Incense (Jeremiah 11)

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Illustration: Incense at the altar of God

Ritual incense in ancient Israel was a mixture of finely pulverized aromatic gum resins and frankincense, which was salted to produce a visible cloud of sweet-smelling smoke (Exodus 30:34-35). Acquired from Syria and Arabia via ancient spice trade routes (Jeremiah 6:20), its cost and fragrance rendered it a valuable commodity and an offering fitting for the Lord.

Incense was burned as a regular sacrifice at daybreak and again at twilight on a three-foot-long, gold-plated altar standing before the Most Holy Place (Exodus 30:7-8). The aromatic cloud was the only physical entity to penetrate the veil that sealed off the divine Presence from the ministering priesthood. Thus it became a sign of earthly acts of devotion ascending to God’s dwelling place, likened in Scripture to prayer rising to heaven as a cloud of smoke rises in the sky (Psalm 141:2, Revelation 5:8, 8:3-4). Incense could also be offered in portable censers, which were likecups attached to the ends of long handles or bowls set upon pedestals. The annual Day of Atonement was one occasion when the high priest would carry a fire pan of burning coals behind the veil. There he would sprinkle the spice mixture upon the coals, producing an effusive incense cloud to conceal the sight of the divine Presence (Leviticus 16:12-13).

Consecrated for ritual use, incense was “holy to the Lord” (Exodus 30:37). It was made according to a specific formula and offered at prescribed times by the appropriate temple personnel. Those who burned it illicitly or unworthily were struck down by divine wrath (Leviticus 10:1-2, Numbers 16:35, 2 Chronicles 26:19). Idolatrous Israel exhibited her devotion to other gods by offering incense to them in homes, public city streets, sacred gardens and even in the temple itself (Isaiah 17:8, Jeremiah 32:29, Ezekiel 8:10-11). The kingdom of God, by contrast, will be characterized by a pilgrimage of the nations to adore the Lord in true worship and with offerings of incense (Isaiah 60:6, Malachi 1:11, Matthew 2:11).


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