THE ALTAR OF INCENSE
“ And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon: of shittim wood shalt thou make it. A cubit shall be the length thereof, and a cubit the breadth thereof; four -square shall it be : and two cubits shall be the height thereof: the horns thereof shall be of the same. And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, the top thereof, and the sides thereof round about, and the horns thereof; and thou shalt make unto it a crown of gold round about. And two golden rings shalt thou make to it under the crown of it, by the two corners thereof, upon the two sides of it shalt thou make it i and they shall be for places for the staves to bear it withal. And thou shalt make the staves of shittim wood, and overlay them with gold. And thou shalt put it before the veil that is by the ark of the testimony, before the mercy-seat that is over the testimony, where I will meet with thee. And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn incense upon it. And when Aaron lighteth the lamps at even, he shall burn incense upon it i a perpetual incense before the Lord, throughout your generations. Ye shall offer no strange incense thereon, nor burnt sacrifice, nor meat offering i neither shall ye pour drink offering thereon. And Aaron shall make an atonement upon the horns of it once in a year with the blood of the sin offering of atonements once in the year shall he make atonement upon it throughout your generations: it is most holy unto the Lord."-Exodus xxx. 1-10.
THERE were three significant, remarkable, and beautiful objects in the holy place before the veil. Upon two of them, the table of shewbread, and the sacred candlestick, we have already dwelt. We come now to speak of the Altar of Incense, which would seem to have been a central object, to be passed whether the priest was going to the light, to the bread, or within the veil.
This altar of shittim wood covered with gold, eighteen inches square, represented the good affections of the heart engaged in worshipping the Lord, the incense representing the prayers and praise which thence arise.
The shittim wood represented righteousness derived from the Lord Jesus Christ, and gold a supreme love for him. The horns of the altar represented the power of prayer, while the rings and the staves to bear it about, intimate that a prayerful spirit should be with us always. The crown border round about the altar symbolized the sphere of wisdom and love which surrounds a praying heart, a holy atmosphere of wise and devout tenderness, which testifies that a soul where such an inward altar is, already lives and breathes in the atmosphere of an inward heaven.
The incense to be burnt every morning, represented the worship of the Lord every new day, and every new state; worship imploring strength from the Lord, and His blessing. The incense every evening represented renewed worship at the close of every day and every state, acknowledging the Lord's goodness and giving thanks to Him.
The altar being square, intimated that sincere worship is perfect in goodness and in truth; while the height being double, is significative of the fact, that in worship, God and man meet and commune together; there is conjunction between them.
The whole subject of this Altar opens to us the divine teaching respecting the nature, origin, and power of worship and of prayer.
That the ascent of prayer from the heart was symbolized by the ascent of incense from the Altar, is expressly taught in the Divine Word. "Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice." -Ps. CXLI. 2. Of the converted nations it is said in Isaiah, "They shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the Lord."-Isaiah LX. 6. Even in heaven it is said, " Another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of theincense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended upbefore God out of the angel's hand."-Rev. VIII. 3, 4.
That praise and prayer are a spiritual incense, arising from the heart, we almost feel as soon as it is uttered.
"Prayer is the soul's sincere desire,
Uttered or unexpressed;
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast."
No true religion exists without devotion. We must begin all we do with the spirit of prayer, and if convenient, with the form too, to secure the Lord's presence and blessing. "Men ought always to pray, said our Divine Saviour, " and not to faint."---Luke XVIII. 1. Piety without charity and intelligence is blind, formal, rigid, and condemnatory. Charity without intelligence and piety, is weak! maudlin, and indulgent to evil. But piety, with charity and intelligence, make a state of religion m the soul, beautiful as the holy place where stood the Table of Shewbread, the Golden Candlestick, and the Altar of Incense.
The Altar was golden, to shew that all worship should be grounded in love. Too often the Deity is addressed as if men were crouching criminals entreating an angry judge. But it is not so that the Lord desires to be invoked. He taught us to say, " Our Father, who art in the heavens." He desires that we should come to Him. The altar upon which we offer should be a golden altar. Our incense should be offered to Him from golden affections.
"But holiest rite, or longest prayer
That soul can yield, or wisdom frame,
What better import can it bear,
Than' Father, hallowed be thy name.''
Sin breeds sorrow. But it is our Heavenly Father's will that our life on earth should be a life of goodness and of joy. "Ask," He says, "and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full." ---John XVI. 24. "These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full." John xv. 11. Would we dethrone self and cease from fretfulness, we should behold what a sublime scene of blessedness we occupy in the world which forms our present home. We have a thousand things for which to be thankful, for everyone of which we can rightfully complain. What blessings we enjoy of light and warmth, of air and beauty, every day that we live! We stand in the midst of innumerable gifts presented to soul and body by Omnipotent and Omnipresent love. Each man is a little universe of faculties, to receive from the great universe innumerable treasures of grace and good. A fretful spirit, like a speck of dust on the pupil of the eye, may shut out a world of loveliness; but how unworthy is such a disposition. How much nobler is the spirit of thankful love, which from the golden altar of a grateful heart sends up the incense of gratitude and thanksgiving. The bulk of our life IS blessing, and so should the bulk of our worship be. "O give thanks unto the Lord; for He is good: for his mercy endureth for ever."-Psalm CVI. 1.
The Altar, then, should be of gold, our worship should proceed from love, and if love has its perfect work in this respect, great power will be the result, instead of that feebleness which we often feel in our regenerating states.
" When least we hope, our prayer is heard,
The judgment is averted,
And comes the comfort of thy Word,
When most we seem deserted."
This power resulting from prayer was represented by the horns at the corners of the Altar. The power of truth grounded m love, and exercised in prayer, is wonderful. Oftentimes this power alone will dissipate a host of sorrows and cares, which have been inducing temptations and darkness, and keeping us a mental prison-house. Could we see the spirit-world around us at such a time, we should see a host of enemies about us, but when prayer has been uplifted, and the divine strength descended unto us, and diffused itself around us, our foes are discomfited and fly, and we can feel that our souls are brought out of prison.
“Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise thy name: the righteous shall compass me about; for thou shalt deal bountifully with me."-Psalm CXLII. 7. Horns are the symbols of power, and are very often mentioned in the Word, as for instance, "He shall give strength unto his king, and exalt the horn of his anointed."-l Sam. II. 10. "All the horns of the wicked also will I cut off; but the horns of the righteous shall be exalted."-Psalm LXXV. 10. "He also exalteth the horn of his people, the praise of all his saints; even of the children of Israel, a people near unto him. Praise ye the Lord."-Psalm CXLVIII. 14.
It is evident that horns here, and in many other passages in the Word, represent strength, and, therefore, the horns of the Altar of Incense will represent the strength which belongs to prayer and worship.
There was a remarkable exemplification of this, on the occasion when the Israelites engaged in their first struggle against their deadly foes, the Amalekites. Moses stood on the top of a hill engaged in prayer. His rod in his hand, like the horns of the Altar of Incense, the symbol of power. "And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed: and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed."-Ex. XVII. 11.
Could anything more graphically portray the power of earnest inward prayer. It is the opening of the soul to the Lord. A divine power descends into us, and as surely as the stormy waves of the Sea of Galilee were hushed at the command of Him who said, " Peace be still," so our spiritual storms, and the powers which excite them, sink and pass away before His might who is "as an hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place; as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land."-Isaiah XXXII. 2. In our daily duties, and our daily life, we must work, but we must also pray. Some pray and do not work. Others work and do not pray. The true position of immortal man in the constant relation in which he stands to the Eternal God, is to work as if everything depended upon his own exertions, but also to pray as if everything depended upon Divine Providence. In this way God operates and man co-operates. God can then bless man as he desires to bless him, by making him humble, and yet strong and good. Prayer fills the soul with fortitude, with clearness of mind, with quiet power. Prayer consoles and comforts. "Come unto me," said the Lord, " all ye that labour, and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."-Matt. XI. 28. Let us, then, never forget that the Altar of Incense is not only a beautiful object, and the odour of the incense fragrant and agreeable, but there are horns to that Altar, there is the hiding of the divine power, and when we have tribulation, there, at the foot of the Divine Altar, we shall find peace.
But there is also great significance in the command that Aaron should burn incense upon the Altar every morning when he dressed the lamps. The dressing of the lamps represented the progress and improvement, of which our faith should be the subject every day. Like the virgins of the parable, we should trim our lamps, but better than they, we should trim ours every morning. In each new state experience will deepen our convictions and enlarge our vision. "It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning."-Lam. III. 22, 23. So should be our perception and our praise. But while we are trimming our lamps let us never forget the offering up of the incense.
Instruction comes by an outward way, but light by an inward way. Both are needed to clear vision. "O send out thy light and thy truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to thy holy hill, and to thy tabernacles" (Psalm XLIII. 3), was the prayer of the Psalmist; and it must be the prayer of everyone who comes into" light divine." "For with thee is the fountain of light: in thy light shall we see light."-Ps. XXXVI. 9. "Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart."-Psalm XCVII. 11.
If we read the Word always in the spirit of prayer, remembering its high office of furnishing light unto our feet, and a lamp unto our path, we should have its divine truths opened to our minds often in a way but little dreamt of by the worldly wise. Prayer places our souls in the true point of view for discerning divine things, in the true position for receiving divine aid. Let us, then, never forget that when like Aaron we seek every morning to trim our lamps, we should also like him be obedient to the divine command and offer our incense from the golden altar of a loving heart, for with such offerings the Lord is well pleased.
In the evening also when he lit the lamps, the priest was to burn incense.
Days, when distinguished from nights, represent in the Word states of brightness and clearness of mind distinguished from states of obscurity. We have mental days and nights, and they alternate with each other. Now, we are happy, and then, we are sad; now, we are in light, and see truth with clearness and rejoice in its beauty, and then we come into dimness and obscurity and scarcely see our way. Some of our mental nights are calm and peaceful. We are tranquil, and delight ourselves with the smaller instructions of heavenly knowledge which come out like stars in our mental sky, although we are sensible it is evening time. Some of our nights are stormy and dark. In grievous temptations they become very dark. Howling winds are around, and we feel as if we were in a waste howling wilderness. "But who is among you that feareth the Lord, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness, and hath no light? let him trust in the name of the Lord, and stay upon his God." -Isaiah L. 10.
Whether, however, the nights are calm or stormy, as the priest lighted his lamps, so in all our gloomy states we should confidently bring fully into view the glorious lights of faith. Christians are intended to be " a royal priesthood, a holy nation, that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into His marvellous light."-l Peter II. 9. And when their evenings come they should light their lamps. Let them trust in the Lord. His providence and His kingdom will come brightly out, and where others tremble, they will repose in peace. But let them burn the incense of devout prayer also when they light their lamps. For when Aaron lighted the lamps at even, he was also to burn incense, a perpetual incense throughout their generations.
When we use the truth with prayer, we acknowledge it is the Lord's truth, not ours. The light is light from heaven.
"Did we the sighs we vainly spend,
To heaven in supplications send,
Our cheerful song would oftener be,
Hear what the Lord hath done for me."
Be sure, then, and burn your incense at even.
We are next enjoined, not to offer strange incense thereon. And a very remarkable warning against this is afforded in the lamentable conduct of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Our worship must be scriptural; our prayers must be scriptural. We must not worship from selfish love, for this would be to use strange fire; nor must we use strange humours and strange conceits in the language of our prayers, for these make strange incense. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you." Let the Lord's love abide in the heart, and the Lord's words abide in the mind, and then ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you. The Lord has taught us how to pray. He has given both the thoughts and the words of prayer. These are the true incense.
The lawless rant which is not in harmony with scripture, either in its objects or its language, is strange incense. In some Roman Catholic countries where the Word is practically ignored, and where multiplied forms and blind devotion are substituted for intelligence and regeneration, there are frequent prayers offered up for the wildest objects, by brigands for instance, for the success of their plundering expeditions. These are surely strange incense indeed. But all prayers for earthly blessings, that regard them alone, or are anxious for their abundance, without submission to the wisdom of that Divine Providence which measures to us all what is eternally good for us, all such prayers are strange incense.
The true spirit of prayer is the spirit that says, Lord, teach us how to pray, and in every event of life lovingly and trustfully adds, "Thy will be done." Let there be no strange incense offered.
It is added, " Nor burnt-sacrifice, nor meat-offering, neither shall ye pour drink-offering thereon."
These offerings were to be made out of the holy place in the outer court. They represented the virtues of religion obtained in the daily work of life. When in any trial we have renounced evil and received good, and from love acknowledged that it is so, we have offered our burnt-offering. When we acknowledge that all our spiritual food, the bread and the wine essential to our spiritual strength, are from the goodness of the Lord, we offer our meat-offering and our drink-offering, but this must be done in our daily walk. We must obey first, and worship after.
No incense is acceptable to the Most High which has not been preceded by obedience. We must do our work in the outer court, and then come to worship in the inner. Vast numbers worship as a substitute for work; or make the whole of religion consist of worship. Both are grievous errors.
The first Christian duty is to forsake sin, to destroy self-will, "Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me."-Mark VIII. 34. Worship before this is done, is not grateful to the Lord. It is not incense, It is smoke. To those who are making no effort to conform to His blessed commandments, the Lord says, "When ye come to appear before ME, who hath required this at your hand, to read my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me: I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I Will not hear: your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean: put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes: cease to do evil; learn to do well. -Isaiah 1. 12-17. This, therefore, was the ground of the. prohibition against bringing the burnt-offering, the meat-offering, or the drink-offering upon the Altar of Incense. Repentance must first be done; our evils first laid aside. The Lord Jesus saves us from our sins, not in our sins. When we have honestly laid aside what we know to be against the Divine Will, as far as our ability will permit, then we may come and worship the Lord; but not till then. We must not mix in ourselves heaven and hell.
Lastly, we are told, "Aaron shall make an atonement upon the horns of it once in a year with the blood of the sin-offering of atonements: once in the year shall he make atonement upon it throughout your generations: it is most holy unto the Lord.” This taking of the blood of the atonement once a year was representative of purification from the Lord. Our worship is pure in proportion as we ourselves become pure. The blood of the atonement represents the Spirit of the Lord flowing from His glorified Humanity. This is the blood that washes us from our sins, both of work and of worship; this is the blood we must drink to have eternal life. This is the living truth which sanctifies. "Sanctify them by thy truth: Thy word is truth." The Altar of Incense was touched with blood once a year, to intimate that underlying all our progress, in all the great states of our spiritual life, is this spirit of the Lord Jesus. He is the beginning of it; He also is the end. This will be the ease in time ; this also will be the case in eternity, throughout all generations.
Author: JONATHAN BAYLEY --From From Egypt to Canaan (1867)