Exodus 30:1-11, 34-38
And you shall make an altar to burn incense on: of shittim wood shall you make it.
The golden altar was of small dimensions, a cubit in length, a cubit in breadth, and two cubits high. It was a true altar, as shown by its square shape, and by its horns. Its place was immediately in front of the vail dividing the two portions of the sanctuary, with the innermost or' which - the holy of holies - it was regarded as having the more intimate connection (1 Kings 6:22; Hebrews 9:4). The command was that Aaron should burn upon it sweet incense morning and evening - in the morning when he trimmed, and in the evening when he lighted, the lamps. This was done, in the one case, at the offering of morning, in the other, at the offering of evening sacrifice, the synchronism of the acts deserving our attention. Once a year the horns of the altar were to be smeared with the blood of the sin-offering. Minute directions are given for the making of the incense (vers. 34-38). It was to be "salted, pure, and holy" (ver. 35). The burning of this incense on the altar was at once a symbol of prayer and devotion, and a call to the congregation to engage in these spiritual exercises (Psalm 141:2; Luke 1:10; Revelation 5:8; Revelation 8:3, 4). As an act of the priest, it may be viewed as a type of the intercession of Christ. The service of this altar suggests the following ideas -
1. Prayer - taking the word in its widest sense, as denoting the exercise of.all devout feeling and spiritual desire towards God - is the holiest act of the spiritual life. It is figured as incense. And the altar of incense stood in immediate relation with the holy of holies. The altar and the incense offered upon it, are declared to be "most holy" (vers. 10, 36). The reason is not difficult to find. The very essence of the devotional life expresses itself in prayer. Its love, its awe, its thankfulness, its aspirations, its unutterable yearnings after God - its breathings after holiness, its very contrition and sorrow for its sins - all ascend to Jehovah in this supreme act of the nature. Words bear but a small part in prayer. The province of words is to define. Hence the soul, in the intensity of its aspirations, in its reachings out towards the infinite, often feels the need of escaping from words, of leaving them behind. Prayer becomes "the burden of a sigh" - "the falling of a tear" - perhaps a purely inward act of the mind realising union with Jehovah. Or its uncontrollable desires may express themselves in "groanings which cannot be uttered" (Romans 8:26). And it is precisely these unutterable parts of our prayers which are the sweetest to God. The appropriate symbol of them is the incense, rising in its unconfined wreaths from the priest's censer, or from the golden altar.
2. Prayer is an act of sacrifice. "In prayer," says Martensen, "the profoundest act of conscience and obedience is inwardly accomplished, for prayer is only in so far a laying hold and appropriation of God, as it is likewise a sacrifice; and we can only receive God into us when we likewise give ourselves to him. he who offers no sacrifice in his prayer, who does not sacrifice his selfwill, does not really pray."
3. The connection with the sacrifice of burnt-offering. The coals for the altar of incense were brought from the altar of burnt-offering (cf. Leviticus 16:12, 13). This teaches that the worshipper needs reconciling before he can acceptably offer the sacrifices of his devotion. But there is a further connection, arising from the significance of the burnt-offering as a symbol of dedication. Keil says truly - "The incense-offering was not only a spiritualising and transfiguring of the burnt-offering, but a completion of it also." The connection may be stated thus. The yielding up of the life to God, symbolised in the continual burnt-offering, transforms itself in practice into the three following modes of self-surrender.
1. Holy practical activity, of which the fruit, good works, is represented in the shew-bread.
2. Public witness-bearing for God, by manifestation of the truth, and by holiness of walk - represented by the candlestick.
3. Devotion - "the soul's going forth to unite itself in appropriate actings with the great centre of Being, and to devote its own inmost being to him" (Fairbairn) - symbolised by the burning of the incense. This is the culminating act of self-devotion, and crowns the sanctuary-worship, raises it to its consummation.
4. Connection with light. The incense was to be burned at the time of the trimming, and again of the lighting of the lamps. The brighter the light, the purer the devotion. In Christianity no countenance is given to the maxim that devotion is connected with ignorance. Christ and his apostles attach the utmost importance to the possession of right knowledge, and to growth in it. Growth in knowledge is the condition of sanctification, of spiritual fruitfulness, of enlargement of nature, of being filled with all the fulness of God.
5. Prayer a daily duty. The "perpetual incense before the Lord" reminds us of the apostolic injunction, "Pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Prayer, devotion, is to be the element we live in. And prayer, "with thanksgiving," is to sanctify everything we do (Ephesians 5:20; Philippians 4:6; Colossians 3:17; 1 Timothy 4:4, 5). - J.O.
Parallel VersesKJV: And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon: of shittim wood shalt thou make it.