Hebrews 9:4

Monday, 24 December 2018

…which had the golden censer and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant; Hebrews 9:4

The words now explain what was to be found in the “Holiest of All” (the Most Holy Place) within the tabernacle. The author begins with, “the golden censer.” The translation is lacking. It is not a censer, as if picked up and carried by the priest. Rather, it is an altar which remained in its place constantly. The Greek word to describe it is found only here in the New Testament. This altar is said here to be in the Most Holy Place. However, this seems to be in error. The description of this item is found in Exodus 30:1-10. The verse concerning its placement is found in Exodus 30:6 –

“And you shall put it before the veil that is before the ark of the Testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the Testimony, where I will meet with you.”

This altar of incense, also called the “golden altar” (Numbers 4:11), and here in Hebrews as “the golden censer,” was not in the Most Holy Place, but rather before the veil in the Holy Place. For this reason, some translations call it the “golden censer” and not the “golden altar.” This is because a censer was filled with incense once a year and taken behind the veil by the high priest. Thus to avoid any supposed contradictions, translators assume this is what is being spoken of. But that does not appear to be the author’s intent. He is surely speaking of the altar of incense. But why would the author then expressly state that this item was within the Most Holy Place? John Lange explains the reason –

“For this reason we would rather find a theological idea than an archæological error in that passage of the Epistle to the Hebrews (9:4) which puts it in the Holy of holies. For this is the altar which by its incense symbolizes the prayer of the high-priest (Rev. 5:8; Heb. 5:7).”

It took a full sermon of explanation to detail the significance of this item, but to shortly explain the placement, incense was burned upon it twice a day. Being directly before the veil, the smell of this incense was the only thing to go behind the veil each day and throughout the year (with the exception of the high priest, once a year on the Day of Atonement). Incense in the Bible represents prayer. And so, the theological idea is that this golden altar is the transition between the earthly and the heavenly; between the physical world and the spiritual world. Therefore, the altar is said to symbolically be behind the veil. This is the last piece of furniture to be described by the Lord in Exodus, and yet it is the first one mentioned here by the author in Hebrews. The reason for this is because of its location. It is that which is passed first as one enters into the Most Holy Place. To more fully understand this, go watch this sermon – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K4Dw8RDwjRk

The next item behind the veil is the very first item described by the Lord for construction. It is “the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold,” which is detailed in Exodus 25:10-16. Again, this item required an entire sermon to explain all of its intricate meaning. The author here only mentions that it is overlaid with gold. The gold symbolizes Christ’s deity, among other things. To understand the marvel of what this ark pictures, please refer to this sermon – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-VPtDW-qB8&t

After this, the author describes that which was contained in the ark. First, he notes “the golden pot that had the manna.” That was actually made before the ark was prepared, at the time of the initial giving of the manna which is recorded in Exodus 16. There it said –

“And Moses said to Aaron, ‘Take a pot and put an omer of manna in it, and lay it up before the Lord, to be kept for your generations.’” Exodus 16:33

Later, after the ark was constructed, this is said to have been placed in the ark. To understand the full significance of this marvelous item, please refer to this sermon – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1pFhhIQg48

Along with that was “Aaron’s rod that budded.” That is detailed in Numbers 17. As of the date of this commentary, that sermon is a few weeks away from being typed. However, it is a marvelous passage, the sermon of which will be worth your Sunday morning attention.

Finally, in this verse, the author notes “the tablets of the covenant.” These were the second set of tablets containing the Ten Commandments. The first were dashed to pieces by Moses in Exodus 32. However, in Exodus 34, Moses was told to “Cut two tablets of stone like the first ones, and I will write on these tablets the words that were on the first tablets which you broke” (Exodus 34:1). To understand the significance of what these second tablets (in contrast to the first set) signify, please take the time to watch this sermon – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eRNaHhDdzks

Life application: Most people know that the tablets of the covenant were kept in the ark, but they have probably never thought of why this was so. These reflect the perfect law of God by which all people will be judged. Those who fulfill them perfectly (and none can) will be accepted into God’s paradise; those who fail will be condemned. However, God gave us His Son to fulfill them on our behalf. Therefore, those who call on Him as their Mediator will be covered with His perfect atonement. This is why blood was applied to the top of the Ark (on the Mercy Seat) once a year. It symbolized an innocent death on behalf of the unrighteous. When the Mercy Seat was removed, only judgment could follow, such as in this case – “Then He struck the men of Beth Shemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the Lord. He struck fifty thousand and seventy men of the people, and the people lamented because the Lord had struck the people with a great slaughter” (1 Samuel 6:19). In Christ’s fulfillment of the law, He died on the cross, shedding His blood for our atonement. Paul says that the law was nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:14). The symbolism is clear – the law is complete and finished in Christ. In His shed blood, a New Covenant was introduced. We are no longer under law, and we can no longer be condemned when we come to Christ. Stay away from heretics who reinsert the law in an attempt to be justified before God. Hold fast to the grace which is found in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Lord God – how beautifully the Old Testament unfolds in the Person and work of Jesus. Thank you so much for the book of Hebrews which opens our eyes to His wonderful perfection – our Substitution, our Bread of Life, and our faithfully watching Mediator! Hallelujah and Amen!

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