How Incense Works

Incense is mentioned several times in scripture, and other than the fact that it makes smoke, I’ve been ignorant of what exactly it is and how it works. Instead of continuing to ignore it as something spooky and weird, I decided to de-mystify the topic by finally figuring out what it is exactly.

Incense was part of Old Testament Jewish rituals, representing prayer and the Holy Spirit, and so now that we have the true substance knowing Christ himself, it is no longer necessary that we observe such weak shadows of those things which were to come and have come already. Religious bells and smells are a poor substitute for the real thing.

That being said, it is interesting to find out how exactly incense works, and so to understand the intended typology better. Also, incense and censors are still mentioned in the Book of Revelation, so we can’t say it is something that has been prohibited or made completely inappropriate by the advent of the New Covenant.

Hebrews 9:9-10 “Which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience; 10 Which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation.”

Like anything else, it can either be good or bad depending on the intent and the context in which it is used. If it is used as “magic” then it’s just paganism, but if certain churches use it as part of the solemnity and order of their meetings, then I wouldn’t fault them just for doing it – rather I’d fault them for combining it with so much idolatry and religious nonsense that it is part of an elaborate outward religious system that substitutes for true Bible-Christianity, making people think they are saved without ever introducing them to Christ.

The Jews used incense in their worship of idols:

Jeremiah 44:17-18 “But we will certainly do whatsoever thing goeth forth out of our own mouth, to burn incense unto the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her, as we have done, we, and our fathers, our kings, and our princes, in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem: for then had we plenty of victuals, and were well, and saw no evil. 18 But since we left off to burn incense to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her, we have wanted all things, and have been consumed by the sword and by the famine.”

Ezekiel 8:10-11 “So I went in and saw; and behold every form of creeping things, and abominable beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel, pourtrayed upon the wall round about. 11 And there stood before them seventy men of the ancients of the house of Israel, and in the midst of them stood Jaazaniah the son of Shaphan, with every man his censer in his hand; and a thick cloud of incense went up.”

Incense is made of dried plant substances, like resin and bark. In the Bible only familiar types of “sweet” incense were allowed. The “perfume” mentioned in the following passage apparently describes the ingredients to be used for the incense:

Exodus 30:34-35 “¶ And the LORD said unto Moses, Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight: 35 And thou shalt make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure and holy:”

[“Apothecary” is an old word for pharmacist.]

In contrast, Chinese and Indian incense used in their heathenism has a wide variety of smells: spicy, pungent, woody (sandalwood), bitter, medicinal (camphor), floral, etc. Pagan incense is often mixed with combustible material into a paste, dried into a shape, then an edge is lit on fire, the fire is put out, and it is left to smoulder.

Bible sweet incense was not burned directly in that manner, rather it is placed on top of burning coals, like cooking, and the rising heat releases the aromatic resins as smoke. Charcoal is used because it burns clean without releasing any smoke or odour of its own.

The Temple’s incense altar was to burned upon twice daily and to be consecrated with blood once every year:

Exodus 30:7-10 “And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn incense upon it. 8 And when Aaron lighteth the lamps at even, he shall burn incense upon it, a perpetual incense before the LORD throughout your generations. 9 Ye shall offer no strange incense thereon, nor burnt sacrifice, nor meat offering; neither shall ye pour drink offering thereon. 10 And 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.”

John the Baptist’s father Zacharias was the priest in the Temple performing that annual function when he encountered an angel:

Luke 1:9-13 “According to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. 11 And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.”

A mound of salt is apparently often used as a base to hold the charcoal and to dissipate the heat.

All the ritualistic branches of Christianity use some incense, but the Orthodox church seems to be particularly enthusiastic about it, and as it was for Demetrius and the silversmiths of Acts 19:23-28, it’s a big business.

Incense is smoke so too much will trigger allergies and coughing, but I suppose we all enjoy the pleasant smell of something nice like pine and frankincense odours. Along with stain-glassed windows and organ music it certainly can add to the carnal delight of a religious service – a sensual experience. Being fleshly doesn’t make it necessarily bad, but it is if one mistakes the sensual for something spiritual.

If there is incense in heaven, I sure I will enjoy it, but here and now it  seems a little bit creepy and paganish when used in religious ceremonies. I have a hard time thinking of smelly smoke-clouds as something “Christian” – it seems more like a bar with cigarettes.

For the enjoyment of burning-smells, I’d much rather praise the Lord over a wood fire or a steak on the barbecue.

Here’s an Orthodox video promoting incense:


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