Exodus 30:1
And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon: of shittim wood shalt thou make it.
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(1) Thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon.—Why the directions concerning the altar of incense were delayed until this place, instead of being given when the rest of the furniture of the holy place was described (Exodus 25), it is impossible to say. But there is certainly no reason to suspect a dislocation of the text. The mode in which Aaron is spoken of in Exodus 30:7-10 implies a previous mention of his consecration to the high priesthood.

That incense would be among the offerings which God would require to be offered to Him had appeared already in Exodus 25:6. Its preciousness, its fragrance, and its seeming to mount in cloud after cloud to heaven, gave it a natural place in the symbolism of worship, and led to its employment in the religious rites of a variety of nations. Egyptian priests continually appear on the monuments with censers in their hands, in which presumably incense is being offered, and the inscriptions mention that it was imported from Arabia, and used largely in the festivals of Ammon (Records of the Past, vol. x., pp. 14-19). Herodotus tells us that the Babylonians consumed annually a thousand talents’ weight of it at the feast of Belus (i. 183). The employment of it by the Greeks and Romans in their sacrifices is well known. Here again, as so often in the Mosaical dispensation. God sanctioned in His worship an innocent rite, which natural reason had pointed out to man as fitting and appropriate, not regarding its employment in false religions as debarring it from adoption into the true.

Of shittim wood shalt thou make it.Of the same main material as “the brazen altar” (Exodus 27:1), but covered differently.



Exodus 30:1

Ceremonies are embodied thoughts. Religious ceremonies are moulded by, and seek to express, the worshipper’s conception of his God, and his own relation to Him; his aspirations and his need. Of late years scholars have been busy studying the religions of the more backward races, and explaining rude and repulsive rites by pointing to the often profound and sometimes beautiful ideas underlying them. When that process is applied to Australian and Fijian savages, it is honoured as a new and important study; when we apply it to the Mosaic Ritual it is pooh-poohed as ‘foolish spiritualising.’ Now, no doubt, there has been a great deal of nonsense talked in regard to this matter, and a great deal of ingenuity wasted in giving a Christian meaning-or, may I say, a Christian twist?-to every pin of the Tabernacle, and every detail of the ritual. Of course, to exaggerate a truth is the surest way to discredit a truth, but the truth remains true all the same, and underneath that elaborate legislation, which makes such wearisome and profitless reading for the most of us, in the Pentateuch, there lie, if we can only grasp them, great thoughts and lessons that we shall all be the better for pondering.

To one item of these, this altar of incense, I call attention now, because it is rich in suggestions, and leads us into very sacred regions of the Christian life which are by no means so familiar to many of us as they ought to be. Let me just for one moment state the facts with which I wish to deal. The Jewish Tabernacle, and subsequently the Temple, were arranged in three compartments: the outermost court, which was accessible to all the people; the second, which was trodden by the priests alone; and the third, where the Shechinah dwelt in solitude, broken only once a year by the foot of the High Priest. That second court we are concerned with now. There are three pieces of ecclesiastical furniture in it: an altar in the centre, flanked on either side by a great lampstand, and a table on which were piled loaves. It is to that central piece of furniture that I ask your attention now, and to the thoughts that underlie it, and the lessons that it teaches.

I. This altar shows us what prayer is.

Suppose we had been in that court when in the morning or in the evening the priest came with the glowing pan of coals from another altar in the outer court, and laid it on this altar, and heaped upon it the sticks of incense, we should have seen the curling, fragrant wreaths ascending till ‘the House was filled with smoke,’ as a prophet once saw it. We should not have wanted any interpreter to tell us what that meant. What could that rising cloud of sweet odours signify but the ascent of the soul towards God? Put that into more abstract words, and it is just the old, hackneyed commonplace which I seek to try to freshen a little now, that incense is the symbol of prayer. That that is so is plain enough, not only from the natural propriety of the case, but because you find the identification distinctly stated in several places in Scripture, of which I quote but two instances. In one psalm we read, ‘Let my prayer come before Thee as incense.’ In the Book of the Apocalypse we read of ‘golden bowls full of odours, which are the prayers of saints.’ And that the symbolism was understood by, and modified the practice of, the nation, we are taught when we read that whilst Zechariah the priest was within the court offering incense, as it was his lot to do, ‘the whole multitude of the people were without praying,’ doing that which the priest within the court symbolised by his offering. So then we come to this, dear friends, that we fearfully misunderstand and limit the nobleness and the essential character of prayer when, as we are always tempted to do by our inherent self-regard, we make petition its main feature and form. Of course, so long as we are what we shall always be in this world, needy and sinful creatures; and so long as we are what we shall ever be in all worlds, creatures absolutely dependent for life and everything on the will and energy of God, petition must necessarily be a very large part of prayer. But the more we grow into His likeness, and the more we understand the large privileges and the glorious possibilities which lie in prayer, the more will the relative proportions of its component parts be changed, and petition will become less, and aspiration will become more. The essence of prayer, the noblest form of it, is thus typified by the cloud of sweet odours that went up before God.

In all true prayer there must be the lowest prostration in reverence before the Infinite Majesty. But the noblest prayer is that which lifts ‘them that are bowed down’ rather than that which prostrates men before an inaccessible Deity. And so, whilst we lie low at His feet, that may be the prayer of a mere theist, but when our hearts go out towards Him, and we are drawn to Himself, that is the prayer that befits Christian aspiration; the ascent of the soul toward God is the true essence of prayer. As one of the non-Christian philosophers-seekers after God, if ever there were such, and who, I doubt not, found Him whom they sought-has put it, ‘the flight of the lonely soul to the only God’; that is prayer. Is that my prayer? We come to Him many a time burdened with some very real sorrow, or weighted with some pressing responsibility, and we should not be true to ourselves, or to Him, if our prayer did not take the shape of petition. But, as we pray, the blessing of the transformation of its character should be realised by us, and that which began with the cry for help and deliverance should always be, and it always will be, if the cry for help and deliverance has been of the right sort, sublimed into ‘Thy face, Lord, will I seek.’ The Book of Ecclesiastes describes death as the ‘return of the spirit to God who gave it.’ That is the true description of prayer, a going back to the fountain’s source. Flames aspire; to the place ‘whence the rivers came thither they return again.’ The homing pigeon or the migrating bird goes straight through many degrees of latitude, and across all sorts of weather, to the place whence it came. Ah! brethren, let us ask ourselves if our spirits thus aspire and soar. Do we know what it is to be, if I might so say, like those captive balloons that are ever yearning upwards, and stretching to the loftiest point permitted them by the cord that tethers them to earth?

Now another thought that this altar of incense may teach us is that the prayer that soars must be kindled. There is no fragrance in a stick of incense lying there. No wreaths of ascending smoke come from it. It has to be kindled before its sweet odour can be set free and ascend. That is why so much of our prayer is of no delight to God, and of no benefit to us, because it is not on fire with the flame of a heart kindled into love and thankfulness by the great sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The cold vapours lie like a winding-sheet down in the valleys until the sun smites them, warms them, and draws them up. And our desires will hover in the low levels, and be dank and damp, until they are drawn up to the heights by the warmth of the Sun of righteousness. Oh! brethren, the formality and the coldness, to say nothing of the inconsecutiveness and the interruptedness by rambling thoughts that we all know in our petitions, in our aspirations, are only to be cured in one way:-

‘Come! shed abroad a Saviour’s love,

And that will kindle ours.’

It is the stretched string that gives out musical notes; the slack one is dumb. And if we desire that we may be able to be sure, as our Master was, when He said, ‘I know that Thou hearest me always,’ we must pray as He did, of whom it is recorded that ‘He prayed the more earnestly,’ and ‘was heard in that He feared.’ The word rendered ‘the more earnestly’ carries in it a metaphor drawn from that very fact that I have referred to. It means ‘with the more stretched-out extension and intensity.’ If our prayers are to be heard as music in heaven, they must come from a stretched string.

Once more, this altar of incense teaches us that kindled prayer delights God. That emblem of the sweet odour is laid hold of with great boldness by more than one Old and New Testament writer, in order to express the marvellous thought that there is a mutual joy in the prayer of faith and love, and that it rises as ‘an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well pleasing to God.’ The cuneiform inscriptions give that thought with characteristic vividness and grossness when they speak about the gods being ‘gathered like flies round the steam of the sacrifice.’ We have the same thought, freed from all its grossness, when we think that the curling wreaths going up from a heart aspiring and enflamed, come to Him as a sweet odour, and delight His soul. People say, ‘that is anthropomorphism-making God too like a man.’ Well, man is like God, at any rate, and surely the teaching of that great name ‘Father’ carries with it the assurance that just as fathers of flesh are glad when they see that their children like best to be with them, so there is something analogous in that joy before the angels of heaven which the Father has, not only because of the prodigal who comes back, but because of the child who has long been with Him, and is ever seeking to nestle closer to His heart. The Psalmist was lost in wonder and thankfulness that he was able to say ‘He was extolled with my tongue.’ Surely it should be a gracious, encouraging, strengthening thought to us all, that even our poor aspirations may minister to the divine gladness.

Now let us turn to another thought.

II. This altar shows us where prayer stands in the Christian life.

There are two or three points in regard to its position which it is no fanciful spiritualising, but simply grasping the underlying meaning of the institution, if we emphasise. First, let me remind you that there was another altar in the outer court, whereon was offered the daily sacrifice for the sins of the people. That altar came first, and the sacrifice had to be offered on it first, before the priest came into the inner court with the coals from that altar, and the incense kindled by them. What does that say to us? The altar of incense is not approached until we have been to the altar of sacrifice. It is no mere arbitrary appointment, nor piece of evangelical narrowness, which says that there is no real access to God, in all the fullness and reality of His revealed character for us sinful men, until our sins have been dealt with, taken away by the Lamb of God, sacrificed for us. And it is simply the transcript of experience which declares that there will be little inclination or desire to come to God with the sacrifice of praise and prayer until we have been to Christ, the sacrifice of propitiation and pardon. Brethren, we need to be cleansed, and we can only be delivered from the unholiness which is the perpetual and necessary barrier to our vision of God by making our very own, through simple faith, the energy and the blessedness of that great Sacrifice of propitiation. Then, and then only, do we properly come to the altar of incense. Its place in the Christian life is second, not first. ‘First be reconciled to thy’ Father, ‘then lay’ the incense ‘on the altar.’

Again, great and deep lessons are given to us in the place of our altar in regard to the other articles that stood in that inner court. I have said that there were three of them. In the centre this altar of incense; on the one hand the great lampstand; on the other hand the table with loaves thereon. The one symbolised Israel’s function in the world to be its light, which in our function too, and the other with loaves thereon symbolised the consecration to God of Israel’s activities, and their results.

But between the two, central to both, stood the altar of incense. What does that say as to the place of prayer, defined as I have defined it, in the Christian life? It says this, that the light will burn dim and go out, and the loaves, the expression and the consequences of our activities, will become mouldy and dry, unless both are hallowed and sustained by prayer. And that lesson is one which we all need, and which I suppose this generation needs quite as much as, if not more than, any that has gone before it. For life has become so swift and rushing, and from all sides, the Church, the world, society, there come such temptations, and exhortations, and necessities, for strenuous and continuous work, that the basis of all wholesome and vigorous work, communion with God, is but too apt to be put aside and relegated to some inferior position. The carbon points of the electric arc-light are eaten away with tremendous rapidity in the very act of giving forth their illumination, and they need to be continually approximated and to be frequently renewed. The oil is burned away in the act of shining, and the lamp needs to be charged again. If we are to do our work in the world as its lights, and if we are to have any activities fit to be consecrated to God and laid on the Table before the Veil, it can only be by our making the altar of incense the centre, and these others subsidiary.

One last thought-the place of prayer in the Christian life is shadowed for us by the position of this altar in reference to ‘the secret place of the Most High,’ that mysterious inner court which was dark but for the Shechinah’s light, and lonely but for the presence of the worshipping cherubim and the worshipped God. It stood, as we are told a verse or two after my text, ‘before the veil.’ A straight line drawn from the altar of sacrifice would have bisected the altar of incense as it passed into the mercy-seat and the glory. And that just tells us that the place of prayer in the Christian lift is that it is the direct way of coming close to God. Dear brother, we shall never lift the veil, and stand in ‘the secret place of the Most High,’ unless we take the altar of incense on our road.

There is one more thought here-

III. The altar of incense shows us how prayer is to be cultivated.

Twice a day, morning and evening, came the officiating priest with his pan of coals and incense, and laid it there; and during all the intervening hours between the morning and the evening the glow lay half hidden in the incense, and there was a faint but continual emission of fragrance from the smouldering mass that had been renewed in the morning, and again in the evening. And does not that say something to us? There must be definite times of distinct prayer if the aroma of devotion is to be diffused through our else scentless days. I ask for no pedantic adherence, with monastic mechanicalness, to hours and times, and forms of petitions. These are needful crutches to many of us. But what I do maintain is that all that talk which we hear so much of in certain quarters nowadays as to its not being necessary for us to have special times of prayer, and as to its being far better to have devotion diffused through our lives, and of how laborare est orare-to labour is to pray-all that is pernicious nonsense if it is meant to say that the incense will be fragrant and smoulder unless it is stirred up and renewed night and morning. There must be definite times of prayer if there is to be diffused devotion through the day. What would you think of people that said, ‘Run your cars by electricity. Get it out of the wires; it will come! Never mind putting up any generating stations’? And not less foolish are they who seek for a devotion permeating life which is not often concentrated into definite and specific acts.

But the other side is as true. It is bad to clot your religion into lumps, and to leave the rest of the life without it. There must be the smouldering all day long. ‘Rejoice evermore; pray without ceasing.’ You can pray thus. Not set prayer, of course; but a reference to Him, a thought of Him, like some sweet melody, ‘so sweet we know not we are listening to it,’ may breathe its fragrance, and diffuse its warmth into the commonest and smallest of our daily activities. It was when Gideon was threshing wheat that the angel appeared to him. It was when Elisha was ploughing that the divine inspiration touched him. It was when the disciples were fishing that they saw the Form on the shore. And when we are in the way of our common life it is possible that the Lord may meet us, and that our souls may be aspiring to Him. Then work will be worship; then burdens will be lightened; then our lamps will burn; then the fruits of our daily lives will ripen; then our lives will be noble; then our spirits will rest as well as soar, and find fruition and aspiration perpetually alternating in stable succession of eternal progress.

Exodus 30:1-6. Thou shalt make an altar to burn incense thereon — The altar of incense was to be about a yard high, and half a yard square, with horns at the corners, a golden cornice round it, with rings and staves of gold for the convenience of carrying it, Exodus 30:1-5. It doth not appear that there was any grate to this altar for the ashes to fall into, that they might be taken away; but when they burned incense, a golden censer was brought, with coals in it, and placed upon the altar, and in that censer the incense was burned, and with it all the coals were taken away, so that no coals or ashes fell upon the altar. The altar of incense in Ezekiel’s temple is double to what it is here, (Ezekiel 41:22,) and it is there called an altar of wood, and there is no mention of gold, to signify that the incense in gospel times should be spiritual, the worship plain, and the service of God enlarged. It was placed before the veil, on the outside of that partition, but before the mercy-seat, which was within the veil. For though he that ministered at that altar could not see the mercy-seat, the veil interposing, yet he must look toward it, and direct his incense that way, to teach us, that though we cannot with our bodily eyes see the throne of grace, that blessed mercy- seat, yet we must in prayer by faith set ourselves before it, direct our prayer, and look up.

30:1-10 The altar of incense represented the Son of God in his human nature, and the incense burned thereon typified his pleading for his people. The continual intercession of Christ was represented by the daily burning of incense thereon, morning and evening. Once every year the blood of the atonement was to be applied to it, denoting that the intercession of Christ has all its virtue from his sufferings on earth, and that we need no other sacrifice or intercessor but Christ alone.Exodus 37:25-28; Exodus 40:26-27. The altar of incense was to be a casing of boards of shittim wood Exodus 25:5, Exodus 25:18 inches square and three feet in height (taking the cubit as 18 inches), entirely covered with plates of gold. Four "horns" were to project upward at the corners like those of the altar of burnt-offering Exodus 27:2. A crown or moulding of gold was to run round the top. On each of two opposite sides there was to be a gold ring through which the staves were to be put when it was moved from place to place.CHAPTER 30

Ex 30:1-38. The Altar of Incense.

1. thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon, &c.—Its material was to be like that of the ark of the testimony, but its dimensions very small [Ex 25:10].He commands to make an altar for incense, and of what, Exodus 30:1. The length and breadth of it, Exodus 30:2. The form of it, Exodus 30:3-6. Whereon the priest was to kindle incense every morning, being commanded, Exodus 30:7. All the children of Israel to bring half a shekel for their souls, Exodus 30:11-16. A laver of brass, Exodus 30:17,18; wherein Aaron and his sons wash their hands and their feet, Exodus 30:19-21. The making the oil of holy ointment, Exodus 30:22-25. Its use, Exodus 30:26-28. None might make the like, Exodus 30:32,33. The composition of the perfume, Exodus 30:34-38.

Incense signifies the prayers of God’s people, Psalm 141:2 Revelation 8:3; which are not acceptable to God except they be offered upon the true altar, Christ. This incense also was useful to correct the bad smell of the sacrifices, which were offered on another altar not far from it. Yea, some sacrifices were offered upon this altar, as appears from Exodus 30:10 Leviticus 4:7. But here only the principal and constant use of it is noted.

And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon,.... The Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan call it incense of spices, properly enough, for it was made of various spices; of which see Exodus 30:34 and this was necessary on a natural and civil account, to remove those ill smells from the sanctuary, occasioned by the number of beasts continually slain in it; but chiefly on a religions account, to denote the acceptableness of the service of the sanctuary to God:

of shittim wood shall thou make it: of the same that the altar of burnt offering was made, which was covered with brass, but this with gold, as after related; of this sort of wood; see Gill on Exodus 25:5 as this altar was a type of Christ, the shittim wood may respect his human nature; which wood, though it sprung out of the earth, was not common, but choice and excellent, and very strong durable, and incorruptible; and so Christ, though he was man made of an earthly woman in his human nature, yet was chosen out of the people, is the chiefest among ten thousand, and excellent as the cedars, the man of God's right hand, whom he made strong for himself; and though he died in it, he saw no corruption, he now lives, and will live for evermore; in which nature he acts the part of a Mediator, and intercedes for his people, and offers up their prayers, perfumed with the much incense of his mediation, to which this altar has a special respect.

And thou shalt make an altar {a} to burn incense upon: of shittim wood shalt thou make it.

(a) Upon which the sweet perfume was burnt, Ex 30:34.

1. incense] Heb. ḳeṭôreth, ‘sweet smoke’ (see on Exodus 29:13), which may denote, according to the context, either the ‘sweet smoke’ rising from animal sacrifices (Psalm 66:15; and perhaps usually in the earlier literature, Deuteronomy 33:10, 1 Samuel 2:28, Isaiah 1:13), or the sweet smoke rising from ‘incense’ (so always in P and Chron.).

1–10. The Altar of incense: its construction and place (vv. 1–6), and its use (vv. 7–10).

1–6 (cf. Exodus 37:25-28, Exodus 40:26). The altar of incense was to be of acacia wood, overlaid with gold, a cubit (1½ ft.) broad and long, and 2 cubits (3 ft.) high; at its upper corners were to be four horns (cf. Exodus 27:2); a rim or moulding of gold was to run round it, probably near its top; and close under this moulding, on two of the opposite sides, there were to be two gold rings to receive the poles for carrying it. It was to stand in the Holy place, directly in front of the mercy-seat. A remarkable incense-altar, decorated with lions and composite animal figures, has been found at Taanach (see the writer’s Schweich Lectures, p. 84 f., with an illustration); but it bears no resemblance to the altar here described.

Verses 1-10. - THE ALTAR OF INCENSE. This chapter has the appearance of being one in which accidental omissions are supplied. The natural place for a description of the altar of incense - part of the furniture of the holy place (ver. 6) - would seem to have been Exodus 25:10-40, where we have the descriptions of the ark, the mercy-seat, the table of shew-bread, and the candlestick; the natural place for "the ransom of souls," the earlier part of the same chapter (ver. 3), where the silver is required which was to be collected in this way; the natural place for an account of the bronze laver, ch. 27, where the bronze altar, near which it stood, is described; the natural place for the composition of the holy oil, ch. 29, where its use is commanded (vers. 7, 21); and the natural place for a description of the perfume the same as for the altar on which it was to be offered. Whether Moses made the omissions in writing his record, and afterwards supplied them in the present chapter, or whether Divine wisdom saw fit to give the directions in the order in which we now have them, cannot be determined. Hitherto certainly no sufficient reason has been shown for the existing order, which hence appears accidental. The altar of incense was to be in many respects similar to the altar of burnt-offering, but of smaller size and richer material. Both were to be "four-square," and both of shittim wood cased with metal; but the former was to be taller, the latter shorter, than it was broad; and while the latter was to be cased with bronze, the former was to have a covering of gold. The place for the altar of incense was the main chamber of the tabernacle, a little in front of the veil; and its purpose was, as the name implied, the offering of incense to almighty God. This was to be done by the officiating priest, twice a day, morning and evening, and in practice was performed before the morning, and after the evening sacrifice. Verse 1 - An altar to burn incense upon. The offering of incense was an element in the religious worship of most ancient nations. In Egypt frankincense was especially used in the festivals of the god Ammon (Records of the Past, vol. 10. pp. 18, 19);. and on one occasion an Egyptian sovereign sent a naval expedition to Arabia for the express purpose of bringing frankincense and frankincense trees to Egypt, in connection with the Ammon feasts (Brugsch, History of Egypt, vol. 1. pp. 305-311). The Babylonians burnt a thousand talents' weight of frankincense every year at the great festival of Bal (Herod. 1:183). The Greeks and Romans offered frankincense, as a rule, with every offering; and in the early ages of Christianity it was made the test of a Christian whether he would do this or no. What exactly the religious notion was which underlay these acts, or whether it was the same everywhere, may be questioned. In the Mosaic religion, however, there can be little doubt that, in the main, incense symbolised prayer. (See Psalm 141:2; Luke 1:10.) Of shittim wood. Compare above, Exodus 27:1. Exodus 30:1The Altar of Incense and Incense-Offering bring the directions concerning the sanctuary to a close. What follows, from Exodus 30:11-31:17, is shown to be merely supplementary to the larger whole by the formula "and Jehovah spake unto Moses," with which every separate command is introduced (cf. Exodus 30:11, Exodus 30:17, Exodus 30:22, Exodus 30:24, Exodus 31:1, Exodus 31:12).

Exodus 30:1-6

(cf. Exodus 37:25-28). Moses was directed to make an altar of burning of incense (lit., incensing of incense), of acacia-wood, one cubit long and one broad, four-cornered, two cubits high, furnished with horns like the altar of burnt-offering (Exodus 27:1-2), and to plate it with pure gold, the roof (גּג) thereof (i.e., its upper side or surface, which was also made of wood), and its walls round about, and its horns; so that it was covered with gold quite down to the ground upon which it stood, and for this reason is often called the golden altar (Exodus 39:38; Exodus 40:5, Exodus 40:26; Numbers 4:11). Moreover it was to be ornamented with a golden wreath, and furnished with golden rings at the corners for the carrying-poles, as the ark of the covenant and the table of shew-bread were (Exodus 25:11., Exodus 25:25.); and its place was to be in front of the curtain, which concealed the ark of the covenant (Exodus 26:31), "before the capporeth" (Exodus 40:5), so that, although it really stood in the holy place between the candlestick on the south side and the table on the north (Exodus 26:35; Exodus 40:22, Exodus 40:24), it was placed in the closest relation to the capporeth, and for this reason is not only connected with the most holy place in 1 Kings 6:22, but is reckoned in Hebrews 9:4 as part of the furniture of the most holy place (see Delitzsch on Hebrews 9:4).

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