1 And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon: of shittim wood shalt thou make it.The altar was placed directly in line with the middle of the entrance of the tabernacle, and further inside than the Table of Showbread and Golden Lampstand, where it sat in front of the Veil. It stood about three and a half feet tall and 21 inches square. Even though the smallest of the tabernacle's furniture, the Golden Altar of Incense was important, just as all the others were, each with its own use and purpose. The Altar was made from shittim (Acacia) wood overlaid with gold…representing a connection between earth and heaven. The wood, as can be recalled from other descriptions in this series, had to be worked from its gnarled and twisted form into something smooth and straight, then covered by gold. That is the work of God; taking us from our natural, carnal, decaying state, and transforming us into something of everlasting value and duration. The altar was square, representing the four corners of the earth to which the gospel must reach and from which the prayers of all of God's creations can be heard. On each corner of the Altar was a horn, representing strength. Beyond the veil was the Ark of the Covenant, representing the throne of God. A molding or crown sat atop the Golden Altar of Incense to keep the fire from spilling off the sides. This can represent the glorious Christ, crowned with victory in fulfilling His mortal mission. The Bronze Altar of Sacrifice found outside the tabernacle had no crown, representing Christ in this world, one of pain and humiliation. The bronze altar represents suffering and death, typifying our Christ as Savior and sacrifice. The golden altar within the tabernacle represents triumph over death, mediation or intercession between God and man through Christ. Both altars were square, representing Christ's sacrifice (bronze altar) and atonement or intercession (golden altar) are available for the entire earth.
2 A cubit shall be the length thereof, and a cubit the breadth thereof; foursquare shall it be: and two cubits shall be the height thereof: the horns thereof shall be of the same.
3 And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, the top thereof, and the sides thereof round about, and the horns thereof; and thou shalt make unto it a crown of gold round about.
4 And two golden rings shalt thou make to it under the crown of it, by the two corners thereof, upon the two sides of it shalt thou make it; and they shall be for places for the staves to bear it withal.
5 And thou shalt make the staves of shittim wood, and overlay them with gold.
6 And thou shalt put it before the veil that is by the ark of the testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the testimony, where I will meet with thee.
7 And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn incense upon it.
8 And when Aaron lighteth the lamps at even, he shall burn incense upon it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations.
9 Ye shall offer no strange incense thereon, nor burnt sacrifice, nor meat offering; neither shall ye pour drink offering thereon.
10 And Aaron shall make an atonement upon the horns of it once in a year with the blood of the sin offering of atonements: once in the year shall he make atonement upon it throughout your generations: it is most holy unto the Lord.
As the priest added incense to the fire which burned upon the altar. The burning caused smoke from burning incense and its odor to rise before the veil, representing our prayers and petitions rising unto our Father in Heaven through our mediator Jesus Christ. The veil separates us from the Father:
7 And in that day that they shall exercise faith in me, saith the Lord, even as the brother of Jared did, that they may become sanctified in me, then will I manifest unto them the things which the brother of Jared saw, even to the unfolding unto them all my revelations, saith Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of the heavens and of the earth, and all things that in them are.
8 And he that will contend against the word of the Lord, let him be accursed; and he that shall deny these things, let him be accursed; for unto them will I show no greater things, saith Jesus Christ; for I am he who speaketh.
9 And at my command the heavens are opened and are shut; (Ether 4:7-9)
"Behold, when ye shall rend that veil of unbelief which doth cause you to remain in your awful state of wickedness, and hardness of heart, and blindness of mind, then shall the great and marvelous things which have been hid up from the foundation of the world from you—yea, when ye shall call upon the Father in my name, with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, then shall ye know that the Father hath remembered the covenant which he made unto your fathers…" (Ether 4:15)In the Book of Revelation (8:3) a type of the Altar of Incense and the Ark of the Covenant (throne) are mentioned:
And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; 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.In this verse there is no veil between the altar and the throne, as it has been rent through the atonement and sacrifice of our Savior Jesus Christ. Note also how Isaiah's encounter with the Lord includes these symbols from the Tabernacle (Isaiah 6:1-10):
1 In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne [Ark of Covenant], high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.The Golden Lampstand and the Altar of Incense were linked together through the service required by the priests. Every morning and night incense was placed upon the altar at the time the lamp was trimmed: Prayer (altar) and resulting Light and Truth (lampstand) can and should go hand in hand…sacrifice and knowledge.
2 Above it stood the seraphims [these were embroidered on the Veil]: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.
3 And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth [4 corners of Altar of Incense] is full of his glory.
4 And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke [from the Altar of Incense].
5 Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts [Veil of unbelief has been parted].
6 Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar [Altar of Incense]:
7 And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged [sanctified].
8 Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me [spread light of gospel - the Golden Lampstand].
The purpose or value of the Altar was to dispense or serve as a vehicle for the incense. From Exodus 30:34-38:
34 And the Lord said unto Moses, Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight:Equal parts of various substances finely ground were mixed to create the incense. It is uncertain exactly what some of the ingredients were made or came from. Stacte is hypothesized to be myrrh or some other sap. Onycha comes from the Hebrew word shecheleth, which means "to roar; as a lion" or “peeling off by concussion of sound." When the Torah was translated into Greek (the Septuagint version) the Greek word “onycha” ονυξ, which means "fingernail" or "claw," was substituted for shecheleth. Possibilities include tree resins, gums, or shells. Galbanum is an aromatic gum-resin with a bitter-sweet odor and bitter taste. These were blended with frankincense to make the incense. The incense was then burned on the altar, which is described above as the "testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation", a place where the Lord will come to "meet with thee". Note also how these substances are symbolic of various aspects of Christ's life (gifts from the wise men, experiences in His life and death/crucifixion/burial).
35 And thou shalt make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure and holy:
36 And thou shalt beat some of it very small, and put of it before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation, where I will meet with thee: it shall be unto you most holy.
37 And as for the perfume which thou shalt make, ye shall not make to yourselves according to the composition thereof: it shall be unto thee holy for the Lord.
38 Whosoever shall make like unto that, to smell thereto, shall even be cut off from his people.
One final connection with the Altar of Incense is the experience of the high priest Zacharias, father of John the Baptist, in the Temple (not the tabernacle). Zacharias was officiating in the temple when the following event occured, from Luke 1:5-13
5 There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judæa, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth.
6 And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.
7 And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years.
8 And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course,
9 According to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord.
10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense.
11 And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.
12 And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.
13 But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.