The Old Testament and Incense

The Old Testament contains many references to the burning of incense. What lessons does this hold for us today? Let us meditate upon this theme together.
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

No narration available

One of the amazing evidences of Bible inspiration is that of prophecy—especially predictive prophecy. Predictive prophecy presents facts regarding events that are to happen in the future. Since no ordinary human can know what is to happen in the future, prophetic statements reflect the orchestration of God in the foretelling of certain things that are to take place eventually.

One form of prophecy is that of “types.” As we have discussed elsewhere, “A type is a real, exalted happening in history that was divinely ordained by the omniscient God to be a prophetic picture of the good things he purposed to bring to fruition through Christ Jesus” (Jackson 2005, 126). Old Testament people, places, events, objects, etc., were used as types of numerous glorious blessings of the future.

One Old Testament collection of types was the tabernacle-temple arrangement. These, in their progressive stages (tabernacle first; temple later), were types of the church and of heaven. The “holy place” foreshadowed the church (Acts 15:16-17; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 1 Timothy 3:15); the “holy of holies” pictured heaven (Hebrews 6:19-20; 9:8, 24).

Within the temple’s holy place were three items. On the south side was the golden lampstand with outlets for seven flames, fueled by pure olive oil. To the north was a table of twelve loaves of showbread—known also as the “continual bread” (KJV; ASV), or the “bread of Presence” (Numbers 4:7). Then to the west, just in front of the veil separating the holy place from the most holy place, was the altar of incense. It thus was very close to the Ark of the Covenant" which was covered by the “mercy-seat”—above which the presence of God was focused (Exodus 30:6). The incense burned on this altar will constitute the main thrust of this study.

Typology and Incense

The altar of incense was made of acacia wood with a veneer of gold. Acacia is a beautiful hardwood that is almost indestructible by insects. The altar was thirty-six inches high and eighteen inches in both length and breadth (Exodus 37:25ff). It served as a place for the daily burning of incense, both morning and evening.

The daily exercise consisted of a priest (selected by the casting of “lots”) taking burning coals from the brazen altar of sacrifice out in the temple court, taking the coals to the altar of incense, and depositing the incense upon coals (Exodus 30:7-8). This was a one-time event in the life of the priest who was selected.

The incense consisted of an equal mixture of five spices, and any deviation from this formula was subject to severe consequences (Exodus 30:9). Moreover, this incense mixture could never be employed for private use (30:37). Interestingly, small stone incense altars have been found in Palestine (e.g., at Gezer) for the worship of false gods (Gispen 1982, 281). Perhaps this explains why the Israelites were forbidden to make and burn incense in their homes. Incense was also utilized on the Day of Atonement (see below).

The Relation of Incense to Prayer

It is noteworthy that the Scriptures are clear that the fragrant fumes that ascended from the incense represented the prayers of godly people, those in covenant relationship with Jehovah. A psalm attributed to David petitioned the Lord: “Let my prayer be set forth as incense before you” (Psalm 141:2). Observe that when Zacharias was executing his office as priest, he entered into the temple to burn incense. Not without significance is the fact that “the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense” (Luke 1:9-10). The book of Revelation unquestionably indicates that “incense” is symbolic of “the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 5:8; 8:3-4).

Is there any biblical indication that the prayers of those who resist the will of God go up as a sweet fragrance to him? None at all! Let us get this point. There is a relationship between the efficacy of prayer and one’s dedication to the Lord. Prayer is not a last-second, emergency tool for those who have entertained no interest in knowing and being obedient to the will of God. “He who turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is repulsive” (Proverbs 28:9).

Incense and the Holiness of God

One of the most crucial points to consider is the connection between the incense burned on the annual Day of Atonement and the blood shed on that occasion. This was a unique day, for only the high priest officiated on this occasion.

Each year on the Day of Atonement the high priest took a censer of coals from the brazen altar (situated in the court outside the holy place). It is important to note that this altar was the place where animals were sacrificed, their blood constituting “atonement” for the sins of the people of Israel. Together with these burning coals on a small, shovel-like censer, the high priest took two handfuls of sweet incense beaten into fine granules.

He passed through the holy place beyond the veil into the holy of holies. There he put the incense upon the flaming coals “before Jehovah, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy-seat that is upon the testimony, that he die not” (Leviticus 16:13). The mercy-seat was the covering of the Ark of the Covenant, and the “testimony” refers to the tables of stone within the ark, upon which were inscribed the Ten Commandments (Exodus 25:16).

On each end of the mercy-seat was a cherubim (a winged creature fashioned of gold), the wings of which stretched toward one another, thus overshadowing the mercy seat. Of this sacred place the Lord said: “[T]here I will meet with you, and I will commune with you from above the mercy-seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all the things which I will give you in commandment unto the children of Israel” (Exodus 25:22). The sweet smoke filled the area, obscuring the mercy-seat and the representation of the presence of God (Leviticus 16:12-13).

This symbolized the absolute holiness of God in contrast to the sinfulness of man. It is crucial that we understand that our Creator is a perfectly holy Being (Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8), and that we are marred by sin (Isaiah 59:1-2). Hence there is a need for a method of reconciliation. The Old Testament, by its typological representations, prepared the way for appreciating this reality. In connection with this ritual, the high priest also sprinkled the blood of a bullock seven times before the mercy-seat. This offering was for the sins of the high priest and his family; a second ritual of similar import was for the people in general (Leviticus 16:15ff).

Incense and Blood

There is another point about incense that is crucial. There was a relationship between the use of incense and the application of blood. As observed earlier, the incense was typical of the prayers of the saints; it was an act of faith on the part of the people of God. The shedding of blood pictured the Savior’s eventual death. The combining of the two elements, therefore, sets forth the image of the cooperative affinity between Christ’s blood on our behalf, and our prayers to God. The efficacy of our prayers is dependent upon the shedding of the Lord’s blood. And the power of that blood for the Christian must be accessed by prayer. Reflect, then, on the necessity and power of prayer!

There is another point that might be suggested. The New Testament speaks of the cleansing effect of Christ’s blood. The writer of Hebrews declares:

For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling them that have been defiled, sanctify unto the cleanness of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish unto God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:13-14).

A key issue with many, however, is this: at what point does this cleansing of the blood of Christ occur? It commonly is alleged that such happens at the moment of one’s faith (trust) in the Lord. Paul contends otherwise. In his letter to the Ephesians he points out that though the redeemed at Ephesus had been saved by the grace of God through faith (2:8-9), the actual moment of cleansing was achieved by “the washing of water with [in conjunction with the reception of] the word” (5:25-26).

If our appreciation of the fulfillment of Old Testament typological prophecy regarding this matter is accurate, the Christian is cleansed (forgiven) at the point of his “washing of water” (almost universally conceded as a reference to baptism; cf. Danker et al. 2000, 1023-24). At this point he then is privileged to “offer incense” (i.e., send up his prayers) to God. A person is not saved merely by praying to God (e.g., as in the case of the popular “sinner’s prayer”); rather, after he obeys the gospel (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:8; 1 Peter 4:17) he is authorized to pray and promised a divine response to his petitions.

The Case of Nadab and Abihu

Nadab and Abihu were the elder sons of Aaron. They had been privileged to accompany Moses to Mount Sinai when the great prophet received the tables of stone containing the Ten Commandments—though they were prohibited from coming “near the Lord,” but were instructed to remain “afar off” (Exodus 24:1-2).

It had been a glorious day. Aaron had been consecrated as “high priest,” and had inaugurated the ceremony of the Day of Atonement. Apparently later in the day, Nadab and Abihu felt they should participate in the festivities. Hence, Moses wrote:

And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before Jehovah, which he had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before Jehovah, and devoured them and they died before Jehovah (Leviticus 10:1-2).

This is a shocking turn of events to the person who is uninformed, or who has but a casual regard for the precise commands of the Almighty. Exactly what was the sin of these two men?

Commentators have proffered a variety of possible explanations. (a) Some suggest they did not offer the incense at the proper time of the day. (b) It is alleged that they may have been “making an ostentatious and irreverent display of their ministration to accompany the shouts of the people, on their way towards the Tabernacle” (Clark 1981, 540). The most common view is that they did not get their “fire” from the altar of sacrifices (see 16:12). It is clear that the expression “strange fire” conveys the idea of disobedience, as confirmed by the phrase “which he [God] had not commanded them.”

R. K. Harrison declared that “chapter 10 makes clear how swiftly divine retribution came upon those who refused to follow the guidelines, and insisted upon pursuing an independent course” (1980, 108-09). A few pages earlier Professor Harrison noted: “Implicit obedience, not individualism or innovation, was what God required of the worshipper” (106). Does not the same principle apply today? Some translations render “strange fire” as “unauthorized fire” (NIV, ESV).

The modern professor of Christianity would do well to take note. Far too many feel that so long as their heart is right, it matters little about the form their worship takes (contra John 4:24). This is a deadly mistake, as these men learned.

The Case of Uzziah

Finally, there is the case of Uzziah. Uzziah (also known as Azariah) was the tenth ruler in the southern dynasty of Judah. His name means “Jehovah is my strength”; unfortunately he did not always follow the instructions of the “Source” of his strength.

From one vantage point he was a successful ruler. He likely served as a co-regent with his father, Amaziah, for almost the first quarter of a century in the fifty-two years of his regime, but then he became the sole ruling agent. He was a successful administrator. He strengthened the nation’s military defense and promoted the country’s domestic welfare. He defeated some of Judah’s most hostile neighbors. He is depicted as a king that generally “did that which was right in the eyes of Jehovah,” though he was a compromiser who tolerated idolatry (2 Kings 15:1-7). While he sought the Lord, he prospered; but that was to change (cf. 2 Chronicles 26:5).

His spiritual weakness was magnified by an incident that occurred at the zenith of his reign (cf. 2 Chronicles 26:8). The ruler’s “heart was lifted up”; the success of his power made him arrogant. It was a decisive turning point in his regime and was a foreboding indication of Judah’s eventual fall (Selman 1994, 470). He “did corruptly, and he trespassed against Jehovah his God; for he went into the temple of Jehovah to burn incense upon the altar of incense” (v. 16). Keil suggested that “Uzziah wished to make himself high priest of his kingdom, like the kings of Egypt and of other nations” (1978, 429).

Twice the term “trespassed” depicts the king’s actions (vv. 16, 18). The word is derived from the Hebrew ma’al, which carries such nuances as unfaithful, disloyal, infidelity, breach of trust, malfeasance, etc. (VanGemeren 1997, 1020). To act presumptuously, without appropriate divine authority, is a serious crime against God and those who engage in such are spiritual criminals.

In his apostasy he was pursued by the high priest and eighty other brave priests, who protested: “It pertains not to you, Uzziah, to burn incense unto Jehovah, but to the priests the sons of Aaron, that are consecrated to burn incense” (v. 18).They demanded that he leave the holy place, charging him with violating the law.

But the king was indignant; as he held the incense censer in his hand, a punishment from the Lord, leprosy [i.e., some sort of skin disease], broke out upon his forehead. He was thrust from the temple, being aided in his own hasty retreat. From that day, he remained a diseased person until the day of his death, and lived in a “separate” house (v. 21 ASV, RSV).

There has been much discussion about the meaning of the “separate” house. The term was obscure. With the discovery of the Ras Shamra tablets, a corresponding term was found in the Ugaritic texts. The word was employed to describe the place to which “Baal descended before proceeding to the nether world. This leads to the thought that Uzziah was confined to a cave or cellar, perhaps even the palace basement” (Pheiffer 1962, 61).

Now here is a matter worthy of serious reflection. In his zeal to burn incense, why did not the king argue: “The law nowhere specifically says, ‘The king may not burn incense’; thus, I am permitted to do so!”? How much weight do you suppose that quibble would have carried? Yet this is precisely the line of reasoning used today by those who wish to force innovations into the New Testament order of worship, e.g., a reversion to obsolete Old Testament practices, the novel use of the rosary imported from paganism, the adoration of sacred images, mechanical instruments of music as an accompaniment to singing, etc. There are numerous professing Christians who ought to be living in the cellar!

In his letter to the saints in Rome, Paul declared that the things “written aforetime [the Old Testament Scriptures] were written for our learning” (Romans 15:4). Do these biblical examples mean nothing to us? Let us read, study, analyze, learn, and obey the will of our God.


In conclusion, it would compliment our study if we briefly noticed three New Testament texts that have some bearing on our general theme. Though the term “incense” is not explicitly used, the idea certainly is there.

(1) In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote:

Be, therefore, imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, even as Christ also loved you, and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for an odor of a sweet smell (5:1-2).

The language calls to mind the fragrant offerings mentioned in the book of Leviticus that pre-figured the voluntary offering of Jesus on our behalf (Leviticus 1:9, 13, 17; 2:2, 10, etc.). It is a picturesque way of saying that the Father would be satisfied with the atoning death of his Son (cf. Isaiah 53:11).

(2) Elsewhere the apostle writes:

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing (2 Corinthians 2:14-15, ESV).

How thrilling it is to know that Christians, by their proclamation of Christ and his gospel, diffuse the thrilling fragrance of salvation to those who are inclined to embrace it. Paul goes on to say that the same message becomes a deadly vapor to those who stubbornly reject it (v. 16).

(3) There was a wonderful relationship between Paul and the church at Philippi. He established that congregation on his second missionary journey (Acts 16:12ff), and from the occasion of that event, until he penned the letter to those saints from his confinement in Rome some ten years later (Acts 28), the Philippians had been a major source of his support. When Epaphroditus came to visit Paul during the apostle’s Roman incarceration, bringing sustenance from Philippi, the apostle described it as “a fragrance of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing unto God” (Philippians 4:18). How sweet it is to the God of heaven when his people love and help one another.

  • Clark, Samuel. 1981. Leviticus. The Bible Commentary. F. C. Cook, editor. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
  • Danker, F. W. et al. 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
  • Gispen, W. H. 1982. Exodus – Bible Student’s Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Harrison, R. K. 1980. Leviticus – Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL. Inter-Varsity Press.
  • Jackson, Wayne. 2005. Biblical Figures of Speech – A Practical Guide to Understanding the Figurative Language of the Bible. Stockton, CA: Courier Publications.
  • Keil, C. F. 1978. II Chronicles – Old Testament Commentary. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Pfeiffer, Charles R. 1962. Ras Shamra and the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
  • Selman, Martin J. 1994. 2 Chronicles – Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.
  • VanGemern, Willem A., ed. 1997. New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.