Straight across the room from the entry, on the western side, next to the veil that separated the Holy place from the Most Holy place (Holy of Holies), was the altar of incense.
The altar of incense was often called the “golden altar” (Exodus 40:5) to distinguish it from the bronze altar of sacrifice mentioned in Exodus 27. It was four-square, measuring 1 cubit (18in.) long, 1cubit wide and 2 cubits high. It was made of acacia wood overlaid with gold. It had a molding (crown) around the edge. Part of the function of this crown was to keep the burning coals of incense from falling to the ground. It had rings and staves so the priest could carry it on their wilderness journeys. On this altar were placed the burning coals from the bronze altar in the courtyard, where sacrifice was made. Incense was made of various sweet-smelling and precious spices (stacte, onycha, galbanum, and frankincense) and was made with equal proportions. The priests would go in and burn incense every time they would light the lamps of the lampstand. The priest burned the morning and evening sacrifice on it. The priest, while presenting this offering, was the people’s intercessor with God, praying for them, and asking Him to hear and answer their petitions. The clouds of smoke arising from it were full of perfume and spread their fragrance all around, penetrating the veil, and reaching even to the throne. The sweet-smelling smoke from the burning incense rose as a pleasing aroma to God.
When the high priest went inside and offered incense on the altar, he spent some time in the tabernacle. That incense stayed upon his garments and when he came outside, the people could smell him. You might say he was wearing the right kind of fragrance. The smoke of that incense symbolized the prayers of the God’s people and their supplication to God for His forgiveness and cleansing. It had a practical purpose in terms of its lovely smell but its symbolism of prayer was far more important. Remember on this altar no burnt, grain or drink offering, etc. were performed. This altar was used exclusively to burn incense upon morning and evening.
At first Aaron offered incense upon the golden altar and afterward, on great occasions, the high priest did so; but ordinarily the duty was discharged by a priest, chosen weekly by lot. Once a year on the Day of Atonement, the blood of the Sin Offerings which had been shed at the brazen altar was brought in and placed on the golden altar. The blood was applied particularly to the horns of the altar and was sprinkled seven times (Leviticus 16:17-19).
The golden altar was at the very heart of the tabernacle. We have already seen how the furniture was arranged in the outline of the cross.
The golden altar is seen at the very heart in this picture. From all this we see the ministry of intercession prayer and praise are set at the very heart of God.
“Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense” (Psalm141:2)
John saw the elders in heaven with
“golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Revelation5:8, 8:3-4).
Just as the altar of incense was a piece of furniture closest to the Ark of the Covenant and mercy seat, which represented God’s throne, here on earth. We are never closer to the Father than when we are in prayer.
The golden altar was the smallest piece of furniture in the tabernacle. It’s not the length of our prayers, but their strength, their sincerity that matters (Ecclesiastes 5:2). Did not the Lord say that we were not heard for our many words, nor for our vain repetitions. Fervent, righteous prayer avails much. Remember the tax collector in Luke 18:13. The altar of incense holds the same position in heaven as it did on earth (Revelation 8:3). The only difference between the two is that once there hung a veil between, but now there is no veil.
Why? Because it has been torn in two and we have boldness to enter into His presence.
The burning of incense also has significance when seen in relation to the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest. The Bible says,
“He ever lives to make intercession for us” (Hebrews7:25; 9:24).
Just as the priest of the tabernacle interceded on behalf of the people Christ as our High Priest appears before the Throne of God in our behalf. We too, as priests (1 Peter 2:5,9) can intercede for the lost and the saved. The ministry of the Holy Spirit can also be seen in the connection with the incense. The Holy Spirit we are told, makes intercession for us according to the will of God (Romans 8:26,34). The altar in the courtyard of the tabernacle was made of bronze (lit. copper) Bronze being the metal of judgment, Jesus was judged on the cross when He bore our sins. The altar here in Exodus 30, however, was not to be covered with bronze, but was made of acacia wood and covered in gold. Wood speaks of humanity. Gold speaks of Deity. In Luke 22:44 we see Jesus
“being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”—That’s His humanity.
And as mentioned earlier, Jesus is now with the Father interceding for us.—That’s His Deity.
And when He comes back, He will not come back as a suffering servant, but as the King of kings and Lord of lords.