Was the altar of incense an altar of atonement?

Author: BibleAsk Team


The Alter of Incense and Atonement

The altar of incense, as described in the Old Testament, served a distinct purpose within the tabernacle and later the temple. While it was not specifically designated as an altar of atonement like the bronze altar for sacrifices, it held significant symbolic and spiritual significance in the worship of God. To understand the role of the altar of incense and its connection to atonement, it is essential to explore its biblical descriptions, its placement within the tabernacle/temple, and its broader theological implications.

Biblical Descriptions of the Altar of Incense

The construction and function of the altar of incense are detailed in Exodus 30:1-10. It was to be made of acacia wood overlaid with pure gold, with horns at its four corners. The altar was to be located inside the tabernacle, before the veil that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. Specific instructions were given for burning incense on the altar every morning and evening, symbolizing the prayers of the Israelites ascending to God.

Exodus 30:10 emphasizes the sanctity of the altar, stating, “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. Additionally, in Exodus 30:34-38, specific instructions are given for making the holy incense that was to be burned on the altar. This incense was to be made of equal parts of various spices, including frankincense, onycha, galbanum, and pure frankincense. The burning of this incense was to be a perpetual offering before the Lord.

Though the altar of incense was in many aspects similar to the altar of burnt offering (smaller in size and more expensive material), it was different in that on its “horns” the blood of “certain sin offerings” was touched (Leviticus 4:7, 18). About these “certain sin offerings,” Moses wrote, “You shall make an altar to burn incense on…” “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” (Exodus 30:1, 10).

This incident points to the great Day of Atonement, the 10th day of the 7th month, when the high priest took the blood and put it on the horns of the altar of incense “and make an atonement for it” (Leviticus 16:18, 19). But this did not make the alter of incense as an altar of atonement.

The altar of incense was involved in atonement, only when the high priest sinned (Leviticus 4:3–12), or when the whole congregation committed sin “through ignorance” or did “somewhat against any of the commandments of the Lord” (Leviticus 4:13–21). Upon these occasions, the high priest touched the blood of the sacrifice to the horns of the altar. In these two occurrences the altar of incense took the place of the altar of burnt offering, on which was sprinkled the blood of private sin offerings (Leviticus 4:22–35).

Placement within the Tabernacle/Temple

The placement of the altar of incense within the tabernacle/temple is significant for understanding its symbolic and spiritual significance. As mentioned earlier, the altar was located inside the Holy Place, just before the veil that separated it from the Most Holy Place, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept.

The proximity of the altar of incense to the veil suggests its role in facilitating communication between God and His people. The burning of incense symbolized the prayers of the Israelites ascending to God, as mentioned in Psalm 141:2, “Let my prayer be set before You as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.”

Furthermore, the placement of the altar before the veil also indicates its connection to the divine presence. In Exodus 30:6, it is specified that the high priest was to burn incense on the altar every morning and evening when he tended to the lamps in the Holy Place. This act of worship was intimately linked to the presence of God, symbolizing the desire of the Israelites to commune with Him.

Theological Implications

While the altar of incense was not designated specifically as an altar of atonement, its role in the worship of God carried significant theological implications, particularly concerning the concept of atonement. The burning of incense on the altar symbolized the prayers and intercessions of the people, seeking forgiveness, reconciliation, and communion with God.

The association of the altar of incense with atonement is highlighted in Exodus 30:10, where it is stated that the high priest was to make atonement upon its horns once a year with the blood of the sin offering. This annual ritual, known as the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, was a central aspect of Israel’s sacrificial system, emphasizing the need for purification and forgiveness of sins.

The imagery of atonement associated with the altar of incense is further reinforced in the New Testament. In Hebrews 9:4, the author describes the tabernacle and its furnishings, including the altar of incense, as symbols of the heavenly sanctuary. This passage suggests that the rituals performed on earth, including the burning of incense on the altar, were shadows of the heavenly reality of atonement accomplished by Christ.

Moreover, the association of incense with prayer and worship in the New Testament underscores its spiritual significance. In Revelation 5:8 and 8:3-4, incense is symbolically linked to the prayers of the saints, which ascend before the throne of God. This imagery suggests that the prayers of believers are a fragrant offering to God, made possible through the atoning work of Christ.

Conclusion

In conclusion, while the altar of incense was not designated specifically as an altar of atonement, its role in the worship of God carried significant spiritual and theological implications. The burning of incense on the altar symbolized the prayers and intercessions of the people, seeking forgiveness, reconciliation, and communion with God. Additionally, the association of the altar of incense with atonement, particularly in the context of the Day of Atonement, underscores its role in the purification and forgiveness of sins.

Furthermore, the placement of the altar before the veil in the tabernacle/temple symbolized its connection to the divine presence and the desire of the Israelites to commune with God. This symbolism finds its fulfillment in the atoning work of Christ, who entered the heavenly sanctuary once for all, offering Himself as a sacrifice for sin and opening the way for believers to approach the throne of grace with confidence (Hebrews 4:16). Therefore, while the altar of incense may not have been explicitly designated as an altar of atonement, its significance in the worship of God and its symbolic association with atonement point to the central role of Christ in reconciling humanity to God.

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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