Incense

INCENSE. The KJV translation of two Hebrew words that were distinct in meaning at first, although later the second came to have virtually the same meaning as the first: levônâh, “frankincense,” and qetōrâh, “incense.” Incense was an aromatic substance made of gums and spices to be burned, especially in religious worship. It was compounded according to a definite prescription of gum resin, onycha, galbanum, and pure frankincense in equal proportions, and was tempered with salt (Exod.30.34-Exod.30.35). It could not be made for ordinary purposes (Exod.30.34-Exod.30.38; Lev.10.1-Lev.10.7). Incense not properly compounded was rejected as “strange incense” (Exod.30.9 kjv).


The use of incense in the temple may have been partly a sanitary measure, since the smell of blood from the many animal sacrifices must have polluted the atmosphere, and the air would have to be fumigated; but it is largely explained by the love of the Oriental for sweet odors. Incense was often offered to those one wished to honor. For example, when Alexander the Great marched against Babylon, incense was offered on altars erected to him. The offering of incense was common in the religious ceremonies of nearly all ancient nations (Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Phoenicians, etc.) and was extensively used in the ritual of Israel.

Incense was symbolic of the ascending prayer of the officiating high priest. The psalmist prayed, “May my prayer be set before you like incense” (Ps.141.2). In Rev.8.3-Rev.8.5 an angel burns incense on the golden altar, and smoke ascends with the prayer of saints.


Usually regarded as a symbol of prayer ascending to God, incense has been, and is, widely used in many religious ceremonies, both Christian and pagan. The word describes both the substance used for burning and the aroma. In the Jewish temple it accompanied all sacrifices (except the sin- offering of the poor and the meat-offering of the leper). On the Day of Atonement it was solemnly burned by the high priest in the Holy of Holies. For the ingredients of incense and its use see Exodus 30:34-38; Leviticus 16:12ff.; and the Talmud (cf. Keritot 6a). Unless there is a reference in Revelation 8:3-5, there is no sure evidence of its use in Christian worship until the sixth century. This use may have risen in imitation of the custom of carrying incense in a thuribulum (thurible) before Roman magistrates. By the ninth century its use was widespread in both West and East. Today it is only used in solemn sung services in the West, but in the East it is used rather more frequently. Within the Church of England its use is technically illegal, but it is nevertheless used by Anglo-Catholic clergy in the service of Holy Communion.


INCENSE. Material which is burned to make a fragrant smoke or the fragrant smoke thus produced.

Words translated “incense.”


Incense in the ancient Near East.

From the earliest times for which there are records about worship, incense was used by the Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Arabians, and Canaanites. The Canaanites, who were the nearest neighbors of the Hebrews, have left various incense stands, altars, censers, and spoons in city levels dated in the second millennium b.c. Egyptian representations of sieges of Canaanite cities sometimes show a man on the wall holding a stand in which incense is smoking, doubtless to reinforce the prayers offered by men standing behind him with upraised arms.

Sources of incense.

Incense came from S Arabia (frankincense, myrrh), Somaliland (frankincense), Palestine (saffron, stacte), Red Sea (onycha), Persia (galbanum), India (nard), and Ceylon (cinnamon). Arabs controlled much of the incense trade (Gen 37:25; 1 Kings 10:10; Ezek 27:22), and this trade brought wealth to Sheba and other kingdoms of S Arabia.

Kinds and preparation of incense

In the Bible.


In extra-Biblical sources.

The writer of Jubilees, reflecting the Jewish practice of the 2nd cent. b.c., attributed incense offerings to the patriarchs, to Adam: frankincense and galbanum (3:27), to Abraham: frankincense, galbanum, stacte, nard, myrrh, spice, and costus (16:24), and to Jacob: incense (32:6). Josephus says that in the temple of his day (1st cent. a.d.) thirteen elements were used in the holy incense (War V. v. 5). According to the Talmud (Kerithoth 6a), the following ingredients were used in making the holy incense of the second temple: resin (corresponding to stacte in Exod 30:34), onycha, galbanum, frankincense, each seventy manehs; myrrh, cassia, spikenard, saffron, each sixteen manehs; costus, twelve manehs; aromatic rind, three manehs; cinnamon, nine manehs; lye from leeks, six kabs; Cyprus wine, three seahs and three kabs; salt of Sodom, one quarter kab; smoke-raiser, a small quantity; and, according to Rabbi Nathan, also Jordan resin, a small quantity, a total of 368 to Plutarch (Isis and Osiris, 80), the Egyp. incense called kyphi had sixteen elements, and several materials were combined in Babylonian and Assyrian incense offerings. The priestly family of Abtinas was in charge of pounding and mixing the holy incense, and only they knew the secret of making incense whose smoke rose straight up (Talmud, Yoma, 38a).

Incense in common life.


Religious use of incense.

The worship of Baal, the queen of heaven, and other foreign gods by means of incense often is condemned in the OT (e.g. 1 Kings 11:8; Ep Jer 43). Also condemned are the pagan “incense altars” KJV usually “images” (Lev 26:30), and the “altars for burning incense” (2 Chron 30:14).

The burning of incense at the shrines on “high places” also is often criticized (e.g. 1 Kings 22:43), either because these high places were associated with idolatry (14:23) or because they conflicted with the centralization of worship in Jerusalem (3:2).

The prophetic criticism of incense offering in the worship of the Lord (Isa 1:13; 66:3; Jer 6:20) is not an absolute negation but only part of the prophets’ condemnation of empty formalism.

The bronze serpent (Num 21:9) was worshiped with incense until Hezekiah removed this temptation to idolatry (2 Kings 18:4).

Incense evidently was thought to help in the exorcism of demons (Tobit 6:7; 8:2, 3).

According to the law only the priests descended from Aaron could offer incense (Lev 2:2). Those who tried to usurp the priestly function of offering incense were punished by death (Num 16:31, 32) or disease (2 Chron 26:19), and even priests who offered incense improperly were killed (Lev 10:1, 2).

In the special case of a plague Aaron offered the incense with a censer, not in the sanctuary as usually, but in the camp (Num 16:46, 47).

Frankincense was added to various meal offerings on the altar of burnt offering (Lev 2:1, 2, 15, 16; 6:15). It also was added to the bread of the Presence (Lev 24:7) in two dishes (Mishnah, Menahoth XI. 5, 7, 8), which Josephus says were of gold (Antiq. III. x. 7). After a week this frankincense accompanying the bread was burned on the altar of burnt offering (Jos., ibid.).

The priest offered the compounded holy incense morning and evening on the goldcovered altar in front of the veil. According to Exodus 30:1-10, Aaron, the high priest did this; later priests were chosen by lot to perform this function (Mishnah, Tamid II. 5; V. 2, 4; VI. 1-3; Luke 1:9).

On the nodetitle the high priest offered the compounded incense in a censer on the Ark, or, in the second temple, on a stone in the holy of holies (Lev 16:12, 13; Mishnah, Yoma I. 2; II. 4; III. 3, 4; V. 1, 2; VII. 4).

Figurative references to incense.

The beauty of wisdom (Ecclus 24:15) and the memory of Josiah (49:1) are compared to incense. In the NT incense is used as a symbol of the knowledge of Christ (2 Cor 2:14), of the Philippians’ offering to Paul (Phil 4:18), and of the prayers of the saints (Rev 5:8; 8:3, 4). Philo (Who Is the Heir of Divine Things?, 41) and Josephus (War V. v. 5) interpret the varied materials of the holy incense allegorically as symbolic of God’s proprietorship over the whole world.

The function of the incense offering.


Bibliography

A. Schmidt, Drogen und Drogenhandel im Altertum (1924); M. Löhr, Das Räucheropfer im Alten Testament (1927); F. Blome, Die Opfermaterie in Babylonien und Israel (1934); G. W. Van Beek, “Frankincense and Myrrh,” BA, XXLII (1960), 70-95; M. Haran, “The Use of Incense,” VT, X (1960), 113-129.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


See Censer.

Figuratively, incense was symbolical of ascending prayer. The multitude were praying while Zacharias offered incense (Lu 1:10, thumiama), and in Re 5:8; 8:3 f, the incense in the heavenly temple is connected and even identified (5:8) with "the prayers of the saints."