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What does the Bible say about incense?

incense in the Bible

When God liberated the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, their geographical destination was the Promised Land. Yet, the ultimate purpose of their freedom was to enable them to worship God without restriction (e.g., Exodus 5:1). After crossing the parted Red Sea, God instructed the Israelites to build the tabernacle, a portable sanctuary they were to use for worship throughout their 40-year desert journey. Within this sacred tent, burning incense played a crucial role. The rising smoke signified the Israelites’ worship ascending to God, and its fragrant aroma depicted His acceptance and pleasure with their devotion.

The Bible mentions various uses for incense but gives special attention to the blend burned inside the tabernacle. The mixture that God instructed the Israelites to use within the tent consisted of plant and shellfish extracts. He instructed Moses to “take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part), and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy” (Exodus 30:34–35, ESV).

The sweet spice stacte, also called “gum resin,” is taken from the bark of myrrh bushes and ground into powder; onycha is made from ground mollusk shell scrapings; galbanum is a resin derived from the ferula plant; and frankincense is a resin obtained from boswellia trees. Additionally, salt is added to the blend. Salt’s anti-bacterial properties serve to prevent decay, and it symbolizes the purity of the ingredients.

God assigned the high priest the role of burning this exact blend on the altar of incense. The altar played a vital role in the daily and yearly worship activities that symbolized Israel’s relationship with God. Made of acacia wood and overlaid with gold, the altar measured three feet high and was eighteen inches square, featuring a horn on each corner. It stood in the Holy Place, the outermost room of the tabernacle, directly in front of the entrance to the innermost room, the Holy of Holies (Exodus 30:1–6).

The high priest burned incense twice daily, once before the morning sacrifice and again after the evening sacrifice (Exodus 30:7–8). Additionally, on the Day of Atonement, a special ceremony involving incense took place. The high priest entered the Holy of Holies with incense burning in a censer, creating a protective cloud of smoke over the mercy seat—the cover of the ark of the covenant. The smoke symbolized the prayers of the people and protected the high priest from the direct presence of God, ensuring his survival (Leviticus 16:12–13). He then sprinkled the blood of a sacrificed bull on the mercy seat. Next, he applied the blood of a sacrificed goat on the four horns of the altar of incense to ceremonially purify it from sin (Exodus 30:10; cf. Leviticus 16:16). These actions completed the atonement rituals, cleansing both the people and the sanctuary of sin.

God’s instructions specified that the incense burned on the altar in the tabernacle “shall be most holy for you,” emphasizing its exclusive use for worship (Exodus 30:36–37). This instruction also prohibited the Israelites from using the sacred blend for personal use as a fragrance. If they did, they would be cut off from the community (Exodus 30:38).

Furthermore, God prohibited the Israelites from using “unauthorized” (ESV) or “strange” (NASB) incense on the altar (Exodus 30:9). This could be incense of a different blend or offering the sacred mixture with food offerings. These prohibitions underscored its sacred use. There were the severe consequences for misuse, like when two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, died for improper worship involving incense (Leviticus 10:1–2).

While the Old Testament originally required the high priest to offer the sacred incense, the Gospel of Luke reveals a change in that tradition, showing that ordinary priests were also permitted to perform the offering. Zechariah’s experience exemplifies this shift in practice, in which he was chosen by lot to place incense on the altar in the temple while the people prayed outside (Luke 1:9–10). Then, as the incense smoke wafted up to God, an angel announced to Zechariah that he and Elizabeth would have a son, John the Baptist, the Messiah’s forerunner (Luke 1:11–16).

In conclusion, the role of incense throughout the Bible—from its regulated use in the Old Testament to its depiction in the Gospel of Luke—is emblematic of prayer and the relationship between God and His people. David poignantly expresses this in Psalm 141:2 when he writes, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!” (cf. Revelation 5:8; 8:3–4). Incense, therefore, reminds Christians that God is pleased when His people pray.

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What does the Bible say about incense?
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This page last updated: February 28, 2024