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The Golden Altar

I’m pretty sure we would have figured it out anyway, but the writer to the Hebrews leaves us in no doubt whatever:  the tabernacle and temple detailed in the Old Testament are symbolic.
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In Hebrews 9:8-9 the writer says,

“By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age).”

The outer portion represents the current setup, the inner portion representing the presence of God Himself, which only the High Priest may enter.  You might want to stop right here and reread all of chapter 9, particularly verses 23-24.  And while you’re there, look at 6:19-20 and 10:19-22.  Very clearly, it’s all symbolic.

Many have wished aloud that the writer had expanded more.  As if anticipating our wish, he gives us a teaser in verses 1-5 of chapter 9:

Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness. For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.

He mentions the items of furniture, and hints that there’s a meaning in all of it, but then brushes us off.  “Can’t take the time to talk about all that right now.”  Leaving it to us.  Well, looking into it is both interesting and worthwhile, and many have done so.

If you are one of them, there’s something strange you may have noticed.  The altar of incense was located in the Holy Place (outer section) right in front of the curtain separating the Holy from the Most Holy.  (See Exodus 30:1-6.)  But the writer doesn’t list it among the furnishings of the Holy, rather saying, “the Most Holy, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant…

Without question the ark was in the Most Holy, but the altar was not. Reading carefully, we see the writer doesn’t say where these things are located, but rather that the Most Holy had these things. Possession, not location.

Still seems strange though, doesn’t it?  However, we find that the writer didn’t make this up—he is following precedent that goes all the way back (at least) to the Temple of Solomon. The details of the Temple are in 1 Kings, and in 6:22 we find this:

“And he overlaid the whole house with gold, until all the house was finished. Also the whole altar that belonged to the inner sanctuary he overlaid with gold.”

The altar of incense wasn’t in the inner sanctuary, but it belonged to it.  But it appears to me that the link goes back even further, to the original tabernacle.  In Exodus 30, a few verses later (v 10), the altar of incense is firmly linked to the Day of Atonement, and the blood carried into the inner sanctuary once a year was put on it, just like the ark of the covenant.

There is much more detail on the Day of Atonement in Leviticus.  Among the directions for Aaron the Hight Priest:

“And he shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the LORD, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil and put the incense on the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die.” (Lev 16:12-13)

The altar again linked to the Most Holy and to the activities of the Day of Atonement.

By now you may be wondering, “So what?”  Stay with me a bit longer.

We know this is all symbolic.  Here and there, a symbol is explained, and you may already be remembering this one:  “…golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”  (Revelation 5:8 )  This tells us what the incense is symbolic of!  But this passage doesn’t stand alone.

Psalm 141:2

“Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!”

Revelation 8:3-4

“And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne,  and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.”

Luke 1:8-13

“Now while he [Zechariah] was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense…  And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.  But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.’ “

Here’s the point:  God built into the tabernacle and the temple a model of our relationship to Him.  The curtain (Hebrews tells us) which separates us from the presence of God, is our flesh.  We need atonement.  But the curtain is not an impenetrable wall.  The smoke of the incense goes into His presence, and that smoke is prayer.

Even now, with the veil torn, the way into God’s presence open, we are still living in the flesh and we are still in the outer tent as long as we’re living in the “present age”—and importantly, prayer continues to rise before God.  A beautiful thing, and possibly still more beautiful is that the altar of incense is claimed by God as belonging to Him.

It belongs to the Most Holy.  This is God claiming our prayers as His own possession.  Both Exodus and Leviticus describe the incense as “sweet”.  The smell was pleasant—and that means something too.  It is sweet to God when our prayers come into His presence.  There is a place reserved for us just inches away from the Most Holy, where the offering of our incense is a sweet smell, claimed by our God as His own.  A place, because of the blood of the sacrifice, where atonement may be found.

Love, Paul

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