We continue with the regulations God gave Moses for the sanctuary, its furniture, the priests and the sacrifices they would offer.
v.1 The incense altar is first mentioned here, even though other furniture to be placed in the sanctuary was described in chapter 25. In a similar way, there was no mention of the laver in the description of the Tabernacle courtyard; it is given here in chapter 30. It is not clear why the material is organized as it is. This altar had the form of a square pillar (approx. 1 ½ ft. square and 3 ft. tall), overlaid with gold, with horns at the corners, and rings at the corners through which poles could be placed when it was moved with the rest of the sanctuary and its furniture. After the description of the altar, we are given the rules for the manufacture of the incense itself in vv. 34-38.
As with so much else in the architecture of the Tabernacle and its furniture, such an incense altar was a commonplace of ANE temples. A number of them have been unearthed by archaeologists.
In any case, here is some proof of the fact that the term altar could be used of any raised platform for the purpose of worship and not simply for the table-like structure on which the meat and fat of sacrificial animals were cooked. So it wasn’t entirely unbiblical for fundamentalists to refer to the invitation for seekers to come forward to the front of the church as the “altar call.” There was invariably a table there at the front and it could certainly be called an altar if this platform for burning incense could be called an altar.
v.5 The construction of the incense altar features the finest gold everywhere. Elsewhere in the Pentateuch it is referred to simply as “the altar of gold.” It’s proximity to the symbol of God’s throne accounts for all the gold. The main altar, further away in the center of the courtyard, could be overlaid with bronze (27:2).
v.6 Hebrews 9:4 reckons the incense altar to belong to the Most Holy Place. It was, for practical purposes placed in the Holy Place, because it had to be tended daily, whereas the High Priest, and only he, entered the Most Holy Place but once a year. But it belongs with the Ark because “the incense symbolized the prayers of the people going up to the throne of God in their midst” (Rev. 5:8). [Ellison, 162]
v.8 Every morning and every evening this altar was to be tended at the same time as the lamps.
v.9 There was a practical concern here, as well. This small altar was inside the sanctuary and only incense was appropriate to burn in that enclosed space. Many things are left unsaid. How was the incense burned on the gold altar, for example? Probably a bowl was placed on the altar containing the incense and it was burned in the bowl.
v.10 This is the only reference to the ritual of the Day of Atonement in the book of Exodus. On that day the incense altar was purified as well as blood sprinkled on the Ark itself.
v.12 The first such census taken is reported in Numbers 1, in fact, the numbering of the people gives that book its name.
We have already read in Exodus 13:13 that each Israelite first-born son belonged to Yahweh and had to be redeemed by sacrifice. Israel as a whole is also viewed as God’s first-born son, as we read still earlier in Ex. 4:22. This provision extends that principle. Whenever there is a census, each adult male must pay a ransom for himself. The census, as we read in Numbers 1, concerned the number of men available for the army. There seems to be some danger presupposed here, a danger of death that is averted by the payment of this ransom. There is an association of danger with a census elsewhere in the Bible. Remember David’s census and the plague that was the result of it. The particular danger is nowhere identified. Does it have to do with sins committed in taking the census itself, or sins having to do with war-making: either the danger of death in battle or of committing sins common to soldiers in war? No one knows for sure.
v.16 The small amount demanded (the best guess from archaeological and literary evidence is that the amount specified is pretty small change; one scholar’s best guess is 5.7 grams or .2 oz. [Durham, 403]) – and from rich and poor alike – confirms the symbolic nature of the ransom. The fact that the money was used for the costs of the Tabernacle and its worship demonstrates how gifts to the Lord are invariably used for the blessing and benefit of his people. This is the origin, by the way, of the Jewish temple tax that was still required of Jewish males annually in the time of Jesus. To add insult to injury it was paid to the Romans.
But here the tax also reminds every Israelite of his equal access to God at the Tabernacle, no matter his wealth or station in life.
v.17 The rites of cleansing with water, one of which was mentioned in the previous chapter (29:4) required a ready supply and the laver was for this purpose. In Solomon’s temple, larger and busier by far, there were ten such lavers in addition to the “sea,” a still much larger reservoir for water. Each of Solomon’s ten lavers held 243 gallons of water and stood eight feet high. This would have been much smaller. According to 38:8 it seems that this object was solid metal and not wood overlaid with bronze. It would have been fitted with taps to enable the water to flow over the hands and feet of the priests. Its location between the altar and the sanctuary meant that before priests entered the Holy Place to trim the lamps, to place bread on the table, or to offer incense, they would ritually wash themselves. To have attended to these chores with soiled hands and feet would have been an insult to the majesty of God.
v.22 This oil was mentioned in the previous chapter as the oil to be used for the ordination of the priests.
v.25 The spices mentioned, only some of which can be certainly identified, were, if the known ones are anything to go by, the finest: the rarest, the most expensive, and the most aromatic. Some came from distant lands (India and South Asia for example). Israel may well have had them in the wilderness because they were part of the plunder carried from Egypt. But there were traders in spices always traveling back and forth through this part of the world.
v.33 The popularity of such perfumes for both cosmetic and medicinal use made this strict prohibition necessary. A fine perfumed oil like this would be highly sought after. But the very best belonged to the Lord.
v.34 Once again the spices mentioned are rare and expensive.
v.35 The salt may have been to secure easier burning or may have been used to preserve the mixture, if, as v. 36 seems to suggest, a large amount was mixed at one time and then amounts taken from the store day by day for burning on the altar.
v.36 While the anointing oil was “holy” (the NIV’s sacred in v. 31), this incense is “most holy,” because of its proximity to the presence of Yahweh represented by the Ark. As we have seen, that is a principle often represented in these instructions. The closer to God, the greater the demand for holiness. “In front of the Testimony” means simply in front of the Ark itself (which held the Testimony, that is the two tablets of the covenant), that is, on the Holy Place side of the curtain that separates the Most Holy Place from the Holy Place.
Now, as we have been pointing out, Lord’s Day evening after Lord’s Day evening, while we have been making our way through these liturgical regulations, they embody fundamental principles of worship and life, principles that are timeless and bind us today as surely as they did Israel in the ancient epoch. Outward forms may have changed, but life and worship, at bottom, remain the same, because God is the same, man is the same, salvation is the same, and the nature of faith and of believing life is the same.
Tonight it is no different. Once again we have set before us a fundamental fact of worship and of life. Remember, worship and life are tightly drawn together in the Bible. In a great many ways not only is worship the engine of life, and life something to be offered up in worship, but the principles of both are the same. If, as we have sometimes said, a rightly ordered worship service here on a Lord’s Day morning can be described as the “story of one’s life” told in an hour, we are as much as saying that the rules, principles, and practices of true Christian worship define our lives. Therefore, how well we observe that worship shapes our lives for weal or woe.
The fact of worship and of life that is set before us here is, especially, that of prayer and, so, of communion with God. We made the point this morning, from Matt. 28:20 that it is the essential feature of the Christian life that it is a life lived in communion with God and Christ. We know him, person to person. Life lived in the active experience of that personal knowledge of the Lord is true Christian living. Well, in a happy providence, we have that point made in another way, but also powerfully, in these liturgical regulations that we have read in Exodus 30. Now, to be sure, that point is made in every one of these regulations. They are all about – all of these regulations in all this section of Exodus, as is the book as a whole – all about the presence of God. These are all means by which the presence of the Yahweh with his people is known, experienced, preserved and protected, and practiced. The laver and its water, for example – the requirement of cleansing before approaching the divine majesty – certainly speaks to the way in which believers should practice the presence of God; the reverence with which they ought to approach him, the fear and care with which they ought to live before him.
But I want to pay special attention to the altar of incense. There is little doubt that incense – the combination of spices that filled a room with a pleasantly aromatic smoke when burned – is both an offering to God in general – remember the meat of the sacrificial animal cooked on the altar also produced a pleasing aroma for the Lord – and an image of prayer in particular. Rising smoke is a natural image of prayer, speech going up to God, and a pleasant smell still more so.
In Numbers 16:46, we find incense used “to make atonement” for the people when God threatened to destroy them because of their participation in Korah’s rebellion. But the context certainly seems to suggest that what is really being represented there is prayer for the people’s pardon.
Still more clearly, in Psalm 141: 2 we read:
“May my prayer be set before you like incense…”
And, still more explicitly, in Rev. 8:3-4:
“Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel’s hand.”
That text is the more significant because of the Bible’s teaching that the sanctuaries of Israel on earth were patterned after the Lord’s sanctuary in heaven. If incense was a symbol of rising prayers in that heavenly sanctuary, then it certainly must have been in the earthly sanctuary.
True worship is prayer; it is real communication with God. That fact is expressed in the Bible by the use of “prayer” as a synonym for worship, especially corporate worship. The sanctuary, for example, is referred to as a “house of prayer” in both the OT and the NT. The apostles went up to the temple, we read in Acts 3:1, at “the time of prayer,” which means, at the time of the afternoon service. When the apostles, in proposing the office of deacon, say of themselves in Acts 6:4, “we will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word,” the grammatical usage in that Jewish context strongly suggests that, by “prayer,” (literally “the prayer,” for the article is used) they meant not the act of praying itself as might be done by an individual alone but “the public worship of the church.”
In other words, true worship always and in every way trades on the reality of God’s presence. It is done in consciousness of God’s presence. It is given to a present God. It takes the form of a conversation with God, a dialogue with God, that is only possible because God is present with his people, as really present as if he were visibly present. That is what is meant by saying that worship is prayer. That is what the Anglicans meant when they called their manual of public worship, The Book of Common Prayer.
Incense is a symbol. We are right to say that. But in the history of Christian worship the word and the idea of symbol have been taken in two very different ways. Many modern Christians – whether they have ever reflected on this or not – if they think about it will admit that, for them, a symbol is a representation of something, an illustration of a reality, calling to our minds something that is assumed to be missing. The symbol represents something that is not there! But the more biblical sense of symbol is that of the visible manifestation of something that is present! Incense stands for a present God receiving the prayers of his people who are speaking to him in consciousness of his presence.
And it is one of the most basic ways for us, each one of us, to examine ourselves in regard to our participation in worship, morning and evening on the Lord’s Day here at Faith Presbyterian Church. Am I at prayer from beginning to end? Am I conscious of and am I treating with the presence of Yahweh himself? Am I talking to him, listening to him, enjoying being with him? Do I have a sense of coming into his presence and leaving his presence when I come into this house and leave it after worship? It is not enough to reply that God is everywhere. The Israelites knew that. Moses knew that. But they had no doubt that they came nearer to God in a real sense, in a sense that was important to them and important to God when they came to the sanctuary and participated in worship.
Otherwise why would David say on one occasion that “he saw God in the sanctuary” and on another that the one thing he wished for most of all was that he could remain in the house of the Lord all the days of his life and there gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and seek him in his temple? And why would another say “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go the house of the Lord’”?
It is fundamental to all that God intends for us in worship and all that we need from his worship that we come to it conscious of his presence and intending that it should be prayer – all of us at prayer – from beginning to end.
That is the main point. But let me finish with one implication of this teaching about worship at prayer to a present God in Exodus 30. The incense altar was made of pure gold, the very finest gold. It was glorious. The spices that were combined to make the incense were themselves the rarest and the most expensive. God deserves our best! And he deserves our best all the more when we are at prayer!
God is always accessible and he may be approached with a shout or a cry or a whisper. That is true. But there is a familiarity with God in modern evangelical prayer that does not preserve the reverence that we owe to the high God when we come into his presence and speak to him. Have you noticed, for example, the prayers of Holy Scripture? They are full of emotion, to be sure, but they are nevertheless, prayers offered in a high register. Some of them are among the most beautiful of all the creations of human literature. They were all prayers for worship in the house of the Lord. Many of them may have originated in highly private and individual circumstances, such as David’s Psalm 51, but they were, nevertheless, and are even in translation, careful and beautiful works of human utterance. They are, in a literary form, what the incense altar was in physical form: the best that could be offered to the Lord.
I remember years ago hearing Gordon Clark speak in the Covenant College chapel. He recommended that young Christians learn to pray by memorizing the Psalms. “The use of the Psalms,” he said, “will eliminate all three of the [common defects of prayer]: a superabundance of petitions, crudity of language, and a lack of reverence.”
It is something for all of us to think about. We find it so easy to fall into ruts in our speech to God; in our prayer. I know I do. We find it easy to speak to him with half a mind. We do not think ahead of time of what we will say, as we certainly would if we were to be given an audience with some great man, perhaps nowadays even with some celebrity. But this should not be. The speaking we do to God should be the best of which we are capable. It should be the most careful, the most deliberate, and the most reverent. Our prayer should be like that altar of gold.
The promise of all of God’s Word is that time and energy we invest in the worship of God, in true and living prayer together with the saints, will always be richly repaid. He is present and the offerings we present to him, when we present them with faith and sincerity and true intention, are a pleasing aroma to him. How blessed is that man, that woman, whose prayers the Lord loves to hear!