The Altar of Incense

How close can you come to God's presence? by Lt. Colonel Allen Satterlee
Altar of Incense

In the middle of the Holy Place stood the Altar of Incense, flanked by the Table of Showbread and the Golden Lampstand. It stood 36 inches high and 18 inches square, in many ways a smaller version of the Brazen Altar that stood outside the Tabernacle. Constructed of acacia wood and overlaid with gold, the altar also had four horns on each corner along with rings to insert specially designed poles to aid in moving it from place to place. 

Located just in front of the veil that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies, the Altar of Incense stood the closest to the Ark of the Covenant on the other side. It was to be lit exclusively from the flames of the Brazen Altar. The aroma of the incense filled the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies as well. The incense was replenished each night as the sun was setting and each morning at dawn. 

The incense used in the Tabernacle was made of special ingredients. It could not be used for any other purpose nor could another mixture of elements be offered. It was a blend of three perfumes:

  • Satcte—made from a sweet gum that oozed from the storax tree. 
  • Onycha—made from mollusk shells. The term is derived from the Hebrew word for “shell.” It is fascinating that, though shellfish were unclean foods to the Israelites, the essence of a shellfish was used for holy purposes (Leviticus 11:9-12).
  • Galbanum—made from the Syrian Fennel root, this gummy substance had a balsamic odor.

The three ingredients were mixed with a fourth, Frankincense, derived from the Salai tree in Arabia. The four parts were ground into fine powder and mixed equally to form the incense. The four ingredients represent sweet, bitter and aromatic. In Scripture, incense is symbolic of prayer. 


God takes the range of our experiences, the sweet, the bitter, the lingering memories and attitudes, and grinds them to form an aromatic blend in our lives. We pray from the crucible of our experiences, our knowledge, our thought and emotional life. Genuine prayer is as much a heart experience as a mental discipline. God wants us to present all we are as we pour out our hearts to Him. The essence of who you are rises up like incense in your prayers.


Note that the work of the incense began once kindled by the fire from the Brazen Altar. Although it had its own aroma before being lit, the fragrance was not released to fill the Holy Place until touched by fire. In the same way, our prayers, our life, has limited influence until touched by the fire of the Holy Spirit. Just as the aroma filled the Tabernacle once the incense was lit, so our prayers, our lives, reach far beyond us when the Holy Spirit purifies and empowers us with His fire. The sad thing is that too many Christians are trying to conjure up power and strive for purity using their own strength. What they need, what we all need, is the sanctifying fire of the Holy Spirit. If you are struggling, then ask the Holy Spirit to purify and empower you by kindling a flame in your heart.

The importance of this can be found in two stories related to the Altar of Incense, with tragic consequences for those involved. Soon after the Tabernacle was dedicated, two sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, priests like their father, offered their own concoction as incense. The Lord immediately struck them down, killing them both (Leviticus 10:1-7). Why did this happen?

Nadab and Abihu showed contempt for the Lord by ignoring His command. More than that, they offered what amounted to strange worship. Our God is holy. It is by His grace and mercy that He extends to humanity the means to approach Him at all. But in doing so, we must come as He instructs. The priests had to come to the Altar of Incense having sacrificed for their sin at the Brazen Altar and then washing themselves from defilement in the Laver. Only then could they stand before Him at the Altar of Incense. 

“It is by God’s grace and mercy that He extends to humanity the means to approach Him at all. But we must come as He instructs.”

Those who think that they can live any kind of life they wish and approach God in sloppy carelessness as they would a drinking buddy are sadly mistaken. These are the same who shake their fist at God, complaining God did not answer their prayers. When they offered strange fire, their false worship meant they maintained control of their lives instead of submitting themselves to God as He instructs. Prayers from those who are unrepentant are wasted words.

In a similar vein, an otherwise good king, Uzziah, decided that he would dispose of God’s requirements and approach Him on his own terms (2 Chronicles 26:16-21). Taking a censor in hand, he entered the Holy Place and approached the Altar of Incense—something he was strictly forbidden to do. The priests stood against him, but not until he saw leprosy break out on his hand did he realize the severity of his crime. He fled the Tabernacle but did so as a leper, remaining shut away from all he knew and loved for the remainder of his life. He who sought to make a name for himself instead went into hiding, the mark of his sin always upon him.  


Look back again at the ingredients for the incense and note that all the substances were finely ground—crushed—before they were blended. God will have nothing of a self-glorying, presumptuous attitude in prayer. But if you submit to His mighty hand, though He crush you, He will take the bitter and the sweet and make it a pleasing aroma to Himself and to others. 

As noted, the Altar of Incense was the closest thing to the Ark of the Covenant to represent the presence of God. When you pray to God with the right heart preparation and attitude, you are as close to His presence as you can be. Here the vilest sinner who is repentant has God’s attention. Here God gives the gift of salvation. Here the most burdened can whisper with their faintest breath and know that God does not let a word drop to the ground unheard or unheeded. Here the voice of praise gladdens the heart of God. Here the petitions on behalf of those on our hearts receive God’s notice. As the incense filled the Tabernacle, the aroma of our worshipful prayer perfumes the atmosphere of Heaven. 

This article was published in the February 2018 issue of The War Cry.

ALL Articles