In Exodus, we find Yahweh’s instructions for building the altars His chosen people were to use when they burned incense to Him. The Lord told him,
“Build an altar out of acacia wood for burning incense. Make it 18 inches square and 36 inches high. The horns and altar must be made out of one piece of wood. Cover all of it with pure gold — the top, the sides, and the horns. Put a gold molding around it. Make two gold rings, and put them below the molding on opposite sides to hold the poles for carrying it. Make the poles out of acacia wood, and cover them with gold. Put the altar in front of the canopy which hangs over the ark containing the words of my promise. I will meet with you there in front of the throne of mercy that is on the ark.
“Aaron must burn sweet-smelling incense on this altar every morning when he takes care of the lamps. Also, when Aaron lights the lamps at dusk, he must burn incense. For generations to come an incense offering must burn constantly in Yahweh’s presence.
“Never burn any unauthorized incense on this altar or any burnt offerings or grain offerings. Never pour a wine offering on it. Once a year Aaron must make peace with the Lord by putting blood on its horns. Once a year — for generations to come — blood from the offering must be placed on the altar to make peace with the Lord. It is most holy to Yahweh” (Exodus 30:1-10).
But then, He gave Moses the specific ingredients to use in that incense:
“Take one part fragrant spices, sweet spices — stacte, onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense — an equal amount of each. Have a perfumer make it into fragrant incense, seasoned with salt, pure and holy. Grind some of it into a fine powder, and put it in front of the ark containing the words of my promise in the tent of meeting, where I will meet with you. You must treat it as most holy. Never make any incense for yourselves using this formula. Treat it as holy to Yahweh. Whoever prepares anything like it for his own enjoyment must be excluded from his people” (Exodus 30:34-38)
Interestingly, that incense was actually made from eleven different ingredients, but only four of them were mentioned in that verse. How come? Well, the exact recipe explaining each spice and the exact amounts and process used were a closely guarded secret passed down from generation to generation within the ranks of one particular family known as the House of Avtinas. This wasn’t done to make the clan unique, but to protect the recipe from being used in idolatry. In fact, one herb used, known in Hebrew as ma’aleh ashan (which literally means “that which causes smoke to rise“) was so unique that it caused the smoke from the incense to rise up to heaven in a straight column instead of immediately diffusing and scattering throughout a room.
The Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah, 3:4) provides several touching stories about the Avtinas family, which tell us something of the great dedication that burned in their hearts for their holy occupation:
“The Avtinas family were expert in the preparation of the incense spices, and knew how to use the herb ma’aleh ashan, which caused the smoke to rise. But the rabbis were critical that they refused to teach these things to others, and suspended them from office. The sages sent to Alexandria for skilled craftsmen, and engaged these others to try and duplicate the Avtinas’ incense. These craftsmen were expert in the spices, but they could not make the smoke rise up in a straight column like the Avtinas family . . . the smoke from their incense immediately diffused and scattered.
When the sages saw this, they remarked that everything which the Holy One created, He created only for the sake of His own honor, as the verse states (Isaiah 43): ‘Every one that is called by My name, for I have created him for my glory; I have formed him, yes, I have made him.’ They returned the Avtinas family to their task, and doubled their wages.”
(There is are other fascinating and inspiring tales about this family).
Now, I am sure that most of you recognize that within the Scriptures, the fragrant fumes that ascended from that incense represented the prayers of those in covenant relationship with Yahweh (see, Revelation 5:8; 8:3-4). As the Psalmist declared:
“Let my prayer be accepted
as sweet-smelling incense in your presence.
Let the lifting up of my hands in prayer be accepted
as an evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141:2).
Okay. So here is where we need to use our imaginations. Pretend you are the high priest back in the “Old Days,” and you take the incense behind the veil into the Holy Place, within the Temple. However, you mixed in one additional item into that pure eleven ingredients of the incense. That’s right, you stirred in the dust particles of rubber. (Yeah, that is the most foul-smelling thing when it burns, I could think of). Yuck! Shame on you!
Instead of the sweet scent of the pure spices rising from the altar, there is a black, rancid smell of rubber being burned! Oh, my!
Tell me, how in the world could a priest worship the Lord in that stench? More to the point, how can we worship the Lord when, within our own natures, there is something that gives off a filthy smell? How can we hope to have our worship of our Father accepted when undisciplined, uncorrected, unconfessed, unpurified attributes — things that are evil and cripple our ability to honor our Father acceptably — exist?
But, many with evil ingredients in their nature do worship (albeit, half-acceptably)! But honestly, what kind of a way is that to live? I am serious. If we are tempted to show up Sunday Morning (or any time) to worship while holding onto unforgiveness and animosity toward someone, is that truly worth the time we spend?
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