The term used for altar has a basic meaning involving slaughter. Death must occur so that a sacrifice may be offered up. Both the brass altar of burnt offering and the golden altar of incense involve this thought of death.
The specific purpose of the golden altar was the offering up of sacrificial incense. This was purposed to be a sweet smelling odour pleasing to God.
To burn incense upon
(Exo 30:1 NRSV) You shall make an altar on which to offer incense; you shall make it of acacia wood.
The incense was mixed by the Priests and as it was sprinkled on the burning embers a cloud of perfume ascended through the veil into the presence of God.
So also should our hearts be the starting place of prayer. Being on fire for God causes the sweet incense to flow upwards.
Made of Acacia wood
As with the ark, the acacia wood speaks of Jesus the branch. He was incorruptible in thought, word and deed. In the tomb His body did not decay.
(Acts 2:27 NRSV) For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption.
Put the altar in front of the curtain
(Exo 30:6 NRSV) You shall place it in front of the curtain that is above (before) the ark of the covenant, in front of the mercy seat that is over the covenant, where I will meet with you.
The golden altar was at the very center or heart of the tabernacle and this point is physically at the center of the Israelites’ camp.
In the same sense intercession and prayer are central in God’s purpose for the church. This ministry is the one nearest to the glory of God as represented by the Shekinah above the mercy seat of the ark.
In the personal sense this positioning pictures the importance of a close heart communication in prayer for each of us with our loving Father.
Measurements, Horns, Gold, Rings
The altar of Incense is the tallest piece of furniture in the Holy Place. Symbolizing prayer and intercession in the church age the height of this altar illustrates to us the greatness of Christ’s intercession for us in the heavenlies and the importance of our own priestly duty to a life of prayer.
Being made foursquare is a reminder that the four corners of the earth are involved in prayer. Symbolically four is the number of the earth, creation and the cosmos. Prayer ascends to God from every part of the earth where Jesus is exhalted.
Horns speak of strength, power, defense and authority. To hold on to the horns was considered a place of safety.
(Num 23:22 NRSV) God, who brings them out of Egypt, is like the horns of a wild ox for them.
Gold speaks of divinity in scriptural symbolism; it does not tarnish.
Two rings for transport. There is some debate about this. The translation leaves space for two or four rings. It is thought that perhaps the incense was burned continually even in transport. In such a case it would need to be kept level and two rings would achieve this. But it was covered during transport?
The staves for carrying remind us of the need to keep an active prayer life in our pilgrim journey. They were also overlaid with gold.
Do not offer any other incense on it
Exod 30:9: No strange fire or strange incense was to be placed on the altar. Leviticus tells of fire that came from the Lord. This was the source of the “acceptable” fire.
(Lev 9:24 NRSV) Fire came out from the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar; and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces
Nadab offered strange fire to the Lord and died
(Lev 10:2 NRSV) And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.
God is not interested in prayer offered by mere religious feelings or strange religions. Muslim. Buddhist, Mormon, occult, witchcraft, and literally hundreds of others are “strange fire” and are not acceptable to God. God will only accept Fire that comes from Himself on the basis of blood atonement. Incense apart from the name of Jesus Christ is an abomination to the Eternal. The mediation of prayer is only possible through Jesus.
(John 14:6 NRSV) Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
Only incense to be offered on this altar
No burnt offering, meal offering or drink offering and no sacrifice of blood to be on this altar; only incense. The outer court was the place of blood sacrifice never in the Holy Place that represents the church age. Jesus shed His blood at the end of the Law age (Outer Court) Our “once for all” sacrifice at Calvary. He now lives in the power of an endless life to make intercession for us.
(Exo 30:9 NRSV) You shall not offer unholy incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering; and you shall not pour a drink offering on it.
Make it a perfume … pure and holy Exod.30:34-35
i. Stacte (a drop.): a fragrant sap of a scrub. The gum oozes from the tree spontaneously in drops.
ii. Onycha: part of the shell of a mollusc taken from the Red sea. The fragrance came from the material on which it fed.
iii. Galbanum: bitter gum which was given up when the plant was crushed
Consider these aromas in relation to prayer. Spontaneous, hidden under the sea, as a product of the food eaten,bitter but fragrant, crushed fine, of equal amounts, balance, loss of identity when mixed.
iv. Frankincense: a white sap of a tree. A major ingredient speaking of righteousness.
v. Salt. A seasoning and a preservative. It also speaks of the enduring quality of the covenant of prayer. (2.Chro.13:5.)
Other qualities are to be noted which point to our Lord Jesus Christ. The incense was to be sweet, (Song 5:16) Pure (Heb 7:26) Holy (Heb 7:26) Perpetual (Heb 7:25) Perfumed (Eph 5:2)
This was the perfume or incense but to release it to God as a true and adequate cloud of offering it required FIRE. For the New Testament church this is found in Matt.3:11 and fulfilled in Acts.2:3. Prayer in the Holy Spirit !!
Again Jesus is our perfect example. He was crushed fine and beaten in trials, tests, temptations and sufferings. He experienced the bitter and the sweet. His prayer was acceptable to a holy God for in Him was a perfect balance of grace, love, truth, mercy, holiness and righteousness.
The altar in transit
(Num 4:11 NRSV) Over the golden altar they shall spread a blue cloth, and cover it with a covering of fine leather, and shall put its poles in place;
When Israel moved on the altar was wrapped with two coverings then a third was cast over the altar and its utensils.
1. The Golden Altar —- The fullness of the Godhead bodily.
2. Cloth of blue — Speaking of the Holy Spirit.
3. Skins — Christ in His humanity, having no natural beauty to the unregenerate.
The bible teaches that the Saints are to pray in the Spirit and they are to pray by the Spirit. The true incense is to come from the believer’s spirit. It comes by way of our high priest, Jesus Christ.
The following Scriptures should be given every attention:
Acts 2:42 (KJV) And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.
Eph 6:18 (KJV) Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints;
Luke 19:46 (KJV) Saying unto them, It is written, My house is the house of prayer: but ye have made it a den of thieves.
Rom 12:12 (KJV) Rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer;
Col 4:2 (KJV) Continue in prayer, and watch in the same with thanksgiving.