In Hebrews 9:1–5, the author sets up a comparison between the earthly tabernacle service of the Levitical priests and the heavenly tabernacle service of Jesus by reminding us of the structure and elements of the tabernacle the Israelites built in the wilderness (see Ex. 25–26). He follows that in today’s passage with a brief description of the work of the old covenant priests in the tabernacle, which he will eventually contrast with Christ’s.
First, the author refers to the Levitical priests’ regular performance of their ritual duties in the Holy Place, where any priest could enter (Heb. 9:6). In the Holy Place stood the lampstand, table, and bread of the Presence (v. 2). We know that the altar of incense also was set up there (Ex. 30:1–7), although at first glance Hebrews 9:4 apparently puts it in the Most Holy Place. It seems, however, that the author of Hebrews is not talking about the actual altar but the censer that the priest used to bring incense into the Most Holy Place once a year on the Day of Atonement (see Lev. 16:12–13).
In the Holy Place, the old covenant priests had regular duties. Daily, they trimmed the lamps on the lampstand and supplied them with oil, and they also burned incense on the altar of incense (Ex. 27:20–21; 30:1–10). Weekly, the priests replaced the bread of the Presence with fresh bread (Lev. 24:5–9). However, access to the Most Holy Place was limited to the high priest, and then he could enter only once a year with blood offered “for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people” (Heb. 9:7). Of course, the author of Hebrews is referring to the service of the high priest on the Day of Atonement described in Leviticus 16. On that day, the old covenant high priest brought into the Most Holy Place the blood of a bull to atone for the sins of the priesthood and the blood of a goat to atone for the sins of the people.
Atonement was made, the author says, for unintentional sins, which included sins committed in ignorance as well as those sins that were not committed with a “high hand,” that is, sins committed in a strong spirit of defiance knowingly and impenitently against God’s law (Num. 15:22–31). These sins were not atoned for because those who do not repent for known sin do not have the heart necessary to seek and receive the Lord’s pardon. This annual sacrifice on the Day of Atonement stayed God’s wrath temporarily, pointing forward to the final sacrifice of Christ that is the true propitiation for our transgressions (Rom. 3:21–26).