"Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning . . . and ... at even he shall burn incense upon it, a perpetual incense before the Lord."
Exodus Xxx. 7, 8.
Present discussions as to dates are apt to obscure the consideration of the meanings of the Jewish ritual. Whensoever the plan of the tabernacle or temple and their furniture was drawn, it had a symbolical religious significance, the perception of which is, in some aspects, more important than the questions as to period of origin which now overshadow it. The later down it is brought the more surely must it have been significant. In the inner court of the tabernacle three sacred articles were appointed to be set: in the centre, an altar on which incense was burned; and on either side of it, a table on which twelve cakes of bread were laid, and a great lamp-stand with seven lights. Each of these pieces of sacred furniture symbolised a side of the religious life, and, taken together, they suggest a beautiful conception of it, which is as imperative and as vital to-day as of old. What does that altar of incense say to us modern Christians?
Incense is a symbol of prayer, as the Psalmist had learned when he said: "Let my prayer be directed before Thee as incense," using the technical word for laying a sacrifice on the altar. In Isaiah's vision of Israel's true King, the "house was filled with smoke" when the Seraphim sang their " Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty." Again, when Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, was offering incense in the Holy Place, "the whole multitude of the people was without, praying." The priest within and the people without were doing the same thing, he in symbol, they in reality. So, too, the Apocalyptic seer saw the twenty-four elders with golden censers full of incense, which are the prayers of saints.
What is the point of comparison between symbol and reality? How was the fragrance of the incense set free to rise in wreaths of smoke? By being kindled. Whence was it kindled? By coals from the altar of sacrifice. When it was kindled, what followed? It went swirling up in wreaths of fragrant smoke, which were "an odour of a sweet smell, acceptable to God." "Which things are an allegory," and mean that cold prayer is no prayer, that when a spirit is touched with the divine fire it will exhale upwards to God, and be sweet to Him. The cold stick of incense had neither fragrance nor power to rise, and could not but ascend in fragrant wreaths when winged by fire. Too many of our prayers are but dead sticks of unkindled incense. They are heavy and cling to earth, like evening mists that hug the damp ground where they were born. The soul that is touched to flame is volatilised, and its aspirations and desires go up to God. If we know nothing of that spontaneous ascent towards God of a soul on fire, we do not know what prayer is. That is a poor notion of praying which limits it to petitions. The truest prayers do not say, "Give," but lose themselves in God, and, in contemplating Himr are too conscious of blessed fruition to be conscious of want. There is a prayer that if not, like Martha, "careful and troubled," is at least concerned and supplicatory "about many things "; and there is another which, like Mary, sits "satisfied with goodness and full of the favour of the Lord," and is communion and interchange of love.
There were specific directions for ensuring the perpetuity of the incense-burning. Twice a day the ministering priest carried a censerful to be laid on the altar. Kindled in the morning from the altar of sacrifice, it glowed and glimmered all day—perhaps much of it white ashes, but with a little spark at its heart. In the evening it was renewed, and in like manner smouldered all night. If the incense of our prayer is to glow all day, it has to be renewed and rekindled daily. The modern talk about being independent of times and seasons, being ready to worship always, and so not needing definite periods of worship, is worse than rubbish. No man will have reverence diffused through his life, unless he has a concentrated reservoir of worship in the background of his life. We cannot become strong in the Lord without the daily food of specific acts of articulate worship, any more than we can keep up bodily strength without a morning and evening meal. We plead for no mechanical observance of times of prayer, but still there must be the frequent recurrence of special seasons of devotion, if devotion is to run like a golden thread through our lives.
The altar of incense stood in the centre of the inner court, and was thus in line between the altar of sacrifice in the outer court, and the Mercy Seat with the Shekinah blazing above it, in the Holy Place. That position is plainly significant, and sets forth the truth that we must stand at the altar of sacrifice before we can lay our incense on the altar of incense, and that we must pass by way of that altar into the secret place of the Most High, where the glory gleams lambent. Our prayers must be preceded by our faith in the One Sacrifice, through whom we can lay our poor grain of incense on the altar, and thence can pass into the glory of light and love that gleams between the Cherubim and above the Mercy Seat.
The ordinances as to the altar of incense close with this appointment: "Aaron shall make an atonement upon it once a year, with the blood of the sinoffering and of atonements: once in the year shall he make atonement upon it throughout your generations." The altar needed an atonement for it. The more truly we use our great privilege of continual fellowship and prayer, the more shall we feel that our prayers require atonement and the great High Priest's intercession, as truly as our manifest sins do. He bears "the iniquities of our holy things." Unworthy as we are, poor as our incense is, it is accepted when laid on the altar, because our Aaron has made atonement for it throughout all generations. That is the meaning of the vision in the book of Revelation, in which the seer beheld an angel bringing much incense, and offering it with the prayers of saints. Our Priest within the veil "maketh intercession for us," and the fragrance of the incense which He offers perfumes ours, and makes our prayers acceptable to God.