The Altar of Incense, or Golden Altar (Exo 40:5), was located “before the veil” in the Holy Place of the Tabernacle and was used by Aaron and his sons to burn incense upon. In the Word of God, incense is closely connected with prayer (Psa 141:2; Rev 5:8). This altar thus speaks primarily of Christ in His priestly intercession at God’s right hand. But lessons can also be drawn in connection with priestly believers whose privilege it is to continually offer sacrifices of praise and worship to God “by Him” (Heb 13:15).
Note the order of divine revelation. Exodus 25-27 begins by describing the Ark in the immediate presence of God, before drawing attention to various vessels of display (the table, lampstand, brazen altar). All the time, God is moving out towards the gate. In Exodus 28-30, the priesthood is introduced, and vessels of approach are described (the laver and altar of incense). The simple lesson is that God has moved OUT in grace toward mankind that a priestly family might have the privilege of entering IN. “Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest [golden altar] by the blood of Jesus [brazen altar]” (Heb 10:19 KJV).
The Purpose of the Altar (vv1a,7-8)
The altar was required for burning sweet incense every morning and evening (vv7-8). The incense was a slow-burning powder comprised of a like weight of stacte, onycha, galbanum and frankincense. The result was a fragrance that filled the Holy Place and ascended as a perpetual sweet smell before the Lord (v8). We are thus reminded of the perpetual sweetness of the life of Christ on earth ascending for the appreciation of the Father, as well as our responsibility to ensure that His fragrance always fills the house (Joh 12:3).
Leviticus 16 indicates that the Day of Atonement began with Aaron entering the Holiest with hands full of incense (Lev 16:12-13). The white cloud that ascended covered Aaron from the Shekinah and is typical of our acceptance before a holy God in all the fragrance and merit of His beloved Son (Eph 1:6). In addition, the perpetual incense reminds us of Christ’s continual intercession for us (Heb 7:25). It is this that maintains us through the wilderness and guarantees our eternal security. Truly He is able to save us “to the uttermost,” i.e., completely, in terms of degree, and eternally, in terms of time.
The Pattern of the Altar (vv1b-5)
The substance of the altar was shittim wood (perfect manhood) overlaid with gold (the glory of deity). “Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus [shittim wood] the Son of God [gold]” (Heb 4:14 KJV). As one who is fully Man, He has perfect sympathy with our trials and tribulations, apart from sin. As one who is the Son of God, He has unlimited strength to meet us in our every need. The size of the altar was small in comparison to the brazen altar, being one cubit (18 inches) square and two cubits high. Its relative size is in keeping with the intercession of the Lord Jesus, which is only directed toward His own (Joh 17:9,20), while the brazen altar speaks of the provision of Calvary for all (1Jn 2:2). The strength of the altar is indicated in its horns, of which there were four (Rev 9:13). The epistle to the Hebrews beautifully declares that our Great High Priest “is able” to sustain (1:3), succour (2:18), sympathise (4:15) and save (7:25, cf. Joh 17:12) – four horns indeed! Finally, the staves show that this was a pilgrim ark for a pilgrim people, declaring, in type, the constant accessibility of our Great High Priest. It is possible to obtain “mercy” (active compassion and kindness) and “grace” (favour and support) when and where it is needed, not merely at the time of morning and evening sacrifice (Heb 4:16)!
The Perfume of the Altar (vv34-38)
Four spices were blended together to make a unique incense. A “like weight” of each was taken, as every feature of moral excellence was perfectly balanced in Christ – He was full of grace and truth. Consider the spices:
Stacte – The Hebrew word means “to drop” or “ooze” and is used in Job to describe falling raindrops. We are thus reminded of the humility and sympathy of One who came from above, as emphasised in John’s gospel.
Onycha – The Hebrew word comes from an unusual root meaning “to roar” as a lion, suggesting the kingly character of strength and courage clearly evident in Matthew’s gospel.
Galbanum – The root meaning of the Hebrew word is “fatness,” which symbolises the best and finest part of the animal. This is typical of the inward energy of the servant so evident in Mark’s gospel.
Frankincense – When burned, frankincense emits a thick, white cloud symbolic of the glory and purity of Christ. It is the gospel by Luke that so clearly promotes the purity of the perfect Man, seven different testimonies blending together to form a fragrant witness to His name (e.g., Luk 1:35; 23:41).
We note that the incense was to be beaten “very small” (v36). How blessed to think that the more we scrutinise Christ, the sweeter the fragrance exuded. There is nothing in Him or about Him that needs to be hid from the view of others – He is altogether lovely.
The Practical Lessons of the Altar
First, the burning of the incense was closely connected with the maintenance of the lampstand (vv7-8). Testimony and worship are inseparable! The light of our witness will not shine, collectively or individually, unless we are first spending time in communion with the Lord. The shining witness of the Spirit-empowered apostles on the day of Pentecost was preceded by a continual dwelling in the temple, praising and blessing God (Luk 24:53), as well as by prayer and supplication (Act 1:14). Second, a priest who had been in the sanctuary could not be hidden. A unique fragrance, which could be gained nowhere else, would hang upon his clothing. Those believers who spend frequent time in the quiet place communing with their Lord cannot be hid. Even the Sanhedrin “took knowledge” of Peter and John that they had “been with Jesus” (Act 4:13). Where else could unlearned and ignorant men gain such boldness and wisdom?