What is the purpose of the altar of incense?

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By BibleAsk Team


The altar of incense holds a significant and symbolic role in the religious practices of ancient Israel as described in the Old Testament, particularly in the tabernacle and later in the temple. Throughout the Bible, references to the altar of incense convey its importance as a sacred space for worship, prayer, and intercession, serving as a symbol of divine presence and communion with God. By exploring the biblical references to the altar of incense in the Bible, we can gain insight into its purpose, significance, and theological implications within the context of ancient Israelite religion.

What is the altar of incense?

The Exodus altar of incense is a religious fixture described in the Bible, specifically used in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple of Jerusalem. It was a small altar where incense was burned daily, representing the prayers of the people ascending to God. It was made of acacia wood, overlaid with gold, and located in the Holy Place, just outside the Holy of Holies.

The offering on the alter of incense was regarded as the most holy and essential part of the daily morning and evening services. At each service of “burnt offering,” or “sacrifice” (2 Chronicles 31:3; Ezra 9:4, 5), a lamb was offered (Exodus 29:38–42) and a “the time of incense” was set (Luke 1:10; Exodus 30:7, 8). Day and night the holy incense spread its fragrance throughout the holy grounds of Gods’ Temple.

During these sacred times, all the Israelties offered their prayers whether in the temple grounds, at home, or in strange lands. As the incense ascended from the golden altar, the supplications of the people ascended to God (Revelation 8:3, 4; Psalms 141:2) asking for forgiveness and consecration.

At this service, the officiating priest prayed for the pardon of Israel’s sins and for the coming of the Messiah. It was a great privilege for the priest to serve before the alter of incense. This privilege usually came to each priest only once in a lifetime.

The priest chosen by lot to offer the incense chose two other priests to help him, one to remove the old coals from the altar and the other to lay new coals on it, taken from the altar of burnt offering. These two priests left the holy place after their work was done, and the priest chosen by lot then placed the incense upon the coals, and as he did so, made intercession for the people.

The cloud of incense ascended and filled the holy place and spread beyond the veil into the most holy place. The altar of incense was immediately before the veil, and although actually within the holy place, it was regarded as belonging to the most holy (Hebrews 9:4).

The Design and Placement of the Altar of Incense

“And 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. 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 30:1-10

The altar of incense was constructed of acacia wood and overlaid with pure gold, symbolizing its sacredness and purity. It was rectangular in shape, measuring one cubit in length and width and two cubits in height. The altar had four horns, one at each corner, which were also overlaid with gold. It was placed inside the Holy Place of the tabernacle, just before the veil that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place (where the Ark of the Covenant was kept), signifying its proximity to the presence of God.

The Purpose of 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 primary purpose of the altar of incense was to burn fragrant incense as an offering to God. This incense was made of a special blend of spices, including frankincense and myrrh, which produced a pleasing aroma when burned. The incense was to be burned twice daily, in the morning and evening, as part of the regular rituals performed by the priests in the tabernacle. The burning of incense symbolized the prayers of the people ascending to God, as well as the sweet fragrance of worship and adoration offered to Him.

“You shall not offer strange incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering; nor shall you pour a drink offering on it.”

Exodus 30:9

The altar of incense was reserved exclusively for the burning of incense; no other sacrifices or offerings were to be made on it. This restriction emphasized the unique purpose of the altar as a place of prayer and worship, distinct from the altars used for animal sacrifices. The burning of incense was considered a holy and sacred act, symbolizing the spiritual communion between God and His people.

Symbolic and Spiritual Significance

“Let my prayer be set before You as incense, The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.”

Psalm 141:2

In addition to its practical function as a place for burning incense, the altar of incense held symbolic and spiritual significance in the religious life of Israel. The burning of incense represented the prayers, praises, and petitions of the people ascending to God’s presence. It symbolized the spiritual fragrance of worship and devotion offered to God, as well as the desire for divine favor and acceptance. Just as the sweet aroma of incense filled the tabernacle, so too did the prayers of the faithful permeate the heavenly realm, reaching the ears of God and eliciting His response.

“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

In the book of Revelation, the imagery of the altar of incense is used to depict the heavenly worship taking place before the throne of God. Here, an angel offers incense with the prayers of the saints, symbolizing the ongoing intercession of Christ and the faithful on behalf of humanity. The smoke of the incense represents the prayers of the saints ascending before God, symbolizing their acceptance and efficacy in His sight.

Conclusion: The Altar of Incense as a Symbol of Worship and Prayer

In conclusion, the altar of incense held a central and sacred place in the religious rituals of ancient Israel. As a symbol of worship and prayer, it served as a visible sign of the people’s communion with God and their desire for His presence and favor. The burning of incense on the altar represented the spiritual fragrance of devotion and adoration offered to God, as well as the prayers and petitions of the faithful ascending to His throne. Its symbolic significance continues to resonate in the hearts and minds of believers, reminding us of our call to worship God in spirit and in truth, offering our prayers as a sweet incense before His presence.

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