“Behold I build a house to the name of the LORD my God, to dedicate it to him, and to burn before him sweet incense, and for the continual showbread, and for the burnt offerings morning and evening…” II Chronicles 2:4
In the days of the Temple sacrifices, the smell of burning incense arising from the holy site permeated the air. The sweet fragrance was so enveloping that the inhabitants of Jericho, some fifteen miles distant from Jerusalem and 3,000 feet lower, recognized its source. Not only could they smell it, but their flocks also took on the same scent. Twice daily, during the morning and evening sacrifices, a priest would enter the Holy Place with the fire from the altar of the burnt offering. Here the hot coals were placed on the altar of incense. This altar stood directly in front of the Holy of Holies, separated only by the veil. The incense was spread upon these burning coals. Immediately the smoke arose above the altar and filled the air with its sweet scent.
The Jewish Mishnah records that the incense’s fragrance was so lovely, the women of Jerusalem never had to wear perfumes. The intensity of the sweet odors coming from the Temple infused their very beings. Even the brides of the holy city saw no need to anoint themselves with special fragrances, since the holy incense covering their body had no equal. It was said that all of Israel could tell who was from Jerusalem, just by the sweet odors emanating from their presence.
In recent times, a large quantity of what was thought to be Temple incense was discovered in the caves of Qumran. Experiments on the substances by Bar Ilan University researchers produced astonishing results. Although the spices had lost some of their potency since their burial some two thousand years ago, they were still powerful. One account of the incident states:
The aroma released from the spice compound during its processing was profuse and almost immediate. It initially saturated my hands as well as the clothes that I was wearing. Within a matter of minutes my laboratory and the surrounding area (for an area of several meters) was affected by the scent released from the spices. On the first day of processing, the aroma was so intense that I could almost taste it… Upon my return home that evening, the scent that had attached itself on my body and clothes and was really apparent to both my wife and daughter.
During the course of the week, the odor lessened slightly but was still noticeable in and around my lab. Within a few weeks the distinct aroma of the spices diminished to a freshness or cleanness of the air in my lab and the surrounding area. This aroma was in evidence, if even so slightly, for approximately two months.
(Prof. Terry Hunter PhD, “Palynological Assessment of the Qumran Spices,” quoted in: Report on the Excavations of Qumran, Vendyl Jones, 5/5/94.)
These tests indicated that the reddish material was a compound of nine specific spices in a highly refined state. Two additional inorganic ingredients, Karsina Lye and Sodom Salt, were found close in the same cave, ready to be mixed with the spices. These two components when added, made up the eleven ingredients of the Holy Incense, as listed in the Torah and the Talmud. This compound was called the Kethoret. Its root in Hebrew is kesher meaning “to tie a knot” or “bring together” symbolizing unity. It was burned on the altar of Incense in the Holy Temple.
A Word of the Lord
I am the Lily of the Valley and the Rose of Sharon. I am the Balm of Gilead. Allow my sweet presence to fill you. Let my presence in you transform you. As you choose to dwell in me, and I dwell in you; I will impart the fragrance of my being into your spirit. You will be a delight to all, for my essence in you will draw them. They will desire what you desire, and they will know and find me in that holy desire.
“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life” (II Cor. 2:15-16).
Only when we are in unity as brethren can we be pleasing to the Lord. Only when our thoughts and actions are focused on Him alone can we be as believers a sweet smelling fragrance to our God. Paul’s words also remind us that we must bring the fragrance of Christ to those who are perishing. May they be led to salvation through our own kindnesses and love. May they see Christ through our prayers, our forgiveness and our kindnesses. May we, Lord, always be pleasing unto you. May our lives be as sweet incense.
“All thy garments smell of myrrh and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces, whereby they have made thee glad” (Ps. 45:8).
“Let my prayers be set forth before thee as incense, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (Ps. 141:2).
“Because of the savor of thy good ointments thy name is as ointment poured forth, therefore do the virgins love thee” (S. of Sol: 1:3).
“And the smoke of the incense which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand” (Rev. 8:4).
Jerusalem, Lest I Forget Thee by Gene Little
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