What Does Burning Incense Mean in the Bible? Symbolism Unveiled

Have you ever wondered what burning incense means in the Bible? Incense, also known as perfume, has been used for centuries as a form of worship and offering in the holy place. In the Bible, it holds significant meaning and is mentioned numerous times throughout different books and verses, especially in the context of priestly liturgy. Understanding the importance behind burning incense can provide insight into biblical practices and beliefs that are still relevant in the church today.

In the Old Testament, burning incense was an essential part of the priestly liturgy in the holy place of Jewish worship. The instructions for making perfume incense were detailed in Exodus 30:34-38, and it was used during sacrifices and offerings by the high priest. It also symbolized the prayers rising up to God.

In the New Testament, incense is referenced as a symbol of worship and adoration towards Jesus Christ in Revelation 5:8. This practice was common in the holy place, where burnt offerings were made in the tabernacle and later in the church.

Significance of Burning Incense in Biblical Contexts

Burning incense as a form of worship and prayer

Burning incense and offering burnt offerings have been used as acts of worship and prayer for centuries. In the Bible, it is mentioned numerous times as a way to honor God and seek His favor in the holy place of the tabernacle. The smoke from the burning incense was seen as a symbol of prayers rising up to heaven, foreshadowing the ultimate sacrifice of Christ.

In the book of Exodus, God commands Moses to create an altar of incense where Aaron, his brother, would burn fragrant incense every morning and evening. This was done in front of the curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle. The altar of incense is a symbol of Christ’s intercession for us.

The use of incense was not limited to just one religion or culture. It was also used by ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and other cultures around the world.

Use of incense during important ceremonies and events

Incense was also used during important ceremonies and events in biblical times. For example, during Solomon’s dedication ceremony for the temple he built in Jerusalem, he burned so much incense that it filled the entire temple with smoke (2 Chronicles 7:1-3).

Similarly, when Jesus was born, wise men from the east brought him gifts including frankincense – one of three types of gifts presented to Him (Matthew 2:11). This shows how highly valued burning incense was at that time.

Symbolic representation of God’s presence

Burning incense is also seen as a symbolic representation of God’s presence. In Psalm 141:2, David writes “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.” This verse shows how burning incense can be used to represent prayer and sacrifice.

Furthermore, in Revelation 8:3-4 it says “Another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.” This verse shows how burning incense is still seen as a way to honor God and seek His favor.

Symbolism of Burning Incense in the Bible

Aroma Symbolizing Prayers Rising to Heaven

Burning incense has been a significant part of religious ceremonies for centuries. In the Bible, burning incense symbolizes prayers rising to heaven as a sweet aroma. The use of incense in worship is mentioned several times in the Old and New Testaments.

In Psalm 141:2, King David pleads with God, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you.” Similarly, in Revelation 8:3-4, an angel offers up incense with the prayers of all the saints on a golden altar before God’s throne. This imagery suggests that our prayers are like sweet-smelling incense that rises up to God.

The act of burning incense also represents an offering or sacrifice made to God. When we burn incense during worship, we’re acknowledging God’s sovereignty and our dependence on Him.

Purification and Cleansing Through Smoke

Incense was used in ancient times for its cleansing properties. Burning frankincense and myrrh were believed to ward off evil spirits and purify spaces. In Exodus 30:34-38, God instructs Moses to create a special blend of fragrant spices for burning on the altar of incense inside the Tabernacle.

This mixture included fragrances such as cinnamon, cassia, myrrh, and frankincense. The smoke from this mixture was said to cleanse impurities from both people and objects. The use of this fragrant blend was so important that anyone who tried to replicate it would be cut off from their people.

In Leviticus 16:12-13, Aaron was instructed to burn incense on coals taken from the altar before entering the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. This act purified him so he could enter into God’s presence without being struck dead.

Connection Between Incense and Sacrifice

In the Old Testament, burning incense was often associated with sacrifices. The smoke from the incense was believed to carry the prayers of the people to God, just as the blood of the animal sacrifice represented atonement for sin.

In 2 Chronicles 29:25-28, King Hezekiah ordered that incense be burned on the altar alongside burnt offerings and sin offerings. This act of worship was seen as a way to restore proper worship practices in Judah.

Similarly, in Luke 1:8-10, Zechariah is described as offering up incense in the temple while praying for a child with his wife Elizabeth. This act took place during a time when animal sacrifices were still being made in accordance with Jewish law.

References and Definitions of Incense in the Bible

Different Types of Incenses Mentioned in the Bible

Incense has been used for centuries as a symbol of worship, purification, and prayer. The Bible mentions several different types of incense that were used for various purposes.

  1. Frankincense: This was one of the most valuable types of incense mentioned in the Bible. It was obtained from a tree called Boswellia sacra, which grows in Somalia, Oman, and Yemen. Frankincense was used in the temple as an offering to God (Exodus 30:34) and also as a gift to baby Jesus by the wise men (Matthew 2:11).
  2. Myrrh: Myrrh is another type of incense mentioned in the Bible that was highly valued. It was obtained from a tree called Commiphora myrrha, which grows in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Yemen. Myrrh was used for embalming dead bodies (John 19:39) and also as an offering to God (Exodus 30:23).
  3. Spikenard: Spikenard is an aromatic plant that grows in India and Nepal. Its oil was used to make perfumes and ointments, which were then used to anoint Jesus’ feet before his crucifixion (John 12:3).

How Ingredients Were Chosen for Specific Purposes

The ingredients used to make incense were carefully chosen based on their properties and symbolism.

  1. Frankincense: This resin has a sweet aroma when burned but can also produce a bitter smell if burnt improperly. In ancient times, it was believed to have healing properties and was often used as medicine.
  2. Myrrh: Myrrh has a bitter taste but produces a pleasant aroma when burned. It is known for its antiseptic properties and was used in ancient times to treat wounds and infections.
  3. Spikenard: This plant has a strong, musky smell that is both sweet and spicy. It was often used in perfumes and ointments due to its pleasant aroma.

Meaning Behind Specific Scents Used

The scents of incense were also chosen for their symbolic meanings.

  1. Frankincense: This incense symbolizes prayer and worship. When it was burned, it was believed to carry the prayers of the people up to God.
  2. Myrrh: Myrrh symbolizes suffering and sacrifice. It was used as an embalming agent for dead bodies and as an offering to God.
  3. Spikenard: Spikenard symbolizes love and devotion. When Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with spikenard oil, it was seen as a gesture of love and devotion towards him.

Burning Incense in Christianity and the Hebrew Bible

Use of Incense in Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican Churches

Incense has been used in religious ceremonies for centuries. In the Catholic Church, incense is used during Mass to symbolize the prayers of the faithful rising up to heaven. The smoke from burning incense is also said to purify the altar and sanctify the congregation. Similarly, in the Orthodox Church, incense is used during services to purify and sanctify both people and objects.

The use of incense in Anglican churches varies depending on local traditions. Some churches use it regularly during services while others only use it on special occasions such as Christmas or Easter.

In all these Christian denominations, a censer (a container for burning incense) is used during worship services. The priest or minister swings the censer back and forth using chains or ropes while walking through the congregation.

Differences between Christian and Jewish Use of Incense

In Judaism, incense was used primarily as part of burnt offerings in the Temple. It was made according to strict guidelines outlined in Exodus 30:34-38 which required pure frankincense along with other ingredients such as galbanum.

While Christians do not offer burnt offerings like those described in Exodus, they continue to use incense as a symbol of prayer rising up to heaven. This practice can be traced back to references in Revelation 8:3-4 where an angel offers “much incense” with “the prayers of all saints” upon a golden altar before God’s throne.

Similarities between Old Testament Practices and Modern-day Christian Traditions

The use of incense dates back even further than Christianity – it was a common practice among many ancient cultures including those referenced throughout the Old Testament.

For example, when Moses first met God at Mount Sinai he was instructed to build an altar out of acacia wood for burnt offerings. The altar was to be overlaid with bronze and have a grating for the fire, as well as rings and poles for transportation (Exodus 27:1-8). This is similar to the use of incense in Christian churches today where a censer is used to transport burning incense throughout the congregation.

Another similarity between Old Testament practices and modern-day Christian traditions is the use of fire. In Exodus 30:7-8, Aaron was instructed to burn incense on a special altar using coals from the altar of burnt offering. Similarly, in many Christian churches today, incense is burned using hot coals in a censer.

The Use of Incense in Jewish Worship and Sacrifice

Role of Priests during Sacrifices Involving Incenses

In Judaism, priests played a crucial role in the sacrificial liturgy. They were responsible for performing the evening sacrifice, which involved burning incense on the altar. According to the book of Exodus, Moses received specific instructions from God regarding the use of incense in worship.

The priestly liturgy was highly structured and included detailed instructions for each step. One important aspect of this liturgy was the use of incense. The priests would prepare a special blend of fragrant spices that they would burn on the altar as an offering to God.

Specific Instructions for Creating Holy Fragrances

The ingredients used to make holy fragrances were carefully chosen and had symbolic meaning. For example, myrrh was used to represent bitterness and suffering, while frankincense symbolized prayer and devotion.

According to Exodus 30:34-35, there were four main ingredients used in creating holy fragrances: stacte, onycha, galbanum, and pure frankincense. These ingredients were mixed together with olive oil to create a sacred perfume that could be burned on the altar.

Significance Behind Each Ingredient Used

Each ingredient used in creating holy fragrances had its own significance:

  • Stacte: This aromatic gum resin was believed to have healing properties.
  • Onycha: This substance came from a type of shellfish found in the Red Sea and was thought to have antiseptic properties.
  • Galbanum: This bitter resin represented bitterness and suffering.
  • Pure Frankincense: This resin represented prayer and devotion.

Together these ingredients created a fragrance that was pleasing to God and helped connect worshippers with the divine.

Zechariah and the Significance of Burning Incense in the Temple

Historical Context Surrounding Zechariah’s Vision

Zechariah was a prophet during the reign of King Darius, who ruled over Persia from 522-486 BC. During this time, many Jews had returned to Jerusalem after being exiled in Babylon for 70 years. The temple had been destroyed during this exile, but it was rebuilt under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Joshua.

Interpretation Behind His Vision Regarding Burning Incenses

In Zechariah’s vision, he saw a high priest named Joshua standing before an angel of the Lord. Satan was also present, accusing Joshua of wrongdoing. However, the Lord rebuked Satan and declared that Joshua was a “brand plucked from the fire.”

The significance of burning incense in this vision is that it represents prayer. In ancient times, burning incense was a common way to offer prayers to God. The smoke rising up symbolized prayers ascending to heaven. This is why Zechariah sees an angel adding incense to a golden censer before offering it as a prayer on behalf of Joshua.

The message behind this vision is that even when we are accused by Satan, we can be confident that God hears our prayers and will defend us against our accuser.

Understanding How This Vision Relates to Modern-Day Practices

While we may not burn incense in our modern-day worship practices as they did in biblical times, prayer remains an essential part of our relationship with God. Just as Zechariah saw an angel interceding on behalf of Joshua through burning incense, we too can have confidence that Jesus intercedes for us before God’s throne (Hebrews 7:25).

We can also take comfort in knowing that when we face accusations or trials in life, we have an advocate in Jesus Christ (1 John 2:1). Just as the Lord rebuked Satan in Zechariah’s vision, we can trust that God will defend us against our accuser and bring justice to our situation.

Understanding the Meaning and Importance of Burning Incense in the Bible

After exploring the significance, symbolism, references, and definitions of burning incense in biblical contexts, it is clear that this practice holds great importance in both Christianity and Judaism. Burning incense was used as a form of worship, sacrifice, and purification. It symbolized prayers rising to God and was believed to have healing properties.

In Jewish worship, incense was burned twice daily as an offering to God. In Christianity, it was used during important ceremonies such as Christmas and Easter. The use of incense can still be seen in many churches today.

The book of Zechariah also highlights the importance of burning incense in the temple. In chapter 14 verse 20-21, it states that “On that day holy to the Lord will be inscribed on the bells of horses, and the cooking pots in the Lord’s house will be like the sacred bowls in front of the altar. Every pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to the Lord Almighty, and all who come to sacrifice will take some of the pots and cook in them.”

Overall, burning incense held great spiritual significance for those practicing Judaism and Christianity during biblical times. Today it remains an important part of religious practices for many people around the world.


Q: Is burning incense necessary for Christian worship?

A: No, burning incense is not necessary for Christian worship but it is still used by many churches during important ceremonies.

Q: Can burning incense purify a space or person?

A: Many people believe that burning incense has purifying properties for both spaces and individuals.

Q: What types of materials were used to make biblical incense?

A: The Bible mentions several ingredients including myrrh, frankincense, cinnamon, cassia bark, olive oil, stacte (resin), onycha (a type of shellfish), and galbanum.

Q: Why was incense burned twice daily in Jewish worship?

A: Burning incense was seen as a form of offering and worship to God. It symbolized prayers rising to heaven and was believed to have healing properties.

Q: Is burning incense still used in modern-day Judaism?

A: Yes, burning incense is still used in some sects of modern-day Judaism, particularly during important ceremonies and holidays.