The Altar of Incense.
1. Near to יְהוָה Remember the quest that we started with? An Israelite intent on finding יְהוָה[P] – he made his way through the camp until he'd come to the centre where יְהוָה dwelt surrounded by righteousness [P]. He found the door [P] (Jesus) and made his way in. He came to the bronze altar [P] where sin was dealt with by a substitutionary sacrifice. To go further he had to be a priest – who, having been justified at the altar was sanctified at the laver [P] and then entered right into the tabernacle [P], into Christ. There he found fellowship at the table [P], feeding on Christ, sustained by the Bread of Life. There in that holy place he could see because of the lamp [P], the revelation of the Holy Spirit upheld by the church; which is Jesus the Vine and the branches abiding in Him bearing fruit. He and we, if we have travelled with him, is right on the threshold of the place where יְהוָה is! What does he find? The altar of incense [P] [Read]. [Exodus 30:1-10 “Moreover, you shall make an altar as a place for burning incense; you shall make it of acacia wood. “Its length shall be a cubit, and its width a cubit, it shall be square, and its height shall be two cubits; its horns shall be of one piece with it. “You shall overlay it with pure gold, its top and its sides all around, and its horns; and you shall make a gold moulding all around for it. “You shall make two gold rings for it under its moulding; you shall make them on its two side walls—on opposite sides—and they shall be holders for poles with which to carry it. “You shall make the poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. “You shall put this altar in front of the veil that is near the ark of the testimony, in front of the mercy seat that is over the ark of the testimony, where I will meet with you. “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 יְהוָה throughout your generations. “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. “Aaron shall make atonement on its horns once a year; he shall make atonement on it with the blood of the sin offering of atonement once a year throughout your generations. It is most holy to יְהוָה.”] [Exodus 40:26 He put the gold altar in the Tent, in front of the curtain,] [Exodus 30:34-38 Then יְהוָה said to Moses, “Take for yourself spices, stacte and onycha and galbanum, spices with pure frankincense; there shall be an equal part of each. “With it you shall make incense, a perfume, the work of a perfumer, salted, pure, and holy. “You shall beat some of it very fine, and put part of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting where I will meet with you; it shall be most holy to you. “The incense which you shall make, you shall not make in the same proportions for yourselves; it shall be holy to you for יְהוָה. “Whoever shall make any like it, to use as perfume, shall be cut off from his people.”] This altar is before the veil, right at the threshold to where יְהוָה is! [P] Just the other side of the curtain is יְהוָה! This is as close as a priest could come. The altar was a small piece of furniture; in fact it is not listed along with the rest of the tabernacle items but separately in a section about the priests. The bronze altar was outside, gold altar inside. Both were made of wood, the one strengthened with brass, the other beautified with gold – the bronze is Christ in His humiliation, the gold is Christ in His exaltation. The bronze altar was the place of suffering – Jesus as Saviour; the gold altar was the place of triumph – Jesus as Mediator – in that place right before יְהוָה Himself. The sinner comes to the bronze altar, the saint comes to the gold altar. Do you want to be near to God? Here is the place! Close to His heart, near to His presence!
2. Incense This altar was for burning incense – so what is incense? [P] [Revelation 5:8 When He had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.] – the prayers of the saints. In figurative usage, prayer was likened to the fragrant smoke of the incense, wafting its way to God [Revelation 8:3-4 Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden censer; and much incense was given to him, so that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God out of the angel’s hand.] [Psalm 141:1-2 O יְהוָה, I call upon You; hasten to me! Give ear to my voice when I call to You! May my prayer be counted as incense before You; the lifting up of my hands as the evening offering.] The Bible is quite consistent in its symbolism – incense pictures prayer. [P]You may or may not like the smell but smoke and fragrance ascends in the incense – that is what our prayer does – it ascends to heaven and it is a sweet smell to יְהוָה– it brings delight to Him. Did you know that prayer does that? The priests offered incense at the altar – we all can come before יְהוָה in prayer – right before יְהוָה Himself! It is an awesome privilege – who sold us the lie that prayer is dull?! Do you want to be near God? Where is that place near to God? – Prayer! Every priest could offer incense but there is function at the altar that only the high priest could perform – once a year on the Day of Atonement [P].
3. Day of atonement We have come right to the threshold of where יְהוָה is! How can we approach a holy God? Come before Him, right into His presence? We need someone to represent us, a go between – the high priest. The incense altar and the practice of burning incense played a part in the complex rituals for sin atonement in ancient Israel. Atonement for the sins of an Israelite or the high priest included smearing a portion of the blood from a sacrificed bull upon the horns of the incense. On the national day of atonement two goats were taken and the sin of the nation laid on them – one was offered up on the bronze altar the other, the scapegoat, was driven into the desert – poor animal, bearing the weight of the sins of the nation. On that day the high priest burned two handfuls of fragrant incense in a censer before the mercy seat. The smoke thus produced protected the priest from a fatal glimpse of the presence of God [Leviticus 16:12-13 “He shall take a fire-pan full of coals of fire from upon the altar before יְהוָה and two handfuls of finely ground sweet incense, and bring it inside the veil. “He shall put the incense on the fire before יְהוָה, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the ark of the testimony, otherwise he will die.] That incense, prayer, intercession, prevented the priest being killed, destroyed by the absolute holiness of יְהוָה! The tabernacle brings home the absolute and extreme holiness of יְהוָה– there was a barrier of righteousness keeping out the defiled; sins were dealt with at the bronze altar, washed at the laver – again and again the cleansing went on – here at the altar of incense atonement was made – covering the sin, making us at one with God There was no animal sacrificed on this altar but you will see blood on it. On the Day of Atonement blood of the sin offering was sprinkled on it by the high priest. When the sin offering was made [Leviticus 4:7 The priest shall also put some of the blood on the horns of the altar of fragrant incense which is before יְהוָה in the tent of meeting; and all the blood of the bull he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering which is at the doorway of the tent of meeting.] – intercession for sin took place at the same time. Sin had to be covered over for us to be at one with יְהוָה, in order to enter beyond the veil to where His presence dwelt. Our High priest has gone to the presence of יְהוָה Himself with His own blood to intercede on our behalf. [Hebrews 9:23-26 It was necessary for the copies of the things in the heavens to be cleansed with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; nor was it that He would offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood that is not his own (no, He entered once with His own blood). Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.] We can come into the place of nearness to a holy God because our sins have been covered; our High Priest is interceding for us [P].
4. Intercession Here we are right at the entrance to the holy of holies – the place where יְהוָה is! God in His awesome greatness, power, majesty, holiness and splendour! How can man approach Him?! We need someone to go between us! Some one to intercede. The golden altar is the place of intercession. Job felt the need of some one to stand between him and God: [Job 9:32-33 “For He is not a man as I am that I may answer Him, that we may go to court together. “There is no umpire between us, who may lay his hand upon us both.] We need a go-between, an advocate [1 John 1:5-2:2 This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.] Jesus intercedes for us – goes between us and God. [1 Timothy 2:5 For there is one God, and one mediator also between God יְהוָה men, the man Christ Jesus]. The altar was made of wood and gold – wood, the man Christ Jesus makes intercession in heaven (in glory, the gold) for the believing Church on earth. The gold altar shows forth the greater work of Christ – He has already accomplished a great work, the work of redemption (bronze altar). Having finished that work He ascended on high to become the great Mediator between God and man. Jesus is the great Intercessor, our Great High Priest [P], who hears our cry and pleads our cause, [Hebrews 7:23-28 The former priests, on the one hand, existed in greater numbers because they were prevented by death from continuing, but Jesus, on the other hand, because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently. Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. For the Law appoints men as high priests who are weak, but the word of the oath, which came after the Law, appoints a Son, made perfect forever.] Jesus, our High Priest is there before God interceding on our behalf! Bless His Name! [Romans 8:33-34 Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.] Because we have a High Priest interceding for us at the altar of incense we can come right before God Himself [Hebrews 10:21-22 Since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water].The high priest comes to the altar of incense and intercedes on behalf of the people, offering up prayers to יְהוָה on their behalf – prayers by which they become acceptable before the Holy God. So there is the intercession of the high priest but there is also the intercession of priests. We, as brothers of the Great High Priest, have received the same high calling [P]. [Revelation 8:3 Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden censer; and much incense was given to him, so that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar which was before the throne.] The altar had a gold moulding which kept the fire from falling to the ground – fire is one of the many descriptions of the Holy Spirit – this is the Holy Spirit’s role in intercession. [Romans 8:26 In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words;] – our prayers don’t fall to the ground. The altar had horns – they are a symbol of strength and power – it speaks of the power of prayer. Rings and poles – made for wilderness travel – prayer in our journey through the wilderness of this world. The golden altar is like electric plug that plugs into the power in cables laid behind our walls. Behind the veil was the Shekinah Glory of the presence of יְהוָה! By prayer we tap into that power. Elijah prayed and the fire fell! While Daniel prayed the angel Gabriel came to him. When the church prayed the place they were was shaken!
5. Five stories: I want to bring you five stories of people’s encounters at this altar of incense [P] – they will bring home to you the tremendous holiness and power that is here at the place of prayer and intercession.
• Nadab and Abihu First there is the story of two of the first priests: [P] [Leviticus 10:1-3 Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before יְהוָה, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of יְהוָה and consumed them, and they died before יְהוָה. Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is what יְהוָה spoke, saying, ‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, and before all the people I will be honoured.’] The altar of incense is near to יְהוָה – it cannot be treated lightly. Nadab and Abihu did their own thing, did it their own way – and fire from heaven consumed them. Intercession is holy and not to be taken lightly. There are many today who are serving God their own way – by their own efforts and schemes, the methods that work in business and bring success. It is from man and it is strange fire. If you are close to God you must be most particular and careful – there is no place for the ways that man thinks up.
• Uzziah Second is the story of a king – a good and godly king: [P] [2 Chronicles 26:16-23 When Uzziah became strong, his heart was so proud that he acted corruptly, and he was unfaithful to יְהוָה his God, for he entered the temple of יְהוָה to burn incense on the altar of incense. Then Azariah the priest entered after him and with him eighty priests of יְהוָה, valiant men. They opposed Uzziah the king and said to him, “It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to יְהוָה, but for the priests, the sons of Aaron who are consecrated to burn incense. Get out of the sanctuary, for you have been unfaithful and will have no honour from יְהוָה God.” But Uzziah, with a censer in his hand for burning incense, was enraged; and while he was enraged with the priests, the leprosy broke out on his forehead before the priests in the house of יְהוָה, beside the altar of incense. Azariah the chief priest and all the priests looked at him, and behold, he was leprous on his forehead; and they hurried him out of there, and he himself also hastened to get out because יְהוָה had smitten him. King Uzziah was a leper to the day of his death; and he lived in a separate house, being a leper, for he was cut off from the house of יְהוָה.] How tragic! To be cut off from the יְהוָה! Uzziah was a king who sought God but his heart was proud and he became presumptuous – he thought that he was more than he was and overstepped the mark. You don’t just saunter into the place of prayer – יְהוָה is holy! There is no place for pride – we come in humility. There is much presumption in the church – people claiming a place that just isn’t theirs – having a special anointing, being a priest, having a special hotline to God. We must be careful at the altar of incense.
• Isaiah Last time I spoke about the lamp-stand – there is a link with the altar – the priest put incense on the golden altar at the time of the trimming of the lamps – both morning and evening. The light is our testimony – it is linked with intercession: we shine best before men (that is the lamp-stand) when our heart burns most before God (that is the altar). The third story is of a man who was consecrated as a witness at the altar of incense. [P] It brings home the closeness of this altar to the glorious presence of יְהוָה: [Isaiah 6:1-9 In the year of King Uzziah’s death I saw יְהוָה sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is יְהוָה of armies, The whole earth is full of His glory.” And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke (from where? – from the altar of incense as will become evident). Then I said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, יְהוָה of armies.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven.” Then I heard the voice of יְהוָה, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I. Send me!] Isaiah received a touch from the golden altar. Isaiah was probably the most godly man in Judah at the time, yet at altar of incense his woeful state was revealed – יְהוָה is HOLY! This righteous man was overcome by his uncleanness! But there at the altar he was purified and set apart to be a testimony – transformed in the presence of יְהוָה! This altar, the place of intercession is indeed a powerful and holy place! You are never the same after you have been this close to God!
• Zechariah The fourth story is from the New Testament – again, this was a righteous man: [P] [Luke 1:5-13 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years. Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering. And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. Zacharias was troubled when he saw the angel, and fear gripped him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John.] You see that the offering of incense was as prayers ascended. But it wasn’t just the prayers at that time it was the prayers and cry of the heart over years – all those prayers were stored up – bowls of incense. It was awesome in the presence of this heavenly being – Zechariah was struck dumb. There was power there – he was in the presence of יְהוָה and his prayers had been heard and answered. יְהוָה’s miracle power was released. Prayers, intercession in accord with the will of God, caused יְהוָה’s purposes to be carried out – the forerunner of the Messiah was born. Intercession is aligning yourself with יְהוָה’s will and seeing that being brought to pass! Hallelujah! What an awesome privilege! You are in the presence of God and His will is being done here on earth as it is in heaven! What power there is in prayer!
The saints This is seen in an even more dramatic way in the fifth story – and it is a story that can involve you! [P] [Revelation 8:1-5 When the Lamb broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden censer; and much incense was given to him, so that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God out of the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with the fire of the altar, and threw it to the earth; and there followed peals of thunder and sounds and flashes of lightning and an earthquake.] [Revelation 9:13 Then the sixth angel sounded, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar which is before God.] The sixth trumpet of יְהוָה’s judgement was sounded and His power was unleashed. The saints prayed, interceded in the presence of יְהוָה and His judgements were unleashed – intercession is a prelude to יְהוָה’s coming judgement. The saints were in the presence of God, in tune with His heart, not praying their agenda but getting accord with יְהוָה’s will and calling upon Him to carry it out “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” – we need to get in tune with His heart. Intercession is right before the presence of יְהוָה Himself [P]. Do we realize what an awesome transaction prayer is?! I don't want to discourage that intimacy in prayer where you take everything to your Father in prayer – but at the same time it is salutary to be mindful of just what is taking place! You are before the most holy place, right before the awesome glorious presence of יְהוָה – speaking with God! You don't come the way that seems right to you, but the way that is proscribed – no strange fire – coming with your agenda, getting God to do what you want. The proscribed way into God's presence is with thanksgiving and praise – no we bowl straight in with our demands, telling God to do this and do that! Who do we think we are?! Who is God?! Prayer is often regarded as a chore. It is a holy undertaking, an awesome privilege. We pray for a car park, for our aches and pains, make everything go well for the missionaries (is it a missions prayer meeting or a missionary prayer meeting?) - I am not slinging off at or trivialising those prayers – but there are greater things to be praying for – not our agenda, how we want things to be, but God's agenda. The prayers of the saints unleash יְהוָה's end-time judgements – are we are praying for that or are we praying that it won't happen?! We pray that unpleasant stuff won't happen but God's will is for His righteous judgement to be revealed. If we were there in the presence of יְהוָה we would be in tune with that will rather than desiring our Pollyanna outcomes. [Jeremiah 23:16-22 Thus says יְהוָה of armies, “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you. They are leading you into futility; they speak a vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of יְהוָה. “They keep saying to those who despise Me, ‘יְהוָה has said, “You will have peace” ’; and as for everyone who walks in the stubbornness of his own heart, they say, ‘Calamity will not come upon you.’ “But who has stood in the council of יְהוָה, that he should see and hear His word? Who has given heed to His word and listened? “Behold, the storm of יְהוָה has gone forth in wrath, even a whirling tempest; it will swirl down on the head of the wicked. “The anger of יְהוָה will not turn back until He has performed and carried out the purposes of His heart; in the last days you will clearly understand it. “I did not send these prophets, but they ran. I did not speak to them, but they prophesied. “But if they had stood in My council, then they would have announced My words to My people, and would have turned them back from their evil way and from the evil of their deeds.] In Jeremiah’s day there were those wanting pleasant things to happen – but that was not יְהוָה’s will or purpose – they were speaking their own ideas rather than aligning themselves with יְהוָה’s purpose. They were not close to יְהוָה, in His presence. Let us come to that holy place in יְהוָה’s presence, [P] where we lay aside our agendas and get in tune with His heart and intercede for His plans to be brought to pass. Come to the place of intercession where we see the power of יְהוָה released to bring about His perfect will. There is no more awesome or powerful place to be. This is incense of the saints ascending – an aroma that delights our God.