In scripture there is an interesting shift in the location of the Altar of Incense from how it is presented in Exodus 30 to Hebrews 9. We begin with a little information from scripture showing what the Altar of Incense represents.
“So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense.” (Luke 1:8–10, NKJV)
“Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures 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.” (Revelation 5:8, NKJV)
Here we see that the incense ascending from the altar represents prayer. Zechariah and the other priests took their turns each day offering incense on the Altar of Incense which was positioned before the curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies so that the incense wafted into the Holy of Holies to the Mercy Seat on the Ark of the Covenant. This design is seen in the Tabernacle of Moses in the wilderness. The furniture of the Tabernacle and the design of the priestly garments are described in Exodus 25-30. The placing of the Altar of Incense is in Exodus 30:1-5. We also have clear descriptions of the placement of everything in the tabernacle in Exodus 40 when the tabernacle was first set up.
This now leads us to Hebrews 9.
“Then indeed, even the first covenant had ordinances of divine service and the earthly sanctuary. For a tabernacle was prepared: the first part, in which was the lampstand, the table, and the showbread, which is called the sanctuary; and behind the second veil, the part of the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of All, 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;” (Hebrews 9:1–4, NKJV)
The phrase ‘golden censor’ here refers to the Altar of Incense and that is how it is translated in some bible versions. So, we have the author of Hebrews writing something that isn’t true, bear with me here. If you read Hebrews 11:8-11, the hall of faith chapter, you will find what is written there doesn’t appear to be true either. It says Abraham ‘obeyed’ and Sarah had ‘faith.’ In fact, if you read the accounts in Genesis, you have a different story. Abraham was told to leave his father’s house and go to Canaan, instead he went halfway with his father, then after he died continued on with Lot. Sarah laughed and didn’t believe the Lord when told she would conceive in her old age. I think we reconcile these differing accounts by recognizing that in Hebrews we are being given heaven’s perspective. The focus is not on the failures of Abraham and Sarah but the fruit of their obedience. Failure is ignored in heaven’s assessment.
Thus, back to Hebrews 9. From heaven’s perspective the Altar of Incense was moved into the Holy of Holies before the Mercy Seat because of what it represented. Understanding this requires looking at what the furniture in the Tabernacle of Moses represented. The Holy Place with the Lampstand, Table of Showbread and Altar of Incense represents our soul – our mind, will and emotions. The mind is the lampstand which receives light and illumination. The showbread with the ground flour represents a submitted and prepared will. The altar our emotions, from which prayer is to arise. The Holy of Holies speaks of our spirit, the innermost hidden place where His presence is designed to dwell.
This brings us to the implications of the Altar of Incense being in the Holy of Holies. In Romans 10:10 Paul said it is with our heart that we believe. Prior to that he said the following.
“Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.” (Romans 10:1, NKJV)
As I see it the transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament is the transition from prayer arising from our soul to prayer arising and flowing forth from our reborn spirit. While that may not always be our practice, I think it is the scriptural design. Prayer was never meant to be an intellectual exercise; it is to arise from our passions and desires. Our heart is to be engaged.
I remember one time reading the story of a newly married pastor where he shared his journey into fruitful prayer. He said he was faithful to get up and pray an hour each morning. One day his new bride said, “Why don’t you record your prayer tomorrow?” He naturally wanted to know why. She said, “Well then you can just play the tape and you don’t have to get up so early every morning because you always recite the same thing.” While hurting his pride her question and comment also changed his prayer life, which is why he shared the story. Similarly, Charles Finney, a great man of prayer, said that if we can’t remember what we prayed about just after we prayed it wasn’t really prayer.
In conclusion, our prayers are to arise from our heart desires and the message of Hebrew 9:4 is that they are to arise from our being in His presence, not our seeking to arrive there. Let’s develop the habit of presenting our petitions from where we already are rather than from where we would like to be (Ephesians 1:3, Colossians 3:1-3).