The Tabernacle - 19
The Altar of Incense
by Brad Scott
Shemot (Exodus) 30:1, 6-8And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon: of shittim wood shalt thou make it ... And thou shalt put it before the veil that is by the ark of the testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the testimony, where I will meet with thee. And Aharon shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn incense upon it. And when Aharon lighteth the lamps at evening, he shall burn incense upon it, a perpetual incense before YHVH throughout your generations.
The gate of the court is the last thing mentioned as the order of construction is given. We then see a pause, if you will, to give the instructions for the clothing, consecration and behavior of the priests. Before YHVH gives instructions for the altar of incense and the laver he gives us the law for the sanctification of the priests. There are two pieces of furniture that stand before each veil. Before the veil of the Holy Place stands the laver, which we will cover next time. Before the second veil and the Most Holy Place stands the golden altar of incense. I believe that YHVH teaches the standards for His priests before He instructs the craftsman on the design of the place of prayer and the place of the washing of the water of the word. This is why I believe there is a three chapter pause before the design of the altar and the laver. It is not a light thing to which YHVH has called His priests. Perhaps we should all examine our walk before taking on responsibilities we may not be prepared for.
There are many occasions in this book of the exodus, and in Vayiqera (Leviticus), that this altar could be confused with the brazen altar just inside the gate in the court. The text must be read carefully so as not to get these two mixed up, even though they are intimately tied together. This altar apparently stood just inside the Holy Place in front of the inner veil which was before the mercy seat and the ark of the covenant. The language can be a bit confusing in verse 6, but there are other scriptures which indicate that this altar was not in the Most Holy Place where only the High Priest could go. Aharon's responsibility at this time was to dress the Menorah and burn incense on this altar every morning and evening. This was later to be divided between the priestly orders, especially during the temple era. The high priest seems to have had many of the same priestly functions as the regular priests, with the exception of his functions on Yom Kippur. In Luke chapter 1 we read of Zacharias performing this function.
Luke 1:8-11And it came to pass that, while he executed the priest's office before ’Elohiym in the order of this course, According to the custom of the priest's office his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of YHVH. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the time of incense. And there appeared unto him an angel of YHVH, standing on the right side of the altar of incense.
This will be one of several passages where we will learn of the association of the altar with prayer, and the fact that this altar was NOT in the Most Holy Place. It is also this section of scripture that the Ruach haQodesh reveals pertinent information concerning the time of Yeshua‘’ birth.
Let us return to this altar. We first learn that it is made of the same materials as the ark: gold and shittim wood. We have covered this meaning in the lessons on the ark of the covenant. We see that it is placed before the inner veil. This means that as you begin your approach to YHVH at the gate, the last place where you would stand before entering the Most Holy Place is at this altar of incense or prayer. This would mean that you would have full understanding of sacrifice before getting this far. It is my opinion that Aharon's two sons circumvented the brazen altar of sacrifice and attempted to burn their OWN incense on the golden altar.
Vayiqera 16:11-13And Aharon shall bring the bullock of the sin offering, which is for himself, and shall make an atonement for himself, and for his house, and shall kill the bullock of the sin offering which is for himself. And he shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from off the altar which is before YHVH, and his hands full of sweet incense beaten small, and bring it within the veil. And he shall put the incense upon the fire before YHVH, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the testimony, that he die not.
I believe that coals of fire are to be taken from the sin offering into the censer combined with sweet incense and placed upon the altar of incense to be a sweet savor to YHVH. The censer of coals would be the recognition of the sacrifice and that this is the prerequisite to the acceptance of prayer to YHVH. A sweet savor is something that must be smelled. In Hebrew, the word ’aph (אף), is the word for nose and the word for anger and wrath. In Vayiqera 9:22-10:5 we read that when the sacrifice is offered and the fire of the offering is according to YHVH's instructions then the fire of YHVH comes down and consumes the offering. However, if man chooses do appease YHVH but to do it in his own way, then the fire and wrath of YHVH comes down and consumes the man instead of the sacrifice. When the coals of sacrifice and the sweet incense of the altar rise up to YHVH, then He blesses the people. However, when YHVH smells a strange fire, His anger is kindled against the people. I believe that our prayers offered, according to His word, staves His anger, which we deserve. I can not help but think of Jonathan Edwards' famous sermon when thinking of this altar. There is always a direct relationship between being blessed and obeying YHVH. This includes the hearing of our prayer.
Mishlei (Proverbs) 28:9He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be an abomination.
Mizemor (Psalm) 66:18If I regard iniquity in my heart, YHVH will not hear me.
Mishlei 15:29YHVH is far from the wicked, but he heareth the prayer of the righteous.
So, how do we connect this altar with prayer?
Mizemor 141:1-2YHVH, I cry unto thee; make haste unto me; give ear unto my voice, when I cry unto thee. Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands, as the evening sacrifice.
Hitgalut (Revelation) 5:8And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
Hitgalut 8:3-4And 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. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before ’Elohiym out of the angels's hand.
Prayer, in the pattern of the golden altar, is also associated with the evening and morning.
Mizemor 5:1-3Give ear to my words O YHVH, consider my meditation. Hearken unto the voice of my cry, my King, and my ’Elohiym; for unto thee will I pray. My voice shalt thou hear in the morning, O YHVH; in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee and will look up.
Mizemor 55:17Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud, and he shall hear my voice.
Mattityahu (Matthew) 14:23And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain privately, to pray; and when the evening was come, he was there alone.
The picture of the altar of incense also speaks of this incense rising continually. In Hebrew thinking, to do things tamiyd, or continually was to do them according to the instructions and will of ’Elohiym. However, spontaneous prayer was essential, as well. The problem comes in relying only on spontaneity or only on routine. This subject was addressed by the famous Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel:
Why should worship be bound to regular occasions? Why impose a calendar on the soul? Is not regularity of observance a menace to the freedom of the heart? Strict observance of a way of life at fixed times and in identical forms tends to become a matter of routine, of outward compliance. How to prevent observance from becoming stereotyped, mechanical, was, indeed, a perennial worry in the history of Judaism. The cry of the prophet: "Their heart is far from me" was a signal of alarm. Should I reject the regularity of prayer and rely on the inspiration of the heart and only worship when I am touched by the spirit? Should I resolve: unless the spirit comes, I shall abstain from praying? The deeper truth is that routine breeds attention, calling forth a response where the soul would otherwise remain dormant.
Can you relate to that last statement? YHVH knows the man he created. Spontaneity is essential, but so is routine and consistency. This altar of incense is the last stop before entering the presence of YHVH. If the prayers of this altar are mixed with a contrite heart that has been to the altar of sacrifice, then they will be a sweet savor unto YHVH. However, if your prayer is not mixed with the precious blood of the Messiah, LOOK OUT!
Shalom Alecheim! ◊