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THE ALTAR OF INCENSE.
(1) Thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon.—Why the directions concerning the altar of incense were delayed until this place, instead of being given when the rest of the furniture of the holy place was described (Exodus 25:0), it is impossible to say. But there is certainly no reason to suspect a dislocation of the text. The mode in which Aaron is spoken of in Exodus 30:7-10 implies a previous mention of his consecration to the high priesthood.
That incense would be among the offerings which God would require to be offered to Him had appeared already in Exodus 25:6. Its preciousness, its fragrance, and its seeming to mount in cloud after cloud to heaven, gave it a natural place in the symbolism of worship, and led to its employment in the religious rites of a variety of nations. Egyptian priests continually appear on the monuments with censers in their hands, in which presumably incense is being offered, and the inscriptions mention that it was imported from Arabia, and used largely in the festivals of Ammon (Records of the Past, vol. x., pp. 14-19). Herodotus tells us that the Babylonians consumed annually a thousand talents’ weight of it at the feast of Belus (i. 183). The employment of it by the Greeks and Romans in their sacrifices is well known. Here again, as so often in the Mosaical dispensation. God sanctioned in His worship an innocent rite, which natural reason had pointed out to man as fitting and appropriate, not regarding its employment in false religions as debarring it from adoption into the true.
Of shittim wood shalt thou make it.—Of the same main material as “the brazen altar” (Exodus 27:1), but covered differently.
(2) Foursquare shall it be.—Of the same shape with “the brazen altar” (Exodus 27:1), but much smaller—two cubits high instead of three cubits, and a cubit square at top instead of five cubits. This small space was ample for the burning of so precious a material, which could only be offered in small quantities.
The horns thereof.—Comp. Exodus 27:2, and Note 1, ad loc.
Shall be of the same—i.e., of one piece with the altar, not made separately, and then attached to it.
(3) Thou shalt overlay it with pure gold.—Next to the Ark of the Covenant the most holy article of furniture contained either in the sanctuary or in its court was the altar of incense. It symbolised prayer in its general use (Psalms 141:2; Luke 1:10), and it symbolised expiation in the purpose whereto it was to be applied on certain occasions, as when the high priest had sinned in his official capacity (Leviticus 4:3-12), or when the whole congregation had sinned through inadvertence (Leviticus 4:13-21). It was, therefore, “most holy to the Lord.” Hence, its materials were to be the same with those of the ark of the covenant, and its place was to be directly opposite the ark, near to it, but on the outer side of the vail (Exodus 40:5).
A crown of gold round about.—Comp. what is said of the table of shewbread (Exodus 25:24). In both cases a raised rim or edging is meant, which would prevent what was on the top from falling off.
(4) Two golden rings.—The golden altar was so much smaller and lighter than the brazen one that two rings only were required for carrying it, instead of the “four rings” needed by the brazen altar (Exodus 27:4).
By the two corners thereof.—Rather, on the two sides thereof. The word used means, literally, “ribs,” and is explained in the clause which follows.
(6) Before the vail.—The ark was behind the vail (Exodus 26:33; Exodus 40:3), the altar of incense directly in front of it, nearer to the vail than either the golden candlestick or the table of shewbread. Hence the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of it as belonging, in a certain sense, to the Holy of Holies (Hebrews 9:4; see Kay, in Speaker’s Commentary). The “vail that is by the ark of the testimony” is distinguished here from the vail, or curtain, at the entrance to the holy place.
Before the mercy seat.—The altar bore a close relation to the mercy seat. It was the instrument by which the “mercy” there enthroned was made available to the penitent sinner.
Where I will meet with thee.—Comp. Exodus 25:22; Exodus 29:42-43.
(7) Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense (Heb., incense of spices) every morning.—On the composition of the incense, see Exodus 30:34-35. That the offering of incense regularly accompanied both the morning and evening sacrifice appears from Psalms 141:2; Luke 1:10. That it was symbolical of prayer may be gathered both from those passages and also from Revelation 5:8; Revelation 8:3-4.
When he dresseth the lamps.—Comp. Exodus 27:21.
(9) Ye shall offer no strange incense.—By “strange incense” is meant any that was composed differently from that of which the composition is laid down in Exodus 30:34-35.
Nor burnt sacrifice, nor meat offering; neither . . . drink offering.—All these were to be offered on the brazen altar, not on the altar of incense, which was in no way suited for them.
(10) Aaron shall make an atonement upon the horns of it once in a year.—This passage seems to determine the sense of Leviticus 16:18, where some have supposed that “the altar that is before the Lord” is the brazen altar. Once in the year, on the great day of atonement, the high priest, after entering within the vail and sprinkling the blood of the offerings upon the mercy seat (Leviticus 16:14-15), was to “go out unto the altar that was before the Lord, and put of the blood of the bullock, and of the blood of the goat, upon the horns of the altar round about, and sprinkle of the blood upon it with his finger seven times,” and so “cleanse it, and hallow it,” and “make an atonement for it” (Leviticus 16:18-19).
THE RANSOM OF SOULS.
(12) When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel.—A formal enrolment and registration seems to be intended. Hitherto, nothing but a rough estimate of the number had been attempted (Exodus 12:37); now that a covenant had been made with God, an exact account of those who were within the covenant was needed. Moses, apparently, was contemplating such an exact enumeration when the command contained in this text was given him. It would be natural for one trained in Egyptian habits to desire such exact statistical knowledge. (For the minuteness and fulness of the Egyptian statistics of the time, see Records of the Past, vol. ii., pp. 19-28; vol. iv. pp. 46, 47; vol. vi. pp. 35-69, &c.)
Then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul.—On being formally enrolled among the people of God, it would be brought home to every man how unworthy he was of such favour, how necessary it was that atonement should in some way or other be made for him. God therefore appointed a way—the same way for all—in order to teach strongly that all souls were of equal value in His sight, and that unworthiness, whatever its degree, required the same expiation.
That there be no plague among them.—If a man did not feel his need of “ransom,” and gladly pay the small sum at which the ransom was fixed, he would show himself so proud and presumptuous that he might well provoke a Divine “plague,” or punishment.
(13) Half a shekel.—When shekels came to be coined, they were round pieces of silver, about the circumference of a shilling, but considerably thicker, and worth about 2s. 7 d. Of our money. Their average weight was about 220 grains troy. In Moses’s time coins were unknown, and a half-shekel was a small lump of silver, unstamped, weighing probably about 110 grains. The ransom of a soul was doubtless made thus light in order that the payment might not be felt practically as a burthen by any.
After the shekel of the sanctuary.—Without a standard laid up somewhere, weights and measures will always fluctuate largely. Even with a standard, they will practically vary considerably. The “shekel of the sanctuary” probably designates a standard weight kept carefully by the priests with the vessels of the sanctuary. All offerings were to be estimated by this shekel (Leviticus 27:25).
A shekel is twenty gerahs.—Rather, the shekel, i.e.; the shekel of the sanctuary is of this weight. A “gerah” was, literally, a bean, probably the bean of the carob or locust tree (Ceratonia siliqua), but became the name of a weight, just as our own “grain” did. It must have equalled about eleven grains troy.
(14) From twenty years old and above.—A Hebrew was not reckoned full grown till twenty. At twenty the liability to military service began (Numbers 1:3;
2 Chronicles 25:5). At twenty the Levites commenced their service in the sanctuary (1 Chronicles 23:24-27; 2 Chronicles 31:17; Ezra 3:8).
(15) The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less.—See Note 2 on Exodus 30:12.
(16) Thou shalt . . . appoint it for the service of the tabernacle.—It appears, by Exodus 38:27-28, that the silver collected by this tax, which amounted to above a hundred talents, was employed for making the sockets which supported the boards of the tabernacle (Exodus 26:19-25), and those of the pillars of the vail (Exodus 26:32), together with the hooks for the pillars of the court, their capitals, and connecting rods. Thus, so long as the tabernacle stood, the precious metal paid as ransom remained in the sight of the people, and was a continual “memorial,” or reminder, to them of the position into which they were brought by covenant with God.
THE BRAZEN LAVER.
(18) Thou shalt also make a laver of brass.—Rather, of bronze. (See Note on Exodus 25:3.) Water was required for the ablutions of the priests (Exodus 30:19-21), for the washing of certain parts of the victim, (Exodus 29:27; Leviticus 1:9; Leviticus 1:13, &c.), and probably for the cleansing of the altar itself and the ground whereon it stood from blood stains and other defilements.
His foot.—The laver was probably in the shape of a large urn or vase, supported upon a comparatively slender stem, which rose from a pedestal. Vases of this kind are represented in the Assyrian bas-reliefs. (See Ancient Monarchies, vol. i., p. 481.)
Thou shalt put it between the tabernacle of the congregation and the altar.—It was essential that the laver should be near the altar, since on every occasion of their ministering at the altar the priests had to wash at it (Exodus 30:20). It was also essential that it should be near the entrance into the tabernacle, since they had likewise to wash before they entered into the holy place. Jewish tradition says that its place was between the entrance and the brazen altar, not, however, exactly between them, but a little to the south.
(19) Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet.—Washing the hands symbolised purity in act; washing the feet, holiness in all their walk and conversation.
(20) That they die not.—Comp. Exodus 28:35; Exodus 28:43. It is not altogether easy to see why the death-penalty was threatened against neglect of certain ceremonial observances, and not of others. Ablution, however, was so easy, and probably so long-established a practice, that to omit it would imply intentional disrespect towards God.
(21) A statute for ever.—Comp. Exodus 27:21; Exodus 28:43; Exodus 29:9. The external act was to continue so long as the dispensation lasted; the internal purity, which it symbolised, would be required of those who entered the Divine Presence for ever. (See Hebrews 12:14.)
THE COMPOSITION OF THE HOLY OIL.
(23) Principal spices.—The East is productive of a great variety of spices; but of these some few have always been regarded with especial favour. Herodotus (iii. 107-112) mentions five “principal spices” as furnished by Arabia to other countries, whereof two at least appear to be identical with those here spoken of.
Pure myrrh.—Heb., myrrh of freedom. The shrub which produces myrrh is the balsamodendron myrrha. The spice is obtained from it in two ways. That which is purest and best exudes from it naturally (Theophrast. De Odoribus, § 29; Plin., H. N., xii. 35), and is here called “myrrh of freedom,” or “freely flowing myrrh.” The other and inferior form is obtained from incisions made in the bark. Myrrh was very largely used in ancient times. The Egyptians employed it as a main element in their best method of embalming (Herod. ii. 86), and also burnt it in some of their sacrifices (ib. 40). In Persia it was highly esteemed as an odour (Athen., Deipn. 12, p. 514A); the Greeks used it in unguents. And as incense; Roman courtesans scented their hair with it (Hor. Od., iii. 14, 1. 22); the later Jews applied it as an antiseptic to corpses (John 19:39). This is the first mention of myrrh (Heb., môr) in the Bible, the word translated “myrrh” in Genesis 37:25; Genesis 43:11 being lôt, which is properly, not myrrh, but ladanum.
Sweet cinnamon.—While myrrh was one of the commonest of spices in the ancient world, cinnamon was one of the rarest. It is the produce of the laurus cinnamomum, or cinnamomum zeylanicum, a tree allied to the laurel, which now grows only in Ceylon, Borneo, Sumatra, China, Cochin China, and in India on the coast of Malabar. According to Herodotus (iii. 111) and Strabo (16, p. 535), it grew anciently in Arabia; but this is doubted, and the Arabians are believed to have imported it from India or Ceylon, and passed it on to the Phœnicians, who conveyed it to Egypt and Greece. The present passage of Scripture is the first in which it is mentioned, and in the rest of the Old Testament it obtains notice only twice (Proverbs 7:16; Song of Solomon 4:14). The word used, which is kinnĕmôn, makes it tolerably certain that the true cinnamon is meant.
Sweet calamus.—There are several distinct kinds of aromatic reed in the East. One sort, according to Pliny (H. N., xii. 22), grew in Syria, near Mount Lebanon; others were found in India and Arabia. It is quite uncertain what particular species is intended, either here or in the other passages of Scripture where “sweet cane” is spoken of. (See Song of Solomon 4:14; Isaiah 43:24; Jeremiah 6:20; Ezekiel 27:17.)
(24) Cassia.—In the original, kiddâh not kĕtsiôth. Which is the exact equivalent of the Greek and Latin cassia. According to the best Hebrew authorities, however, cassia is intended by both words, which are derived from roots signifying “to split,” or “to peel off.” Cassia is the inner bark of a tree called by botanists cinnamomum cassia, which is a native of India, Java, and the Malay peninsula. It has nearly the same flavour as cinnamon, but is more pungent, and of a coarser texture. The word kiddâh occurs in Scripture only here and in Ezekiel 27:19.
An hin.—See Note on Exodus 29:40.
(25) After the art of the apothecary.—Skill was to be called in. The spices were not to be pounded and mixed with the oil in a rude and unscientific way, but the best art of the time was to be employed in effecting the composition. Jewish tradition says that its essence was first extracted from each of the spices, and then the oil mingled with the essences.
(26) Thou shalt anoint the tabernacle.—The tabernacle and its contents were to be first consecrated, then the priests. In the tabernacle itself, the consecration was to begin with the ark of the testimony in the Holy of Holies, then to proceed to the Holy place, where the table of shewbread with its “vessels,” the golden candlestick, and the altar of incense were to be anointed; and finally to pass the vail to the outer court, where the holy oil was to be sprinkled upon the brazen altar, and upon the laver, to sanctify them. (See Exodus 30:26-29; and comp. Leviticus 8:10-11.)
(30) Thou shalt anoint Aaron.—Comp. Exodus 29:7; Leviticus 8:12.
And his sons.—See Exodus 29:21.
That they may minister unto me.—As Aaron and his sons were unfit to minister until the holy oil had been poured on them, so Christian priests can be no otherwise fitted to discharge their office than by their receiving that effluence of the Holy Spirit which the holy oil typified.
(32) Upon man’s flesh shall it not be poured—i.e., it shall not be in ordinary use as an unguent—a mere “man,” who is not a priest, shall not apply it to his private use. It shall be reserved altogether for holy purposes.
Neither shall ye make any other like it, after the composition of it—i.e., after the recipe given in Exodus 30:23-25. The ingredients might be used in unguents separately—they might even be so used when united in some different proportions from those laid down for the “holy ointment”—but in the proportions fixed for the holy oil they must have no secular employment.
THE COMPOSITION OF THE HOLY INCENSE.
(34) Take unto thee sweet spices.—Rather, Take unto thee spices. The word translated “spices” has no epithet. Incense, as commonly used in the ancient world, was not a composition, but some single spice, most frequently frankincense. That, however, employed by the Hebrews was always a compound. According to Josephus (Bell. Jud., v. 5, § 5), the incense burnt in the later temple contained thirteen ingredients.
Stacte is probably the gum storax, which is the produce of the styrax officinalis, a tree common in Syria and Palestine. It burns readily, and emits much smoke (Herod. iii. 107).
Onycha is thought to be the “claw” or operculum of the unguis odoratus, or blatta Byzantina, a sort of shell-fish common in the Red Sea. This “claw” produces, when burnt, a strong odour.
Galbanum is a gum well known to modern chemists. It may be procured from various plants, as the opoidia galbanifera, the galbanum Persicum, and others. When burnt, this gum has a strong pungent odour, which is said to be disagreeable in itself, but to bring out and prolong the scent of other spices (Plin. H. N., xii. 54).
Frankincense was probably the main element of the “holy incense,” as it is of such incense as is burnt in modern times. It is a gum or resin obtained from incisions in the bark of the arbor thuris, or frankincense-tree, which grows abundantly in India, and in the islands of the Indian archipelago. Anciently, the tree appears to have grown also in Arabia, whence the Egyptians (Records of the Past, vol. x., pp. 14-17), the Phœnicians, the Hebrews (Isaiah 60:6; Jeremiah 6:20), and the Greeks obtained it in large quantities. The odour is very peculiar, and to most persons very agreeable. In England it is best known as the scent given out by the pastilles which are burnt in sick rooms.
(35) A confection after the art of the apothecary.—See Note on Exodus 30:25. Bezaleel’s art was called in, both for the composition of the holy oil and of the holy incense (Exodus 37:29).
Tempered together.—So the LXX., the Vulg., and the Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan. But most moderns render “salted,” or “mixed with salt.” (See Buxtorf, Gesenius, Lee, Rosenmüller, De Wette, Kalisch, Keil, &c.). The word used is capable of either meaning.
(36) Thou shalt . . . put it before the testimony.—Some pieces of the incense were to be continually before the ark of the covenant, either on the golden altar, or perhaps at its base ready for offering. This would symbolise the need of the perpetual offering of prayer.
(37, 38) These instructions are similar to those given with respect to the holy oil (Exodus 30:32-33). Neither of the two holy compounds were to be applied to any profane use.
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Exodus 30". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany