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What does the Bible say about incense?

The burning of incense is a divine command. God gave Moses and Aaron detailed instructions for the times, places, and methods of burning incense. It was to be burned perpetually before the Lord, and it was a holy act of worship (Exodus 30). When the Tabernacle was replaced by the Temple, incense was offered there (1/3 Kings 9:25).

When the people fell away into sin and idolatry, their offering of incense was hated by God (Isaiah 1:13), for it was merely an act, and not a true expression of loving worship. This special offering meant only for the true God was offered by the Hebrews to Baal and other demonic idols.

But Isaiah prophesied that incense would be received by God again, but this time it would be offered by all the nations of the earth in worship of the Lord in his true Temple (Malachi 1:11; Isaiah 60:6-7), which we know to be the Body of Christ—the Church.

In the time of Christ, incense continued to be offered in the Temple. Zacharias, the father of John the Forerunner, served as high priest and was offering incense in the Temple at the time John's birth was announced (Luke 1). As the first to fulfill Malachi's prophecy, the Magi fittingly offered incense to the newborn Christ as well (Matthew 2:11)—a symbol of his divinity, according to Saint Irenaeus of Lyons.

The early Jewish converts to Christianity continued to worship in the structured fashion they were accustomed to, as we can see from writings such as the Didache and Apostolic Canons, as well as from archaeology of early church buildings. And while the use of incense is not mentioned specifically in the earliest Church Fathers, it is used in the Divine Liturgy of Saint James, which is one of the oldest Christian liturgies, dating to the first century:

O God, who accepted the gifts of Abel, the sacrifices of Noah and Abraham, the incense of Aaron and Zacharias, accept from the hands of us sinners this incense for a sweet fragrance and forgiveness of our sins and those of all your people. For you are blessed and to you belongs glory, to the Father with your only-begotten Son and your all-holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and for ever, and to the ages of ages.

Finally, incense is described in the last book of the Bible, Saint John's Revelation. In his vision he saw incense used in heavenly worship (5:8), which Orthodox worship strives to make present here on earth. In particular, incense represents and indeed carries the prayers of the saints—both the martyrs in heaven and those living on earth—up to God (8:3-4).

Incense is offered to God in worship throughout the Bible, at his own divine command. This practice was carried by the Church through to the present day. Its sweet fragrance is pleasing to our human senses as well, and helps us physically and spiritually lift up our hearts to God, as Psalm 140/141:2 says:

Let my prayer be set before you as incense; let the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.

This verse is sung daily at Vespers, as we begin the new liturgical day with an "evening sacrifice" of prayer and incense.

Incense is also used in private homes by the faithful who wish to give their place of prayer an atmosphere of churchly peace, helping to bring to mind the common prayer of all Christians in all places.

Apr 12th 2024 Legacy Icons

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