One year, I bought some frankincense for Christmas. I was teaching my kids about the three wise men and their gift of frankincense to the baby Jesus. What is frankincense ? That seems like an odd baby gift in today’s world.
I ordered it from my favorite herb shop and it arrived in a small brown paper bag with the name stamped in red across it...Frankincense. It looked like beads of dried sap. And that’s precisely what it was:
What is Frankincense?
Frankincense is called olibanum or in Hebrew, levonah. It is a resin from the Boswellia sacra tree — a small scrappy tree that grows in rocky soil.
The bark is stripped or sliced to allow the resins to ooze out, forming small yellowish drops of resin that harden. The hard resin drops are then collected. It is an aromatic called terpene. When the resin is lit on fire it produces the aromatic incense known as frankincense.
The History of Frankincense
Frankincense was considered a holy incense, even in the days of Moses. The Priest would pound it into a powder, mix it with three spices and burn it on the Golden Altar of Incense
, that was inside the Tabernacle, located just outside the veil hiding the Holy of Holies
and the Mercy Seat, or the place where God would appear.
The sweet aromatic smoke ascended up to Heaven as a prayer, (and probably disguised the smell of all those animal sacrifices outside the tabernacle.)
The Altar of Incense was made of shittim wood, with gold inlaid over it and four horns, one on each of the corners. Aaron was commanded to burn this incense every morning and at twilight — twice a day, to keep it burning – “a perpetual incense before the Lord.”
How Frankincense was used anciently
The Priest used a censer or fire pan to pick-up coals from the other altar outside (that was used for animal sacrifice,) and place them on the Golden Incense Altar. The powdered incense was then placed on the hot coals which would start the smoke.
The sweet aroma would fill the tabernacle, penetrating beyond the second veil where stood the Holy of Holies — it was an offering of thanks to God for the blood that was shed, the animal that was sacrificed as a symbol of the Son of God, who would be sacrificed in the meridian of time.(Exodus 30:34)
The priest would perform this sacrifice of incense daily, but he would not go behind the inner veil, only the High Priest would approach the Mercy seat, the Holy of Holies, and only one day a year, on the Day of Atonement. (Lev 16:12)
During the time when Christ would be born, the tabernacle had been replaced by the Temple in Jerusalem. Zacharias (father of John the Baptist) was the Priest appointed to light the incense. (Luke 1:8-10)
“And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.”
The incense ascended to God, symbolic of prayers. I imagine that it is much easier to believe that our prayers are reaching the ears of God when we can see and smell the incense smoke rise into the heavens.
Why the frankincense gift for Christ?
Perhaps it was the holiest of gifts, reserved for temple worship, in symbolism of the sacrifice and atonement for sin, a prayer of thanks offered up to the God of this world for sending His Son to redeem us. This incense was sweet and filled the tabernacle, and was always burning.
frankincense images: wikimediacommons.