The Golden Altar

Exodus 30:1-5; 37:25-28

“Because of the savour of thy good ointments, thy name is as ointment poured forth” (Song of Solomon 1:3).

“And there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angels hand (Rev. 8:3-4).

This golden altar in the holy place was for incense, not for sacrifice. The brazen altar of the court of the tabernacle was for “atonement” sacrifices (Lev. 1:4), and represented Christ our “burnt-offering” at Calvary. The golden altar was for the fragrant incense and represented Christ in Heaven where He ever lives to make intercession for us (Heb. 7:25 ).

The Measurements

The height of this altar was two cubits; while its length and breadth were equal, and measured one cubit each. Being two cubits high the incense altar was higher than the mercy seat. This would signify that the intercession of our Lord for us with the Father (1 John 2:1-2) was above His work of propitiation. There was not only a mercy seat, there was intercession and acceptance above it. The mercy seat and this altar of sweet incense were united, for the blood of the sin-offering was put upon the horns of it to sanctify it. (Exod. 30:10; Lev. 16:18-19). Thus the blood of the sin-offering was the ground upon which the sweet fragrance could ascend up before God. To have an intercessor we must first have an offering for sin. To know the Lord Jesus as an Advocate we must first know Him as a Saviour. When we do know the meaning of the mercy seat and of the precious blood upon it, then we also have an incense altar of precious gold that is even higher than the seat of mercy, for Christ in heaven for us provides an acceptance that is far beyond the showing of mercy to the sinful and the vile. There is acceptance for us in glory in all the fragrant preciousness of “the Beloved.” Thus the incense altar was higher than the mercy seat.

The altar is said to be “four-square” (Exod. 30:2), the four sides are of equal length. There is again the thought of four and of equality in the four ingredients of the incense which were also of equal weight. That which was more difficult to obtain of the spices could not be less in quantity than the more common, all must be equal in weight (Ex. 30, 34-38). This might suggest that the acceptance of those for whom the Lord Jesus was an intercessor was all the same. “They shall come from the east, from the west, from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29); those from the east who heard the Gospel first will not have a more perfect acceptance than those who came later from the west. The four might also imply that from which of the Gospel standpoints you look at the Lord Jesus, He is just as needful and just as perfect. Mark’s presentation of the Servant is just as necessary and just as fragrant as John’s presentation of the Son of God. All sides of the altar were equal, and the weights of the four blended spices were equal also.

Linked With The Altar Of Burnt Offering

The altar of incense was linked with the altar of burnt-offering every morning and every evening when the priests took coals from the brazen altar to burn the incense on this golden altar (Exod. 30:7). The sweet savour of the incense was directly connected with the sweet savour of the burnt-offering (Lev. 1:9); the coals of the one caused the burning and the fragrance of the other. The savour of what our Lord was in His life ascended in all its fullness before God in His death. The fire of God at Calvary together with all the wickedness of men only increased the fragrance of all the lovely characteristics of grace and truth, of mercy and love, from our Lord in the hours of His deepest agony.

Linked With The Ark

The altar of incense was linked with the ark of the covenant when on the great day of atonement the high priest carried coals and incense from the golden altar into the most holy place, placing it beside the ark of the covenant (Lev. 16:12-13; Heb. 9:4). It has already been shown how the incense altar was linked with the sin-offering also on the day of atonement (Lev. 16:18-19). In this way all the vessels of the tabernacle, and all the ministries connected with those vessels, are united into one great whole. These are all parts of one great revelation of the Saviour and His salvation.

The Materials

The two materials of the altar of incense were the same as the materials of the ark and of the table, etc. They were shittim wood and gold. The wood of the wilderness was completely covered with precious gold. This “shittim wood” is said to be translated uniformly in the Septuagint “incorruptible wood.” It represents the holy humanity of our Lord Jesus; the gold suggests His deity.

The bars that carried the altar of incense in its wilderness wanderings with the people of God were made of the same materials. These bars were part of the altar and not to be forgotten in the consideration of the typical meaning of it. The bars to carry the vessel plainly associated it with the earthly pilgrimage of God’s people. It is in this wilderness we need the ministrations of an intercessor, and it is here that our God has provided Him for us. All through our life of failure and sin we have “an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous” (1 John 2:1); this Advocate is not only the Righteous One, He is also the Beloved One (Eph. 1:6). Our Lord’s ministry answering to the incense altar is performed in Heaven (Rom. 8:34); its duration is forever (Heb. 7:25), and it is “with the Father” (1 John 2:1). Thus we are not only secured before God in perfect righteousness, we are represented “with the Father” in all the fragrance of the Son of His love.

The Crown Of The Altar

In common with the ark of the covenant and with the table of shewbread, the incense altar had its “crown of gold round about” (Exod. 30:3). This “crown” suggests the royal authority in which these typical provisions of the incense altar are preserved. It was “a crown of gold” that kept the coals and incense from being scattered or falling from the altar. The directions for the march of the camp of Israel are contained in Numbers, chapter four: there is no mention there of removing the coals or incense from this altar. While the incense altar was carried over the rough and sandy desert on the shoulders of the priests, the fragrant incense continued to burn and its smoke to ascend toward heaven. Then the crown was specially needed to keep the coals and the incense together on the altar. No matter how rough our way, and no matter how our feet may stumble in the path, all the children of God have, continually, an unbroken and unwavering memorial before God, in the incense held together by the crown of purest gold. It simply means that no discouragements or murmurings “because of the way” ever affect the fragrance of that people before God; though they may affect the governmental dealings of God with them in discipline and love.

One has suggested that the crown on the ark might suggest, “His; mercy endureth forever”; on the crown which held the shewbread on the table might have been inscribed, “Now in the presence of God for us”; and on that around the incense altars, “He ever liveth to make intercession for us.”

The Incense

Exodus 30:34-38

“Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each there shall be like weight:… tempered together.” The only clue to the identification of these first three of the spices is the meaning of the words.

Stacte. This word means “to distill.” The speaker in Deuteronomy 32, says, “My speech shall distill as the dew” (v. 2). In the Song of Solomon the bridegroom says of the bride, “Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb” (4:11). This was pre-eminently true of the Lord Himself; His words were as refreshing as the dew, and as sweet as the honey and the honey-comb.

Onycha. This word indicates a “finger nail,” and seems to be a shell fish that resembled a finger nail in appearance. These shells were crushed and made into a powder that had a most precious fragrance. Out of the great depths these shells came; out of the deep waters. Nails may be the beauty of fingers; the beauty of the fingers of our Lord was the kindness and love He showed out of His deep sympathy and mercy in His deeds of faithfulness and grace.

Galbanum. This was a “gum” from a tree said to be of bitter taste and rather disagreeable odor by itself, but when compounded with the others gave strength to the fragrance. The truth of our Lord’s words was often bitter to scribes and Pharisees; sometimes even to His own His words seemed severe or hard to understand. Truth as well as grace was mingled in all the words and deeds of our Lord. Even His enemies said, “Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men” (Matt. 22:16).

Frankincense. The trees that yielded the frankincense are said often to grow on almost a bare rock. This tree yielded so much where there seemed so little to support it. This was like Him who was as “a root out of a dry ground.” The color of the frankincense was white; this again suggested holiness. When the frankincense was burned it was specially fragrant. The Son of God was the One in whom the Father was ever well pleased during His life; but in His death when those fires descended into His bones (Lam. 1:13). He was in a special way “a sweet savour unto the Lord.”

It is easy to see how infinitely God is absorbed with Christ when all these manifold parts of the tabernacle and its services speak so beautifully of Him. May our hearts be so devoted to His person that like Mary, we betake ourselves often to His feet to hear His words, that we may taste even now the joy and the refreshing of learning of Him.