“In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest of Abijah’s division named Zechariah. His wife was from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both were righteous in God’s sight, living without blame according to all the commands and requirements of the Lord. But they had no children because Elizabeth could not conceive, and both of them were well along in years” (Luke 1:5–7). The soon-to-be-parents of John the Baptist were old… past the age of childbearing.
Zechariah was a Levite, a priest who faithfully served in Jerusalem’s Temple. “When his division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, it happened that he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and burn incense. At the hour of incense the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified and overcome with fear. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John’ ” (Luke 1:8–13).
Zechariah entered the Holy Place to tend the Menorah’s lamps and to burn incense on the Golden Altar. Every day, morning and evening, the priests performed the tasks given to Moses at Sinai. “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. Its horns must be of one piece with it. Overlay its top, all around its sides, and its horns with pure gold; make a gold molding all around it. Make two gold rings for it under the molding on two of its sides; put these on opposite sides of it to be holders for the poles to carry it with. Make the poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. You are to place the altar in front of the curtain by the ark of the testimony—in front of the mercy seat that is over the testimony—where I will meet with you. 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 30:1–9).
King David understood the symbolism represented at the Golden Altar. “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, the raising of my hands as the evening offering” (Psalm 141:1–2). Incense is a picture of prayer and communion with God.
Why, we might ask, was the high priest charged with carrying out such a simple act? Burning incense was a privilege, for it was restricted to those who were allowed to approach God. Today, following Christ’s work at Calvary, we are free to enter God’s presence.
We are invited to “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). “Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have boldness to enter the sanctuary through the blood of Jesus—he has inaugurated for us a new and living way through the curtain (that is, through his flesh)—and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water” (Hebrews 10:19–22). Like the Golden Altar with its ever-burning incense, we can enter His glorious and gracious presence and “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17, NKJV).