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Verses 1-6

The Altar of Incense (Exodus 30:1-10 ).

The purpose of the earlier descriptions of all that was connected with the Dwellingplace had been to concentrate on those aspects of it which referred to God’s approach to His people as He came to dwell among them, and the way back to Him that He had provided for them. But now, having established His earthly palace, and His kingship over His people, and having covered the aspects of the Dwellingplace (Tabernacle - mishkan) that dealt with God’s approach to man and the way of reconciliation He provided, He moves on to how man should respond in the offering continually through the priests of his worship and praise to God, and thus in declaring his loyalty. That is why the altar of incense is mentioned here and not along with the pieces of Sanctuary furniture described in Exodus 25-27. There all the attention was on Yahweh and His gracious approach to His people. Here it is on man’s response to his Sovereign Lord. It is not to demean the altar of incense but to emphasise its purpose.

The altar of incense was such a regular part of the worship of surrounding religions that the Dwellingplace would not have been seen as complete without it. In Egypt frankincense was certainly used in the worship of the god Amun and Egyptian records tell how a Pharaoh sent a naval expedition to Arabia for the express purpose of bringing frankincense, and the trees that produced it, back to Egypt in connection with the feasts of Amun. A number of hewn limestone altars with four horns at the upper corners dating around 13th century BC were also found at Megiddo, which from their small size were probably incense altars. But the use of incense in worship goes well back into 3rd millennium BC, and in an area where spices were deeply appreciated it was inevitable that they would be introduced into worship.

The passage is divided into two. The first part deals with the making of it and how Moses will use it. The second part deals with Aaron’s ministry on it. Here we have a further indication that we are dealing directly with the words of Moses. No later writer would have seen any necessity to make the distinction.

Moses and the Altar of Incense (Exodus 30:1-6 ).

a An altar of incense to be made of acacia wood to burn incense on (Exodus 30:1).

b It was to be foursquare with upward projections at the corners and 2 x 1 x 1 cubits, and overlaid with gold all over and provided with a rim of gold (Exodus 30:2).

c Two golden rings were to be set under the rim on the ribs, for the purpose of taking the staves with which it will be borne (Exodus 30:3).

c The staves are to be made of acacia wood overlaid with gold (Exodus 30:4).

b It is to be put beside the veil by the Ark of the Testimony, before the mercy seat which is before the Testimony (Exodus 30:5).

a There Yahweh will meet with Moses (Exodus 30:6).

Note the parallels. In ‘a’ the altar of incense was to be made for the offering of sweet incense while in the parallel Yahweh was to meet with Moses there. In ‘b’ the altar was to be foursquare (an indication of total rightness), with horns reaching up to Yahweh, and covered in gold, as perfect as man can get (but not a cube, that represented God alone in the Holy of Holies) while in the parallel it was to be put in the prime position, before the veil which is in front of the mercy seat. Through that altar above all the mercy seat was to be ‘approached’ by Moses. In ‘c’ the rings are made for the staves, and in the parallel the staves are to be made for the rings.

Exodus 30:1-3

“And you shall make an altar to burn incense on. You shall make it of acacia wood. Its length shall be a cubit, and its breadth a cubit. It shall be foursquare, and two cubits shall be its height. Its horns shall be of one piece with it. And you shall overlay it with pure gold, its top (literally ‘roof’) and its sides (literally ‘walls’) round about, and its horns. And you shall make for it a crown of gold round about.”

This new altar was for burning incense on. Its covering with pure gold from top to bottom indicates its holiness and glory, and the holiness and glory of God. The acacia wood that it was made of came from God through His creation and indicated His strength and solidity. Its foursquareness would be seen as demonstrating its perfection. It was about half a metre (18 inches) across and a metre (3 foot) high, somewhat larger than the ones found at Megiddo, foursquare but not a perfect cube. Perfection was retained for the Holy of Holies. As with the brazen altar it had horns, which clearly demonstrates that they were seen as significant, probably as pointing up to the heavens. There were no animals to be tied on here. They were to be of one piece with the altar, and not attachments. This confirms the suggestion that they pointed the whole upwards towards heaven. Their description as ‘horns’ may also serve to indicate that they were symbols of Yahweh’s power. The whole was to be covered with gold, a sign of its great ‘value’.

The burning of incense played a part in much religious worship in other countries and is witnessed in many parts in many centuries including Egypt, Babylonia, Greece and Rome, although not always necessarily with the same significance. The incense was noted for the sweet smell that it gave off while burning, and here would be burnt as an act of worship with the aim of pleasing God, and beautifying the air of the Sanctuary. It was a continual confirmation of the loyalty of His people. Certainly it is also later described as symbolising the prayers of God’s people (Psalms 141:2; Luke 1:10).

And you shall make for it a crown of gold round about.” This was probably a ridge to prevent the incense falling off. The incense was holy to Yahweh and must not be allowed to fall on the ground, even holy ground.

Exodus 30:4-5

“And you shall make for it two golden rings under its crown. On its two ribs, on its two sides you shall make them. And they will be for places for staves, to bear it with them. And you shall make the staves of acacia wood and overlay them with gold.”

Provision is made for its carrying. No hands must touch it, it must be borne on staves. Only two rings are needed because they are placed near the top and the altar is small. And as always in the Sanctuary, that which came from God’s creation was overlaid with gold, setting it apart as glorious and as His.

The holiness of the altar by which the people’s expression of dedication, worship and prayer was brought before God is only exceeded by the holiness of the One through Whom we may come to offer our worship and prayers before God, through the body of our Lord Jesus Christ offered once for all.

Exodus 30:6

“And you shall put it before the veil that is in front of the Ark of the Testimony, before the mercy seat which is above the Testimony, where I will meet with you.”

The altar is to be placed in front of the inner veil behind which is the throne of Yahweh and the place of propitiation, the mercy seat, which covers the Testimony of the covenant of the ten words. All offerings of incense are to be to Yahweh and Him alone. The staves of the Ark protruding through the curtain would be a constant reminder of the presence of the Ark (1 Kings 8:8), and the altar was probably placed between them, incorporating it into the Most Holy Place while still being available outside the veil to be used.

Thus the writer to the Hebrews speaks as though it were in the Most Holy Place (Hebrews 9:4). This suggests that its placement was intended to be seen as connecting it with the Most Holy Place and not with the ministry in the Holy Place, and this comes out in the description above. The Most Holy Place could only be entered once a year, thus this ministry on the altar of incense (probably placed between the protruding staves of the Ark) was the closest approach to entering the Most Holy Place that was permitted at all other times. It was seen as a direct, though veiled, approach to the mercy seat, and was thus the closest that man’s representative could get to God’s throne and place of propitiation except on that one unique day, the Day of Atonement. It was most holy (Exodus 30:10).

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