The earliest event in the breaking of the 400 year silence since the last Old Testament prophet had spoken took place as the elderly priest, Zechariah, was standing at the altar of incense, when Gabriel appeared to him, telling him that he would have a son who would prepare for the coming Messiah. Exodus 30:1-10 gives the instructions for building this piece of furniture for the holy place in the tabernacle.
The altar of incense stood before the most holy place. Because atonement had been made on the altar in the courtyard, this altar was for incense. Offerings for sin were consumed on the bronze altar in the courtyard of the tabernacle. With their sins forgiven, the priest could now offer incense every morning and evening.
The altar of incense was associated with God’s presence in the most holy place. All the furniture in the tabernacle was holy, set apart to God. But the altar of incense stood right in front of the cutain separating the holy place from the most holy place. Though it clearly belonged to the holy place, since incense was offered twice daily there, and the most holy place could be entered only once a year by the high priest on the Day of Atonement, it was associated with the presence of God in the most holy place, Hebrews 9:3; 1 Kings 6:22.
The smoke provided a covering for the high priest on the Day of Atonement. A secondary purpose for smoke from the altar of incense came on the Day of Atonement. As the high priest, after purifying himself and offering sacrifices for his own sins and those of his people, entered the Most Holy Place to sprinkle blood on the Atonement cover, the smoke shield the throne of God from his view. Sinners need to dread the presence of the holy God.
The prayers of God’s people ascended with the incense—your prayers matter! The burning incense on the altar represented the prayers of God’s people offered by the priest. Psalm 141:2 makes the connection between incense and prayer explicit. Luke 1 records Zechariah praying as he offered incense in the Holy Place. “The incense stands for prayer. The symbolism lies partly in that the smoke is, as it were, the refined quintessence of the offering, partly in the ascending motion of the same. That the altar of incense has its place nearest to the curtain before the ‘holy of holies’ signifies the religious specificness of prayer as coming nearest to the heart of God. The offering was of a perpetual character.” (Geerhardus Vos, Biblical theology, p. 168).
Revelation 5 and 8 show that God not only hears your prayers, he responds. Incense is important, not only in Exodus, near the beginning of God’s written revelation, but also at the end, in the book of Revelation. In the vision of the throne room of heaven in Revelation 5:8, bowls full of incense are the prayers of the saints. John is writing to persecuted churches, to those who might think that their prayers are going unanswered. You hear the frustration of the cry of the martyrs in Revelation 6:9-10. But, as judgment begins, it becomes clear that the prayers of God’s people are not only being answered, God uses the prayers themselves as part of the answer. Be assured that, whether or not it feels like it to you, God does indeed hear your prayers.
The altar of incense brought the prayers of God’s people before him, but the people were still at a distance. The burning incense had something of a sacramental value to it. The incense represented the prayers of God’s people, but the prayers were offered and heard as the incense was burned before the Lord. As wonderful as the process was, as close as the incense was to the throne of God, God’s people were still at a distance. Only the priests could come into the holy place and offer the incense. Then they could go outside and bless the people.
Pray because your high priest prayed for you. During his life on earth Jesus offered up prayers and petitions—and was heard. Hebrews gives a reason for the prayers of Jesus being heard—he learned obedience through what he suffered. He was never disobedient, but he experienced first hand what doing his Father’s will involved. His agonizing in prayer was not just for himself. He was doing what the priests in the tabernacle did—he was praying for his people.
What was a symbol has become reality. The original readers of Hebrews were in danger of slipping back into the ceremonies of the old covenant. It seemed to them as though they had less: no priest in ornate robes, no incense rising in worship, no sacrifices being offered, no tabernacle or temple in which to meet with God. Interestingly, when Hebrews looks back to Old Testament worship, he goes back to the wilderness tabernacle rather than to the temple that Solomon built. But he assures you that you have something far better. Rather than the anticipatory symbol or type, you have the reality itself. The pattern on the mountain that Moses saw, was a glimpse of the heavenly reality itself. And that is where Christ has brought his sacrifice. That is where he continues to offer your prayers to his Father. You are blessed, not by a priest standing outside the holy place, but by Christ himself in heaven.
“Every day the priests had to be in the Holy Place, for it was there that they offered incense on the gold-covered altar every morning and evening. The incense that rose up to the Lord symbolized the prayers of the priests for the people. Accordingly, the priest prayed along with the sacrifice. Because he had been with God and had asked for God’s blessing upon the people, he could bless the people waiting for him when he came out.
“The Lord Jesus is likewise our intercessor in heaven. He prays for us daily before God’s face. For that reason, He can bless us from heaven.” (S. G. De Graaf, Promise and Deliverance, Vol. 1, p. 314).
Come boldly into God’s presence in prayer. As splendid as was the gold-covered altar, it pointed to something even better. No longer do you stand outside. Rather, you are invited into the very throne room of God. You come to the Father directly in Christ. He hears your prayers, and for the sake of his obedient Son, he answers them.
Vos was correct when he spoke of prayer as coming nearest the heart of God. That is your privilege in Christ! So pour out your adoration, your praise, your confessions, your intercessions, and your thanksgivings. Your prayer is better than incense!