The Altar of Incense: Reverence and Adoration
Two weeks ago, on May 6, I joined about 10 million other Americans in watching the coronation and enthronement of King Charles of England. Since I wasn’t invited, I watched it on television. Several things were striking about all the events of the day. I was struck by how much Scripture was read and sung but was reminded that the King not only serves the Commonwealth but is also the head of the Church of England. Then there were all the trappings—the rituals passed down from generation to generation for centuries and the regalia filled symbolic significance (the spurs, the sword, the bracelets, the robe, the orb, the ring, the glove, the sceptre and rod, and the crowns). One of the crowns is made of pure gold and contains 444 precious jewels. Another crown contains 2,868 diamonds, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, 4 rubies, 269 pearls. Through all of the opulence and pageantry, the pomp and circumstance it was obvious that people spare no expense to express their loyalty and ascribe admiration to their leader. I am sure that was even more evident for those who were present. Did I mention I wasn’t invited so I was watching all this from a distance? The whole experience led me to wonder how would these same people respond if they were in the presence of the One who has been crowned the King over all kings and enthroned as the Lord over all other lords?
That is precisely what we will encounter in today’s message. Throughout this ¬Encounter series Jon has been using the “typology” of the tabernacle (and later the temple) as a framework for talking about how we encounter God and how God encounters us? We have walked with Moses through the tabernacle and that experience has engaged all of our senses—our sense of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. We have experienced the sights and sounds of thanksgiving and praise in the outer court; we have withstood the shock of shed blood and slain lambs sacrificed on the brazen altar; we have been cleansed and consecrated at the bronze basin; we have witnessed the shattering of darkness with the light from the golden lampstand; and we have been nourished by God’s promises of physical and spiritual bread.
Today we make the next to the last stop through the tabernacle at a small wooden altar covered with gold. It measures just 18 inches wide, 18 inches long, and 36 inches high. Just before the High Priest would part the last curtain and enter the Most Holy Place (Holy of Holies) where God’s shekina glory dwelt in the Ark of the Covenant—you would smell the sweet aroma of a specially prepared incense that the priests would offer as an act of worship on the burning coals of this altar of incense every morning and every evening every day from generation to generation.
This altar in the tabernacle gives meaning to the original command to Moses in Exodus 25:8–9: 8 “Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. 9 Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you.
One of the contemporary voices that I have enjoyed listening to for the past several years is a British, Jewish Rabbi—Lord Jonathan Sacks (he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth to the house of Lords in 2009). Here is his explanation for why the tabernacle, a tent, a dwelling place was built and why it was to be done exactly as God commanded:
“Moses was, in effect, saying to God: What the people need is not for me to be close to them. I am just a human, here today, gone tomorrow. But You are eternal. You are their God. They need You to be close to them.
It was as if Moses was saying: Until now, they have experienced You as a terrifying, elemental force, delivering plague after plague to the Egyptians, bringing the world’s greatest empire to its knees, dividing the sea, overturning the very order of nature itself. At Mount Sinai, merely hearing Your voice, they were so overwhelmed that they said, if we continue to hear the voice, ‘we will die’ (Ex. 20:16). The people needed, said Moses, to experience not the greatness of God but the closeness of God, not God heard in thunder and lightning at the top of the mountain, but as a perpetual presence in the valley below.
That is why Moses removed his tent and pitched it outside the camp, as if to say to God: It is not my presence the people need in their midst, but Yours. That is why Moses sought to understand the very nature of God Himself. Is it possible for God to be close to where people are? Can transcendence become immanence? Can the God who is vaster than the universe live within the universe in a predictable, comprehensible way, not just in the form of miraculous intervention?
To this, God replied in a highly structured way. First, He said: you cannot understand My ways. ‘I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy’ (Ex. 33.19). There is an element of Divine justice that must always elude human comprehension. We cannot fully enter into the mind of another human being, how much less so the mind of the Creator Himself.
Second, ‘You cannot see My face, for no one can see Me and live’ (Ex. 33.20). Humans can at best ‘see My back.’ Even when God intervenes in history, we can see this only in retrospect, looking back.
However, third, you can see My ‘glory.’ That is what Moses asked for once he realized that he could never know God’s ‘ways’ or see His ‘face.’
Isaiah said, “This is what the Lord says: Heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool. Where is the House you will build for Me? Where will My resting place be?” (Isa. 66:1).
The answer was given by God to Moses at the very outset, before the construction of the Tabernacle was begun in Exodus 25:8-9: ‘Let them make a sanctuary for Me and I will dwell in them’—not ‘in it’ or ‘among them’ but ‘in them’—not in the building but the builders, not in the wood and metal, bricks or stone, but in those who build and those who worship. It is not objects, buildings, or places that are holy in themselves. Only acts of heart and mind can endow them with holiness. What made it holy was one thing only, that the Israelites ‘had made it just as the Lord had commanded.’”
So when the tabernacle was completed we read these words in Exodus 40:34—Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
This helps us answer the obvious question about the altar of incense—what did it symbolize? What was the significance of the fragrance of incense permeating the tabernacle, with its smoke rising upward toward Heaven?
Ryken noted that “Scholars have answered this question in different ways. Some think the incense was a form of tribute—a pleasing aroma for God. Some say it is a sign of his holy presence. Others see it as a symbol of royalty, because ancient Near-Eastern kings often burned incense in their royal chambers. Still others think the incense was an air freshener to hide the stench of sacrifice. . . . Still others think the incense was a form of protection, that its smoke concealed the curtain to the Holy of Holies and thus shielded the priests from the holy presence of God.” He concluded that the altar of incense was an altar for prayer, a place to encounter God for worship.
This earthly tabernacle reflected God’s heavenly sanctuary, so the altar of incense symbolized the prayers of God’s people and the perpetual burning of incense reflected the way we can approach God at all times of day and night with reverence and adoration.
We have some support for this interpretation in such texts as Psalm 141:2: May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.
And again in Psalm 134: 1 Praise the LORD, all you servants of the LORD who minister by night in the house of the LORD. 2 Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and praise the LORD. 3 May the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion.
Another passage that connects incense to prayer is in the Gospel of Luke. It is the account of Zechariah, a priest, who was visited by an angel announcing the birth of John the Baptist. Here is how Luke 1:8-11 describes the scene:
Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.
Then there is this vision of heavenly worship in God’s heavenly throne room recorded by the Apostle John in Revelation 5:8: … the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
And again, in Revelation 8:3–4: 3 Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne. 4 The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel’s hand.
This opportunity to encounter God is not just for priests or heavenly beings or angels, but for us. So today we consider how we can come in prayer and praise, with lifted hands in worship offering our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls to celebrate God's “worthship.” Consider this reality—we have been invited into the very throne room of God, to the very Presence of God. I got an invitation to be in this King’s presence and so did you. Does that blow you away or make your day?
Here it is in Psalm 95— 1 Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. 2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. 3 For the LORD is the great God, the great King above all gods. . . . 6 Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker;
But that is not just an invitation; it is an imperative. But there is more, so much more.
Romans 5:1—Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.
Ephesians 2:18—For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Hebrews 4:14–16—14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. 16 Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Unlike how we might be welcomed by other royalty, we are not only invited into this throne room to celebrate His presence but He paid our way to provide us this up close and personal access!
One commentator noted this connection between the brazen altar of sacrifice and the golden altar of incense:
“At the brazen altar Christ died for us, shed His blood, reconciled us to God, and made us forever secure in Him. But at the golden altar He lives in heaven to intercede for those for whom He has already died, and who are already saved. The brazen altar speaks of the death of Christ; the golden altar speaks of the living, resurrected, ascended Lord Jesus Christ. The two altars, therefore, speak of the death and the resurrection, and constitute the full message of the Gospel.”
Ryken concludes: “As believers in Jesus Christ, we have been given this great privilege. Through the atoning sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross, we have been granted immediate access to the throne room of Almighty God. We are able to approach him at any time, day or night, for any reason. We can ask him to establish his kingdom by advancing the work and witness of his church around the world. We can ask him to do his will in our lives in any and every way that will bring him glory. We can ask him to supply our needs. We can ask him to forgive our sins. We can ask him to protect us from spiritual attack. What an amazing opportunity! Who would neglect to take advantage of this extraordinary privilege?”
With an invitation in hand and our way paid for access into God’s throne room, how will we respond? I want to answer that from what I call twin texts in the New Testament. They are not identical twins but the similarities are significant and inescapable. Both texts reflect the practical implications of profound theological arguments; both are introduced with the word “Therefore”; both are understood against the backdrop of the tabernacle or temple; both reveal something of the character and nature of God; both call us to acceptable worship.
The first of these texts is Romans 12:1—Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.
Through eleven chapters Paul has declared the undeserved, unfathomable mercies of God to which there is one logical, reasonable, spiritual response—offering ourselves as holy, pleasing, living sacrifices as a life of worship--not a one day-a-week or a one-hour-on-Sunday kind of worship but a 24/7 “what I do after I say I believe” kind of worship.
The second twin text is found in Hebrews 12:28-29: 28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29 for our “God is a consuming fire.”
Through twelve chapters the writer of Hebrews has described the better covenant, the better sacrifice, the unshakeable Kingdom that is ours to which there is only one appropriate response—with thanksgiving worshipping God acceptably with reverence and awe—not half-hearted and not asking “What did I get out of it?” or “Did I like it?” but “Was God pleased with what I offered in my worship before Him, our audience of One?”
So let us worship.
Let us worship the way William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, summed it up:
“Worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is
• the quickening of conscience by His holiness;
• the nourishment of mind with His truth;
• the purifying of imagination by His beauty;
• the opening of the heart to His love;
• the surrender of will to His purpose —
and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable.”
(William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1881-1944)