A compound of aromatic gums and balsams that will burn slowly, giving off a fragrant aroma. The Hebrew words qetoʹreth and qetoh·rahʹ are from the root qa·tarʹ, meaning “make sacrificial smoke.” The equivalent in the Christian Greek Scriptures is thy·miʹa·ma.
The sacred incense prescribed for use in the wilderness tabernacle was made of costly materials that the congregation contributed. (Ex 25:1, 2, 6; 35:4, 5, 8, 27-29) In giving the divine formula for this fourfold mixture, Jehovah said to Moses: “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, where I shall present myself to you. It should be most holy to you people.” Then, to impress upon them the exclusiveness and holiness of the incense, Jehovah added: “Whoever makes any like it to enjoy its smell must be cut off from his people.”—Ex 30:34-38; 37:29.
At a later time the rabbinic Jews added other ingredients to the temple incense, Josephus saying it was made of 13 sweet-smelling spices. (The Jewish War, V, 218 [v, 5]) According to Maimonides, some of these extra items included amber, cassia, cinnamon, myrrh, saffron, and spikenard.
At the W end of the Holy compartment of the tabernacle, next to the curtain dividing it off from the Most Holy, was located “the altar of incense.” (Ex 30:1; 37:25; 40:5, 26, 27) There was also a similar incense altar in Solomon’s temple. (1Ch 28:18; 2Ch 2:4) Upon these altars, every morning and evening the sacred incense was burned. (Ex 30:7, 8; 2Ch 13:11) Once a year on the Day of Atonement coals from the altar were taken in a censer, or fire holder, together with two handfuls of incense, into the Most Holy, where the incense was made to smoke before the mercy seat of the ark of the testimony.—Le 16:12, 13.
High Priest Aaron initially offered the incense upon the altar. (Ex 30:7) However, his son Eleazar was given oversight of the incense and other tabernacle items. (Nu 4:16) It appears that the burning of incense, except on the Day of Atonement, was not restricted to the high priest, as underpriest Zechariah (father of John the Baptizer) is mentioned as handling this service. (Lu 1:8-11) Soon after the tabernacle service began to function, Aaron’s two sons Nadab and Abihu were struck dead by Jehovah for attempting to offer up incense with “illegitimate fire.” (Le 10:1, 2; compare Ex 30:9; see ABIHU.) Later, Korah and 250 others, all Levites but not of the priestly line, rebelled against the Aaronic priesthood. As a test they were instructed by Moses to take fire holders and burn incense at the tabernacle entrance so that Jehovah might indicate whether he accepted them as his priests. The group perished while in the act, their fire holders in hand. (Nu 16:6, 7, 16-18, 35-40) So, too, King Uzziah was stricken with leprosy when he presumptuously attempted to burn incense in the temple.—2Ch 26:16-21.
As time went on, the nation of Israel became so negligent in the prescribed worship of Jehovah that they closed the temple and burned incense on other altars. (2Ch 29:7; 30:14) Worse than that, they burned incense to other gods before whom they prostituted themselves, and in other ways they desecrated the holy incense, all of which was detestable in Jehovah’s sight.—Eze 8:10, 11; 16:17, 18; 23:36, 41; Isa 1:13.
Significance. The Law covenant had a shadow of better things to come (Heb 10:1), and it seems that the burning of incense under that arrangement represented the acceptable prayers of God’s faithful servants. The psalmist declared, “May my prayer be prepared as incense before you [Jehovah].” (Ps 141:2) Likewise, the highly symbolic book of Revelation describes those around God’s heavenly throne as having “golden bowls that were full of incense, and the incense means the prayers of the holy ones.” “A large quantity of incense was given him [an angel] to offer it with the prayers of all the holy ones upon the golden altar that was before the throne.” (Re 5:8; 8:3, 4) In several respects the burning incense served as a fitting symbol of the prayers of the holy ones that are “offered up” (Heb 5:7) night and day (1Th 3:10), and are pleasant to Jehovah.—Pr 15:8.
Incense, of course, could not make the prayers of false worshipers acceptable to God. (Pr 28:9; Mr 12:40) On the other hand, the prayers of a righteous one are effectual. (Jas 5:16) So, too, when a plague from God broke out, Aaron quickly “put the incense on and began making atonement for the people.”—Nu 16:46-48.
Not Burned by Christians. Though incense is burned today in certain religions of Christendom, as also in Buddhist temples, we find no basis in Scripture for such practice by Christians. Censers are not listed among church vessels for the first four centuries of the Common Era, and not until Gregory the Great (latter part of the sixth century) is there clear evidence of incense being used in church services. Obviously, this is because with the coming of Christ and the nailing of the Law covenant and its regulations to the torture stake (Col 2:14), and especially after the temple and its Aaronic priesthood were completely removed, the burning of incense in the worship of God ceased. No authorization for its use in the Christian congregation was given, and early Christians, like the Jews, never individually burned incense for religious purposes.
Early Christians also refused to burn incense in honor of the emperor, even though it cost them their lives. As Daniel P. Mannix observes: “Very few of the Christians recanted, although an altar with a fire burning on it was generally kept in the arena for their convenience. All a prisoner had to do was scatter a pinch of incense on the flame and he was given a Certificate of Sacrifice and turned free. It was also carefully explained to him that he was not worshiping the emperor; merely acknowledging the divine character of the emperor as head of the Roman state. Still, almost no Christians availed themselves of the chance to escape.”—Those About to Die, 1958, p. 137.
Tertullian (second and third centuries C.E.) says that Christians would not even engage in the incense trade. (On Idolatry, chap. XI) This, however, is not the case with the incense merchants doing business with symbolic Babylon the Great.—Re 18:11, 13.