The final piece of furniture in the Holy Place is the altar of incense.
It was placed on the west end of the Holy Place, directly in front of the veil and opposite the entrance curtain. Like the table of presence, it was made of acacia wood and completely covered with gold. It was a perfect square, measuring 18 inches wide and long, and 36 inches high, making it the tallest article in the Holy Place.
Before any other descriptions are given for the altar, before a list of materials are mentioned, the dimensions are given, or its position within the Holy Place is stated, its purpose is given. God told Moses, "Make an altar on which to burn incense" (Exodus 30:1). Therefore our full attention must be focused upon the altar and the burning of incense.
There are numerous passages that link the burning of incense with the prayers of the saints, with Psalm 141:2 and Revelation 5:8 as the most familiar. However, when Isaiah had his vision of the temple, he saw seraphs flying and calling to one another, "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory! And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke" (Isaiah 6:3-4). The smoke that filled the temple while the seraphs sang praises to God is presumed to be the smoke of burning incense.
An item of significance must be noted here. Leviticus 16:12 tells us that the coals used to burn incense were to come from the altar of sacrifice in the courtyard. Leviticus 9:24, 2 Chronicles 7:1, and 1 Kings 18:38 all record instances when a fire from God descended and burnt up the sacrifices offered by men. The hand of God started the fire at the altar of sacrifice, and it was this fire that was used to burn the incense that was offered on the altar of incense. Simply stated, even our prayer life is not our own, but originates by the will of God.
As we have seen, the tending of the lampstand and the burning of the incense were connected in the ministrations of the high priest in the tabernacle. As we allow Jesus the High Priest to tend to our light--making the proper trimmings and filling us with the oil of the Spirit when needed--then our own prayer will rise fragrantly before the Lord. Perhaps our morning and evening prayers should begin with the same request the disciples brought to Jesus: "Lord, teach us to pray" (Luke 11:1). This is a vital request for all of us, for even Paul said, "We do not know what to pray for as we ought" (Romans 8:26). At some point all of us, just like Jesus' disciples, will find ourselves so ignorant of prayer and so frustrated with our inability to pray effectively, that we must eventually say to Jesus, "Lord, teach me to pray." And if, as our study indicates, even prayer has its origins in the will of God, it would benefit all of us to approach the throne of God, not with a list of needs and requests, but with a question: "Lord, how would You have me offer my prayers today?"
Because the sacrificial blood from the altar of sacrifice plays a significant role in the atonement of the altar of incense, our understanding of the place of intercession and the sacrifice of Jesus takes on a whole new understanding.
Hebrews 9:11-12 says, "When Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption." Simply stated, the blood that Jesus offered to the Father in heaven was resurrected blood.
If you will recall, when Mary Magdalene reached out to touch Jesus, He said, "Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father" (John 20:17). However, just ten verses later Jesus says to Thomas, "Put your finger here; and see my hands; and put out your hand and place it in my side" (John 20:27). Why would Jesus deny Mary Magdalene the opportunity to touch Him, but later command Thomas to do so? The key is found in Jesus' statement to Mary, "I have not yet ascended to the Father." Mary saw Jesus after the resurrection but before He ascended to the Father. But when Jesus saw Thomas, He had returned from the Father after entering the Most Holy Place in heaven with His own blood--His own resurrected blood. Therefore, the blood that we plead in our need for salvation and answered prayers is the resurrected blood of Jesus. The blood that is eternally fresh, eternally available, and always ready to cleanse "whoever believes in him" (John 3:16).