Daily life in the ancient world was anything but clean and sanitary, especially in agrarian societies. Living in close proximity to their animals, the smells and other elements of animal life objectionable to the human senses could not be escaped.
On account of this unpleasantness, incense was burned in the king’s presence to mask the odors of the livestock and to pay tribute to his position. It is therefore not a surprise that incense was also burned before the one, true creator God in the tabernacle of Israel, which was His earthly throne room under the old covenant. Exodus 30:1–10 describes the altar of incense that was placed alongside the lampstand and the table of showbread in the Holy Place outside the Most Holy Place (40:1–8).
Like the table of showbread and the lampstand, the altar of incense was made with materials fit for a king — gold and acacia wood (vv. 1–3). It was also outfitted with poles by which it could be transported like the table was (vv. 4–5). The similarities stop there, however, for while the lampstand and the table illustrated God’s work to provide His people with light, bread, and other necessities, the altar of incense represented work that the Israelites offered unto the Lord — the work of prayer.
Scripture often likens incense to the prayers of God’s people (Ps. 141:2; Rev. 5:8). This makes sense when we consider what happened on the altar of incense. Fine spices were mixed together and left to smolder on the altar day and night (Ex. 30:7–8, 34–38), the ascending smoke symbolizing that what was offered there went up to God, much as our prayers go up to Him. Being set outside the veil, the priest would see the smoke penetrate the curtain into the Holy of Holies even though He could not see past the curtain (v. 6). And is this not like prayer in that we know our prayers enter heaven itself even though we cannot yet see into that place?
The altar of incense reminded Israel to pray and assured the people their prayers were sweet-smelling to the Lord. Yet they were not inherently sweet, for atonement had to be made for the altar once a year (v. 10). John Calvin comments, “The altar of incense was purified by the sprinkling of blood, that they might learn that their prayers obtained acceptance through sacrifices.” Today, the perfect sacrifice of Jesus alone ensures that God hears our prayers (Prov. 15:29, 2 Cor. 5:21).