Monday, September 1, 2014

Why Did They Light Incense in the Temple in Bible Times?

 Q:  In Sunday school someone asked, "Why did they light incense in the temple in Bible times?" and not even the teacher knew.  Do you know?

A:  Most sources will tell you something along these lines:

"The smoke from burnt offerings rose into the heavens, representing our dedication to God. The incense represented people’s prayers rising up to God" (“Then Will I Go unto the Altar of God,” Ensign, February 2014, 66).

This is the symbolism that is used in Psalms 141:2 and Revelation 8:3-4:

"Lord, I cry unto thee: make haste unto me; give ear unto my voice, when I cry unto thee.  Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice."

"And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne.  And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand."

The symbolism whereby the smoke of the incense represents the prayers of the saints is a powerful one, and should help us to understand the importance of prayer in our relationship with God, but there is deeper symbolism which should not be ignored.  The burning of the incense to accompany an offering in the temple also had an important symbolic function that relates to the Savior and the cleansing and purifying effect (sanctification) of His atonement.

In Leviticus, the Israelites were commanded to add incense (along with salt and some other things) to their burnt offerings in order that their offerings might be "of a sweet savour unto the Lord" (see Leviticus Ch. 2).  This had the symbolic effect of sanctifying the offering and making it acceptable to God.

This symbolism was understood by the people anciently, as it was part of the prayer which was offered by the priests and the people during the portion of the service in which the incense was lit.

"Be graciously pleased, Jehovah our God, with Thy people Israel, and with their prayer.  Restore the service to the oracle of Thy house; and the burnt-offerings of Israel and their prayer accept graciously and in love; and let the service of Thy people Israel be ever well-pleasing unto Thee" (Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services, 129).
The table of incense stood immediately before the veil of the Holy of Holies (the most sacred part of the temple) and the High priest could not enter without first making an offering of incense, which he then brought with him into the Holy of Holies.

“If you will read the chapter through [Lev.2], you will note that other things were needed in connection with the sacrifices of the Israelites. Their sacrifices were, of course, imperfect. Even on the low ground which they occupied as symbols and emblems they were not complete, for you read, in the first place, that they needed frankincense when they offered their sacrifice to God. God did not smell sweet savor in the bullock, or the ram, or the lamb, unless sweet spices were added. What does that teach us but that the best performances of our hands must not appear before His Throne without the merit of Christ mingled with it? There must be that mixture of myrrh, aloes and cassia with which the garments of our Prince are perfumed to make our sacrifice to be a sweet savor to the Most High! Take care in your sacrifices that you bring the sacred frankincense" (Charles H. Spurgeon, "Salt for Sacrifice," Sermon #1942, January 23, 1887).

As Spurgeon points out, the incense also represented "the merit of Christ," which sanctifies our "best performances," and makes us acceptable before God.  Furthermore the incense symbolically sanctified the High Priest and the offering which he carried, and made them pure enough to enter into the Holy of Holies, which contained the mercy seat, which represented God's throne and His presence.  Just so, Christ's sacrifice makes it so that we can enter once more into God's presence and stand before His throne, but unless we have also been purified through the shedding of Christ's blood (which sanctification is extended to us through Christ's merits, mercy, and grace) we cannot hope to abide in God's presence.

Naturally, we no longer offer the burnt sacrifices of the old law to the Lord, but we are still called upon to make certain sacrifices under the new law of the Gospel, and these sacrifices likewise require that we add “the sweet savor” of Christ’s merits in order that they might be efficacious on our behalf.

3 Nephi 9:19-22  And ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood; yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away, for I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings.  And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit.  And whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost, even as the Lamanites, because of their faith in me at the time of their conversion, were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not.  Behold, I have come unto the world to bring redemption unto the world, to save the world from sin. Therefore, whoso repenteth and cometh unto me as a little child, him will I receive, for of such is the kingdom of God.  Behold, for such I have laid down my life, and have taken it up again; therefore repent, and come unto me ye ends of the earth, and be saved.

2 Nephi 2:6-9  Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth.  Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.  Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise.  Wherefore, he is the firstfruits unto God, inasmuch as he shall make intercession for all the children of men; and they that believe in him shall be saved.

It is only through Christ that our offerings of a broken heart and a contrite spirit can be made suitable and acceptable to God.  It is only in and through Christ that we can be redeemed and we can have a “sweet savor” in the Lord’s eyes.  Just as the Incense wafts up to heaven and suffuses everything with “a sweet-smelling savour,” Christ makes intercession for those who come before God with a broken heart and a contrite spirit.

2 Corinthians 2:14-15  Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place.  For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish:

The symbolism of the incense is similar to that of the baptism “with fire and with the Holy Ghost,” which is referred to in the passage from 3 Nephi chapter 9.  The baptism of water is only part of the equation, for unless we are cleansed of our sins through the reception of the Holy Ghost, our baptism by water will be good for nothing.  The cleansing fire represented by the burning of the incense is meant to parallel the spiritual cleansing of the baptism of fire that is part of the gift of the Holy Ghost.

3 Nephi 31:13  Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I know that if ye shall follow the Son, with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent, repenting of your sins, witnessing unto the Father that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ, by baptism—yea, by following your Lord and your Savior down into the water, according to his word, behold, then shall ye receive the Holy Ghost; yea, then cometh the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost; and then can ye speak with the tongue of angels, and shout praises unto the Holy One of Israel.

3 Nephi 31:17  Wherefore, do the things which I have told you I have seen that your Lord and your Redeemer should do; for, for this cause have they been shown unto me, that ye might know the gate by which ye should enter.  For the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost.

3 Nephi 27:20  Now this is the commandment: Repent, all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me and be baptized in my name, that ye may be sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost, that ye may stand spotless before me at the last day.

Even though we can only be saved by Christ’s merits, and purified by the redeeming sacrifice of Christ’s blood, we are not passive observers in this process.  We must exercise genuine faith and sincerely repent of our sins in order to prepare for the baptism of water and fire, through which we make a covenant with God wherein we promise that we are “are willing to take upon [us] the name of [Christ], and always remember him and keep his commandments which he has given them.” If we will be faithful to our covenant which we made at baptism, God has promised “that [we] may always have his Spirit to be with [us]” (see D&C 20:77).

The cleansing effect of the gift of the Holy Ghost is not meant to be a one-time thing, and instead is offered to us each week as we renew our baptismal covenants by partaking of the sacrament.  Just like the High Priest, who had to carry the burning incense with him into the Holy of Holies, we too must do our best have the spirit with us at all times throughout our lives in order to be transformed and made pure enough to approach the throne of God.  Our lives must be devoted to righteously seeking the companionship of the Holy Ghost, and the sanctification which comes “in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ.”  The Lord expects the recipients of His grace to put off all ungodliness and “live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world.”  It is in this process that Christ will sanctify us, through righteous obedience and fidelity to covenant, and make us acceptable to the Lord and suitable to remain in His presence.

Titus 2:11-14  For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world;  Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.

Ephesians 5:1-2  Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour.

Moroni 10:32-33  Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.  And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot.

Hebrews 4:16  Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.

For more on the ways in which the rituals of the ancient temple are symbolically tied to the atonement made by Jesus Christ, you need to read: The Significance of Christ's Suffering in Gethsemane.

1 comment :

  1. One simple reason might be that it smelled good. As a symbol of the sweetness of heaven. In modern times we are less aware of how literally life stunk before mass produced deodorants, refrigeration and readily available water to wash with.


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