In Luke’s first chapter we find the account of John the Baptist’s miraculous conception and birth. The aging Zechariah and Elizabeth were childless with no remaining hope for children of their own... no hope ... none! That’s when Gabriel was dispatched from the Royal Throne-room in Heaven with a message of grace and hope. The angel appeared to Zechariah in the temple’s Holy Place. The Menorah was casting glorious light for Zechariah’s priestly work at the Golden Altar. Luke tells us Zechariah, a Hebrew priest, a righteous man, had been chosen “to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and burn incense” (Luke 1:9, CSB).
The Golden Altar stood at the rear of the Holy Place, just in front of the Veil. God instructed Moses concerning its construction: “You are to make an altar for the burning of incense; make it of acacia wood. It must be square, eighteen inches long and eighteen inches wide; it must be thirty-six inches high. Overlay its top, all around its sides, and its horns with pure gold; make a gold molding all around it” (Exodus 30:1-3, CSB).
And God directed Moses concerning its use: “Aaron must burn fragrant incense on it; he must burn it every morning when he tends the lamps. When Aaron sets up the lamps at twilight, he must burn incense. There is to be an incense offering before the Lord throughout your generations” (Exodus 30:7-8, CSB).
The incense was much more than air-freshener! It was symbolic of prayer. David sang: “Lord, I call on you; hurry to help me. Listen to my voice when I call on you. May my prayer be set before you as incense” (Psalm 141:1-2, CSB).
In the Revelation, John watched as an “angel, with a golden incense burner, came and stood at the altar. He was given a large amount of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up in the presence of God from the angel’s hand” (Revelation 8:3-4, CSB).
So, as I studied the Altar, I was left with a question. How did the incense burn? Moses doesn’t give us a clear answer. We know it wasn’t an electric burner. It wasn’t a scented candle with a wick. So where did they get the fire? What made the incense burn?
Here’s what I think happened. Every morning, the priest stopped at the Altar of Burnt Offerings where the fire was never allowed to die (Leviticus 6:12). The priest carefully picked up a burning ember and carried it into the tent and placed it upon the Golden Altar (Numbers 16:46, Revelation 8:5). I think...
But why does that matter? The Old Testament worshipper received salvation by substitutionary sacrifice at the Bronze Altar. Only with the burning coals from the Bronze Altar and the assurance of redemption, could he then approach the Golden Altar.
At the second Altar, the one made with gold, the Old Testament worshipper came daily to bring petitions and praise. The incense, like the faith-filled prayers of the redeemed, was a sweet-smelling aroma of worship.
For the New Testament believer, the substitutionary sacrifice was accomplished at Calvary’s Cross. We can “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16, CSB).
Like Zechariah, we can come empty, devoid of hope, knowing that at the Golden Altar, the place of worship and prayer, there is always hope!