Surprising Stories of the Tabernacle: Censers of Pride

Rebellion broke out in the camp of Israel in Numbers 16. We read, “And they rose up before Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown: and they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them, ‘Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the LORD?’” (vv2-3).1  Moses knew what would come next, so he fell on his face before the Lord. And if you’ve read through the Old Testament, you also know what comes next. One of the strangest stories of judgment found within the pages of Scripture occurs here and, once again, it is linked with the articles of the tabernacle. Two hundred and fifty princes lifting up their censers in opposition to Moses is certainly a dramatic scene, but then, the ground opened up her mouth, swallowed those men whole, and they went down alive into the pit. The rest of the congregation fled in terror at the sight. We might be tempted to flee from this chapter, yet we would miss the lessons that lie here for our instruction concerning the golden altar of incense.

We are not shocked to find accounts of disunity, dissension or even defiance within such a large group of travelers. But why did these renowned and famous men choose the offering of incense before the Lord as their point of contention? Apart from the laver’s construction, we never read historically of it in use, let alone an individual demanding to wash within its waters. David, in great need, ate the showbread, but no one in the Old Testament came requesting to taste the week-old bread. And not once in Scripture do individuals insist that it was their right to serve at the lampstand. On each occasion, the focus of pride and rebellion was centered on the altar of incense. Why was it at this place within the tabernacle that the carelessness of Nadab and Abihu led to a fiery end? And again, why did King Uzziah, resisting the rebuke of the priests, enter the temple to burn incense on the altar? You will notice the parallels in these strange accounts. In each case the offenders were men of distinction, prominence and great responsibility among the people of God. In each case the judgment was instant and severe as the ground devoured princes, the fire destroyed priests, and leprosy defiled a king.

You undoubtedly remember the significance of the censer and the altars. The censer transported burning coals from the brazen altar to the altar within the tent of meeting. Upon that golden altar the live coals, which had felt the flames of a burnt offering, ignited the incense. The cloud that arose from those coals suffused the tent with a beautiful aroma that entered even into the holiest of all. A study of the ingredients of the incense makes clear that the beauty of the work of Christ is continually rising before the throne of God. This altar and its function symbolize for us the mighty truth of Hebrews 7:25: “Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.”

It is important to recall that the function of the altar of incense required daily service, connected with the morning and evening sacrifices. On a yearly basis, the High Priest would travel deeper within the tabernacle and enter the holiest of all. But on a daily basis, ministering at the altar of incense was the closest a priest could come to the presence of God. Perhaps for this reason it was viewed as the most prominent service. In his insightful teaching, the late Sydney Maxwell pointed out that even Scripture sets service at this altar apart: “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.”Clearly, to serve at the golden altar was a great honor and a singular responsibility.

We know the warnings of Scripture well: “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall” (Pro 16:18). And again, “Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall. There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful” (1Co 10:12-13). Any believer who has ministered in a manner that is considered public or prominent has with the joy of service also felt the fleshly call of pride. That same pride which brought Old Testament men of prominence to destruction lives today in fleshly temptation. Sadly, we live in a time when prominent men continue to fail and fall.

The historical accounts at the altar of incense give us a sober warning concerning the seeking of place outside of the Lord’s call and beyond the bounds of humility. Even the apostle Paul was concerned that he could bring blame and shame upon his ministry for the Lord, so he wrote, “But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway” (1Co 9:27). And again, “But in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God … by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left” (2Co 6:4-7 NKJV). There is much to be said concerning the value of humble, unseen service for the Lord. Equally, there is great necessity for men who are willing to take a forward position as the Lord leads. May the Lord continue to fit and call men to prominent service, but may we move in all humility and in the fear of the Lord in whatever sphere we serve the living God.

1 Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.

Truth & Tidings, February 2005 (vol.56, no.2)