Any priest could offer incense accompanied by some of the grain offering on the altar of incense. It is possible that priests offered incense by itself, although there are no clear indications for this practice (Leviticus 10:1-3; Numbers 16:16-18; Deuteronomy 33:10; 1 Samuel 2:28; Ezekiel 8:10-11).
Priests had to burn incense at the incense altar twice a day-morning and evening-and in connection with two other activities within the Holy Place: the kindling of the golden lamps and the setting of the bread of the presence.
The Day of Atonement was another setting for the use of incense. Once a year, the high priest would offer a special sacrifice and bring a portion of its blood into the most Holy Place. The high priest would also bring incense in a censer from the High Place into the most Holy Place.
JESUS, INCENSE, PRAYER, AND THE HOLY SPIRIT
Incense is important in many religious ceremonies. The ceremonies and rituals that God commanded in the Old Testament are no exception. Like the other sacred objects in the Tabernacle, the Altar of Incense and incense itself had a practical and a symbolic function.
- The practical function of incense was first to counteract the odors arising from the sacrifices. Sacrifices occurred daily and, on the Day of Atonement, all day long. The smell would have been quite overwhelming, especially for the priests working in the courtyard. In addition, on the Day of Atonement, the incense that the High Priest burned had the function of preventing the death of the priest by covering the Most Holy place. Thus, the High Priest would not be able to see the glory of God and die (see Leviticus 16:13).
- The symbolic function of the incense is prayer. Like the Tabernacle itself, incense provides a visual reminder of Israel’s faith. Just a smoke of the incense ascends towards God, and the aroma pleases the LORD, so the prayers of God’s people ascend to his throne and are pleasing to him (see Psalm 141:2; Revelation 5:8; 8:4).
- What makes God’s people’s prayers ascend like fragrant incense? Two important components: The prayer is in Jesus’ name, and the intervention of the Holy Spirit. To pray in Jesus’ name means to pray in the authority of that name. To pray effectively in Christ’s name, we must be “in him”-in union with his life and death.
- However, the Holy Spirit also plays an important role so our prayers can ascend to God like incense, Jesus promised the gift of the Spirit in the life of his (John 14:16-17) and the Bible tells us that one of the crucial tasks of the Spirit is to inspire and guide our prayers. When our weakness prevent us from relating to God correctly, the Spirit intercedes for us-that is, he pleads our case before God (Romans 8:26-27)-so we can rest assured that the Spirit is praying alongside us, making our prayers what they ought to be. With his help, our prayers can conform to God’s will (1 John 5:14).
- If we understand prayer as communication with God, then we will be able to see it more fully as a dialogue, rather then a monologue on our part. Prayer is a two-way conversation; the other half of our worship before God is God’s guidance and clarity of his will to us. Just as we may only reach God in the Spirit through the truth of Christ (John 4:24), so also God’s guidance and teaching comes to us only through Christ by means of the Spirit (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:12-14).