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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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INCENSE.—The English word comes from the Lat. incensus, ‘burnt’ (incendere, ‘to burn’), and is applied to the materials used for making a perfume which was emitted by the materials being burned. These materials consist of fragrant gums, spices, and scents.

‘Incense’ is the usual translation of θυμιαυα, which occurs in the NT 6 times only: Luke 1:10-11, Revelation 5:8; Revelation 8:3-4; Revelation 18:13. In the passages in Rev. it is always in the plural, and in Revelation 18:13 is rendered in Authorized Version by ‘odours.’ θυμιαμα is the LXX Septuagint equivalent of Heb. קִטרָת, which comes from קטר ‘to raise an odour by burning,’ and so ‘to burn incense.’ Cognate Gr. words are θυμιάω, ‘to burn incense,’ Luke 1:9 (ἅτ. λεγ. in NT); and θυμιατήριον, Hebrews 9:4 ‘censer,’ or ‘altar of incense.’ The root of these words is θύω = (1) ‘to be in heat,’ (2) ‘to burn,’ (3) ‘to sacrifice (by burning)’; see Grimm-Thayer, s.v., and cf. θυμίς and θυμόω. The word θυμίαμα is to be carefully distinguished from λίβανος, ‘frankincense’ (Heb. לְבוֹנָה). The latter was an ingredient of the former. λίβανος is found twice in NT (Matthew 2:11 and Revelation 18:13, in the latter together with θυμιάματα).

Incense came to be used in connexion with the Levitical worship in the Temple. Special care was to be taken in the making of it (Exodus 30:34 f. P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] ). Several passages in the OT indicate that the Israelites came to regard it (as they did other ceremonies) per se, apart from its spiritual meaning. Hence the denunciations of the prophets (Isaiah 1:13 etc.). In the NT it is referred to only in connexion with the daily service of the Temple (Luke 1), and also as part of the symbolical heavenly worship in the Apocalypse. In Revelation 5:8; Revelation 8:3-4 it is associated with the prayers of the saints; in Revelation 5:8 apparently being identified with the prayers, and in Revelation 8:3-4 added to the prayers (cf. ταῖς προσευχαῖς in both verses), as though to render them acceptable. Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 ‘with’ in Revelation 8:4 seems impossible.

The symbolism seems to be generally that of worship, which, like incense, ascends from earth to heaven. In Psalms 141:2 prayer is thus likened to incense. Godet (on Luke 1:10) thinks there was a close connexion between the two acts of burning incense and offering prayer.

‘The one was the typical, ideal, and therefore perfectly pure prayer; the other the real prayer, which was inevitably imperfect and defiled. The former covered the latter with its sanctity, the latter communicated to the former its reality and life. Thus they were the complement of each other.’

Incense is used in worship in the Greek and Roman Catholic Churches, and by some congregations in the Anglican Church. Its earliest use in the Christian Church seems to have been as a fumigant (so Tertullian). No liturgical use is known for at least 4 if not 5 centuries. Up till then it was regarded as a relic of heathenism. As the Holy Communion came to be regarded as a sacrifice, and in some respects analogous to the Jewish sacrifices, incense became gradually associated with Christian worship. It is at least noteworthy that there is an entire absence of any reference to incense in the Christian Church of the NT in Acts and the Epistles, the only allusions being those in the symbolism of the Apocalypse. May not this be rightly regarded as an argumentum e silentio? Having the substance, what need is there of the shadow? (John 4:23-24).

Literature.—Artt. ‘Incense,’ ‘Frankincense’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible; ‘Incense’ in Smith’s DCA [Note: CA Dictionary of Christian Antiquities.] ; Godet and Plummer on Luke 1:9-11; Speaker’s Com. on Revelation 5:8; Revelation 8:3; Revelation 18:13.

W. H. Griffith Thomas.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Incense'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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