In this section of the Bible, we will be studying the altar of incense that God had instructed the Israelites to use within the Holy Place. In Exodus, God is laying out how he meets with his people in the Tabernacle, and how through this he expresses his desire to dwell with his people.
At the core of the Tabernacle is a structure called the Holy of Holies, the place where God dwells with his people. Outside of this structure there is the holy place, which has 3 pieces of furniture — the altar for incense, the golden lampstand, and the table for the show bread. We’ve already looked at the lampstand and table.
Outside of that structure is the tent of meeting, which is the boundary of the entire structure. Inside the court there is a bronze basin and bronze altar where most of the sacrifices take place.
What we see is that there are layers of access before we arrive at the core meeting place with God. Outside of that is the rest of the camp where Israel is, and they are organised around this structure. Every time they moved, they always had this layout and structure at the core of their movement. Why? Because, the Holy God dwells with this people. The God that you worship comes and dwells with you in an intimate relationship, and that has a practical effect on your life.
(A) The most holy altar of incense: priests pray in the presence of the Lord (Ex 30:1-10)
The altar of incense was found in the Holy Place. However, it is not discussed together with the Table of Presence of the Golden Lampstand in Exo 25. Why doesn’t the Author of Exodus organise the material in a linear fashion? The answer is that the altar of incense is in the Bible right where God wanted it to be, after the ordination of the priests. Perhaps there was a need to understand the prior sections of the passage first. We need the other items and preparation before the altar of incense.
Dr Philip Ryken in his commentary on Exodus has a helpful explanation:
“The answer, of course, is that the altar of incense is in the Bible right where God wanted it to be, after the ordination of the priests… starting to focus on the worship offered in his sanctuary. Once he had explained how the priests were ordained, he could then begin to describe their duties. The altar of incense was not mentioned until there was a priest to burn incense on it.”
In this passage, we are not just looking at furniture. Rather, we want to understand what takes place on it. Who performs these rituals? How does it mediate between God and men? What is its use?
In a similar way, we should be led to think about our own worship. When we invite our friends to church, what can they observe about God when they observe our actions in worship? What can they learn when they observe what we have chosen to wear, how we use our phones, how we sing the songs, how we interact with the books in the pews, how we stand/sit etc?
God provides a series of instructions to Moses regarding the altar of incense (Exo 30:1-9).
Like the ark of the testimony, lampstand and table of show bread, the altar of incense is to be made of gold (and unlike the bronze altar etc). We’ve seen already how the materials are chosen on purpose, and this reflects the importance and significance of this piece of furnishing. It's portability also reflects how God follows the Israelites as the Tabernacle follows the Israelites.
The altar of incense was found within the holy place and is closer to the mercy seat than any other furniture. It is literally right in front of it. If you were a priest, the first thing you would see in the centre of the room would be the altar of incense. The fact that it is in front of the ark, in front of the mercy seat where God meets, reflects its importance to the holy place.
The altar of incense was set apart for this specific use, and the text also specifies the things that it is not for. It is not supposed to be used for unauthorised incense, burnt offerings, grain offerings or drink offerings. Why is there such a strong emphasis on this limitation? The reason is that other offerings would cause the environment to smell differently. If you are a priest there will only be one distinct smell of fragrant incense, except for the day of atonement, where there will be the smell of blood.
We read also of how a fragrant incense was to be burnt every morning and twilight, twice a day. The smell permeates and is part of the experience as he does his duties in the tabernacle.
Let’s pause and consider the sensory experience of the priest. There would be light from the lampstand, with the light reflected off the gold. It would also be smoky due to the confined environment. All this would have been overwhelming to the senses. If the incense had not been there, what would the priests be smelling? He would smell the sacrifices outside, the charred flesh and blood. What he is experiencing instead is a perfume that permeates his experience.
What does that mean for us? The Holy of Holies is meant to represent God’s presence. It is where God dwells with his people. As the priest enters into the holy place, he experiences the olfactory experience of entering into the presence of God.
How many of us think that being in the presence of God would be like that? Overwhelmingly fragrant? When we go to God in prayer and close our eyes, do we treat it as coming into God’s presence as something that is holy. Do we experience the presence of God as overwhelming? What really overwhelms you? Is it the presence of God or your work/school/internships/thesis?
But, why does the priest have to burn this incense? Luke 1:8-13 shows a clear connection between the prayers of the people and the burning of incense. What that means is that the priestly duty was to mediate the prayers of Israel before God. The incense itself is not the prayer, but it is the middleman of sweet fragrance to the Lord, in alignment with the prayers made by the people. In this day and age, we may think of prayer differently. How often do we think that our prayers need a mediator? We think of prayers as a direct connection with God. That’s not what prayer was, Israel could not just pick up the phone. They needed the priests to mediate with the incense on the altar. The prayers of unrighteous people need a mediator to be heard by a Holy God.
In Hebrews 7:25, Jesus is able to save since he always lives to make intercession for us. Jesus our high priest is our mediator today. God hears our prayers through Jesus alone. If you didn’t know by now, that is why we pray in Jesus’ name.
What does it have to do with us today? Do we appreciate that our communion with God is only possible with and through Christ? We, who were enemies of God, can only access God in prayer through Jesus. The exhortation here today is to come before the throne of grace knowing that it is not through our works, but the sacrifice of Jesus that allows us to come into communion and access with God.
(B) Anointing oil & incense: priests consecrate themselves; some will be counterfeit (Exo 30:22-38)
God also provides detailed commands about the oil and incense.
As we read these instructions, we realise that everything in the Holy Place is oily. Everything in the tabernacle is set apart, including the priest. The people and the furniture are set apart for God. Why must it be so special? Why does it have to be more special now?
Can we understand this concept? When we consecrate our toothbrush for ourselves, we set it apart for our own use. Likewise, the holy God sets apart his dwelling with his people, as well as his people, for himself. This fulfils God’s promises in exodus. Without the consecration, all the priest does is for naught because it is not right before God. He may have done everything right before that, but if the priest himself is not consecrated and the furniture, then it is not fit for the service of God.
We read that God gives a warning to the person who uses a different recipe for oil and incense, or if he uses it carelessly (Exo 30:32-33, 37-38). This person will be cut off from his people. There are two understandings of being cut off. One is that the soul will be cut off. Another is banishment from the people. Either way it is a serious offence with a serious punishment.
What does this mean for us today? We understand that we are set apart in Christ. However in the new testament we have commands to consecrate ourselves. Paul reminds us in Rom 12:1-2 to present our bodies as a sacrifice. What is means for us today is that we are called to surrender our entire lives and being as a living sacrifice to God. We are called to be separate from the world, and transformed, that we may do his pleasing and perfect will.
Today, jkust because we have all the right designs, having the look of a Christian, having the right appearances, is that sufficient in God’s eyes to be consecrated? What does it mean to come to God on a Sunday in worship to him? Do we come before God with an incorrect posture of worship, with a failure to be consecrated? Being consciously consecrated is being clear of the shift in identity. We are no longer who we want to be, what the world wants us to be. We belong to God, and are thus who He wants us to be. For his full pleasure and purpose.
The priests are a people who devote themselves to mediating between God and man. It is this meaning that Jesus applies to himself. John 17 is the high priestly prayer. In John 17:6-19, consider that the same Jesus who died on the cross told his disciples that before he went there, he was consecrating himself in the same way the priest anoints himself with oil. He was consecrating himself to mediate with God. It means that he was about to bring the sin upon himself into the presence of a Holy God. Right now our Saviour does more than watch from heaven. He bears on his heart all the sin of our lives, as he represents a sinful people before a holy God. The teachings of Exodus is how we as sinful people, put our sins on Jesus. We must weep for ourselves. The fact that Jesus would give up his life is evidence of what is wrong in our hearts. Do we really believe that Jesus is the one that we worship? He has called us to take on his name, which is one of suffering. Have we consecrated ourselves to him?
This hymn by D.S. Warner calls us to pause and reflect on our own response to the Saviour:
“Who will suffer with the Savior? Take the little that remains/ Of the cup of tribulation Jesus drank in dying pains?... Who will offer soul and body On the altar of our God? Leaving self and worldly mammon, Take the path that Jesus trod?... Lord, we fellowship Thy passion, Gladly suffer shame and loss; With Thy blessing pain is pleasure, We will glory in Thy cross.”
Think of the one who consecrated himself for you, so that we can consecrate ourselves for him.