Frankincense, myrrh and other aromatics are said to have been used in the Middle East for around 5,000 years. So, their use was well established before the building of the Tabernacle, before the first Temple in Jerusalem and before Christ’s birth. We have here a fragrant thread running through sacred and secular history and still used today.
The following is written by my friend and Hebrew scholar, Dr. Frank Leeds III. He gives us a fuller understanding of what the Bible tells us about the Tabernacle, the Temple and the significance of incense.
It was the tabernacle that set the high bar for the workings of the Lord. How this tabernacle was to be built is explained in great detail in the Torah [Exodus 25:1-27 and I Kings 5:26]. It seems to me that the key point is how this movable object was to be financed. It was expensive with much inlaid gold and fine jewels but there were parameters on how this was to be paid for. Everyone was asked to contribute ‘something’. The emphasis was ‘We are all involved with this project’. After that, contributions were limited to “hearts that are moved to donate”. The donations were more than what was needed and every penny was accounted for. It was cleanly and honestly done; worthy of the Lord.
This tabernacle, which contained the 10 Commandments and later the rod of Aaron, was the spot or the location of the God of Israel. As the people were led through the wilderness following the cloud by day or the pillar of fire by night, the tabernacle was carried along with them.
When it becomes time to build the Temple of the Lord, the task of doing so did not fall to King David, who was a warrior, but rather to his son Solomon. Solomon was the King who had a wonderful reputation for being the wisest of kings. His ruling about the two mothers making claim to the same infant was settled by Solomon with his proclamation to cut the infant in half giving one half to each of the women. This was repeatedly told to show off his wisdom.
But actually, Solomon increasingly became the biggest of fools and a terrible king. If you recall the warning or admonishment of Moses when he told the people: ‘You will know when you have a good king when the king does not collect gold, nor silver, nor horses, nor wives.”
By contrast, Solomon prided and embellished himself with all of the above. He had more wives and concubines than he could handle and taxed the people heavily to acquire more and more gold and silver. His horses were better cared for than his people and living in one of the stables would have been preferred housing over where many of the people lived.
To his credit, he did get the temple built and it was known as “Solomon’s Temple” and the “House of the Lord”, but it was marred from the beginning. It was about a 35-acre site that sat on top of the hill in Jerusalem with all of it’s white and gold glistening in the sun. It was a sight to behold.
But here is the issue I want to explain. I spent much of life living near the ocean and I know many of the rules of the water. Particularly the following one comes to mind. “A person is responsible for the wake they leave behind.” Solomon did leave the construction of a beautiful temple for his legacy. But he also left behind a very angry people for making them slaves [as did Pharaoh] to get the temple completed. He also burdened his people with very high taxes, much of which was to surround himself with wealth for his own entertainment at the peoples’ expense. Solomon was all about Solomon—not the people he was to serve.
The tabernacle was built correctly. The temple was not. One of the many things I do not understand about the temple is the following. As per the Torah, the Temple was to treat the gentiles as equals. [ Lev 24:22 and Numbers 15:15 ] The Torah was to apply to all people. Perhaps it was, but the gentiles had their own section of the temple which kept them separated. Equal but separated—can that be?
Regardless, the center of the Temple is the location of the Holy of Holies. This is the ‘meeting place’ between Jehovah and mankind with the Chief Priest being the representative of the people.
The presence of the Lord is a tricky topic. On the one hand, there is the reality that the Lords presence is everywhere. King David says in best in his Psalm #139
- I can never escape from your spirit!
- I can never get away from your presence
- If I go up to heaven, you are there;
- If I go down to the grave, you are there
- If I ride the wings of the morning,
- If I dwell by the farthest oceans, even there your hand will guide me,, and your strength will support me.
- I could ask the darkness to hide me and the light around me to become night— but even in darkness I cannot hide from you.
The universal presence of the Lord may be, but the Lord also gives a designated ‘meeting place’. The High Priest is to go into the temple and enter the Holy of Holies which is a square room containing the Ark of the Covenant. It was 20 by 20 cubit in size. A cubit is the size of your elbow to the tip of your middle finger. At the point of entry to this room there is a curtain which the priest is to close behind him upon entering. He is then to take a gold plate, onto which he places some smelly pebbles and lights them. As they smoke, the High Priest is to step into the smoke which is stepping into the presence of the Lord.
As he does this, the other priests, who are on the outside of the curtain will know that the Lord is with the High Priest because they can smell the presence. The fragrant cloud signifies the ‘Spirit of the Lord’. Likewise for the priests outside the curtain, they can know of the Lord’s presence without seeing it. Have you ever experienced anything in your life when you said to yourself or others “it was a God thing”? Or perhaps you said, “One could see the hand of the Lord in this.” You could not prove it, but you could sense it.
I need to note at this point that this process which the Lord required to be done by the High Priest was forbidden to be done anywhere else and penalized by death. It was not a time where the High Priest called upon the name of the Lord but rather a time when the Lord called a meeting with the High Priest. It was the meeting place.
Before proceeding any further, I need to point out that there was Solomon’s Temple, which was later destroyed by the Babylonian. After that, there was a second Temple build as a replacement for the first Temple. As much as I love and respect the way the Tabernacle was built and paid for, and disrespect the way Solomon built the Temple, to his credit, he got it done and regardless of its faults, it still functions as the House of the Lord.
If you, the reader, attend a synagogue or a church, you may be aware of ‘issues’ as to how this structure was built and paid for. Please do not let the shortcoming distract you from the fact that it was built to be the house of the Lord.
There is a parallel here for us to understand. The smoky stuff and the smelly stuff were the very expensive frankincense and myrrh that were burned on a gold plate in the temple. Additionally, the main entrance into the Temple was from the East gate and the entrance into the Holy of Holies was from the East. The ‘wise men’ who came to see the baby Jesus were from the East and they brought with them gold, frankincense, and myrrh; not to make Jesus rich but to do exactly what the high priest did in the Holy of Holies—to worship the Holy One of Israel revealed in the Messiah. This act may have been forbidden outside of the Holy of Holies, but the wise men were in the very presence of the Holy One.
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were valuable items monetarily, and were thus fine and expensive gifts. But more than that, they had a ritual significance in the ancient world and were ingredients in the sacred anointing of kings and priests. Gold has always been an enduring symbol of incorruptible love.
Frankincense is an aromatic gum resin obtained from an African tree and burned as incense. Also called olibanum, it has a smell of pine and lemon combined with a dry woody aroma. Frankincense resembles jewel-size chunks of brown sugar. The word is from Old French franc encens meaning ‘high-quality incense’. Frankincense was burned in censers and on special altars in Hebrew temples, in mosques, and in Christian churches.
Myrrh is a yellowish-brown to reddish-brown aromatic gum resin with a bitter slightly pungent taste obtained from a tree of eastern Africa and Arabia. Myrrh is resinous with an aromatic woody and slight medicinal smell. It can range from bitter and astringent to warm and sweet. Similar to frankincense or pine, it’s a cooling scent.
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After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (Matthew 2:1-2, 9-11)