XIV. The Altar of Incense
The Tabernacle of Israel, by George de Charms, 1969
The third article of furniture in the holy place, was the altar of incense. It was made of shittim wood, covered on all sides with gold. It measured 1 cubit square and 2 cubits in height. Its sides were solid boards. The top was a single board, the edges of which were flush with the sides. Out of its four corners there arose horns of gilded wood. Around the top, binding it to the sides, was a crown of gold similar to that on the table. In this case, however, the crown did not extend above the surface of the top. The orbs of gold through which the staves were to be passed that the altar might be carried were two instead of four in number. One was placed on each of the sides called "ribs," by which (we are told) are meant the sides facing north and south respectively. This word "ribs" is never used with reference to sides facing east or west. In the case of the altar, the orbs were not placed at the corners, as is specifically commanded in other cases, but in the middle of the side immediately below the crown, in order that the altar might be balanced when carried. This arrangement would require, as a practical matter, that the orbs be free to turn in order to allow for the swinging of the altar. This is not specifically stated, but would seem to be indicated by the fact that the full force of every swing of the altar would otherwise fall upon the small base of the orb.
ALTAR OF INCENSE WITH CENSER
This altar was placed immediately outside of the veil, and midway between the two sides of the tabernacle. It was, therefore, nearest to the ark, being separated from the holy of holies only by the veil. "Thou shalt put it before the veil that is over the ark of the testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the testimony, whither I will come to meet thee there."1 It was at this altar that the priest was to stand when he inquired of the Lord, and when he received answers by means of the breastplate. Thus it was here that communication and conjunction with the Lord was effected. The priest was commanded to burn the incense every morning and every evening when the lamps were dressed; wherefore it is called the "continual incense." Indeed, whenever there was any priestly ministration in the holy place, there was first a burning of incense that the tabernacle might be filled with the smoke. Once a year on the day of atonement, when the high priest passed through the veil and stood in the holy of holies, the incense was burned on this altar until not only the holy place but the holy of holies also was filled with the fragrant smoke, by which, as it were, the ministering priest might be wrapped around as by a cloud in the presence of Jehovah. The spices from which the incense was made were stacte, onycha, galbanum, and pure frankincense.2 These were mixed in equal proportions and salt was added. They were then bruised or triturated in a mortar until they were reduced to a fine powder. This power was placed in the golden censer and burned with fire taken from the altar of burnt offering, where a perpetual fire was kept.
Table of Shewbread, Lampstand, Altar of Incense
The representation of this altar is derived primarily from its use, namely, the burning of incense; and its representation is illustrated in all the particulars of its construction and of its situation in the tabernacle. First, it was an altar and not a table. Altars are the most ancient representatives of worship. Long before men erected tabernacles or temples they built altars in the open air. The first altars were but heaps of earth like a miniature mountain, and indeed having the same representation. They were erected on the tops of mountains or on some high place, and this because they represented the worship of the Lord from love to Him. Later these heaps of earth were replaced by altars of stone, and at first of unhewn stone. They became, however, more and more conventionalized in form. When temples were built, the altar was made as a conventional representation of the mounds from which it had descended. Thus it was formed to represent the original idea of a heap, even though it was constructed of hewn stone, or of wood gilded, as in the present case. For this reason it was always built with solid sides rather than with supporting legs, and in this respect was different from a table. Furthermore, an altar was distinguished always by this, that a fire was burned upon it. This was true everywhere in the Ancient Church, and from it have descended all the rites of worship among pagan nations of antiquity who use altars on which fire is placed. In the case of the altar we are now considering, fire was not actually burned upon it, but the incenseburning with fire taken from the brazen altar, was placed upon it in a censer, which also was swung in front of it.
From very ancient times the burning of incense was associated with the altar and was a representative of internal worship. Burnt offerings and sacrifices represented external worship. By this is meant worship expressed in gestures of the body, in rituals, songs and prayers. Public worship is especially implied. This belongs to man's life in the world and affects him in his relations with others. For this reason the offerings and sacrifices were burned in the outer court, whence they could be seen by the Israelites from their encampment. But the burning of the incense represented a worship of the internal mind, the secret prayer of the heart, the unspoken supplication, the hidden longing and desire which is at the center of a man's life. This worship is not seen of men, but is perceived in part by the celestial angels, and fully by the Lord Himself. This is the reason why the altar of incense was placed within the tabernacle, where it could be seen only by the priest, and where it was immediately before the veil and the mercy seat. Here Jehovah met with Moses and Aaron to teach and lead His people. Such internal worship is the only real worship, for this alone is spiritually effective. External worship is effective only so far as it gives outward expression to internal worship. Whatever may be the outward appearance before the world, the speech of the lips, or the gesture of the body, it is the desire of the heart to which the Lord attends; and this is the real prayer which is heard in heaven. Whatever we may seem to ask for outwardly, this is what we really want, and what lies within, often concealed even from ourselves. We sincerely ask for many things, thinking that we desire them, when yet, if we could analyse our thoughts, we would find that these things are desired only because they serve as means to attain a deeper end. We do not wish them for their own sake. The deeper wish is what gives quality to our prayer without regard to the form of its expression. The Lord has respect to suplications of the heart. When we pray for things heavenly and eternal the Lord is present. His love responds and grants our wish so far as we are prepared to receive it. The presence of the Lord imparts holiness to the external rites of worship and makes them living. When He is not present in the hearts of those who pray, holiness is lacking, and the forms of worship become meaningless gestures. To ask for Divine blessings for the sake of self, with a view to personal advantage, is the characteristic of all idolatry. It brings no conjunction of man with heaven or with the Lord. This is the reason why, in the Word throughout, idolatry is so strictly forbidden, and why such heavy penalties were imposed upon the children of Israel when they fell away from the representative worship of Jehovah to the worship of idols. A special warning is given with reference to the golden altar in the tabernacle, "Ye shall offer no strange incense thereon."3 This sin was severely punished, as related in the story of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.4 To offer strange incense is to worship from some other love than that of the Lord.
Worship of the heart conjoins the new will, represented by the table of shewbread, and the new understanding, represented by the lampstand. For this reason the altar of incense was placed in the midst, between the two. For this reason also it was square, representing the perfect conjunction of truth and good. Worship is not a sentimental emotion. It is not, as many of the Christian world suppose, a stirring of the heart to a personal love of Jesus Christ because of His sacrifice upon the cross. It is not love alone, any more than it is faith alone, that constitutes the internal worship of a saving religion. Truly to love the Lord Jesus Christ is to love those spiritual qualities of human character which He portrayed. It is to seek for the exalted goal of human life to which He pointed; to desire above all things that His kingdom should come and His will be done in our own life, that we might become worthy of Him. Such a love will not rest until it has discovered the means by which its desired end may be achieved, and that means is the truth which the Lord teaches -- the truth which He called the "way" of life. For this reason love to the Lord, if it is genuine, manifests itself in the love of truth, in the desire to know and to understand the Lord's teachings. If this is not present, then a profession of love to Him is but a name used to cover up some other love, some other desire of the heart, some other inmost longing which inevitably shows itself in the search for the kind of knowledge by which that longing can be attained. Wherefore the quality of a man's love may be seen if the kind of truth in which he is really interested be known. And we are told in the Writings that if we would know what our state is we must ask ourselves: What are the things in which we are most interested when we are alone and not influenced by external forces? To what things then do we naturally turn with delight? The conjunction of love with truth, the expression of love in a search for the truth by which the end of love may be accomplished characterizes genuine worship. This conjunction constitutes every man's religion, whether that religion be a worship of the Lord Jesus Christ, or the worship of some personal ambition which has become a household deity. How is this conjunction to be effected? Surely only by thoughtful reading, studying and reflection upon the Word, which contains the Divine law of life.
In all living things there is an alternate expansion and contraction, a breathing in and a breathing out. This produces a continual metabolism, a building up of new tissues and a breaking down of old structures, by means of which there is growth to increasing perfection. This is true of every living organism in the human body. There is a continual taking in and giving off of material substances with every breath. The blood, revivified by the oxygen in the lungs, flows through the entire system, carrying materials by which it builds up new cells and breaks down old cells, carrying away poisons and giving them off again through the lungs. Every individual cell in the body is continually expanding and contracting expanding to draw in from the blood that which is necessary to its life, and contracting to throw off that which is injurious to its life. This continual breathing produces a sphere that is made up of finest substances which are sent forth into the atmosphere, and is impressed with the quality of life characteristic of affection from which it comes. Such a sphere of life indeed is found around every object of nature. It is known to scientists as radioactivity; also as the fragrance of a flower. Such a sphere forms the vortex of activity, in the midst of which is the living organism continually renewing its substance and keeping it in motion. Its quality is due in part to the substance of which it is composed, and in part to the kind of activity that is impressed upon it. Both the substance and the activity, being a direct product of the living organism, carry the essential quality of that organism, as it were, to a distance as far as the sphere extends. In the mind of man the process is similar except that this has to do with a spiritual organism composed of spiritual substance. There is a continual breaking down of old ideas, of old conceptions, appearances, fallacies, and a building up of new ideas, of truer and more perfect conceptions. This it is that makes for mental growth toward wisdom. The fact that this activity belongs to the spiritual world and has to do with spiritual substance does not alter the fact that it produces, nevertheless, an actual spiritual sphere which may not be touched by the bodily senses, but which affects the spirit, and can be felt by men in this world and also by spirits in the other world. Indeed, in the spiritual world such spheres are sensibly perceived both by things seen (for they produce objects which surround spirits and angels there) and also by odors. In this world we have only an abstract conception of them. We are aware, when we come into the presence of another, of a sphere that is not tangible but which either attracts or repels. Such a sphere is indeed a kind of smoke; and it was this sphere of life that in ancient times was represented by the smoke of incense. Such a sphere is, as we have seen, the actual, and indeed the inevitable expression of a man's inmost love; of his deepest longing. For it is the life that moves his whole being, causing it to expand and contract. Such a sphere is an expression of that which man loves above all else, and for which he truly prays. For this reason, incense was always associated in ancient times with prayer. Even as the prayer of the lips represents this actual prayer of the life, so also does the smoke of incense represent it, and in the spiritual world prayer is perceived as a smoke of incense ascending.
The whole end and purpose of that spiritual religion which is represented by the tabernacle of Israel is that the prayer of the heart shall be that man may come into conjunction with the Lord and into consociation with the angels. When this is the case, then is the Word of God in the holy of holies in the golden ark covered with the mercy seat with its cherubim, and protected by the veil of many colors. And then the whole mind, with all its thought, conscious and unconscious, becomes an urgent desire to live in accord with the Divine law. This active thinking, with the view to forming our character, will create a sphere of life which will ascend as the smoke of incense, causing the quality of our love to be perceived in heaven. This is the smoke of the incense which is called "the prayers of the saints."5 Such a sphere of life is according to Divine order. It is receptive of influx from the Lord. It is pliant to the touch of His hand. For it results from a willingness and a desire to do His will so that He can enter to lead us freely. And for this reason it is the means of our receiving eternal life from Him. Indeed, it is the only means, for it is by these prayers alone that the Lord can enter in to sup with us. This is the prayer that is meant when it is said in the Word, "If ye will ask anything in my name I will do it."6 If the prayer is for something that is not heavenly -- if it looks to self and the world as an end; if the resulting internal interest is for purely external and temporal blessings -- then will the sphere of life emitted be of such a character that it will close the way against the Lord's entering, against the operation of the Divine Providence, and the influence of heaven. This is the worship of idolatry that closes the gates of heaven, and makes salvation impossible.
How this internal worship is connected with external worship, and why the fire that burns the incense must be taken from the altar of burnt offering in the court of the tabernacle, will be considered when we are treating of that altar. Of those elements in the construction of the altar of incense, which are similar to those already mentioned in connection with other pieces of furniture, we need not here pause to treat. Their significance is the same, except, of course, that it must be applied to the specific subject here under discussion. As, for instance, that the altar was made of shittim wood, that it was covered with gold, that it had a crown of gold, and golden orbs through which the rods were passed. All these have a similar meaning to those already considered. Here, only a word about the four horns at the corners of the altar. These horns represented power, and this representation was derived from the horns of animals by which they exercise power.7 Horns were placed upon the altar to represent that all power is from the Lord and is imparted to man according to his worship of the Lord. In the degree that the Lord can freely enter into the mind of man, He can give him power over evils and falsities. The horns were placed at the corners where the sides facing east and west joined the sides facing north and south because this power flows forth from a perfect conjunction of good and truth. The bars or rods for carrying the altar also represented power, but that which is represented by the horns is a more internal power and at the same time a more ultimate one.