; it took focus and practice. It wasn’t a menial task that could be achieved with little thought in a rushed few minutes.
The same applies to our prayer life. For our prayers to be effective—to ascend into heaven to our Father—they must be beaten fine. This requires hard work, concentration and practice. How detailed and specific are our prayers? Are they like incense, so fine they’re like handfuls of dust? Can we do a better job—grind a little harder, stay on our knees a little longer—in an effort to make our prayers more detailed and more effective?
Lastly, consider verses 37-38: “And as for the perfume which thou shalt make, ye shall not make to yourselves according to the composition thereof: it shall be unto thee holy for the Lord. Whosoever shall make like unto that, to smell thereto, shall even be cut off from his people.”
God warned the priests not to use this recipe for incense to make perfume for themselves. He didn’t want His priests using or selling incense as perfume, as the Gentiles did. Preparing and offering incense was not to be done for selfish gain. Again, consider the awesome parallel to our prayer life. What is our motivation for praying? Are our prayers too self-centered, too vain?
Incense: Needed for Protection
The first few verses of Exodus 30 show that incense was burned on the incense altar, which was situated in front of the ark of the covenant outside the veil separating the holy place from the holy of holies. Incense was never brought inside the holy of holies, except by the high priest on the Day of Atonement. God outlines the functions of the high priest on the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16.
Verses 12-13 read, “And he shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from off the altar before the Lord, and his hands full of sweet incense beaten small, and bring it within the vail: And he shall put the incense upon the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the testimony, that he die not.”
When he stood before the mercy seat (representing the throne of God) inside the holy of holies, the high priest was to put the burning coals on the ground, and then pour finely beaten incense over them. This would create a sweet-smelling cloud of incense, which would drift over the mercy seat. Why? Read the last four words of verse 13 again: “that he die not.” The high priest burned incense so that he could be protected from death!
Here’s what Lesson 37 of the Ambassador College Bible Correspondence Course says about this instruction: “The cloud of incense was not physically to screen the high priest from the glory of God. It was only a temporary ceremonial type. As incense arises from hot coals, so prayers are to ascend like a cloud from the righteous. Prayers bring God’s people protection as the incense protected the high priest” (1965).
The burning of incense inside the holy of holies was for the high priest’s protection! Forgetting or neglecting to burn incense meant death. Isn’t it the same for us today? Having a strong prayer life is a matter of life or death!
Consider our cruel and terrifying world. It’s fraught with danger and growing more threatening every day: wars, famines, natural disasters, murders, home break-ins, social unrest, bullying at school, persecution in the workplace. We need God’s protection more than ever!
And like the high priest, we need to be working hard to ensure we’re sending up an incense cloud before God’s throne. How thick is your incense cloud? The more dangerous conditions become, the thicker our cloud of incense needs to be.
Our Number One Priority
How important is our incense to God? “Our primary focus in life must be on how we talk to God in prayer!” Mr. Flurry wrote. “That is our number one priority” (Royal Vision, May-June 1998).
Our lives overflow with constant and competing demands for our time and attention. What a blessing that God has told us our “number one priority” ought to be burning incense on the incense altar!
Revelation 5:8 describes the majestic throne room of God. “And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours [incense ], which are the prayers of saints.” Even now, the prayers of God’s people have a role in the majestic throne room of God! Our prayers are so important to our Father that He has vested the four beasts and 24 elders with the responsibility to handle and monitor them. God has spiritual infrastructure in His throne room created specifically for the incense offered by His people.
It is our job to make sure the “golden vials” in the hands of these spectacular creatures are “full of incense”!
From the Archives: Royal Vision, July-August 2009