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.
In Hebrews 9:8-9 the writer says,
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.