Why did God instruct the building of the tabernacle? This article looks at the incense altar in the tabernacle as it is explained in Exodus 30:1-10 and Exodus 37:25-29. Its message is that of prayer and propitiation.

Source: The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, 2008. 3 pages.

The Incense Altar

And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon.

Exodus 30:1; cf. vv. 1-10; 37:25-29

Jerusha loved her priest, Elnathan. Every week, she looked forward to his Tabernacle Catechism Class. She especially liked the way he used simple words and tried to make each of the lesson points start with the same letter. She enjoyed the challenge of memorizing the points on her way home so that she could tell them to her family after supper on Saturday evenings. But today she couldn’t believe her ears. Elnathan introduced his lesson on the golden altar of incense by saying, “I have seven points all beginning with P.” How would she ever remember seven P’s! Elnathan seemed to read her mind and said, “I’m sure some of you are thinking, ‘How will I ever remember seven P’s?’ Come close, my beloved children, and I will give you the secret formula. Here it is: Seven P’s — the palace is positioned on propitiation so that prayer will be a perfume of perpetual power.” Jerusha scribbled down the secret formula and wondered what it could possibly mean.

“First,” said Elnathan, “think of the Tabernacle as a palace. As you know, we have passed by many nations in our wilderness wanderings. Most of those nations have royal palaces for their kings. And if you walked through their palaces, you would find candles, incense sticks, and slow-burning oils filling the rooms with various fresh fragrances. These sweet aromas are expressions of honor and homage to their kings.

“As Jehovah is Israel’s King and as the Tabernacle is His Royal palace, the place He resides in, it is fitting that we should express our honor and pay our homage in a similar manner. So, in our Tabernacle, we have the golden altar of incense.

“And, remember, this earthly Tabernacle is only an example and shadow of heavenly things. Just think how many expres­sions of honor and homage must fill the heavenly Tabernacle of our King.

“Children, let us constantly raise our minds from the stench of this God-defying world and think upon and look forward to the sweet fragrance of a God-honoring heaven.

“Second, consider the golden altar’s position. As you know, it is made of acacia wood, covered in gold, and crowned with a gold rim and four gold horns. It is about a foot and a half square and three feet high. It is located in the Holy Place just before the veil of the Most Holy Place and the Ark of the Covenant, Jehovah’s throne. So, in contrast to the brass altar of burnt offering which is here in the outer court, the golden altar of incense is ‘before the Lord,’ or ‘before the throne’ (Lev. 4:7; 1 Kings 9:25).

“And, children, like every other piece of Tabernacle furniture, this altar is a picture of the promised Messiah’s person and work. In particular, it tells us that the Messiah will not only have a work on earth before men (the suffering pictured by the brass altar), but He will also have a work in heaven before the throne. We will talk more about this later, but I must say it greatly comforts me to think that the Messiah will not only come to earth for us, but will also be in heaven before the Lord for us.

“Third, we see here propitiation. We see this in various ways. The fire on this altar is kindled with the coals taken from the altar of burnt offering, where the sin offering is consumed (Lev. 16:12, 13; Num. 16:46). Also, the High Priest makes an atonement for the golden altar once every year on the Day of Atonement to cleanse and reconsecrate it (Ex. 30:10; Lev. 16:18, 19). Further, the blood of the sin offerings is put on the horns of it (Lev. 4:7, 18). So, there is a very close connection between the brass altar and the golden altar, the work of the former being the basis for the work of the latter.

“Do you remember how Aaron’s ungodly sons, Nadab and Abihu, were judged by God because they offered strange fire before the Lord (Lev. 10:1-2)? Some think that this was because their incense was not burned on fiery coals taken from the brass altar of atonement.

“My dear children, learn from this that propitiation must come before anything and everything. We cannot offer anything acceptable to God that has not been cleansed by blood. And I think that this also suggests that the Messiah’s sacrificing work on earth for us will be the foundation of His work in heaven for us.

“Fourth, the incense is an emblem of prayer. When it is my turn to burn incense on the golden altar in the holy place, what is happening outside the curtain? Yes, that’s right, the prayer meeting is going on. Children, prayer is the true incense. Just as the smoke of the incense ascends to heaven and to God, so prayer rises up to God — not just our prayers but also the Messiah’s. What an encouragement to pray!

“Fifth, think a little of the perfume. How does God describe the incense? It is ‘sweet’ (30:7). It is ‘tempered together’ which means that the ingre­dients were broken up and beaten small so that it mixes together well (30:35). It is ‘pure’ (30:35). It is ‘most holy’ (30:36). That doesn’t sound like a description of our prayers does it, children? Most of us feel that our prayers are the exact opposite — sour, disorganized, unclean, and unholy. That brings us again to our future Messiah. Can we not hope that He will be the incense altar, that His prayers will be sweet, perfectly put together, pure, and holy? And not only that, but prayers offered in His name will also be sweet and acceptable to God. That is certainly my hope as I fall on my knees each night.

“Sixth, this daily offering of incense is perpetual (30:8). It goes on and on. When it is my turn to offer the incense on the altar, the sweet fragrance lingers on me for days. Also, when the Tabernacle moves on, the coals and incense are carried separately so that the incense can continue ascending to heaven. This teaches us that we are to pray without ceasing, that we should have the fragrance of prayer about us every day. But, above all, it encourages us to think that the Messiah will ever live to make interces­sion for us.

“Seventh, we see power in the golden altar — in two ways. There are the four golden horns (which are biblical symbols for power) pointing to the north, south, east, and west. And there is the golden crown or rim (signifying royal power). This encourages us to think of the power of prayer — yes, even ours — but especially of the Messiah’s prayers for His worldwide Church. The golden crown suggests that the Messiah will pray as a powerful king. Children, let His powerful royal prayers support your weak beggar prayers.

“Now does the secret formula make more sense? Let us end our les­son with prayer: Covenant Lord, we thank Thee for the golden altar of incense and all it teaches us about prayer, especially the Messiah’s prayers. And, although these children cannot see the golden altar, may they live to see the Messiah and hear His prayers. Look on the face of Thine Anointed, Amen.”

Jerusha ran back to her family tent repeating the secret formula again and again. She burst in the front door and said triumphantly: “Seven P’s: the palace is positioned on propitiation so that prayer will be a perfume of perpetual power.” “What are you talking about, Jerusha?” asked Deborah, her surprised mother. It was then that Jerusha realized that remember­ing the points was the easy part. Explaining what they meant — that was another matter....

Study Questions:🔗

  1. What does Malachi 1:11 look back to and point for­ward to?
  2. Which verses in Luke’s Gospel link the golden altar of incense with prayer?
  3. Read Revelation 5:8 and 8:1-5. How does the golden altar of incense help you to understand these passages and be encouraged by them?
  4. Old Testament believers were helped to pray by the symbolism and imagery of the golden altar (Ps. 141:2). New Testament believers have also been similarly helped, as the following quote from William Brown shows:

From before the heavenly throne He is now looking down lovingly upon all His believing people, inviting and encouraging them to offer up their prayers, and assuring them that He Himself will present them, and secure gra­cious answers in the bestowal of rich and soul-satisfying blessings. Are you one of His believing people? If so, bend your ear and listen to His encouraging voice as it comes rolling down from the golden altar: ‘Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.’

Try keeping the golden altar in mind the next few times you pray. In what ways did it help your prayers?

  1. In the light of the following poem by Eddis, what con­nections do you find between the golden altar and 1 John 2:1?

Thou standest at the altar,    Out of Thy hand the incense
Thou offerest every prayer;   Ascends before the throne,
In faith’s unclouded vision     Where Thou art interceding,
We see Thee ever there.      Lord Jesus, for Thine own.

  1. Arthur Pink wrote: “Unutterably solemn is it to contemplate Christ at the brazen altar there made sin for us, suffering, enduring judgment, bowing His head beneath the awful storm of God’s wrath. But unspeakably blessed is it to behold Him at the golden altar, risen from the grave, alive for evermore, maintaining the interests of His people before God’s throne, presenting them in all His own excellency and preciousness.”
    At what points in our Christian experience do we need Christ to be our brass altar? And when do we need Him as our golden altar?
  2. Which chapter in John’s gospel most clearly presents Jesus Christ as the golden altar of incense?

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