The place which the altar of incense occupies in the directions which Moses received is most instructive. Up to the end of Exodus 27 everything is arranged in respect of the manifestation of God - the symbols of display, as they are sometimes termed. Thereon it becomes the question of approaching God; and hence the next thing is the appointment and the consecration of the priests, these only having the privilege of entering the sanctuary. But before proceeding further, the perpetual burnt-offering is given; for until the people are before God in all the acceptance of its sweet savour, and God Himself is dwelling in their midst, sanctifying the tabernacle by His glory, and setting all apart for Himself, there could be no drawing nigh, no access into His presence. In other words, there could be no worship apart from the savour of the sacrifice and the presence of Jehovah. Everything thus being prepared, the symbols of approach follow; i.e. those sacred vessels that were used in connection with coming into God's presence; and the first of these is the golden altar, or the altar of incense.
"And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon: of shittim-wood shalt thou make it. A cubit shall be the length thereof, and a cubit the breadth thereof; foursquare shall it be: and two cubits shall be the height thereof: the horns thereof shall be of the same. And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, the top thereof, and the sides thereof round about, and the horns thereof; and thou shalt make unto it a crown of gold round about. And two golden rings shalt thou make to it under the crown of it, by the two corners thereof, upon the two sides of it shalt thou make it; and they shall be for places for the staves to bear it withal. And thou shalt make the staves of shittim-wood, and overlay them with gold. And thou shalt put it before the veil that is by the ark of the testimony, before the mercy-seat that is over the testimony, where I will meet with thee. And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn incense upon it. And when Aaron lighteth the lamps at even, he shall burn incense upon it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations. Ye shall offer no strange incense thereon, nor burnt sacrifice, nor meat-offering; neither shall ye pour drink-offering thereon. And Aaron shall make an atonement upon the horns of it once in a year with the blood of the sin-offering of atonements: once in the year shall he make atonement upon it throughout your generations: it is most holy unto the Lord." (vv. 1-10.)
It was made of the two materials which characterized the ark, the table of shewbread, etc. - shittim-wood and gold. (v. 1-5.) The altar itself therefore - apart from its use - was a figure of the person of Christ, Christ as both God and man, God manifest in flesh. Connected with the altar this is significant teaching, as it does, that there is no access to God but through Christ; that He indeed is the foundation both of our approach and worship. The priest (the worshipper) at the altar saw nothing but the gold, and God saw only the gold, that which was suited to Him, suited to His own nature. The remembrance of this gives boldness when bowing in His presence. It is indeed a wondrous mercy that Christ is before the eye of God, and before the eye of the worshipper, Himself the meeting-place between God and His people, as well as the foundation of His people's acceptance.
The position of this altar is given in the sixth verse. It was to be put "before the veil that is by the ark of the testimony." The brazen altar was outside, in the court of the tabernacle, the first thing that met the eye of one coming out of the camp to the entrance of the court. It thus taught that the question of sin must be settled before admission could be obtained. The altar of incense was inside, in the holy place; and none but the priests had access to it. There was in fact the laver between; but this is not yet mentioned, because the value of the sacrifice on the brazen altar brings at once (in figure) to the golden altar. The brazen altar tested man in responsibility; and the claims of God's righteousness being met by the sacrifice, He could introduce the believer into His own immediate presence, give him priestly privileges, and consequently access, in the person of the priest, to the altar of incense. Once the claims of the brazen altar met, nothing could shut out the worshipper from the golden altar. His title was perfect. This is seen in the epistle to the Hebrews. The blood that was shed on the cross gives boldness of access into the holiest. (See Heb. 10) There is therefore the most intimate connection between the two altars.
The use of the altar may now be considered. Aaron was to burn sweet incense (incense of spices) thereon morning and evening when he dressed the lamps. (vv. 7, 8.) The materials of which the incense was composed are named in the thirty-fourth verse. It is there called a perfume. Remark that it was burnt on the altar. It was the action of fire that brought out its sweet fragrance. This explains its significance. The fire is a type of the searching judgment of God, of His holiness as applied in judgment; and it was through this that our blessed Lord passed when upon the cross. But the only effect of the action of the holy fire upon Him was to bring out a "cloud" of sweet perfume. The incense typifies this - the fragrance of Christ to God; and inasmuch as it was to be a perpetual incense (v. 8), it shows that this fragrance is ever ascending before the throne. If the efficacy of His work is presented in the savour of the sacrifice, the acceptability of His person is denoted by the incense. The two things are distinguished on the day of atonement. Aaron went in with incense into the holy of holies before he sprinkled the blood upon and before the mercy-seat. So Christ Himself entered with His own blood; but, if it may be so said where all is inseparably connected, He Himself takes the precedence even of His blood. It is indeed what He is in Himself that gives the blood its unspeakable preciousness.
But what, it may be inquired, is the meaning of this action on the part of Aaron? First, Aaron is a type of Christ, and a type of Christ at the altar in the holy place. He is thus, in burning the incense, a figure of the prevailing intercession of Christ. Aaron, be it remembered, goes into the holy place in all the virtue of the sacrifice which has been consumed upon the brazen altar. The incense moreover that he burns with the holy fire is always acceptable to God. Hence it teaches that the intercession of Christ ascends to God acceptably through the efficacy of what He is and what He has done. It cannot therefore fail. And as this incense was perpetual, so He ever liveth to make intercession for us; and on this account He is able to save His people to the uttermost, all the way through, even to the end of their wilderness journey. What comfort this assurance gives to His people, encompassed by the infirmities, difficulties, and trials of their desert path! Secondly, Aaron at the altar of incense is a figure of the believer, inasmuch as all believers are priests. This aspect is exceedingly instructive; for thus regarding the burning of the incense it is a type of worship. First, then, it should be observed again that Aaron (and the believer as presented by him) is before the golden altar in all the sweet savour of the burnt-offering; for it is through the virtue of this sacrifice that access into the holy place is enjoyed. This is of great importance. It teaches that there can be really no worship until we know what it is to be brought into God's presence in all the acceptance of Christ; not only knowing that our sins are cleared away, but also apprehending that we are before God in all the acceptability of Christ Himself, in all His inexpressible fragrance. Secondly, it is Christ in all that He is to God which is presented to God in worship; not our own feelings, not our own thoughts, but that which delights the heart of God; and that is Christ Himself, Christ as the One who has glorified Him on the earth, and finished the work which He gave Him to do. Thirdly, we gather that the essence of all worship lies in communion with God in all that Christ is, and in all that He has done; for when we worship by the Holy Spirit we present to God that in which He delights, and we delight in that which we present, and thus our thoughts, feelings, and affections are in unison with those of God Himself. Then worship - adoration of the highest character - is the result. Such is our priestly work at the altar - the perpetual presentation of the merits of Christ; and if we intercede there, our intercession also is according to the value of Christ. Hence He could say, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye ask the Father in my name, He will give it you." (John 16:23.)
There is a connection, it will be observed, between the incense and the lamps. Aaron is directed to burn the incense when he dresseth the lamps morning and evening. The lamps, as explained when speaking of the candlestick, are the manifestation of God in the power of the Spirit. This was seen in perfection in Him who was the light of the world, and should be displayed likewise both in the Church and in the believer. But the point here, is that the light was maintained by priestly care. Aaron dressed the lamps. It is so now. The manifestation of God in the power of the Spirit is ever dependent upon the priestly action of Christ; and the burning of the incense - intercession or worship - will always be in proportion to the display of the Spirit's power. These three things indeed are inseparable - the priestly care of Christ, the manifestation of God in the power of the Spirit, and the worship of His people. In other words, if believers are not shining as lights in the world, they cannot burn incense at the golden altar, they are powerless for worship. Walk and worship are related; for if the believer is not in the presence of God in his ways throughout the week, he will not know what it is to be inside the rent veil, when gathered around the Lord at His table to show forth His death. Or, still to put another aspect, there will be no worship except as the result of the manifestation of God in the power of the Spirit. Hence the lamps must be dressed when the incense is burnt.
Warnings follow as to the use of the altar; and if Lev. 10:1 be combined with this scripture, there are three things forbidden to be used upon this altar. First, there must be no strange incense. The incense offered must be divinely compounded - and no other could be accepted. If, for a moment, this be taken literally, what awful presumption is witnessed in many "churches" in Christendom in this day! Base imitations of this holy compound (the penalty of making which was death - see verse 38) are used in public services by those who claim to be priests, and for the worship of God! Even a Jew would regard it as abomination, and yet professing Christians can endorse its use! Surely an evidence both of the corruption of Christianity and of the power of Satan. Looking at it as an emblem, we are taught that nothing but the fragrance of Christ is acceptable to God in worship. Everything offered apart from Christ is "strange," and cannot be accepted. Secondly, no burnt sacrifice, no meat-offering, and no drink-offering must be offered upon this altar. This would be to confound the golden with the brazen altar, and consequently to forget our true priestly position. It would be the same mistake now, if when gathered for worship, we took our place at the cross, instead of inside the rent veil. This is an error into which many souls unwittingly fall. The consequence is they never know the joy of being brought to God in virtue of the work of Christ; and hence they cannot occupy their true priestly position. Lastly, the scripture from Leviticus forbids the use of strange fire. It must be God's fire - fire kindled from heaven, from before the Lord (Lev. 9:24), and no other. Applying this to believers, the lesson is, that they can only worship by the Spirit of God. Natural fervour, and natural emotions, however produced, would in this sense be "strange" fire. It was for this reason, doubtless, that the priests were forbidden to drink wine or strong drink when they entered into the tabernacle. The effects of wine simulate those produced by the Spirit of God. (See Acts 2:13, 15.) The fire equally with the incense must be divine to be acceptable upon the golden altar. A lesson which Christians of this day would surely do well to lay to heart, when the attempt is made on every hand by sights and sounds to work on the natural man to aid him in the worship of God. May they learn that all such things are really abominations in the sight of God!
Once a year atonement was to be made upon the horns of the altar with the blood of the sin-offering of atonements. (v. 10.) The account of this is found in Leviticus 16. The reason of it was the imperfection of the priesthood. The true place of the priest was before the golden altar; and being what he was, he defiled the very place of his approach to God (compare Lev. 4:7); and hence the need of the continual application of the blood of atonement. This is instructive from its typical contrast. One sacrifice now avails for ever. Christ has perfected for ever by His one offering them that are sanctified; and consequently without interruption they enjoy perpetual access even into the holiest of all.
Finally a remark may be made upon the provision for the carrying of the altar through the wilderness. The staves and the rings are given here, and need no observation, as they are of the same material as the altar. But in Num. 4:2 we find that there were two coverings: first, a cloth of blue; and secondly, outside, the badgers' skins. The blue - emblematic of what is heavenly - the heavenly character, as flowing from priestly intercession, and indeed as connected with the priestly position, was concealed. It was for the eye of God alone. Then come the badgers' skins, signifying that holy vigilance by which Christ guarded Himself from evil. This is outside, because it is a question of passing through the wilderness, where evil abounds. It teaches, therefore, that if the heavenly character is to be maintained, there must be unwearied watchfulness, and incessant diligence to guard ourselves, through the use of the Word, from the contaminations and pollutions which beset us on every hand. E. Dennett.
If our affections and desires are lingering on earth, or stopping short of a glorified Christ in heaven, as the One in whom our life is hid, and to whom we are presently to be conformed in glory, and that in the glory where He is, we shall soon find that earthly things are more than dross and dung. Leave a stone on the ground for a time, and it will gradually sink into it. And our hearts, if they are not practically in heaven with Christ, will soon become attached to earthly things. t t t