What was the purpose of burning incense in the Israelite sanctuary?
Incense was burned for several reasons in the tabernacle. Since incense was mainly a powder, fire was needed to release its fragrance. The altar of incense, placed before the veil that separated the holy place from the Most Holy Place, provided a place to burn incense. It was approximately a half meter (1.5 feet) wide, a half meter (1.5 feet) deep and one meter (three feet) high (Ex. 30:1-10). There was a horn on each of its upper four corners, and incense was probably burned on its surface.
1. Practical Reasons: Incense was common throughout the ancient Near East in nonreligious settings. For instance, in most houses animals were often kept nearby, and burning incense inside the house served to counteract some of the odors. The sanctuary was God’s residence among the Israelites; the sprinkling of blood and the killing of sacrificial animals would probably have resulted in some unpleasant odors. Respect for the resident deity required controlling that pollution. This would have been achieved by, among other things, burning incense on the altar in the holy place. However, the biblical text does not explicitly address this practical function, but emphasizes the symbolic meaning of the ritual.
2. Daily Services: The priest went into the holy place to burn incense every day. He was to burn it “every morning when he tends the lamps” and again when he “lights the lamps at twilight” (Ex. 30:7, 8). No particular reason is explicitly given for this ritual, but the context provides some hints as to its meaning. The incense used in the tabernacle was made from a recipe the Lord gave to Moses. The Israelites were not to produce their own incense using that recipe (30:34-38). Therefore, it was “most holy to you” (verse 36). We have here a product that, by being of divine origin and holy, could function as a means of approaching the Lord; it stood between God and the priest. It could mediate the presence of Aaron, as a representative of the people, before the Lord. In burning incense he came closer to the Lord than in any of the other daily services, because behind the veil, in front of which was the altar, was the ark of the covenant (Ex. 40:26). It is then natural for the Bible to associate incense with prayer, a way of accessing the Lord, as that which makes prayer acceptable to Him (Ps. 141:2; Luke 1:10; Rev. 5:8; 8:3). Christians find in incense a symbol of the merits of Christ that make their prayers, and themselves, acceptable to God (John 16:23, 24).
3. Expression of Divine Compassion: The mediatorial role of incense reaches its peak during the Day of Atonement, when, before going into the Most Holy Place of the sanctuary, the high priest takes a censer and puts live coals in it to burn incense (Lev. 16:12, 13). In this case the meaning of the ritual is given: “The smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the tablets of the covenant law, so that he will not die” (verse 13, NIV). The glory of God was revealed on the cover of the ark of the covenant/testimony; as such it was life-threatening to human beings.
In this particular case the cloud of incense has two main functions: It is the place where the Lord appears “in the cloud over the atonement cover” (verse 2, NIV). But it also envelops Aaron to protect him from divine wrath. The incense touches both the divine and human spheres, making it possible for both God and His servant to contact each other in an atmosphere of life-preserving love that makes it possible for Aaron to serve the Lord.
The symbolism of the ritual finds its ultimate expression in the work of Christ. He is the divine incense that brings us into contact with God, while saving us from the wrath of the Lord (cf. Eph. 2:3, 4). He is the divine incense/mediator for us. Those impregnated by the saving incense of Christ become also an expression of “the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved” (2 Cor. 2:15).