Holy Incense in the Liturgy of Worship

After the ratification of the Sinai Covenant (Ex 24), Moses ascended God's holy mountain to receive the instructions for building the earthly Sanctuary, for the construction of its sacred furnishings, and for the rituals that would united the heavenly and earthly Sanctuaries in the liturgy of worship (Ex 25-31). During that forty day meeting, God also revealed to Moses the recipe for the sacred incense that was to be burned in the twice daily liturgy of the morning and evening worship services on the earthly Sanctuary's golden Altar of Incense (Ex 30:1-8): Yahweh then said to Moses, Take sweet spices: storax, onycha, galbanum, sweet spices and pure frankincense in equal parts and compound an incense, such a blend as the perfumer might make, salted, pure, and holy. You will grind some of this up very fine and put it in front of the Testimony in the Tent of Meeting, where I shall meet you (Ex 30:34-36; also see Rev 8:3-5). But the written record of recipe found in the Bible is incomplete "God does not name the "sweet spices." Those secret ingredients were only given to the priests so that no unauthorized person could produce the sacred incense used in God's Divine Liturgy (Ex 30:9, 37).(1)

According to Jewish tradition, the holy incense was composed of the four ingredients mentioned in Ex 30:34-35 plus seven other secret ingredients. In addition to these, a small quantity of ambra was added to the mixture; it was an herb which gave out a dense white smoke (Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry and Serviced, page 124). The rising smoke was a sign to the people that their prayers were being carried up into the heavenly Sanctuary. To these thirteen different spices and herbs, salt was added for a total of fourteen ingredients.(2) But the galbanum, mentioned in Exodus 30:34 (also known as gelbana or helbana) and classified as the third "sweet" spice is not at all sweet smelling. In fact, it is very foul smelling. So why did Yahweh include this foul smelling spice among the other "sweet" smelling ingredients?

The Jewish Rabbis maintain that the foul galbanum represents the transgressors "those members of the faith community who are not so "sweet" smelling to the rest of the congregation. They taught that the lesson for the community is that the covenant people must include all types "the righteous and the less than righteous. They pointed out that the word for "community" in Hebrew is z'b'r, noting that "z" is the first letter of the word for "righteous" = zaddikkim, "b" for benonim, which means "intermediate" and "r" for resha'im, which means "wicked." Is it possible that Yahweh's message in the incense recipe is that we must learn to take responsibility for all members of the covenant family and that we need each other "good and not so good " to provide a "sweet fragrance" offered up in our prayers to God?

The rabbis also tell the story that a Levitical perfumer who experimented with the biblical incense recipe and discovered that when the galbanum was left out of the mixture the other ingredients still produced a pleasant fragrance. However, when the galbanum was added something quite wonderful happened chemically "the full mixture of the spices, including the foul galbanum, smelled infinitely more delicious than the mixture without galbanum. The experiment showed that it was not that the other sweet spices covered the foul smell of the galbanum, but the galbanum transformed the sweet spices to produce the most beautiful incense possible - the fragrance of Gan Eden.

The same is true of the present day community of believers who offer worship and praise to God in our earthly Sanctuaries. The community of the faithful is composed of the righteous who are called to continually renounce their sins, offer penance and seek reconciliation with God "a mixture of the righteous and the not so righteous. It isn't the incense that smells sweet to God "it is the sweetness of those contrite and humbled souls offering worship and praise that pleases our Lord.

In the sacrifice of the Mass, we continue the ancient tradition of offering up incense with the prayers of the faithful. With the rising smoke of the sweet smelling incense, our prayers ascend up to heaven and are received by our Lord in the heavenly Sanctuary. In those moments, when we watch the incense fill the earthly Sanctuary and ascend upwards, each of us should offer up with our petitions the sweetness of our repentant hearts and humbled spirits to our gracious and merciful God, remembering the psalmist's prayer of contrition: Sacrifice gives you no pleasure, burnt offering you do not desire. Sacrifice to God is a broken spirit, a broken, contrite heart you never scorn (Ps 51:16-17 NJB).

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2012 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.


1. The burning of the incense was strictly regulated in liturgical worship. According to God's command, the burning of the holy incense was strictly a prerogative of the Aaronic priesthood (Num 17:5; 2 Chr 26:18).

2. The Jewish priest/historian, Flavius Josephus (50-100 AD) records that thirteen spices and herbs were used in the holy incense recipe, with salt as the fourteenth ingredient (Wars of the Jews, 5.5.5 [218]).