The Golden Altar
(Exodus 30:22-38; Exodus 37:25-29.)
We have now reached, in the order of construction, the last article of furniture in the holy place, the golden altar of incense; this was made of acacia wood overlaid with pure gold. Its dimensions were one cubit square, and two cubits high. It was thus the highest of the three articles in the tabernacle, being half a cubit higher than the table and the ark, the size of the candlestick not being given. A horn was at each of the four corners — at least we gather this from the altar of burnt offering (Ex. 38:2), as the number of the horns is not given in connection with the altar of incense. It also had a crown of gold around its edge, and two rings of gold, under the crown, by the corners upon the two sides, for staves. Here too the number of the rings is uncertain, some believing that there were but two in all, at diagonal corners. Possibly, however, from the analogy of the ark and table, there may have been two rings for each side, or four in all, although the language is different. We may learn something from this silence as to the number of the horns and the rings, when we come to consider their spiritual significance.
This altar was placed in front of the veil, between the candlestick on the south, and the table on the north side of the holy place. It was called the golden altar," doubtless to distinguish it from the brazen altar of sacrifice in the court. It was called the "altar of incense," as indicating its use. Upon its horns was placed the blood of the sin-offering for the sin of the priest, or of the whole congregation (Lev. 4:7, 18); also once a year, upon the day of atonement (Lev. 16:18). Its constant use was for the burning of the divinely prescribed incense, morning and evening (Ex. 30:7, 8), in connection with the trimming and lighting of the lamps. It seems to have been used as a place of refuge (1 Kings 1:50), though this may have been the altar of burnt-offering.
Coming to the spiritual significance of the altar, as we have already learned, the acacia wood speaks of the perfect humanity of our Lord Jesus, and the gold, of His divine glory. We will see how appropriate these materials were, as setting forth His deity and His humanity, in connection with the offering up of praise and worship of which the burning of the incense speaks: Christ presenting His praises to God, and those of His people.
As illustrating our Lord's humanity in worship, we may take His thanksgiving at the grave of Lazarus: "And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, Father, I thank Thee that Thou hast heard Me. And I knew that Thou hearest Me always; but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that Thou hast sent Me" (John 11:41, 42). He had but a little before wept over the death of Lazarus, showing His perfect and tender human sympathy; and in His work of raising the dead He still showed His dependence upon His Father.
Another scripture will make prominent the gold: "At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father; for so it seemed good in Thy sight;" and He goes on to say, "No man knoweth the Son, but the Father" (Matt. 11:25-27), which would suggest His deity — the "higher mysteries" of His fame which transcend the creature's grasp. But as in the altar the gold overlay the acacia wood, not separated from it, so we may distinguish between, but cannot separate, the two n natures in our holy Lord.
In the great High Priestly prayer of our Lord (John 17), we have the blending of the gold and the acacia wood, where the gold is the more apparent. He speaks of having finished the work given Him by the Father, and immediately asks to be glorified with the glory He had with the Father before the world was (vers. 4, 5).
It may be well here to be reminded that while this address to the Father was upon earth, it has suffered no change by the Lord's passing into glory. "Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever" (Heb. 13:8). So whatever characterized Him in His state of lowliness, is forever true of Him. The golden crown about the altar reminds us that He is now "crowned with glory and honor" where prayer and worship, connected with the altar of incense, are to ascend. This passage shows us the Lord, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death (that speaks of the acacia wood), now crowned with glory and honor; His deity, as it were, glorifying His perfect humanity: the crown of pure gold is upon His head.
As risen and glorified, He is now "in the presence of God for us," there presenting His praises in connection with and for His blood-bought people, confessing our names, and presenting them in all the savor and value of His own. A few scriptures will illustrate this: "Who is he that condemneth?" This is the answer to the question, "Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect?" The full answer is, "It is God that justifieth; who is he that condemneth?" (Rom. 8:33, 34). The division of the verses obscures what follows, and which is connected with our present subject. It should read, "It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us: who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" (Rom. 8:34, 35). The great answer to the first question is, "It is God that justifieth;" who therefore can condemn? Not one! for God is the judge of all; and if He in infinite grace has made provision for lost and guilty sinners who believe in His Son, no creature in the universe can say aught, but confess His righteousness and goodness in it all.
The second question is, "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" And the answer, as it were, precedes it — Christ has died; that has made full satisfaction to divine righteousness. He has risen again; that is God's declaration of His acceptance of His beloved Son's perfect work. He is even at the right hand of God; no place in heaven too high for the One who humbled Himself unto death for our sakes; and He maketh intercession for us, presenting Himself as the plea for, and witness of, the eternal acceptance of His feeble people. How closely all is connected together — His death, resurrection and place at God's right hand are all united with His all-prevailing intercession. What power, or cunning, or malice of the enemy, what tribulation or persecution, can separate us from the love of Christ? The exultant apostle cries out, "Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us" (ver. 37), and closes with that magnificent outburst, in which the sweet savor of a cloud of incense rises up in worship to God: "For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:38, 39).
Connected with this we have another passage: "He is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them" (Heb. 7:25). Though here we have the Priest, yet it is in connection with the intercession of which the golden altar speaks. His people are contemplated as in the wilderness, subject to every form of temptation, trial, or assault of Satan; but "He is able," His power is complete, therefore He saves "to the uttermost," completely, to the last step of the wilderness trial, them that come to God by Him. "To the uttermost" does not mean the depths in which the vilest of sinners may be — precious fact as that is — but completely, to the end, no matter what the future may have in store for us. Thus the altar of incense, speaking as it does of the glory of Christ, is also a pledge of His people's eternal security. Significantly their praises are connected with this.
Coming to the special features of this altar, we notice its dimensions. It was square; one cubit each way, and its height was twice that much. These dimensions are different from those of the ark and table; the former being 2&1/2 cubits long and broad, and the latter 2 x 1. Each was 1&1/2 cubits high, while the altar of incense was two cubits high. Regarding the top of the altar, its being a perfect square would suggest the perfection of our Lord as the channel of praise to God. All in Him was "foursquare," even as the heavenly city, which sets forth His perfections (Rev. 21:16). The one cubit might remind us of that divine uniqueness which was manifested in "the Man Christ Jesus." How good it is that all the praises and prayers of the saints are presented to God according to the absolutely perfect nature and infinite value of the Son of God. Feeble indeed, and imperfect are our praises and prayers, but they are identified with Him who is of infinite value in the sight of God.
It was noticed that the number of the horns was not given, nor yet that of the golden rings in a definite way. It is conjectured, from the analogy of the brazen altar, that there were four; but may we not gather significance even from the silence of Scripture? Four, as we have had occasion to remark, is the number of earth, of the creature, of testing, and often of weakness. The altar of incense speaks of Christ as the channel and power of heavenly praise, and here there is no question of earth. Praise is in the sanctuary, the presence of God, and while, to meet the people in their condition, the altar was not in the most holy place, yet it is evident that worship, in its fullest sense, is directly in the presence of God. Two scriptures, connected with the incense, will bear this out. In Leviticus 16:2, 12, God forbids Aaron to enter "at all times" into the holy of holies; he cannot do this but once a year, with the blood of the sin-offering and a cloud of incense in the censer.
At the details of all this — rich and full — we will look later, if the Lord please, when we come to consider the priesthood. It must suffice here to mark that the censer is taken into the holiest, and that it there answered to the altar of incense. The second scripture (Heb. 9:3, 4) makes this all the clearer. The epistle to the Hebrews contemplates the veil as rent, through the perfect sacrifice of Christ, and the "way into the holiest" is now manifest, whereas under the law the veil separated, and only once a year could the high priest alone, with the blood of the sacrifice and the incense, enter into that awful, because most holy, Presence. Therefore in en-numerating the various articles of furniture in the first tabernacle, "the figures of the true," the altar of incense is singularly omitted, and instead we have "the golden censer" in the holiest. On the day of atonement, when the priest entered the holiest, he in some measure represented the truth of the altar of incense being for the heavenly place. As, however, the altar remained outside the veil, the censer is spoken of instead. Thus the very silence of God's word is instructive.
May we not here have the clue to the absence of the number of horns? They were distinctly spoken of as four upon the brazen altar, for there could be no question that atonement had an earthly and a world-wide aspect; but the horns here in the sanctuary, while they bear the witness of the blood of the sin-offering upon them (Lev. 4:18), are not connected with atonement, save as its fruits are there displayed, but with the mighty intercession and worship of our Lord Jesus Christ. The horns were culminating points at the corners, and may in that way suggest that they set forth the intensity of meaning of the whole altar. Thus they would speak of the strength of our divine Lord, in all the energy of which He prevails as the Intercessor and Offerer of His people's worship. The attention is thus drawn to this fact, rather than the need or earthly position of the saints, as would be suggested if the number four were given. In like manner the number four is wanting from the rings of this altar. Surely it is significant that this number of earth is not found here, even where we might naturally expect it.
The two cubits in height may also emphasize the heavenly character of the altar. Worship, the ascribing all honor and glory to God, is the highest function of His creatures. Christ, the true altar, has thus risen into the highest glory, "far above" every thing in earth or heaven, and there as the leader of His people's praises, sets forth the glories of God in a divine way.
Praise there is "by Him" (Heb. 13:15); it sets aside therefore all ritualism and "will-worship" in the holy things of God. The truths connected with the ark are those of acceptance, justification and access. May not the added half cubit by which the altar rises above the ark suggest that the time is coming when even those transcendent truths will be the groundwork and basis of an even higher joy in praise and worship? Salvation, with its accompanying blessings fully realized, will so fully permeate the whole spiritual being, that the soul will be at leisure to rise above even its own blessings — though surely never to forget them, and how they were procured by Christ's death — and to praise and adore Him who is above all blessing and praise. Even here this may be in some measure realized, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The blood upon the horns of the altar, as we have said, is the ever-present witness that redemption has been accomplished and accepted, and is the basis of worship. And as the value of the blood of Christ endures for all eternity, so also will the praise of His redeemed people. "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain" will eternally set forth the saints' joy in God's thoughts as to the person and work of His only begotten Son.
"Grateful incense this, ascending
Ever to the Father's throne;
Every knee to Jesus bending,
All the mind in heaven is one."
In this connection we may speak of the incense (Ex. 30:34-38); and, as closely connected with that, the holy anointing oil with which the tabernacle and all its furniture, and the priests, were anointed (Ex. 30:23-33).
The incense was composed of four "sweet spices," in equal proportions, blended ("salted") together. This has been taken, with some probability, as showing that salt also was added. If so, no mention is made of the proportions; indeed no exact quantity of salt is ever mentioned in Scripture. "Salt without prescribing how much" (Ezra 7:22). The word may however not refer to actual salt, but to the rubbing and tempering together of the various ingredients, which thus seasoned or "salted" each other.
The incense was to be offered night and morning upon the golden altar, upon coals taken from the altar of burnt-offering (Lev. 16:12). It was the fragrance offered within the sanctuary, as the burnt-offering presented the sweet savor outside. The latter was only for the sacrifice, and the former only for incense the coals from the one to the other showing how intimately they were linked together. The same holiness accepted each, and sacrifice was the basis of praise.
The incense was composed chiefly of the gums which exuded from aromatic plants. They would thus seem to suggest the concentrated essence of the plant, and in that sense the moral significance and excellence of the acts rather than their detail. In nature they would represent probably all that was of value in the plant. In general we may say they represent all the moral excellence of Christ as apprehended by God. But as in the burnt-offering all was consumed, because all was a sweet savor to God, so in the incense — not the residuum, or the best, but all in Him was fragrant. Here the type would necessarily fail to set Him forth. But in another sense, the motive, spirit, and character of all that He did and was may be suggested in the spice; the essence of all this ever abides before God. It is difficult to contrast, where all was perfect, and where the inner and outer were absolutely of the same character. We may, however, distinguish between the outer details of His life, and the thoughts, desires and motives which were thereby expressed.
Another suggestive thought we get from this description of the incense. The general word, translated by "sweet spices," is derived from a root meaning "to be fragrant," and might be rendered "odors." There are in the same passage several other words of the same general significance: "perfume" is literally incense — that which smokes; "a confection," "seasoning," after the art of the "apothecary" or "seasoner" — the same root. This multiplication of words would suggest a fulness in the theme — Christ which cannot be described in one word. The "perfume" would suggest His fragrance, as the fire of divine holiness tested Him even to death; "confection" might remind us of the blending of the various ingredients, according to the art of the blessed Spirit of God who is the true "Apothecary." May we not truly say:
"Join all the glorious names
Of wisdom, love and power,
That mortals ever knew,
That angels ever bore
All are too mean to show His worth,
Too mean to set the Saviour forth."
We now come to the four ingredients:
1. Stacte. — This is the Greek word, given in the Septuagint, translating the Hebrew word nataph, meaning "to drop," "distill," so-called from the "drops" of gum which exude from the tree producing it; it has also been translated "balm," which is a more general word for sweet gums, and thought by some to be the styrax, a plant found in Syria; others regard it as a specific name for myrrh, found in Arabia; but of this there is no definite proof, and it is not probable.
Thus, beyond the fact that a fragrant substance is intended, and that it maybe the styrax, we are shut up to the significance of the word in other portions of Scripture, as giving us its ordinary use which, taken with its evident use in the incense, and probable identification with the spice already mentioned, will give us some suggestive thoughts.
The word is used for "rain," as in Judges 5:4: "The clouds also dropped water;" "He maketh small the drops of water" (Job 36:27); and related to this we have the thought of any outflow, as, "The mountains shall drop sweet wine" (Amos 9:13). Growing out of this, or similar to it, we have it used in describing the speech as flowing forth, or distilling: "My speech dropped upon them; and they waited for me as for the rain" (Job 29:22); "Thy lips . . , drop as the honeycomb" (Cant. 4:11). This last might well find its explanation in the direct language of the New Testament: "All bare Him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth" (Luke 4:22). It is also rendered "prophecy," as in Micah 2:6; Ezek. 20:46, etc.
From these uses of the word we get the idea of the expression, or distillation of the thoughts, as in refreshing speech, or in solemn warning. We need not say how completely our Lord illustrated this in every word He uttered, whether words of grace and mercy to those who felt their helpless condition, or in warning and denunciation against hypocrites and the self-righteous; all was of sweet savor to God.
But what did such distillation mean for Him? He uttered no idle words, but only those of eternal truth, for which He was ready to die. We are therefore prepared for the thought that the distillation of fragrant gum came from the piercing of the tree. So with our Lord; the scorn, the mockery, the hatred that pierced Him, only drew forth the fragrant submission to God, which expressed itself in words of love and truth, even when they nailed Him to the cross. Thus the sweat "as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground" is of eternally sweet fragrance to God, expressing the depths of "Not My will, but Thine, be done." The stacte then would suggest to us that outflow of the heart of Christ to God, both spontaneous and as enduring suffering even unto death.
2. Onycha is again the Greek word, meaning literally a "finger nail," given as the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew; also translated scale or shell, and might refer to a finger nail. The onyx (not to be confounded with the precious stone of the same name in English) is spoken of by ancient authors as a shell-fish found in the Red Sea, which being ground up yields a perfume. This would be suggestive and in line with what we would gather from the meaning of the incense. Christ indeed came into the place of death and judgment, but how unlike to the murmurings of Israel, as they stood trembling by the shore of the Red Sea, were His words of absolute submission and love. They said, "Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness?" (Ex. 14:11, 12). Yet God opened the way through the Red Sea for that murmuring crowd to pass over dry-shod. But our Lord, as He faced that dark sea of death and judgment through which He was to pass, to open the way for His own to go through in safety, said: "The cup which My Father hath given Me shall I not drink it?" (John 18:11). Here indeed was perfume upon the dark shore of death, from a life which yielded itself up to be crushed under judgment for us. We are told that this "onycha" was both a perfume and a medicine — fragrant to God, we may say, and healing to the sinner:
"Love that on death's dark vale
Its sweetest odors shed;
Where sin o'er all seemed to prevail,
Redemption glories shed."
This shell-fish was said to feed upon the "nard" or stems of fragrant plants by the water, and this again may serve to remind us that our Lord fed not from the flesh-pots of Egypt, but upon His Father's will, even though it led to the giving up of His life: "This commandment have I received of My Father."
3. Galbanum is found only in this place (as was the case also with the previous word), and we have therefore to glean its meaning largely from its etymology. Both Greek and English words are simply transliterations from the Hebrew, and not translations. The principal part of the root means to be fat or fertile, and in that way may refer to the sap, the "fatness" of the plant, the best or vital part. To this has been added the thought (from the termination) of "lamentation," which would again recall those griefs of the "Man of Sorrows," which, however, never marred the perfections of a "fatness" which was all for God.
What is now known by "galbanum," is a resinous gum obtained from the eastern coast of Africa and from Arabia, of a bitter acrid taste, and musty or disagreeable odor, but which adds strength and persistence to the other ingredients. It is said to have the power of driving away vermin and reptiles, and also to have medicinal virtues. We are not, then, without suggestive thoughts which are applicable to our Lord Jesus. How truly did all the energy of will, as suggested by the "fat," express itself in devotion to His Father. This is set forth at large in the teaching of the sacrifices. What holy and sustained energy was His: "My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me" (John 4:34). All this was absolutely and only given to God. Was the path one of suffering and of sorrow? It surely was; but never of murmuring or repining. Did not that very energy of a will that hungered only to obey God give character and tone to all the fragrance of His life? The "fatness '' added persistence to the fragrance of His sorrows and love. To be sure, for those who had no heart for Him, to whom He was without form or comeliness, this "galbanum" was repulsive, because too pungent. For One never to have a thought but His Father's will, never to take interest in the world apart from God, never to come down to the level of ordinary men, it was "too much." All, how that divine energy galled the slothful pride of Pharisees and Herodians. How its pungent savor pierced their shallow minds and hypocritical hearts. How the unworldliness of it smote upon conscience and heart of those who lived for this world. And even with His own, the savor of the "galbanum" was at times beyond their faith, and disclosed their state of soul. Peter's affectionate dissuasion, when the Lord foretold His cross, "Be it far from Thee, Lord: this shall not be unto Thee" (Matt. 16:22), met with no gentle words: "Get thee behind Me, Satan; thou art an offence unto. Me: for thou savorest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men." Mere earthly affection, expressed by one who should have had other motives, was an offense when it sought to turn Him from His Father's will. But though thus seemingly harsh, how this very energy which refused an easy path, told out a devotion of heart to God which gave character, as we have seen, to all that was in Him. Thus the galbanum has its voice for us. How such pungent energy drives out the "serpent" and his whole vermin brood, while it heals the brokenhearted who come in their sin and need to Him.
4. Frankincense makes up in the frequency of its occurrence in Scripture for the rarity of the other words; it is also a well-known spice. The word in the original is from a root meaning "to be white." Thus Mount Lebanon, the same word, received its name probably from the white limestone rock of which it is largely composed. The name has been supposed to be given to the frankincense because of the whiteness of the pure gum this would also suit the white flame with which it burns. The Greek word is a transliteration of the Hebrew, and the English frankincense refers to its freely-burning qualities. This gum is obtained in Arabia, and is of a bitter taste. It comes from a tree bearing flowers with five petals and ten stamens; the fruit is five-sided, and there are five species of the plant. It grows upon almost bare marble rocks, drawing its sustenance from these. The gum is obtained from incisions, and is very valuable. Besides being in demand for incense, it is useful as a medicine, and an antidote to poison.
Here, then, we have a fulness of suggestion as to our Lord who, "as a root out of a dry ground," grew in the arid wilderness of this world, where naturally there was nothing to sustain. The characteristic number five, stamped upon so much of the tabernacle, would suggest, in the flowers, fruit and species of this plant, the truth of Him who was the Word made flesh. That it should extract nourishment and fragrance from marble, suggests the two-fold thought that He flourished in that pure and perfect will of God which put Him in a barren world, but where He gathered in every way that which was fragrant to God. The incision through which the gum flowed reminds us that His piercing drew forth the sweet perfume of entire submission to God — priceless indeed to God as a sweet savor, and the perfect antidote to Satan's poison with which he drugged man, a healing medicine for the deepest ills of the soul.
These are merest hints which find illustration upon every page of the Gospels, to be used — may it be so! — as the real frankincense of worship, presenting the sweet savor of Christ to God.
We will also refer to several passages of Scripture where frankincense is spoken of, to gather illustrations of its meaning and use. The meat-offering of fine flour had frankincense put upon it, and when only part of the meal was to be burned, all the frankincense was consumed (Lev. 2:1, 2). The showbread which was put upon the golden table had frankincense put upon it (Lev. 24:7) "for a memorial." Here the meat-offering and the showbread both speak of the person of our Lord, and the frankincense would suggest His preciousness to God, and to all who have the thoughts of God, as we sing:
"The mention of Thy Name shall bow
Our hearts to worship Thee."
"Who is this that cometh out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense?" (Cant. 3:6); "I will get me to . . . the hill of frankincense" (Cant. 4:6). Here, in the "Song of loves," the excellence of Christ is set forth under this symbol of fragrant incense. That it was but a symbol is seen in. God's rebuke through the prophet when it became a mere form: "To what purpose cometh there unto Me incense?" (Jer. 6:20).
The blessing to the Gentiles in the coming day of Christ's glory is set forth in this same symbolic language: "All they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall show forth the praises of the Lord" (Isa. 60:6). The visit of the "wise men" to the Holy Infant at Bethlehem was a foreshadow of this blessed time, and significantly their gifts, along with the gold of His divine glory, included the frankincense of His excellence, and the myrrh, foretelling His death (Matt. 2:11).
Gathering up what we have learned, the "stacte" suggests the fragrant outflow of speech, of act and of life yielded even unto death in our Lord. The "onycha" recalls especially His being crushed in death, but still yielding only the fragrance of complete devotedness to God. The "galbanum" recalls the holy energy which knew but one object, and which rebuked all halfhearted loyalty or pretense. The "frankincense" speaks of His purity, which found expression in absolute consecration to God.
These ingredients were to be taken in equal parts, and in the order mentioned; nothing was out of proportion. Each balanced the other, not by counteracting, as is so needed in man, but as enhancing the fragrance and bringing out its true character. Thus, we may say, if there had been an undue proportion of the stacte — of sweetness and fragrance alone — although this was first — it would have palled upon the sense; or if the galbanum had dominated the others, there would have been lacking the "meekness and gentleness of Christ" (2 Cor. 10:1). Too much onycha would have cast too dark a gloom upon all His life, and more than the proper amount of frankincense, burning so freely, would have hastened His departure to the Father before His hour "had come" (John 13:1).
But all was blended together in the power of the Spirit, so that the result was a "perfume, a confection," absolutely sweet and delightful to the infinite God, and tempered together according to the "salt" of the eternal covenant (Lev. 2:13), which sets forth the perpetual character of Him of whom all speaks, and the eternal nature of that praise of which He is the theme.
Feeble indeed are words here to express that which ever exceeds our highest thoughts. But if God has in grace set before us the elements in the character of His Son, true humility will seek to gather the lessons He would convey.
Let us ever remember also that what is necessarily looked upon as composite in the symbol, and as wrought together by external power and skill, was in our Lord the necessary and only possible character. We say, If this or that had been out of proportion, but that could not be; He was perfect, only that, and could have been nothing else. No perfume like that of the incense could be manufactured by man: hence the blasphemy of those who talk of imitating Him, or who degrade Him by co-ordinating Him with — we do not say prominent characters in history, as Buddha or Mohammed — but Moses, or Elias, or one of the prophets. No, this incense was but for one purpose, to be put upon the golden altar, and to shed its fragrance before One who alone fully "knoweth the Son" (Matt. 11:27). An eternal hell is the portion of those who refuse to give the Christ of God His true and only place before God. "Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ?" (1 John 2:22). We need not be surprised therefore to find that those who deny the hopelessly incurable nature of sin, and the eternal punishment for man's guilt, should be the same who degrade the Son of God, and deny the value of His atoning death. These all stand or fall together. If sin is not what God declares it to be, reverently be it said, Christ is not what that same Authority sets Him forth to be. Along with this, however, would go all truth; there would be no God, no Creator, no creation — nothing stable for our faith. Such is the mad folly of Satan's lie, and of man who following him would liken the Holy One of God to any of the children of men (Ps. 45:2).
While the character of our Lord shines forth with special luster in the four Gospels where He is the direct theme, we must ever remember that the entire Scripture is "the word of Christ" (Col. 3:16). Christ is God's thought from the beginning to the close of the word of God. Therefore He is the Alpha and Omega of divine truth in that sense also. We shall therefore find Him set forth on every page, by type or symbol, in act or history, or human characters. It is the Holy Spirit who thus delights to lead the devout soul to bring the spices from afar — to gather the fragrant stacte from Genesis, the onycha from Exodus, the pungent galbanum from the frowning heights of Sinai itself and the Prophets, and the frankincense from the Song of Songs, and to find these all tempered together in those psalms of praise where Christ is the theme. Or, to vary the simile, faith will gather with delight each and all these species, or find them blended in every part of that "good land and large" spread out upon the word of God. Alas, that our hearts should be cold under such themes as these, or should ever traffic in this holy perfume to secure the praise of man! Let us not fail to be truly exercised in conscience, that obedience and a fruitful life may show our appreciation of God's Son. Mary's ointment was costly, and we may be sure it cost her much, but Christ so filled her soul that personal cost was not in her mind. There is a divine and necessary link between the character of the Lord and that of His people, who are fashioned, in some measure, by the truth which occupies them. May His grace effect this in the heart of writer and reader, to His praise.
The whole matter of the altar, the incense and the ointment is So closely connected with the priesthood that the significance is manifest. All true worship must be in the name of and by the Priest. All full and intelligent worship must be through Him who has passed into the holiest having obtained eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12). This emphasizes the fact that all worship must be based upon the accomplished sacrifice of our Lord Jesus. God must righteously judge sin; but in His love He has done this in the person of His beloved Son, who as the sin-bearer cried out, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" (Ps. 22:1). The answer to that question of the holy Sufferer is given by Himself: "But Thou art holy, O Thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel" (ver. 3). It is because God is holy that sin must be judged — most solemn, yet most blessed truth. What rest could there be for creation if its Author and Sustainer were not absolutely holy and righteous? But, blessed be God, the judgment has been borne by the divine Substitute, and therefore never will be visited upon His people. Now, therefore, God can dwell among them, and their praises flow forth. But they could not be near to Him, had not the holy One been forsaken of God; their songs of praise could not rise to Him, had not the anguish of Christ told out the awful yet blessed fact that God was there pouring out upon Him the wrath we deserved. Later on we shall see how all this truth shines out in the altar of burnt-offering, with which the altar of incense was indissolubly connected. The coals from the altar of burnt-offering, where the atoning sacrifice had gone up as a sweet savor to God, were used to kindle the incense at the golden altar.
This is gathered from the fact that fire was always burning upon the brazen altar (Lev. 6:12, 13). There was special warning as to "strange fire." The one fire was that upon this brazen altar, type of that divine holiness and righteousness which on the cross consumed the perfect Sacrifice, Christ. All else is "strange fire" (Lev. 10:1). This fire upon the brazen altar came out from before the Lord and consumed the sacrifice (Lev. 9:24). This manifests the blasphemy of Nadab and Abihu who, in closest connection with that manifestation, despised the holy fire and took that of their own kindling to offer incense. Therefore the despised fire came forth again, not to consume the sacrifice, which had already been done, but to cut off in judgment those who refused to bow to God's manifest will, expressed in perfect grace.
The two altars, therefore, must not be separated: praise must ever be based upon the sacrifice of Christ. It could not be otherwise without denying the very character of God and His truth. The praise of heaven. round the golden altar, will be "Unto Him that loveth us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and His Father; to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever" (Rev. 1:5, 6).
Fittingly therefore does the Psalmist, in speaking of the house for the lonely sparrow and a nest for the restless swallow, refer to these two altars: "Yea, the sparrow hath found a house, and the swallow a nest for herself where she may lay her young, even Thine altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God" (Ps. 84:3). Both altars are thus connected together, and form the solid and abiding rest for the poor and needy soul.
Thus too when Isaiah saw the glory of the Lord in the temple, and the adoring seraphim with veiled faces celebrating the majesty of the thrice holy, triune God, he was overwhelmed with the sense of his own and Israel's uncleanness, until one of those "burning ones" (suggesting, perhaps, the fire of God as seen in His executors of judgment) flew with a live coal which he had taken from off the altar, and touched his lips, saying, "Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged" (Isa. 6:7). The coal of divine holiness had already consumed the sacrifice, and was also consuming the sweet incense. Thus symbolically the prophet's lips were cleansed according to God's estimate of the value of the sacrifice and the person of our Lord.
Recurring to another solemn scene of judgment, we get another view of this same vital truth, the more strongly emphasized by its connection with the true and effectual use of the incense. Korah and his company had disowned Aaron as the priest of God, by claiming equal sanctity and nearness for all Israel: "Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the Lord" (Num. 16:3). With this "fair show" of piety, were they not claiming equal priestly privileges for all, and was not this right? But it filled Moses with horror, and he fell upon his face. He saw that it was not only a refusal of Aaron (ver. 11), but of the fact that, as a sinful people, they could have no possible standing before God save through the priest who offered the sacrifice. In other words, this "gainsaying of Korah" involved the denial of Christ's person and His sacrificial work. It was in that sense a symbolic 'Unitarianism.
Speedily are all made to see the blasphemy of these "sinners against their own souls" (vers. 38, 39). They take brazen censers (significantly they are not of gold, but of that which speaks of judgment), and offer incense: "And there came out a fire from the Lord, and consumed the 250 men that offered incense" (ver. 35). How all this reiterates the eternal truth — none but Christ, none but Christ.
But God is a God of grace as well as of judgment, and so the next day when for the murmuring of the people the plague was made to fall upon them, Aaron, the true priest, is told to "Take a censer, and put fire therein from off the altar [of burnt-offering] and put on incense, and go quickly unto the congregation, and make an atonement for them" (ver. 46). Aaron does this, standing with his censer "between the living and the dead." Faith recognizes here the Great High Priest, infinitely above us, who with the sweet savor of His person and the memorial of His sacrifice, interposes in behalf of His people in the fragrance that sets Him forth.
It is also suggestive that the word used for the burning of the burnt-offering and the burning of the incense is the same. It is from a word meaning to "ascend," different from that used in burning the sin-offering without the camp, which is to "consume." Thus we are reminded that it was not only the devouring judgment of God manifested in the atoning death of our Lord, but that His death was indeed "precious" to God. For special reasons, when dealing with sin as sin, He must show what is its only desert.
This must suffice, in this connection, to show the significance of the altar of incense and that which was connected with it. A few practical thoughts will close this part of our subject.
All the people of God have been made priests, by divine grace, through the precious blood of Christ: "Ye also . . . are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 2:5). Aaron was to burn incense on the golden altar when he trimmed the lamps in the morning and when he lighted them at night (Ex. 30:7). All is here seen to be the work of Aaron; for the fitting and preparing of His saints, whether for testimony or worship, is the work of our great High Priest, its effects being manifest in the saints. Our worship is produced by His grace, in connection with the needed work of correction, suggested in the trimming of the lamps.
All praise is to be "by Him" (Heb. 13:15). The incense is to be upon the golden altar alone. Thus the linking of the name of our Lord Jesus with every prayer and thanksgiving is not a form, but a reality, a necessity. Could there be one particle of praise or a single prayer acceptable to God, save "by Him?" This sacrifice of praise is to be continual, in times of darkness as well as of light; it is the fruit of the lips confessing His name. Christ is the altar, the basis of praise; and the incense, the material of praise. Nothing is so sweet to God as the name of Christ; that is praise which offers that savor to God in truth — confessing what He has done and what He is. Praise is not offering our feelings or our state to God, though it will be accompanied by joy and gladness, but it is the confessing of Christ, and He produces joy in the heart of the true worshiper — the sinner saved by grace.
To all this Christ adds the savor of His own blessed person. Feeble and cold are the praises in themselves, but the High Priest has "much incense" to offer with them, and they go up to God with all the energy and in the perfect acceptance of Christ (Rev. 8:3, 4). It is Himself who says, "I will declare Thy name unto My brethren, in the midst of the Church will I sing praise unto Thee" (Heb 2:12). Here is the Priest in company with the priestly family, whom He is not ashamed to call brethren, leading their praises up to God. How this dignifies and elevates all true worship. It is the praise of Christ, even as David was said to praise God through the company of Levites who offered up thanksgiving in the tabernacle (2 Chr. 7:6).
Linked with this offering of praise is the practical expression of it: "But to do good and to communicate forget not, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased" (Heb. 13:16). We have an illustration of this in the way the apostle speaks of the temporal ministry of the Philippians to his need: small it may have been if measured by the world's standards, but of immeasurable value to God because produced by the Spirit of Christ: "An odor of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God" (Phil. 4:18). Nothing can be small or of slight value to God which has the savor of Christ with it. The "two mites" of the widow have pervaded all places where the savor of His name is made known (Luke 21:2-4). And so, not only giving, but any true ministry to the people of Christ is associated with the golden altar. May we not say, to use the language of men, that God's attention is arrested wherever He detects even a faint trace of the fragrance of His Son produced by His grace?
Reference is made, in a solemn way, to this savor of Christ's name in 2 Corinthians 2:14-17. In the boldness and liberty of faith the apostle speaks of his journeyings from one place to another with the glad tidings of Christ, as the progress of a triumphant soldier who himself through grace was a captive to Christ, and is now led along in the triumph of that victorious Leader. He is used to spread forth the glory of that triumph by making manifest the sweet savor of Christ in every place, both toward them that are saved and in them that perish.
It is said that sweet spices were burned at the triumphs of the Roman generals. As they made their entry into the city with a multitude of captives following, the burning of the sweet odors were a savor of life to those who participated in that triumph, but to the captives who were to be turned over to the lions, these odors were a savor of death. The odors were thus a savor and a foretaste either of life or of death. So with the excellence of Christ: to those who, through grace bow to Him, who receive forgiveness and life, those sweet odors of His praise are the foretaste of life in eternal fulness and joy; but to those who in pride reject His grace, these praises tell of judgment in eternal separation from the light and love and joy of heaven.
Lastly, we will speak of the staves by which the altar of incense was carried through the wilderness. It was to accompany the people through all their journey. It is in connection with this pilgrim character, separating from the world and its religion, that the true spirit of praise is maintained: "Let us go forth therefore unto Him without the camp, bearing His reproach . . . By Him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually" (Heb. 13:13-15). With their faces toward Christ, their backs to the world, and seeking the heavenly city, these are the true worshipers.
This golden altar was to follow God s people in all their journeyings, of which the staves wherewith to carry it remind us; for however long or dangerous the way, the praises of God are to characterize His people, as a foretaste of that eternal praise which awaits them in glory.
This is suggested in the 84th psalm, which speaks of a resting-place found at the altars first, so that, throughout the entire journey, valleys of Baca become wells of refreshing and strength for the way, until "Every one of them in Zion appeareth before God."
The fifteen Songs of degrees (Ps. 120 –134) bring out the same thought of the staves — praise while they progress, until the end is reached. These "songs" were the praises of the people as they went up to Jerusalem for the worship of their feasts, and suggest Israel's recall in the latter day from their wanderings back to God, the source of all their joy; and in an even higher sense of the entire journey which leads up to the "city which hath foundations, whose Builder and Maker is God" (Heb. 10). Every stage of the journey, from the loneliness of the soul dwelling with those who "hate peace" (Ps. 120) to the songs of the servants of the Lord who cease not day and night to praise Him (Ps. 134); is marked by praise.
These are the true "stations," marked by Him whose altar accompanies His beloved ones wherever He may lead them throughout their journey.