Incense is a combination of aromatic spices, herbs, and oils that yields its strongest fragrance when warmed or burned. The incense used in the temple was made of stacte, onycha, galbanum, and frankincense; any combination other than this was not to be used for worship, and this combination was not to be used for any other purpose. When the high priest entered the Holy of Holies, he put a handful of incense on the hot coals
from the altar. The incense immediately filled the room with a fragrant aroma and shrouded the throne of God on the ark of the covenant with smoke to prevent the priest from looking at the mercy seat. His senses of smell and sight had become part of the worship experience through the lighting of incense. Throughout the Old Testament, incense was a crucial part of the worship of Yahweh, and its importance is underscored by the fact that those who burned it in an unworthy manner were severely punished (2 Chron 26:16-21).
THE AROMA OF PRAYER
As with most aspects of Old Testament worship, incense was symbol that pointed to a greater reality. The aroma of incense was a physical picture of the prayers of God’s people wafting up to heaven: “Let my prayer be accepted as sweet-smelling incense in your presence. Let the lifting up of my hands in prayer be accepted as an evening sacrifice” (Ps 141:2). The scent of incense mingled with the smell of burning sacrifices symbolizes the mingling of prayers of repentance and devotion. The book of Revelation portrays the blending of the physical reality of incense with the prayers of God’s people as well: “The smoke from the incense went up from the angle’s hand to God along with the prayers of God’s people” (8:4). The perpetual worship of God in heaven includes incense as a sensory image for the internal reality of lives offered in devotion to God. The importance of incense in worship and its link to prayer explains why the Israelites’ burning incense to idols was so abhorrent: “It is because their people did evil, and they made me angry. They went to burn incense and serve other gods that neither you nor your ancestors heard of” (Jer 44:3). Those who burned incense to idols were twisting a symbol of true worship and using it to worship false gods.
THE AROMA OF A DEVOTED HEART
The apostle Paul uses the image of incense to illustrate a life offered to God. “Wherever we go, God uses us to make clear what it means to know Christ. It’s like a fragrance that fills the air. To God we are the aroma of Christ among those who are saved and among those who are dying” (2 Cor 2:14-15). In the same way incense was used in sacrifices, so Christians are to offer the sweet fragrance of a life given to point others to the victory found in Christ. Some may dislike the aroma of Christ that lingers on us, but others will be drawn to it. Either way, our lives are offered up to God, and those around us cannot mistake that reality.