Tabernacle Studies: The Golden Altar or Altar of Incense

Edited by Eugene Higgins

The primary passage on this subject is Exodus 30:1-10, 34-38.

Two altars were used in the service of the tabernacle: the brazen altar or altar of burnt offering, which stood inside the court at the gate; the golden altar or altar of incense, which stood in the Holy Place immediately in front of the veil. Their functions were distinct, yet they were intimately connected because the activities of the latter were based upon those of the former. The incense altar owed its standing to the blood of atonement (Ex 30:10), and, because it was an altar, it was connected with a sacrifice which had already been offered. No animal sacrifice was ever placed upon it, but the fire which had consumed the sacrifice on the brazen altar was the same fire which was brought to the golden altar to cause the sweet perfume of the incense to ascend to Jehovah.

General Specifications

Its size: 1 cubit long x 1 cubit wide x 2 cubits high

Its materials: acacia wood overlaid with gold

Its parts: horns, rings, and staves

Its ornamentation: a crown around the edge

Its use: to burn incense upon.

Typical Significance

The materials from which the golden altar was made have the same typical significance as we have seen in the table of shewbread and will yet see in the ark. They clearly represent the Lord Jesus as God and Man in one Person, now crowned with glory and honor in the presence of the Father. Hebrews 1 brings before us “the gold.” Chapter 2 brings before us “the wood.” Chapter 3:1 links them both together in one person, Christ Jesus, the Apostle from heaven to represent God before men and the High Priest in heaven to represent men before God.

The Features of the Altar

Its height: This altar was higher than the other measured vessels of the sanctuary; the ark and the table of shewbread were only a cubit and a half high, whereas this vessel was two cubits high. Here we catch a glimpse of the exaltation of the Risen Christ, as Isaiah records in 52:13, “My Servant … shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high.” Paul says in Ephesians 1:21 that His name is “far above all … not only in this world but also in that which is to come.”

Its crown: Nothing is said in Numbers 4 about removing the coals or the incense during the moving of the camp. Is it possible that the crown served the same purpose on the golden altar as was suggested in connection with the table of shewbread – that is, to keep the contents securely on the vessel? If this is so, we have a type here of the sweet savor of Christ always before Jehovah, and how necessary that this should take the place of the failures, complaints, and murmurings of His pilgrim people (Heb 7:25).

Its horns: These were sprinkled with the blood of the sin-offering, and thus bore evidence of atonement made, but the purpose of the altar itself was to display the result of atonement, even praise and worship to our God. The horns, therefore, might speak of the strength of our Divine Lord, in all the energy of which He prevails as the Intercessor and Offerer of His people’s worship. The number of its horns is not given. The brazen altar had horns upon the four corners and since four is the number of earth, in these four horns we have His work on earth brought before us as sufficiently powerful to meet the need of sinners everywhere. However, in the golden altar, which was situated in the Holy Place, we have Christ’s present work or ministry now in heaven for His beloved people and the Holy Spirit has seen fit not to connect the number four with this altar.

Its staves: Similarly, the number four is missing in connection with the rings for the staves. There were apparently two golden rings, each at opposite corners, through which the staves were put to carry the altar. It was to accompany the people through all their journeying. This brings before us again the abiding presence of the Living Christ with His pilgrim people as well as His present ministry for them. “By Him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually” (Heb 13:15) because “He ever liveth to make intercession for us” (Heb 7:25).

The Function of the Altar

This is clearly stated in Exodus 30:1, “And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon.” It is striking that before anything is said about the materials from which it was made, its size, shape, or position, we are told of the purpose for which it was to be used. It is also remarkable that the details of the golden altar are not given in Exodus 25 with the other vessels of the Holy Place, but are in chapter 30 AFTER the instructions regarding the consecration of the priests. Its position in the Tabernacle is given in Exodus 30:6: “before the veil that is by the ark, before the mercy seat.” Thus the golden altar stood in the Holy Place, directly opposite the ark which stood in the Holy of Holies, the veil separating the two vessels. We have noticed before that the vessels in the Holy Place all typify Christ’s present position and service in Heaven and the golden altar in particular is a type of Him Whose priestly intercession maintains His people in the place of acceptance as a sweet savor unto God. “Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather that is risen again, Who is even at the right hand of God, Who also maketh intercession for us” (Rom 8:34).

(This article will conclude next month, D.V.)