1“You shall make an altar on which to burn incense; you shall make it of acacia wood. 2A cubit shall be its length, and a cubit its breadth. It shall be square, and two cubits shall be its height. Its horns shall be of one piece with it. 3You shall overlay it with pure gold, its top and around its sides and its horns. And you shall make a molding of gold around it. 4And you shall make two golden rings for it. Under its molding on two opposite sides of it you shall make them, and they shall be holders for poles with which to carry it. 5You shall make the poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. 6And you shall put it in front of the veil that is above the ark of the testimony, in front of the mercy seat that is above the testimony, where I will meet with you. 7And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it. Every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, 8and when Aaron sets up the lamps at twilight, he shall burn it, a regular incense offering before the Lord throughout your generations. 9You shall not offer unauthorized incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering, and you shall not pour a drink offering on it. 10Aaron shall make atonement on its horns once a year. With the blood of the sin offering of atonement he shall make atonement for it once in the year throughout your generations. It is most holy to the Lord.”
The piece of furniture closest to the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle was the incense altar. The altar described in these verses is also called the “gold altar” in 39:38. It was small in size, 1½ feet square and 3 feet high (1 cubit square and 2 cubits high). It was to be made of acacia wood overlaid with pure gold. There were to be four horns on each upper corner, a gold molding around the top, and gold rings on each side to facilitate carrying it with poles.
Incense is still very much a part of the worship life of many Christians but not necessarily because of this passage. Incense is mentioned in several places in the Bible, quite often in reference to prayer. The two passages we most quickly associate with incense and prayer are Psalm 141 and Revelation 5.
Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!
And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
As I read through this passage I confess there is something intriguing about attaching prayer to the smell of incense. We are complicated creations and our senses are indeed a marvel. That God would employ all of our senses in our worship lives borders on being delightful. Imagine yourself in the Tabernacle. You are surrounded by sounds such as animals, bells, singing, and words. You can see the golden objects of worship, the fires, the blood, the people, and even the presence of God in a pillar of cloud/fire. The priest can feel the fabric of his robes and the worshipers can feel the smooth gold furnishings. You get to taste the cooked meat from the sacrifice made at the bronze altar as you enter the giant meeting place, and finally you get to smell the incense as it rises to God and symbolizes the prayers of the people as they speak with their God. As you can see, worship has always meant to engage the whole person.