Holy Place, Part 3 – The Table of Incense
Read: Hebrews 9:1-28 NASB
“For there was a tabernacle prepared, the outer one, in which were the lampstand and the table and the sacred bread; this is called the holy place. Behind the second veil there was a tabernacle which is called the Holy of Holies, having a golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden jar holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod which budded, and the tables of the covenant;” (Hebrews 9:2-4 NASB)
This passage in Hebrews makes it sound like the altar of incense was inside the Holy of Holies, but it wasn’t. However, as we will see, it is so vital to service in the Holy of Holies that it makes sense they would see it as part of that glorious room. According to God’s instruction to Moses in Exodus 30:1-10, the altar of incense was placed in the Holy Place, in front of the entrance to the Holy of Holies. God’s instructions for Arron, the High Priest, are as follows:
“Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it; he shall burn it every morning when he trims the lamps. When Aaron trims the lamps at twilight, he shall burn incense. There shall be perpetual incense before the LORD throughout your generations” (vs. 7-8).
Perpetual is never ending or changing. It is to occur repeatedly; so frequent as to be endless and uninterrupted.
Two things to note: One, that no one was to enter the Holy of Holies except once a year on the Day of Atonement. That tells us that the altar had to be outside the curtain, because the High Priest tended the incense daily, in order for it to be perpetual before the Lord.
Second: no other sacrifice was made on this altar, with the exception of the ritual of blood on the Day of Atonement. There was prescribed incense that was for use on this altar. Exodus 30:34-38 gives specific instruction for the incense, a special blend that is holy to the Lord only and not to be used in the same proportions for personal pleasure. It is the Lord’s. God also warns in verse 9 of Exodus 30, “You shall not offer any strange incense on this altar, or burnt offering or meal offering; and you shall not pour out a drink offering on it.”
Other facts gleaned about the incense altar include the fact that the fire for the incense is taken from the hot coals of the sacrifice, beginning with the sacrifice for the priests given each morning, and being part of the ritual with many offerings, such as the peace offering.
Commentaries, along with scriptures describing the Day of Atonement rites, tell us that the smoke and scent from the incense altar wafted up and moved through crevices around the heavy curtain covering the Holy of Holies. On the Day of Atonement, after the sacrifice, the priest was to burn the incense before entering the Holy of Holies. The scripture specified that the cloud of smoke from the incense altar would “fill the mercy seat”, making it safe for the priest to enter. (Leviticus 16:13)
Another telling passage to note is the story of Korah’s rebellion. Korah committed the sin of Lucifer (Satan), that of the pride of thinking more highly of himself than he ought. (Numbers 16:1-50 NASB)
Jealous of Aaron’s position, Korah came to Moses claiming to be righteous and worthy to hold the High Priest’s office. He led 249 others to follow with the same claim. God instructed them to come before Him, bringing censors with burning incense before the Lord. You can read the account of God’s choice of Aaron and Moses and the demise of Korah in Numbers 16. But it is the rebellion of God’s people on the following day that gives a vital picture of the purpose and significance of the altar of incense:
“But on the next day all the congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You are the ones who have caused the death of the LORD’S people.” It came about, however, when the congregation had assembled against Moses and Aaron, that they turned toward the tent of meeting, and behold, the cloud covered it and the glory of the LORD appeared. Then Moses and Aaron came to the front of the tent of meeting, and the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Get away from among this congregation, that I may consume them instantly.” Then they fell on their faces. Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer and put in it fire from the altar, and lay incense on it; then bring it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone forth from the LORD, the plague has begun!” Then Aaron took it as Moses had spoken, and ran into the midst of the assembly, for behold, the plague had begun among the people. So he put on the incense and made atonement for the people. HE TOOK HIS STAND BETWEEN THE DEAD AND THE LIVING, so that the plague was checked. But those who died by the plague were 14,700, besides those who died on account of Korah. Then Aaron returned to Moses at the doorway of the tent of meeting, for the plague had been checked.” (Numbers 16:41-50 NASB)
Note the tendency to blame anyone other than those who did the deed. Sound familiar.
Beloved, the cross of Calvary is our coals of sacrifice. Jesus, the Rose of Sharon, is our incense; and He is the one who floods the mercy seat, ever living to intercede on our behalf. By Him, we enter the Holy of Holies into the very Presence of God. Through Him we intercede for others, as He takes our prayers and praises to the Father, a fragrant aroma, pleasing to God.
One important thing to note from the rebellion of Korah against the chosen: the difference between them was their heart attitude and surrender to God’s will. We, as priests unto God, chosen by Him in Christ, must bear this heart of humble surrender to Him in our service on behalf of mankind. We must take credit due us for our sin, own it, and, with wholehearted fervor, be quick to repent. We can stand, assured of our priestly rights, when we hold the censor and trust our Altar of Incense in our serving.
As Jesus takes His stand between the dead and the living, we serve as His representatives by standing in intercession for those of this world in need of a Savior. We stand for the needs of those in the body of Christ. We stand in service at the pleasure of the Father because Jesus takes His stand for us. Because of Christ, that heavy curtain is torn asunder, and Christ, the Savior, ushers us into the presence of the Lord God, our Father. Trust in the Sacrificial Lamb is the incense we burn before the Lord. He is our Seed of sacrifice. Bow down and worship the Lord for His glorious gift to us!
“For from the rising of the sun even to its setting, My name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense is going to be offered to My name, and a grain offering that is pure; for My name will be great among the nations,” says the LORD of hosts.” (Malachi 1:11 NASB)