Incense-Burning—Does It Have a Place in True Worship?
“GODS love fragrances.” That was a common saying among ancient Egyptians. To them, the burning of incense was very much a part of their worship. In the belief that the gods were near, the Egyptians burned incense daily at their temples and household altars and even while engaging in business. Other nations had similar customs.
What is incense? The term can refer to the smoke or to the substance burned. It is made of aromatic resins and gums, such as frankincense and balsam. These are pounded into a powder and are often mixed with such substances as spices, tree bark, and flowers to create certain fragrances for specific applications.
Incense was such a desirable and thus valuable commodity in ancient times that its ingredients became important items of trade. Caravans following trade routes carried these from distant lands. You may recall that Jacob’s young son Joseph was sold to Ishmaelite traders who were “coming from Gilead, and their camels were carrying labdanum and balsam and resinous bark, on their way to take it down to Egypt.” (Genesis 37:25) The demand for incense became so great that the frankincense trade route, no doubt initiated by incense merchants, opened up travel between Asia and Europe.
Incense is still offered in the ceremonies and rituals of many religions today. Additionally, more and more people choose to burn incense in their homes simply to enjoy its pleasant aroma. How should Christians view incense-burning? Is it acceptable to God in worship? Let us examine what the Bible has to say on the matter.
“Something Holy to Jehovah”
Among the ancient Israelites, the burning of incense figured prominently in priestly duties at the tabernacle. McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopedia states: “Indeed, the burning of incense seems to have been considered among the Hebrews so much of an act of worship or sacred offering that we read not of any other use of incense than this among them.”
Jehovah God prescribed four ingredients to be mixed and burned at the tabernacle: “Take to yourself perfumes: stacte drops and onycha and perfumed galbanum and pure frankincense. There should be the same portion of each. And you must make it into an incense, a spice mixture, the work of an ointment maker, salted, pure, something holy. And you must pound some of it into fine powder and put some of it before the Testimony in the tent of meeting.” (Exodus 30:34-36) Scholars suggest that other ingredients were later added by the rabbinic Jews for temple use.
Incense burned at the tabernacle was sacred, used exclusively in the worship of God. Jehovah commanded: “The incense that you will make with this composition, you must not make for yourselves. For you it is to continue as something holy to Jehovah. Whoever makes any like it to enjoy its smell must be cut off from his people.” (Exodus 30:37, 38) Upon a designated altar, priests burned incense twice a day. (2 Chronicles 13:11) And on Atonement Day, the high priest burned incense in the Most Holy.—Leviticus 16:12, 13.
Not all incense offerings were acceptable to God. He punished nonpriests who presumptuously offered it as if they were priests. (Numbers 16:16-18, 35-40; 2 Chronicles 26:16-20) The incense offered by the Jewish nation was offensive to Jehovah when they were at the same time engaging in acts of false worship and filling their hands with bloodshed. Their hypocrisy led Jehovah to declare: “Incense—it is something detestable to me.” (Isaiah 1:13, 15) The Israelites became so negligent in the prescribed worship of Jehovah that they closed the temple and burned incense on other altars. (2 Chronicles 28:24, 25) Years later the holy incense was even used in the depraved worship of false gods. Such practices were revolting to Jehovah.—Ezekiel 16:2, 17, 18.
Incense and the Early Christians
The Law covenant, including the priestly decree to offer holy incense, ended when Christ inaugurated the new covenant in 33 C.E. (Colossians 2:14) There is no record that early Christians burned incense for religious purposes. Regarding this, McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopedia says: “It is certain that incense was not used [by early Christians]. Indeed the use of it was a mark of paganism . . . A few grains of incense thrown by a devotee upon a pagan altar constituted an act of worship.”
Early Christians also refused to burn incense to acknowledge the “divinity” of the Roman emperor, even though it could cost them their lives. (Luke 4:8; 1 Corinthians 10:14, 20) In view of the idolatrous use of incense in those days, it is not surprising that the early Christians would not even engage in the incense trade.
How is incense used today? In many churches of Christendom, incense is offered in ceremonies and liturgy. Among Asians, many families burn incense at temples or before household altars to honor their gods and safeguard the dead. In religious services, incense has been variously used to fumigate, heal, purify, and protect.
Incense has recently enjoyed a revival even among those not professing a religion. Some burn incense in connection with meditation. One guidebook suggests using incense to reach “subtle planes” and “energies” beyond the physical world. To find solutions to life’s problems, it also recommends incense-burning rituals that involve contact with “supernatural beings.” Are such practices for Christians?
Jehovah roundly condemns those who try to blend false religious practices with pure worship. The apostle Paul quoted Isaiah’s prophecy and applied it to Christians, urging them to keep free from the unclean influence of false religion. He wrote: “‘Get out from among them, and separate yourselves,’ says Jehovah, ‘and quit touching the unclean thing’; ‘and I will take you in.’” (2 Corinthians 6:17; Isaiah 52:11) True Christians take care to avoid anything that is connected with false worship or the occult.—John 4:24.
Does the fact that incense is used in religious ceremonies and in spiritism mean that all incense-burning is wrong? Not necessarily. Perhaps a person wishes to burn incense as a fragrance in his home simply to enjoy its pleasant aroma. (Proverbs 27:9) Even so, in deciding whether to burn incense, a Christian should consider certain factors. Would others in the area where you live associate the use of incense with a false religious practice? In your community, is incense often associated with spiritistic rituals? Or is it commonly used for nonreligious purposes?
If an individual chooses to burn incense, his decision should take into consideration both his own conscience and the feelings of others. (1 Corinthians 10:29) The words of the apostle Paul to the Romans apply. He wrote: “Let us pursue the things making for peace and the things that are upbuilding to one another. Stop tearing down the work of God just for the sake of food. True, all things are clean, but it is injurious to the man who with an occasion for stumbling eats. It is well not to eat flesh or to drink wine or do anything over which your brother stumbles.”—Romans 14:19-21.
Prayers That Are “Prepared as Incense”
The offering of incense among the Israelites was a fitting symbol of prayers that are heard by God. Hence, the psalmist David sang to Jehovah: “May my prayer be prepared as incense before you.”—Psalm 141:2.
Faithful Israelites did not view the offering of incense as an empty ritual. They took great care to prepare and burn incense in the way prescribed by Jehovah. Instead of using literal incense, Christians today offer prayers that reflect deep appreciation and respect for our heavenly Father. Like the sweet-smelling incense offered by temple priests, God’s Word assures us: “The prayer of the upright ones is a pleasure to him.”—Proverbs 15:8.
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Incense burned at the tabernacle and at the temple was sacred
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Is the burning of incense in connection with meditation for Christians?