וְעָשִׂיתָ מִזְבֵּחַ מִקְטַר קְטֹרֶת עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתוֹ׃
You shall make a mizbayach for burning incense; make it of acacia wood.
Kohen Gadol (High Priest) would insert a pan of burning incense into the Holy of Holies before entering, waiting until the area was full of fragrant smoke. Though the incense had the practical use of covering or distracting from the overpowering smell of death and burning flesh so pervasive in the Tabernacle with its sacrificial offerings, it also symbolized the prayers ascending to the throne of God (Psalm 141). This is surely reflected in the New Testament, especially in the heavenly vision. There John saw that the elders around the throne “were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people” (Revelation 5:8; cf. 8:3). As Zechariah the priest was offering incense in the temple in Luke 1:10, “all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.”
The incense with its exclusive recipe of 11 ingredients was offered morning and evening on its own special golden
altar in the Holy Place, in front of the veil. At first this was the special vocation of the High
Priest alone. By the Second Temple, the lesser priests also offered the incense,
chosen daily by lot for the office, as was Zachariah the father of John
Baptist. This incense burned not as ritual satisfaction of command but as the expression of the inward faith. When Israel maintained the temple rites but was disobedient to God and their hearts empty of faith, God said through the
prophet, “Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is
detestable to me” (Isaiah 1:13). It is not the burning of incense per se or the discipline of its timing but the accompaniment of this practice with faith that delighted in the Word and will of God, walking in His ways, and expected His mercy that marked this and every ritual practice commanded by God.
There is another aspect to this. To the Temple sacrifice is added the perpetual intercession of Christ. The altar of incense can also be seen as a picture of the intercession of Christ -- the perpetual intercession of Christ on behalf of His Church. Just as the altar of sacrifice in the courtyard was a type of Christ’s death on our behalf, so the altar of incense in the Holy Place was a type of Christ’s mediation on our behalf — part of Christ’s work on earth that continues in heaven. The altar of incense was situated before the mercy-seat of the Ark—a picture of Christ our Advocate, standing in the presence of the Father (Hebrews 7:25; 9:24). raising up His petitions on high as He did on earth. The incense was to be burning continually on the altar of incense, displaying the perpetual nature of Christ’s mediation. Christ’s intercession on our behalf is a sweet-smelling savor to God., as the Great Angel of the Covenant, Christ, offers up His petition amidst the smoke which rises from off the altar of gold. Again, look at Revelation for this heavenly vision so profoundly described.
My point is this. As Israel saw the smoke arising from the Temple and was comforted in travail and humbled in triumph, so it is important for us to pray and to count on the prayers of our Great High Priest, interceding for us with His blood, as the world around us wallows in its confusion of the obvious, its uncertainty of the truth, and its lies that replace the Word that endures forever. Do not think your prayers are too little or not enough. For Christ's own intercession is no small thing but one of the most profound and powerful works of His ascended and glorified position at the right hand of the Father. He has given us this privilege and it has become our duty and delight to offer up prayers and petitions, supplications and thanksgivings, not here and there but continuously, without end, in the confidence that they not only rise but are heard in mercy and answered with grace to sort us out and sort out our times within the hand and will of God. If for this reason only, incense ought to be burned in the churches of those who believe this still (although I am sure some readers will disagree). If the world does not need to see the smoke, we do. We all do. So that we know as Israel once did that our prayers ascend to His throne of grace and that Christ brings those prayers with His own to the Father. This is of great comfort but it is also great assurance in a world without much these days.