Notes on the Tabernacle: The Altar of Incense and the Laver

Exodus 30:1‑10  •  12 min. read  •  grade level: 7
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We now come to one of the vessels of approach to God (Exod. 30:1-101And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon: of shittim wood shalt thou make it. 2A cubit shall be the length thereof, and a cubit the breadth thereof; foursquare shall it be: and two cubits shall be the height thereof: the horns thereof shall be of the same. 3And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, the top thereof, and the sides thereof round about, and the horns thereof; and thou shalt make unto it a crown of gold round about. 4And two golden rings shalt thou make to it under the crown of it, by the two corners thereof, upon the two sides of it shalt thou make it; and they shall be for places for the staves to bear it withal. 5And thou shalt make the staves of shittim wood, and overlay them with gold. 6And thou shalt put it before the vail that is by the ark of the testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the testimony, where I will meet with thee. 7And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn incense upon it. 8And when Aaron lighteth the lamps at even, he shall burn incense upon it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations. 9Ye shall offer no strange incense thereon, nor burnt sacrifice, nor meat offering; neither shall ye pour drink offering thereon. 10And Aaron shall make an atonement upon the horns of it once in a year with the blood of the sin offering of atonements: once in the year shall he make atonement upon it throughout your generations: it is most holy unto the Lord. (Exodus 30:1‑10)). God's righteousness was manifested at the brazen altar, but there also He met the sinner in love and accepted him in the value of the sacrifice, and thus opened the way to draw near to Himself. We may then readily understand why this altar is not mentioned until now, for the way of approach must first be opened. Here Aaron burned the sweet incense. Taking coals of fire from the brazen altar, from the fire which God had kindled, and which never was allowed to go out, he carried these to the golden altar, and there placing incense upon the coals, a sweet fragrance arose before the Lord. The position of this altar of incense was in the holy place, before the veil. At the brazen altar, inside the gate of the court, God could meet with the people; at the golden altar, He met the priests, in the sanctuary. Both these altars convey the thought of drawing near to God, and this on the ground of the value of the sacrifices. On the golden altar there was no sacrifice; therefore coal was taken from the altar of burnt offering, showing that the judgment which consumed the offering there was the same that would bring out the sweet savor on the golden altar; and as the priest was accepted in the value of the shed blood, he would be seen in the acceptance through the cloud of sweet incense, in God's presence. It was the action of the fire that brought out the sweet fragrance of the incense, even as the bruising under Jehovah's rod manifested the fullest fragrance of Christ to God. The incense was to be perpetual (v. 8). This would show that the fragrance of Christ is unceasingly precious to God. In the 8th chapter of Revelation, an angel (evidently Christ) stood at the altar with a golden censer, and much incense was given Him that He should add it to, or offer it with, the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar; and the smoke of the incense ascended with the prayers of the saints before God; and God gave the answer in judgments poured out on those who were persecutors of the suffering ones. From this we would gather that the incense offered by Aaron (type of Christ) was of an intercessory character; "Wherefore He is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them." Heb. 7:2525Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them. (Hebrews 7:25). From this scripture we learn the precious truth that Christ saves to the uttermost—that is, through all the difficulties of their wilderness journey—those who come to Him.
"Much incense is ascending Before th' eternal throne;
God graciously is bending To hear each feeble groan;
To all our prayers and praises, Christ adds His sweet perfume,
And love the censer raises, These odors to consume."
In turn, the believer, made a priest unto God, has also sweet incense to offer; for, brought into God's presence in all the acceptance of Christ, he is there as a worshiper, and, filled with Christ, he can give back to God of that which God has given to him—Christ. This is true worship—the heart filled to overflowing, and praise going forth to God out of the heart thus filled. "By Him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name." Heb. 13:1515By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name. (Hebrews 13:15). "Ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ." 1 Pet. 2:5.
The materials of the golden altar being the same as those of the ark and table, we have Christ presented to us in all that He is in nature, and also in character, and our approach to God is wholly through Him. And, as we have seen, not only is the thought of believers' acceptance in Christ brought before us in this altar, but, as priests, they have the privilege of presenting Him to God, and of enjoying with Him all the preciousness of Christ. This offering of incense was to be morning and evening, day after day, and year after year—never ceasing. "Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice." Phil. 4:44Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice. (Philippians 4:4).
The lamps must be dressed morning and evening at the time of the burning of the incense—a priestly care that there be nothing to hinder the light to shine out in all its brightness. If this care is not taken by believers, there cannot be the enjoyment of Christ in what He is. The two things go together—light and ascending fragrance. It is when the Spirit is ungrieved that He takes of the things that are Christ's, and shows them unto us; and from hearts thus filled sweet fragrance goes forth to God. How careful the Christian should be to keep the lamps trimmed, not allowing in his thoughts, words, or ways, anything that will hinder the power and working of God's Spirit in him.
The Laver
Passing over the account of the atonement money, which has already been referred to in its typical teaching, we come to the laver (vv. 17-21). This closes the account of the tabernacle. The laver, like the golden altar, was needed in approaching God, and, like it, has been left undescribed until after the vessels which manifested God were presented to us. It was placed in the court between the brazen altar and the door into the holy place. Neither the size nor the shape of this vessel are mentioned. It was made of brass; and, as in the brazen altar, the righteousness of God testing man in responsibility is seen. Water was put into the laver for the priests to wash their hands and feet before going into the tabernacle to perform the service of the Lord. The solemn admonition given in connection with this washing with water was "that they die not." This tells of the importance of this cleansing. The altar of burnt offering being overlaid with brass, and the laver made wholly of brass (or copper, according to some authorities), must have for us a like voice. If sinful man comes into the holy presence of God, he must be tested as to what he is and as to what he has done. God is righteous in thus testing him. But man cannot stand the test—sin is there—then "the exceeding riches" of God's grace is manifest; for at the brazen altar, where man is put to the test, a substitute is provided, and judgment falls upon this victim instead of upon the sinner who deserved to die. Christ, the Substitute for His people, has made full atonement and has been accepted of God for them; they are clean from all their sins before the Lord (Lev. 16:3030For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that ye may be clean from all your sins before the Lord. (Leviticus 16:30)), and their sins and iniquities are to be remembered no more (Heb. 10:1717And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more. (Hebrews 10:17)). At the altar then we get man tested and man cleansed. Of what need then is the laver? What voice has it for us? Being of brass, it too must speak of God's righteousness in testing man according to his responsibility. But there is this very important difference in these two brazen vessels: at the altar we find blood; in the laver we find water. Man has utterly failed in his responsibility; death is the wages due; nothing but blood can atone. "Without shedding of blood is no remission." But blood has been shed; sins have been canceled; the believing one is cleared of all guilt—"justified by His blood" (Rom. 5:99Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. (Romans 5:9)). "Washed... from our sins in His own blood." Rev. 1:55And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, (Revelation 1:5). Thus we see blood cleanses from guilt. At the laver we get water, not blood. As we have already seen, water cleanses morally and is a symbol of God's Word by which our ways are cleansed (Psalm 119:99BETH. Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to thy word. (Psalm 119:9); John 15:33Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. (John 15:3); Eph. 5:2626That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, (Ephesians 5:26); etc.). This is a thoroughly practical thing. The question arises, Why was the water put in a brazen vessel? Man is tested not only according to his nature, but according to his ways also; born in sin, an unclean thing out of which nothing clean can come (Job 14:44Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one. (Job 14:4)), he is condemned—Christ, "made sin," was condemned. Out of the unclean nature come evil thoughts, words, and deeds; these need forgiveness, and, through Jesus, forgiveness is granted—"justified from all things." But the old nature still being in the forgiven one, there is a recurrence, in greater or less measure, of wrong thoughts and ways; and from these he needs cleansing.
Notice the particular brass out of which the laver was made (Exod. 38:88And he made the laver of brass, and the foot of it of brass, of the lookingglasses of the women assembling, which assembled at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. (Exodus 38:8)). It was the "looking glasses of the women." When the metal was highly polished, they could behold themselves in it. As the priests approached the laver, they too would find a reflection of themselves; so now, the believer is tested as to his state, God leading him to feel his shortcomings from day to day. These failures need the cleansing power of the Word; this we get pictured for us in the water put into the laver. Our state is made manifest, and our ways can be cleansed only through the Word of God. This cleansing is needed daily, for our feet become defiled in passing through an ungodly world. The bath of regeneration is needed but once, for one can be born again but once (John 13:1010Jesus saith to him, He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all. (John 13:10)). The priests were washed in connection with the consecration. After that, they washed their hands and feet in connection with service. Those now made priests unto God should serve continually (1 Pet. 2:5, 95Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:5)
9But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light: (1 Peter 2:9)
), but the daily use of the laver shows the need of constant self-judgment. How often God's dear people are hindered in prayer, service, and enjoyment of the Lord because of the lack of this.
Some talk about re-application of the blood, but this is not according to Scripture. "We are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once." Heb. 10:1010By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Hebrews 10:10). "By one offering He hath perfected forever them that are sanctified." v.14. Water filled the laver—not blood. The question of guilt was eternally settled at the cross for all who believe; and it is blessed to be at rest as to all our sins through the finished work of Christ. As to our walk, Christ is the standard; and having this blessed hope of being like Him, there is the purifying ourselves as He is pure (1 John 3:33And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure. (1 John 3:3)). May we allow God's blessed Word its full place in our lives, being cleansed by it from the defilement we may gather as we journey down here; thus will we be a separated people—separated from evil, and separated to God—and our lives will be to His glory. "Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God." 1 Cor. 10:3131Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31).
Before closing these brief notes, we would call special attention to one point; that is, that God cannot dwell with man unless man is made clean. The holiness of God would forbid it; and if such a thing could be, man in his sins would be supremely wretched in presence of the light that would search him through and through. Righteousness cannot have fellowship with unrighteousness; light cannot have communion with darkness. This is specially marked in the earthly dwelling place, that Jehovah had prepared for Himself, which was a pattern of things in the heavens. The purification was by blood; Moses "sprinkled... with blood both the tabernacle, and all the vessels of the ministry." "And almost all things are by the law purged [purified] with blood." Blood was carried within the veil and sprinkled upon the mercy seat; blood was put upon the golden altar; upon the horns of the brazen altar, and poured out at the bottom of the altar; it was put upon the tabernacle; upon the people; everywhere God's eye would take in the blood, and thus all, in type, was cleansed. And He had said, "When I see the blood, I will pass over you." Blessed truth! the sinner, saved by grace, is safely sheltered under the blood of Christ which will never lose its value—redeemed not with silver and with gold, "but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot." 1 Pet. 1:1919But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot: (1 Peter 1:19). It is the blood that makes atonement for the soul. It is the blood that cleanses. "The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin." 1 John 1:77But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. (1 John 1:7).
"In heaven the blood forever speaks
In God's omniscient ear;
The saints, as jewels on His heart,
Jesus doth ever bear.
" 'No condemnation!'—O my soul;
`Tis God that speaks the word.
Perfect in comeliness art thou,
In Christ the risen Lord."
The fool, who says in his heart, "There is no God," may be allowed the horror of the "blackness of darkness" forever; but, through the exceeding riches of God's grace, many a scoffing infidel has at last found shelter under the precious blood, and has exultingly praised the One who drew him to the Savior. Through the rent veil, all who will may come. Will you, my unsaved reader, be made clean by that all-cleansing blood? He gave His life for you. Has His loving entreaty, "Come unto Me," no power with you? Will you reason that the way is barred and you may not come, when His word is, "Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out"? Listen while you may; delay not until too late. The day draws on apace when the door will be shut; then none may enter.