Day 26

The Incense Altar

Exodus 30:1-38, 2 Corinthians 2:14-16, 1 John 2:24-27

BY Guest Writer

Scripture Reading: Exodus 30:1-38, 2 Corinthians 2:14-16, 1 John 2:24-27

For years now, my mother has worn patchouli.

It smells like the woods, with a tinge of smoke and a hint of something floral. Even days after she’s visited Nashville, her invisible signature lingers on the pillow where she slept, on the scarf she borrowed, on the blanket on the couch—reminding me that we were together. I’m not sure if I love the fragrance, or if I love that it reminds me of her. But I do know this: when I smell patchouli in a store, it doesn’t smell the same as does when it’s on my mom.

In Exodus 30, the Lord outlines a series of rich, holy, and sacred instructions for the altar of the tabernacle. He includes a recipe for anointing oil and a recipe for incense. I don’t know about you, but in the age of essential oil popularity, the thought occurred to me that I could probably whip up a batch, just to see what it smelled like. But it’s clear through His instructions that these items are meant to be special. They’re exclusive and not to be shared far and wide; they are recipes never to be mixed outside of the church. “Do not make any incense with this formula for yourselves; consider it holy to the Lord” (v. 37). God is ensuring that the only time His people will smell these rich fragrances is in His presence.

Psychologists have found that our sense of smell is closely linked with memory. Perhaps that’s why, when I think of my grandmother, I can still remember the tart scent of her cold cream that she’d pat on her face every night. It’s why at Christmas, I stock up on Balsam Fir candles, to extend the season just a bit longer. Fragrance is a powerful force. It helps us remember. It activates emotion. It recalls stories. It brings us back. It transports us. It slows us down. It comforts.

God knows this. He knows our spiritual as well as our physiological needs—because He created every part of us, including our sense of smell. Isn’t it beautiful to consider that God wants to activate all of our senses as we interact with Him? He isn’t limited to the spiritual realm, but wants our physical bodies to experience His presence, too.

Just like my mother’s patchouli oil leaves a trace, as followers of Jesus, we carry the fragrance of Christ with us everywhere we go. “For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing” (2 Corinthians 2:15). Priests no longer have to whip up a batch of something sacred; because of Christ’s work on the cross, now we ourselves are sacred.

As you go about your day, pay attention to the sweet smell of that apple, the bitter fragrance of coffee, the grassy scent of sweat on your children. Even in life’s mundane moments, our sense of smell can remind us of our God and His extravagance.


Claire Gibson is a writer whose work has been featured in publications including The Washington Post and Entrepreneur Magazine among many others. An Army kid who grew up at West Point, New York, Claire is currently growing roots in Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband, Patrick, their son, Sam, and their dog, Winnie. Her debut novel, Beyond the Point, will be published next year.

Post Comments (71)

71 thoughts on "The Incense Altar"

  1. Denise Powers Fabian says:

    How can I ever get my arms around this multi-faceted God of the universe who is extravagant to every detail for my pleasure in His presence?

  2. Lizzieb85 says:

    I’m a day behind. But that’s what Grace day is for, right?

    Anyway, in today’s passage I was a bit taken aback by the fact that the men had to pay so no plague came upon them. I was like, what?! But reading on I see that it was to provide for the workings of the tabernacle. How sad that God had to, essentially, strong arm the people into giving. He does not do that for us. Just another example where there is freedom in Christ. We have the Holy Spirit to convict us on spiritual matters.

  3. Dorothy says:

    I praise the Lord that he helps me through my ailments, both physical and psychological, after 38 years of nursing, losing my oldest son when he was 18 years old, both sons had/have AD/HD and two hip replacements. I just started using a difusser to help me relax at night and wake up during the day. God has helped me through all my hard times, and I’m grateful for that.
    I remember the wisemen bringing Myrrh to the Holy family, in a sermon I heard the Myrrh was to be used for his burial. God has given his son for us.

    1. Julie says:

      Grace and peace to you Dorothy <3

    2. She Reads Truth says:

      Thanks for sharing Dorothy, we’re so grateful that you’re here! -Margot, The SRT Team

  4. Chrissy E says:

    I thought the same thing at first, about whipping up my own batch, until I read the instructions not to. :) I can imagine both are quite unmistakable scents, set apart both in fragrance and purpose.

    1. Deborah Craytor says:

      I thought that, too. I don’t think we would be subject to excommunication or death if we did so, but the prohibition still applies to us, according to David Guzik: “This shows that the work of the Holy Spirit is never to be imitated. There is to be no place for encouraging a man-made imitation of the gifts or operations of the Holy Spirit. To do this denies the holiness of the Holy Spirit, regarding His work as something we can do just as well on our own.”

  5. Martha says:

    This week one of the Gospels at daily Mass was from the Sermon on the Mount in St. Matthew’s Gospel where Our Lord says that He has come to fulfill the Old Law. This dovetailed so well with my thoughts throughout the readings on the Ark, tabernacle, the priesthood, the altar and the incense. I have been particularly struck by how much of the rituals in our Catholic worship are completions or fulfillments of the worship in the Old Covenant. All of those visible signs of worship are still important — the incense, the anointings with oil (chrism) and so on, because as human beings we need to experience God through our senses, not just spiritually.

    1. Candi says:

      Such a great observation!! Beautiful!

  6. Holly says:

    This study reminded me of how contagious sin is. How it spreads unholiness like an oil spill or an epidemic. Everything in the Tabernacle had to be purified in order for God to dwell there. Utensils, furniture, priests. The image of incense made me think of purifying the air. Even the air has been touched by sin. Yet the holiness of Jesus is also contagious. Jesus interacted with people who had leprosy. Instead of contracting their illness, Jesus healed them. Even though He was surrounded by temptation on Earth, Jesus never sinned. Instead He took our sins upon Himself, conquering death and rising to life.

  7. Chris says:

    Great great lesson today. Everyone’s comments are beautiful.

  8. Courtney Javier says:

    The OT passage also reminded me of Mark 14:3-9 where Jesus is anointed at Bethany. He was set apart as a holy sacrifice for us!

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