Exodus 30:1-21

Sunday Morning Bible Study

October 12, 2008


Moses has been up on Mount Sinai with God for almost 40 days now. He’s been receiving instructions on how to built the portable worship center we call the “Tabernacle. We’ve looked at the Ark of the Covenant, the Table of showbread, the golden candlestick known as the Menorah, the actual tent structure itself, and the bronze altar where the sacrifices were made, and we’ve learned about the priests – the special uniforms they wore and the ceremony that started them in their ministry.  And we’ve talked about how in the New Testament, the priesthood isn’t made up of special people, but the priesthood is made up of ALL believers.

We now have a few loose ends to tie up before Moses is ready to take all these ideas back to the people.

:1-10 Altar of Incense

:1 "You shall make an altar to burn incense on; you shall make it of acacia wood.

Play the Incense Altar video

:2 "A cubit shall be its length and a cubit its width; it shall be square; and two cubits shall be its height. Its horns shall be of one piece with it.

:3 "And you shall overlay its top, its sides all around, and its horns with pure gold; and you shall make for it a molding of gold all around.

:4 "Two gold rings you shall make for it, under the molding on both its sides. You shall place them on its two sides, and they will be holders for the poles with which to bear it.

:5 "You shall make the poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold.

Incense = Prayer – Incense in the Bible is always connected with prayer.

The smoke from burning incense rises upward, like our prayers ascending to heaven.

We’ll see next week that there’s a sweet scent to the incense, prayer is something sweet, something special to God.

(Psa 141:2 NKJV)  Let my prayer be set before You as incense, The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.

(Luke 1:10 NKJV)  And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense.

(Rev 5:8 NKJV)  …and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

Don’t let me confuse you here.  The incense is a picture to learn from.  You don’t have to actually be burning incense to pray.  The Tabernacle is a teaching tool.  Learn the principles from it.

:6 "And you shall put it before the veil that is before the ark of the Testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the Testimony, where I will meet with you.

before the veil – the altar was located right in front of the veil that separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place.

Some get confused about the location of the altar because the writer of Hebrews (Heb. 9:3-4) makes it sound as if the altar is inside the Holy of holies.

(Heb 9:3-4 NKJV)  and behind the second veil, the part of the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of All, {4} which had the golden censer and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron's rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant;

But here’s the problem.  The High Priest was the only one allowed inside the Holy of holies, and he only went in once a year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  In contrast, it was the regular priests (not the High Priest) who would burn incense on the golden altar twice a day. How could they do that if the Holy of holies is only entered once a year?

Why would the writer of Hebrews describe this altar as being in the Holy of holies? 
Perhaps it was because the High Priest would take coals and incense from this altar with him into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. (Lev. 16:12-13). 

(Lev 16:12-13 NKJV)  "Then he shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from the altar before the LORD, with his hands full of sweet incense beaten fine, and bring it inside the veil. {13} "And he shall put the incense on the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the Testimony, lest he die.

Perhaps it was because the smoke of the incense was intended to go past the veil.  It was intended for God’s presence, which was in the Holy of holies.

where I will meet with you

Last week we noticed the connection with the daily burnt offering and God meeting and speaking with the people:

(Exo 29:42 NKJV)  "This shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the door of the tabernacle of meeting before the LORD, where I will meet you to speak with you.

In our current passage, we see the connection with the altar of incense and God meeting with us.


God’s presence in prayer

Prayer is not intended to be something impersonal like sending a letter.  It’s more like a conversation face to face with a friend.
Whether you realize it or not, God wants you to spend time with Him.  When you pray, He’s there.
John G. Paton (1824-1907) was a missionary to the New Hebrides islands in the 1800s.  The New Hebrides (now known as Vanuatu) are a band of islands about 2/3 of the way between Hawaii and Australia.  When he arrived at the islands, they were populated by pagan, vicious, tribes of cannibals.  In the first year, he lost his wife and infant son to disease.  He was driven off the island four years later by the natives.  When he returned, he had remarried.  He landed on the island of Aniwa, 1 mile across, 5 miles long.  He faced numerous death threats.  The islanders tried to burn down his house.  They tried putting curses on him.  Over the next fifteen years they saw the entire island, 3,500 people, come to Christ. Through all his dangers, one Bible text was his rock: 
(Mat 28:20 NKJV)  …and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
This verse would be so much a part of his life that he would have it engraved on the headstone at his grave.
One biography records:
John first learned the sweetness and the wonder of Matthew 28:20 amid the simplicities and sanctities of his humble Scottish home. In a passage of extraordinary beauty, he has pictured his father, James Paton, as a man of singular piety, going three times a day into “the prayer closet” and coming forth with shining face as of one who had been on the Mount of Transfiguration. “The outside world might not know,” he states, “but we children knew whence came that happy light that was always dawning on my father’s face: it was a reflection of the Divine Presence, in the consciousness of which he lived.”
Writing sixty years later the son pays this eloquent tribute to the power of his father’s prayers:

“Never, in temple or cathedral, on mountain or in glen, can I hope to feel that the Lord God is more near, more visibly walking and talking with men, than under that humble cottage roof of thatch and oaken wattles. Though everything else in religion were by some unthinkable catastrophe to be swept out of memory, or blotted from my understanding, my soul would wander back to those early scenes, and shut itself up once again in that Sanctuary Closet, and, hearing still the echoes of those cries to God, would hurl back all doubt with the victorious appeal. ‘He walked with God, why may not I?’”

God’s presence can be found in prayer.  When you pray, He’s there.  “Lo I am with you always…”
If you look up Mr. Paton on the web, you will find story after story of the attacks on his life and how God delivered him.  You will read about cannibals armed with muskets, hatchets, and clubs.
One morning at daybreak Paton went out to find his house surrounded by armed men, muttering fiercely that they had come to kill him at once. Being inveterate speech-makers, however, the Tannese desisted in their design until a chief had made the following speech: “Missi, we love the ways and practices of our fathers, which you and other missionaries oppose. We killed the last foreigner that lived in Tanna before you came here. We murdered the Aneityumese teachers and burned down their houses. Now we are determined to kill you, because you are changing our customs and we hate the Jehovah worship.”
“Seeing that I was entirely in their hands,” says Paton, “I knelt down and gave myself away body and soul to the Lord Jesus, for what seemed the last time on earth.” The savages grew strangely quiet, listening as he, upon rising, told of the Savior’s great love, and then departed, muttering that he would yet be killed if he did not leave the island at once.
Several days later, while a large number of natives were assembled, a man rushed furiously on Paton with his axe and attempted to take his life. The next day a fierce-looking chief followed him around for four hours, frequently pointing his loaded musket at him as if to shoot. While silent prayer ascended, the missionary went quietly on with his work. What was the secret of such a gallant spirit? He tells us:
“Life in such circumstances led me to cling very near to the Lord Jesus. With my trembling hand clasped in the hand once nailed on Calvary, and now swaying the scepter of the universe, calmness and peace abode in my soul. Trials and hairbreadth escapes strengthened my faith and seemed only to nerve me for more to follow. Without that abiding consciousness of the presence and power of my dear Lord and Savior, nothing else in all the world could have preserved me from losing my reason and perishing miserably. His words, ‘Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world,’ became very real to me and I felt His supporting power. I had my nearest and dearest glimpses of the face and smile of my blessed Lord in those dread moments when musket, club, or spear was being leveled at my life.”
You and I are probably not facing cannibals with muskets and clubs.  But I know that some of you are facing a lot of fears.  Some of you are struggling with a fear from our difficult financial times.
(Heb 13:5-6 NLT)  Stay away from the love of money; be satisfied with what you have. For God has said, "I will never fail you. I will never forsake you." {6} That is why we can say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper, so I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?"

Find God’s presence in prayer.  That’s where you’ll find peace in your difficult times.

:7 "Aaron shall burn on it sweet incense every morning; when he tends the lamps, he shall burn incense on it.

:8 "And when Aaron lights the lamps at twilight, he shall burn incense on it, a perpetual incense before the LORD throughout your generations.

Every single morning incense was to be burned before the Lord.

The Bible talks a lot about the importance of praying often.

(Psa 16:8 NKJV)  I have set the LORD always before me; Because He is at my right hand I shall not be moved.

(Psa 55:17 NKJV)  Evening and morning and at noon I will pray, and cry aloud, And He shall hear my voice.


Regular Consistent Prayer

God desires that we learn the value of developing a consistent prayer life.
For some of us that means that we are constantly whispering prayers to God under our breath all day, sort of talking to Him in our head.
I like that concept.  I think that’s what Paul meant when he said to

 (1 Th 5:17 NKJV)  pray without ceasing,

But that’s not exactly what I have in mind.
In the next verse we get some more advice about the altar:
(Exo 30:9 NKJV)  "You shall not offer strange incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering; nor shall you pour a drink offering on it.

The point is that the golden altar was to be used for one thing and one thing only – prayer to God.  It was not meant for incorrect prayer to God (strange incense – like praying a Muslim prayer).  It was not meant for any other sacrifice.  It was only meant for prayer.

Some of us like to “multi-task”.  We like to use our time as efficiently as we can.

But there is a place for learning to put everything else aside and just focus on God.  There is value in learning the discipline of drawing near to God and lifting up your requests to Him.

There is power in the discipline of regular, consistent prayer.
Remember those “bowls of incense” in heaven?  I wonder if each of our needs is like a different size bowl – some needs only need a prayer or two to be filled and answered.  Some need LOTS of prayer.  Years of regular, consistent prayer.

George Mueller in his lifetime (1805-1898) founded several orphanages in England.  He ran his ministry by never asking for help or letting people know of his needs.  He believed that all he needed to do was to ask God, and God would supply.

He was known as a man of prayer. 

George Mueller had a couple of friends that he prayed would one day receive Christ.  He prayed for these two friends regularly for over fifty years.  Just before George Mueller died, one of the friends finally became a Christian.  The other one became a Christian shortly after Mueller died. 

:9 "You shall not offer strange incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering; nor shall you pour a drink offering on it.

:10 "And Aaron shall make atonement upon its horns once a year with the blood of the sin offering of atonement; once a year he shall make atonement upon it throughout your generations. It is most holy to the LORD."

once a year – this is part of the ritual of Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement”.

most holy

(Exo 30:10 NLT)  …for this is the Lord's supremely holy altar."

From the Temple Institute:

“The incense altar, made of wood covered with gold, is employed in what is considered to be the most beloved aspect of the Temple service in G-d's eye: the incense offering. In order to allow for every priest to perform this most prized of offerings, a daily lot is drawn. Only those priests who have never offered incense upon the altar are allowed to participate.”
most prized of offerings”

Oh that we would look at prayer with this kind of heart.

We don’t have to follow the tradition of the Jewish priests where you only get to pray at the altar if you’ve never prayed there before.

We get to pray any time we want.

One last idea about the incense altar…

We get a glimpse of this when John the Baptist’s father, Zacharias, got his turn to be the priest offering incense:
(Luke 1:8-15 NKJV)  So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, {9} according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. {10} And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense. {11} Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. {12} And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. {13} But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. {14} "And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. {15} "For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb.


Prayer and cleansing

Hopefully by now you have been seeing how this whole “Tabernacle” thing is to be a picture of heaven.  It’s to be a picture of how God wants things done.  It’s filled with lessons about who God is and how we are supposed to treat Him.
We’ve talked about how the Ark of the Covenant is a picture of God’s throne.  Just as there are angelic beings on top of the Ark, there are angels in heaven.  Look closely at Isaiah’s vision and see how many of these Tabernacle elements there are in heaven. 
(Isa 6:1-8 NKJV)  In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. {2} Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. {3} And one cried to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!" {4} And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke. {5} So I said: "Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, The LORD of hosts."

This is one of the things that will happen when you truly find yourself in God’s presence.  There will be a sense of awe at who God is.  There will be a realization of just how far you fall short of God.

When you look at yourself in a mirror in a dark room, you don’t see all the imperfections.  But turn on a bright light and ugh!  You see everything that’s wrong.  God is light.  He dwells in unapproachable light.

{6} Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. {7} And he touched my mouth with it, and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips; Your iniquity is taken away, And your sin purged."

Where did the angel get the coal that cleansed Isaiah?  He got it from the altar.  Which altar?  The one in God’s presence, the altar of incense.

I wonder if there isn’t a lesson about how cleansing can come in prayer.

Don’t stay away from God because you feel unworthy.  Draw near to God, confess your sins, and you will find cleansing.  John writes,

(1 John 1:9 NKJV)  If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Isaiah’s story doesn’t end there.

{8} Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: "Whom shall I send, And who will go for Us?" Then I said, "Here am I! Send me."

When you’ve spent productive time in God’s presence, you will find that God has things for you to do.  He has places He wants to send you.  He has people He wants you to talk to.  You are now useful to Him.