By J. Vernon McGee
The third and final article of furniture that stood in the Holy Place was the altar of incense or the altar of gold. There were two altars in the Tabernacle. These were distinguished in a threefold manner: first, as to the kind of material out of which they were made; second, as to the location of each; and third, as to the kind of offerings made thereon. These distinguishing differences will be enlarged upon as we proceed in our consideration of the altar of gold. The instructions for the same are found in Exodus 30:
And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon: of shittim wood shalt thou make it. 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. 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. 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. And thou shalt make the staves of shittim wood, and overlay them with gold. 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. And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn incense upon it. And when Aaron lighteth the lamps at even, he shall burn incense upon it, a perpetual incense before the LORD throughout your generations. Ye shall offer no strange incense thereon, nor burnt sacrifice, nor meat offering; neither shall ye pour drink offering thereon. 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. (Exodus 30:1-10)
The altar of gold was the place where incense was burned. Sacrifice of any kind was forbidden, only incense could be offered. Made of shit tim wood overlaid with gold, the altar was 1x1x2 cubits. It speaks of Christ.
Incense is the symbol of prayer and praise, as several Scriptures assure:
And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours [incense], which are the prayers of saints. (Revelation 5:8)
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. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand. (Revelation 8:3, 4)
Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense. (Psalm 141:2)
After the close of the giving of the Old Testament canon, heaven was silent for about four hundred years. Then the silence was broken by the intrusion of the presence of an angel at the time of incense:
And it came to pass, that while [Zacharias] executed the priest's office before God in the order of his course, according to the custom of the priest's office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord.
And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. (Luke 1:8-10)
God initiated a new dispensation at the altar of incense as the people were in prayer.
The altar of gold is first of all a figure of Christ as our great Intercessor. This altar was where Aaron, the great high priest, ministered. Aaron ministering before the altar was a figure of Christ, our High Priest in heaven:
We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens. (Hebrews 8:1)
Christ is in the heavens today praying for His own. The seventeenth chapter of John is a fair sample of the prayer that He offers for His own. It is the Lord's prayer. In this prayer He declares specifically that He prays for His own: "I pray for them [those the Father gave Him]: I pray not for the world" (John 17:9). The writer to the Hebrews made this further arresting comment:
Wherefore also he is able to save to the uttermost them that draw near unto God through him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them. (Hebrews 7:25 ASV)
There were two articles of furniture that spoke of His work in heaven for us: the laver and the altar of gold. The instructions for both are given in the great worship chapter. The laver speaks of His work in cleansing His own in preparation for worship, and the altar of gold speaks of His intercessory work when He protects and perfects us:
Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of
God, who also maketh intercession for us. (Romans 8:34)
A contrast of the two altars at this point will throw light upon our subject. The altar of gold is where God dealt with a saint; the altar of brass is where He dealt with a sinner. The altar of gold speaks of heaven; the altar of brass speaks of earth. The altar of gold has to do with holiness; the altar of brass has to do with sin. The altar of gold, as a fig ure, represented what Christ does for us in heaven; the altar of brass, as a figure, represented what Christ did on earth.
When the writer to the Hebrews catalogued the articles of furniture of the Tabernacle in the ninth chapter, he included the altar of gold with the furniture in the Holy of Holies. We are not attempting to settle that moot problem, but we believe it to be suggestive. Now the veil is removed, and the believer can come with boldness to the throne of grace because he is in Christ. He has a position in the very presence of God. The altar of gold belongs rightly in both places. In the Holy of Holies it suggests the intercessory work of Christ for us; in the Holy Place it suggests our part in worship. It suggests the place where we pray and praise God. Christ is the One who genuinely worships God. He truly praises God in His prayer work for us. We have no merit that makes our prayers and praise acceptable to God. The basis of our prayers is not ourselves -- God does not hear and heed our prayers because we are who we are, but because Christ is who He is. This is seen in the altar of gold. It was not a bloody altar; sacrifices of every description were forbidden. But it was consecrated with blood once a year, evidently on the Day of Atonement. The death of Christ upon the cross is the basis of the prayers of the saints. Our prayers are acceptable because "he hath made us accepted in the beloved" (Ephesians 1:6). When Christ was on earth, a voice out of heaven said, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17). Christ is the only One who pleases God, and God is pleased to hear the prayers of His own only in Christ. Again, the voice out of heaven said, "This is my beloved Son...hear ye him" (Matthew 17:5). This beloved Son is not only the One for man to hear, but is in truth the only One whom God hears. Positionally, to pray in the name of Christ means to present all His merit, worth, and work as grounds for acceptance and the instrumental cause for answering prayer.
By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name. (Hebrews 13:15)
There is one final word about this altar. Aaron was instructed to offer a "perpetual incense" (Exodus 30:8) upon it. This reminds us of the injunction of Paul to the Thessalonians, "Pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Again, "strange incense" (Exodus 30:9) was forbidden to be offered. Also, the formula for the incense was not to be duplicated. The "strange incense" speaks of any attempt to worship God which is contrary to His Word. Duplication is equally as bad, for it speaks of trying to please man while trying to serve God. A dead ritual and a lifeless liturgy are an abomination to God and produce spiritual deadening to man. Adjuncts to worship that are calculated to draw crowds and to give man the impression that he is worshiping God, when in fact he is not, are bound to kill true worship and appeal merely to the natural man.
Praise ye the Lord.