“Thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon.” Such was the command of the Lord to Moses at the beginning of this chapter. This altar of incense was a small altar made of wood and covered with gold; and it stood inside the Tabernacle itself, right in front of the veil that separated the front room of the sanctuary from the Holy of Holies. It was a small piece of furniture – only about 1½’ (0.5 m) on each side, and about 3’ (0.9 m) high. This altar represented the Son of God in His role as Intercessor on behalf of His people; for His continual prayers for them were pictured by the priest’s daily burning of incense thereon, morning and evening. Once every year, on the Day of Atonement, blood was to be applied to this golden altar; and this shows us that the intercession of Christ has all its virtue from His sufferings on earth, and that we need no other sacrifice or intercessor except Christ alone.
In addition to standing as a picture of Christ’s intercession, the incense altar also represented the devotions of the Lord’s people themselves, whose prayers are said to be set forth before Him like incense (Ps. 141:2). Just as the smoke of the incense ascended up to heaven, our desires toward God also rise in prayer, being kindled with the fire of holy love. The incense in the Tabernacle was offered daily, reminding us that we must maintain regular times for daily prayer – every morning and evening, at the very least. The lamps in the sanctuary were lighted at the same time that the incense was burned, teaching us that the reading of the Scriptures (which are a spiritual light and lamp to us) should accompany our prayers and praises. The devotions of sanctified souls are well-pleasing to God, and the prayers of saints are compared to a sweet aroma (Rev. 5:8); but it is the incense which Christ adds to them that makes them acceptable (Rev. 8:3), and it is His blood that atones for the guilt which clings even to our best services.
The Lord instituted a head tax for the upkeep of the Tabernacle. This tribute was half a shekel (about 4/5 ounce) of silver, worth around $20.* The rich were not to give more, nor the poor less; for the souls of the rich and poor are equally precious, and God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34; Job 34:19). In other offerings, people were to give according to their worldly abilities; but this offering, which was called the ransom of the soul, was to be the same for all. All human souls are of equal value, all are equally in danger, and all equally need a ransom. The money raised by this tribute was to be used for the maintenance of the Tabernacle. Money cannot make atonement for the soul; but it may be used for the honor of Him Who has made the atonement, and for the support of the Gospel by which that atonement is applied.
A large brass vessel full of water was to be set in the courtyard, between the Tabernacle and the altar of sacrifice. Aaron and his sons were to wash their hands and feet at this laver, every time they went into the Tabernacle to minister. This was to teach them purity in all their services, and to instill in them a dread of the pollution of sin. They were washed and made clean when they were first made priests, but they also had to wash and be kept clean whenever they went in to minister in the sanctuary. Herein we are reminded to daily renew our repentance for sin, and to daily look to the blood of Christ for forgiveness.
The Lord gave directions for the making of the holy anointing oil, as well as for the incense that was to be used in the Tabernacle. The recipe for the anointing oil was about 25 pounds (11.3 kg) each of myrrh and cassia, and about 12½ pounds (5.7 kg) each of cinnamon and calamus, mixed with about 1.5 gallons (5.7 l) of olive oil. The recipe for the incense consisted of equal measures of stacte, onycha, galbanum, and frankincense. The spiced anointing oil showed the excellency of holiness, which was pleasing to both the sight and the smell. Jesus’ name is like ointment that is poured forth (Song of Solomon 1:3), and the good name of Christians is like precious ointment (Ecc. 7:1). As for the incense that was prepared with sweet spices, it was burned upon the golden altar; and when it was used, it was to be beaten very small. In this way, it showed a picture of how it pleased the Lord to bruise our Redeemer, when He offered Himself as the perfect sweet-smelling sacrifice. Nothing like this holy oil and perfume were to be made for any common use. Thus God wished for His people’s minds to remain filled with a sense of reverence for His own services; we must never profane nor abuse anything whereby God makes Himself known.
Lord, with the eye of faith, we behold our Redeemer shadowed forth in each of the ordinances of the Tabernacle in the wilderness. He is indeed the golden altar, the ransom money, and the true laver full of cleansing water for sin and uncleanness. We see Him in the sweet spices, and the holy oil represents the graces of His Holy Spirit. Dearest Jesus! We thank You for Your all-sufficient merits and death. May we rest every hope of acceptance in the well-grounded assurance that our Father has found in You a ransom for our lost souls. May Your Holy Spirit anoint us with the holy oil of Your manifold gifts and graces. And we beseech You, as our Great High Priest, to present us in the sweet and all-prevailing incense of Your own merits! If we are washed in Your blood and accepted in Your righteousness, we may come freely to the throne of grace, and find help for every need. Amen.
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*based on the current value of silver on March 18, 2022