Day 26

The Incense Altar

from the Exodus reading plan

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

BY Claire Gibson

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 know this: when I smell patchouli in a store, it doesn’t smell the same as 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. “As for the incense you are making, you must not make any for yourselves using its formula. It is to be regarded by you as holy—belonging to the LORD” (Exodus 30:37). 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 Christ, we carry the fragrance of Christ with us everywhere we go. “For to God we are the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2Corinthians 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. 

Post Comments (33)

33 thoughts on "The Incense Altar"

  1. Shannon Lowry says:

    Sending you love and hugs traci ❤️

  2. Dorothy says:

    My favorite scents are those of spices, especially the sweet ones and barbecue. They bring back all the memories of the holidays of family together. The barbecue is because for the longest time my mom would slow cook — in her oven with liquid smoke and other barbecue spices — a brisket for Christmas. She would get up about 6 or 7 in the morning and season it and put it in the oven at about 225 degrees. By noon you would start to smell the meat cooking, by 5 or 6 — dinner time, when the whole family was there — it smelt sooooo good, you thought you were in a barbecue restaurant. Later in my mom’s life, my dad started to get barbecue from one of the best barbecue restaurants in the Kansas City area. We would put in the oven to keep it warm so the smell was still there. Put nothing ever topped Mom’s brisket — I guess it was the love that also went in to it.
    Sisters, be blessed and take time to smell the scents outside in God’s creation, around you.

  3. Obi O says:


  4. Jessica Marcus says:

    I love this! God cares about every detail in our lives!

  5. Kimberly Ziehl says:

    Agreed thanks for the info Debbie. Reading Exodus reminds me of how extravagant God really is. Even in the smallest of details.

  6. Traci Gendron says:

    I have an unbelievable sense of smell. My husband tells me I’m like a hound…. The sense of smell is so part of my being. I smell Tanner’s clothes every morning and every night. I’m afraid the scent will diminish in time. It actually makes me panic. It is all I have left besides my memories. I remember when he was young his sweat smelled like sulfur from one of his medicines. Not a good smell actually, but it was his. I can imagine kissing him on the head and smelling his hair. The thought is gut wrenching to think I can no longer do that. I love the scents associated with Christmas. So many good memories from when I was a child and the years with Tanner.

    As followers of Jesus Christ, we carry the fragrance of Christ with us everywhere we go. “For to God we are the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2Corinthians 2:15). We are so blessed!

  7. Mari V says:

    I was raised Catholic and I can remember that on occasion there was a part in the mass that involved incense. Makes me think from today’s reading that this part of the mass was similar. And it’s interesting if I focus I can still smell it.

  8. Cee Gee says:

    I love the insights and information shared here today, DEBBIE- PURSUED BY HIM and ANGIE MILLS!
    I was drawn to the last part of v.10 and the holiness of the altar. I thought of the many marriages, baby christenings and dedications, etc. that take place on our altars. Do we recognize and honor the holiness of that space?! I know that when I see the spread of The Lord’s Supper at the altar, it sharpens that feeling of the holiness there (for me). Just something I am pondering this morning. Thank you, CLAIRE! Like your mom, I love Patchouli!

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