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The Altar of Incense


For many of us today, the word “worship” brings to mind praise music. Biblically, however, the concept is much larger. As Old Testament scholar Daniel I. Block expounded recently in Christianity Today: “Scripture clearly demonstrates that the measure of true and acceptable corporate worship is not established by outside observers, by the worshipers who attend, or by the performers of the rituals but by God, the One who graciously invites us into his presence and who delights in being the object of our worship. Accordingly, true worship involves reverential acts of submission and homage before the divine ruler in response to his gracious revelation of himself and in keeping with his revealed will.”

This larger concept of “worship” is seen in God’s instructions for the tabernacle. Today’s reading focuses on the altar of incense, which was to be put in the Holy Place (vv. 1–10), along with the lampstand and the table with the bread. This gold altar would be tended mornings and evenings along with the lampstand and was reserved exclusively for the burning of incense. The incense burned there was to be a special blend reserved only for this purpose (vv. 34–38). Biblically, the smoke of the incense represents the prayers of God’s people (Ps. 141:2; Rev. 5:8).

As God’s covenant people, all Israeli adults were required to pay a “ransom for [their] life” (vv. 11–16). The half-shekel amount applied to rich and poor alike, for all lives are equally valuable in His eyes. If not paid, it could bring about a plague judgment, for this “atonement money” expressed trust in the Lord rather than in the results of a census. These funds would go toward tabernacle maintenance and services. The entire nation was commanded to invest in the needs of their new national worship center.

Apply the Word

Unfamiliar to most of us, incense is still burned in some Christian traditions as part of the worship service. For some, its fragrance helps create a sensory, engaging worship environment and experience. If you wish, research the use of incense in church history and current practice.

BY Brad Baurain

Dr. Brad Baurain has worked as a writer and editor for Today in the Word since 1993. Currently, he serves as associate professor and TESOL program head at Moody Bible Institute. Brad has the unique privilege of holding a degree from four different universities (including Moody). He has also taught in China, Vietnam, the United States, and Canada. Brad and his wife, Julia, have four children and reside in Munster, Indiana.

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