Burning Incense in the Bible

This post is all about burning incense in the Bible

There is much debate over burning incense in the Bible. Some say it is an abomination to God, while others believe that it is a practice that pleases Him greatly. What does the Bible actually say about burning incense?

In this post, I will examine what the New and Old Testaments say about incense and prayer. I will also look at various topics, including whether burning incense is a sin.

Ready? let’s go…

Quick History

When most people think of burning incense, they likely imagine sweet-smelling aromas wafting through a dance studio, holistic alternative medicine clinic, or newer practices. Some people think that incense burning is a recently introduced phenomenon. However, the burning of incense is truly far from a recent phenomenon – in fact, it has been taking place for thousands of years.

Incense burning has been practiced for centuries in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. In addition, burning incense has been used for centuries in many different cultures for various purposes.

Catholic faith and incense

Burning incense is an integral part of the Catholic faith.

It has various purposes, namely:

  • It is used during mass to represent the prayers of the faithful rising to God.
  • It is a symbol of purification and sanctification.
  • “Solemnity” and “mystery” during the mass (Source: Holy Rosary Church in MN)

From my reading, it’s no doubt that Catholics believe that burning incense is a way to create a sacred space and to honor God. ❤️

Swahili culture

Swahili incense burning
Fort Jesus – medieval fortification in Mombasa. Built in the 16th century (1593-1596) and still standing! Swahili culture has different influences from Portuguese, Arabs, and Indians.

In many cultures, burning incense is thought to have medicinal properties. For example, in Swahili culture, ubani” (incense) is often used for its purported ability to heal the sick. In fact, burning incense is so intertwined with Swahili healing practices that it is even mentioned in some of the folktales.

I grew up in Kenya, where the coastal region has a rich history of Swahili culture with Portuguese, Arabic, and Indian roots. So growing up, we did have that influence, and burning incense (frankincense) was a part of our life. Honestly, my mom burnt it because, in the 90s, that was the most affordable and accessible option when we were cleaning the house. It gave the house a pleasant sweet aroma.  

However, I can tell you that the use of incense in Swahili culture (and many other cultures worldwide) shows that it is deeply entrenched in the belief system. Undoubtedly, it plays an important role in Swahili culture and tradition.

Nowadays, I don’t burn incense but use essential oils and diffusers in my home.

Spiritual superstition of incense

For some, burning is a spiritual practice with deep meaning and significance. Others see it as a superstitious practice that has no place in modern society.

In some cultures, it is used to connect with the spirit world or bring good luck. In others, it is burned as part of religious ceremonies or as an offering to the gods.

As discussed earlier, the burning of incense is a practice that has been around for centuries. It continues to be used by many people today. Whether you see it as a superstitious practice or a deeply spiritual one, no doubt burning incense has a perceived powerful effect on those who partake in it.

Incense in the Old Testament

While burning incense has been a part of both Old and New Testament scripture, its meaning and purpose have changed over time.

In the Old Testament, burning incense was often connected with offering sacrifices to God or purifying a space. In the New Testament, however, burning incense is more often associated with prayer and worship.

Let’s look at the Old Testament…

In the book of Exodus, God instructs Moses to make an altar for burning incense. “And you shall make an altar for burning incense; you shall make it of acacia wood….” (Exodus 30:1)

Leviticus 16:12-13 – As part of the ritual for the Day of Atonement, Aaron was to burn incense on the altar of incense in the tabernacle. The smoke from the burning incense was meant to cover up the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant, which represented the presence of God.

Numbers 16:46-49 – Aaron used incense to make atonement. This caused the plague to stop.

These verses show us that burning incense was a way to connect with God and seek His presence. It was also a sign of reverence and respect for the Lord.

Zechariah burning incense in the temple

Burning incense was also part of the ritualistic practices of Zechariah, a Jewish priest.

According to the Book of Zechariah, burning incense was part of God’s instructions for how Zechariah should cleanse the temple (Luke 1:8-10).

Burning incense in the Bible New Testament

Incense is mentioned multiple times in the New Testament. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we are told that when Jesus was born, “wise men from the East” came to visit him, and they brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:10-11).

We also see that burning incense is a pleasing aroma to the Lord. In Revelation 5:8, we see John’s vision of the heavenly temple, and he describes the prayers of the saints rising up to God like sweet-smelling incense. And in Revelation 8:3-4, we see the angel burning incense on the altar of incense in the heavenly temple.

When burning incense becomes a sin

I believe burning incense is not inherently evil. However, we should always look at our hearts and find out what is the heart and the motive behind burning it. God weighs our hearts (Proverbs 21:2). There is no way we can fool him.

Nowhere in the Bible does it say that burning incense is a sin. However, some verses warn against using any practices for the wrong reasons (i.e., idolatry). I will only mention one comprehensive verse: 1 Corinthians 10:14-22.

Lastly, some people knowingly burn incense in different altars that are not of God. It is used as an offering to the dead, false gods, and idols. When one burns incense and offer it to false gods, one is participating in idol worship.

Burning incense is no longer necessary

In Hebrews 9:11-24,  we learn that this is no longer necessary. Since this is a very long verse, read it when you are free.

But essentially, Jesus is the mediator of the new covenant and our ultimate high priest. He has made it possible for us to connect with God directly, without any intermediaries. We don’t need to cleanse ourselves with incense. The blood of the lamb took care of that.

But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

1 John 1:7-9

Yes, Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice for our sins, and through His death, we have been redeemed. This means that burning incense is no longer necessary because Christ has already paid the price for our redemption.

So, when we pray, we can do so knowing that our prayers are already ascending to God. Why? Because of what Christ has done for us. We don’t need to burn incense because Christ has already made a way for us.

Again, even though we don’t need to burn incense anymore, there is nothing wrong with doing it, provided we evaluate our hearts and the motive.

Prayer is an incense offering

When we pray, we are burning incense. Just as the priests in the Bible burned incense on the altar of prayer, we too are burning incense when we pray. Prayer is an offering of our hearts and minds to God. It is a sweet-smelling fragrance that rises up to Him and pleases Him.

In Psalm 141:2, we see that burning incense is an act of worship. “Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” This verse tells us that our prayers are like burning incense before God when we pray. He hears our prayers, and they are pleasing to Him.

Friends, let us never forget the power of prayer!

And that’s it, folks, burning incense in the Bible

This topic is often overlooked but essential to understanding our Christian faith and history.

I hope this post was helpful!


Heather Chesiyna_Signature_MOS

3 thoughts on “Burning Incense in the Bible”

  1. Our fragrant offerings now are serving each other in the love of Jesus as we see in Ephesians 5:2-
    and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God and Philippians 4:18-
    I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.

  2. Once again a very interesting read. Seeing catholic and some Orthodox Church services, incense was such a pivotal part of their service. I never understood why it was so but reading this helped me understand. Our prayers do go up as a grant offering, Jesus made it possible for that to be so.
    Thank you Heather. God bless you


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