February 16, 2023

Finding Christ in the Altar of Incense

The golden altar of incense was placed before the veil of the Tabernacle of Moses. Every morning and evening the priest burned incense there, offering prayers on behalf of all Israel. Through the symbolism of this sacred altar, we can learn of the powerful connection between the power of prayer and the Savior’s suffering and sacrifice.

The altar of incense, which was located in the Holy Place, shared many characteristics with the altar of sacrifice, situated in the courtyard. Both were made from acacia wood and overlaid with metal (the altar of sacrifice in bronze, the altar of incense in gold). Both were square in shape, had horns on each of their four corners, and had rings and staves for transporting. These similarities suggest there was a connection between these two altars. (Compare Exodus 30:1-10 and Exodus 27:1-8).

Each morning and evening, at the time of prayer, the priest, who represented all of Israel, would first wash his hands and feet at the bronze laver (Exodus 30:20-21), and then he would offer a lamb as a burnt offering on the altar of sacrifice (Exodus 29:38-41). He would then wash again before entering the Holy Place, taking with him a coal from the altar in the courtyard. Originally, the fire at the altar of sacrifice was lit by God when He first accepted the Tabernacle (Leviticus 9:24), and it had continued burning uninterrupted, because of the maintenance of the priests (Leviticus 6:9, 12, 13). This means that each day the incense was ignited from a coal that was originally lit by the Lord himself. 

Pillar of fire lighting down on the altar of the Tabernacle of Moses

With the incense burning on the altar in front of the veil, the priest would then offer a prayer with raised hands, requesting blessings and redemption for all of Israel. The rising smoke represented the prayers of the saints ascending to God before the veil. The Psalmist wrote, “Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141:2; see also Revelation 5:8 and Revelation 8:3).

The substance burned at the altar was to be made from a combination of spices and incense, including frankincense, one of the gifts later given to the young Jesus by the wise men. These ingredients were to be finely ground down to a powder, which produced a sweet-smelling fragrance when burned at the altar (see Exodus 30:34-36). The grinding down of the incense can be seen as a symbol of the Savior, who was ground down and burned in the fire of affliction, that our prayers might be answered before the throne of God.

A priest praying with raised hands at the altar of incense at the Tabernacle

As we study these morning and evening rituals enacted by the priests, we can learn several valuable lessons that can help us as we seek to approach the throne of God through prayer. First, just as the priest had to symbolically wash and offer a lamb as part of the daily prayers, we should seek daily repentance as we petition the Lord. Moreover, as we place our faith in the Lamb of God, we become spiritually clean through his atonement. As the writer of Hebrews wrote, “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22).

With the offering of the lamb on the altar, the priest could then enter the Holy Place, having been washed, clothed, and permitted to proceed to this sacred room. Here before the presence of the Lord, he could offer prayer for all of Israel. The similarities between the altars of sacrifice and incense show a progression of sacredness in the offerings given. In the outer courtyard, the sacrifice of an animal can be seen as a symbol of our sins and iniquities that must be placed on the altar. The death of this innocent animal is a type and shadow of the suffering and death of our Savior. In contrast, the burning of the finely ground incense and spices can represent a sweeter savor and a more sacred offering to the Lord. The pleasant aroma rising towards heaven could symbolize our prayer, service, devotion, and consecrated efforts to build the Kingdom of God. It focuses our attention on praying for others and lifting and serving those in need. 

Smoke rising in front of the veil from the altar of incense

In our own daily prayers, we can follow this pattern by first seeking daily forgiveness of our wrongs as if at the altar of sacrifice. This gives us the chance to have a new start each day. Once washed and cleansed through the blood of the Lamb, we then symbolically approach the throne of God and pray for those around us who might be in need of the Lord’s comfort or support. After we finish our prayers, we then allow the Savior to work through us, as we serve and bless the lives of others through acts of kindness and love. 

Just before the birth of Christ, the priest Zacharias was chosen to offer the incense and pray on behalf of Israel in Herod’s Temple. While he prayed an angel appeared on the side of the altar and told him that his wife, Elizabeth, would have a son. The angel then prophesied that this son, John the Baptist, would prepare the way for the coming Messiah. For hundreds of years, priests had offered countless prayers at this altar, petitioning for blessings upon Israel. Now, those prayers had been heard, the Messiah would come! Redemption for Israel was near! This can teach us that answers to prayers don’t always come when we might hope, but answers will always come in the timing of the Lord!

We each have the opportunity, like the ancient priests, to offer our prayers before the Lord, morning and evening and throughout each day. As we find our own sacred and holy space, we can symbolically be washed through the blood of Christ, and then enter the holy presence of the Lord to request blessings for ourselves and others. How glorious it is that our Father in Heaven allows us to approach Him in prayer, and that because of the sacrifice of his Son—the Lamb of God—we can find the answers, comfort, and blessing that we seek!

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