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 3.1.8 Frankincense: Purity Through Sacrifice

Volume 3: Living Symbols—Chapter 1.8

Frankincense: Purity Through Sacrifice

“When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:10-11) As we learned in the previous section, gold, frankincense, and myrrh (in the form of stacte) were all part of the Levitical instructions for the offering of incense, which, as we’ve established, is symbolic of the prayers of the saints. Here is the familiar story of how the magi—those wise men from the East who made a habit of paying attention to the signs in the heavens—brought gifts in homage to the young Messiah. Considered together like this, I’d say the metaphor is firmly established: it is the practice of wise men (and women) to bring their prayers before Christ.

But since frankincense is mentioned so frequently in the Torah, perhaps we should look at it a bit more closely—and by itself. Physically, frankincense is a gum resin obtained from the bark of a tree from the genus Boswellia. It begins as a sticky milky-white or amber liquid that flows from the trunk of the tree when it’s injured, healing the wound. As the droplets (called “tears”) of resin dry, a white dust forms, which explains the name. “Frankincense” is the Hebrew lebona, derived from the word for “white,” laban. The related verb laben (to be white) figuratively indicates moral purity, the cleansing by God that makes the sinner “as white as snow.” Finer quality frankincense resins are opaque or semi-translucent white, shading into lemon or light amber tones. The Arabic name (a derivative of the Hebrew lebona) is al-lubān (roughly translated: “that which results from milking,” a reference to the milky sap tapped from the Boswellia tree). It literally means “white” or “cream.” Frankincense is also known as olibanum, and its essential oil is often called “Oil of Lebanon.” (Lebanon, by the way, means “whiteness.”) The anglicized name, “frankincense,” is said to have originated from the French (Frankish) Knights of the Crusades, who brought it back to Europe with them in large quantities. This precious aromatic resin is referred to only twice in the Greek scriptures, where its name is a transliteration of the Hebrew: libanos.

Frankincense, then, is something white obtained by inflicting injury on a living tree. Its symbolic significance is therefore clear (at least to me): it represents purity achieved through pain or sacrifice. This explains a lot about its prescribed role in the Torah’s rites and rituals, which we’ll review in a moment. It’s the very image of the benefit we may derive from the Messianic mission: we can achieve the purity—the “whiteness”—we need in order to stand before a holy God only through the self-sacrifice of Yahshua. There is no other way.

In most of its Levitical applications, the frankincense was to be burned, either on the altar or in incense: its aroma was described as being “sweet” to Yahweh (e.g. Leviticus 2:2). So although I’m not suggesting the following data is symbolically significant, I find it interesting nonetheless: in May, 2008 the journal of the FASEB (a group of experimental biologists) announced that Johns Hopkins University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem had determined that the smoke of frankincense relieves depression and anxiety in mice. It apparently acts as a psychoactive drug. (If you’re interested, the chemical compound incensole acetate was deemed responsible for the effects.) I’m no mouse, but I do find that knowing I’ve been purified by the sacrifice of Yahshua has a decidedly calming effect on me. And in these stressful Last Days, that’s a very good thing.

Another evocative word picture: “What is that coming up from the wilderness like columns of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all the fragrant powders of a merchant? Behold, it is the litter of Solomon! Around it are sixty mighty men, some of the mighty men of Israel.” (Song of Solomon 3:6-7) Never let it be said that Solomon didn’t know how to make an entrance. The Song of Solomon, of course, is an allegory portraying the torrid love affair between King Yahshua and His bride. In the story, Solomon, the wise prince of Israel’s golden age, is but a stand-in, a “stunt double,” for Yahshua the Messiah. His entourage is “the mighty men of Israel” and the “daughters of Jerusalem.” His bride, however, the “Shulamite,” is the church—the most unlikely, least “politically correct” object for the King’s affections we can imagine: not a foreign princess or a wealthy merchant’s daughter, but a country girl, a vinedresser—suntanned, vibrant, and wholesome.

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to chase this rabbit for a moment. A “Shulamite” is someone from the town of Shulam (or Sulam), a village in northern Israel, a few miles southwest of the Sea of Galilee. The town is also known as Shunem. There is a persistent theory that Solomon’s beloved Shulamite was actually Abishag the Shunammite, the young beauty selected as the aging King David’s nursemaid—someone whose job it was to lie beside the King to keep him warm. The whole story is related in I Kings 1 and 2. The record specifically states that Abi was a virgin, and that David did not have sexual relations with her. But because of Abi’s unique relationship with the King, whoever married her after David’s death would be honored and elevated vicariously.

Now Adonijah, David’s oldest living son, would naturally have been considered the front-runner for the throne of Israel, but David had specifically selected Solomon to be his successor. As David’s final days approached, Adonijah attempted to surreptitiously declare himself king, but both Bathsheba (Solomon’s mom) and Nathan the prophet warned the king of the plot. David quickly summoned Zadok the priest to publically anoint Solomon as King, with God’s prophet Nathan as a witness. So Adonijah’s ploy failed. Finding himself abandoned by his followers, Adonijah begged for mercy—which Solomon promised to grant if he behaved himself.

And here, as they say, is where the plot thickens. Adonijah, looking all innocent and guileless, came to the new Queen Mum, Bathsheba, and asked her to petition her son the King to grant that Abishag the Shunammite be given to him in marriage (as sort of a consolation prize, one gets the feeling). So Bathsheba, who really was innocent and guileless in these matters, and clueless as to Adonijah’s true intentions, complied and asked her son the king. Solomon however, wise beyond his years, realized that for his older half-brother to marry Abishag (David’s literal bosom buddy) would be tantamount to giving him the throne (I Kings 2:22-24). It was an act of treason, one Solomon answered with the sword.

If the theory is correct, if Abishag the Shunammite was indeed the Shulamite of legend in the Song of Songs, we’ve got the makings of a first-class symbol tsunami here. (1) If Solomon represents Christ, then David (the father) is a metaphor for Yahweh Himself in this parable. (2) Abishag (the Church) was summoned to be the closest of companions to David (Yahweh), and she accepted the offer with enthusiasm and gratitude, warming his heart. But (3) Abi couldn’t actually be intimate with Solomon’s father: there was too much reality separating them. (4) Solomon, being his father’s son, couldn’t help but notice Abi’s beauty, virtue, innocence, and devotion to his father. So (5) like his father, Solomon grew to love her. But unlike David, the son was in a position to bring the love match to fruition. Then (6) Adonijah (read: Satan), in his jealousy and pride, attempted to take Abishag (the Church) for himself, and in doing so usurp the throne. Whereupon (7) Solomon (Christ) defended her (not to mention the throne of his father) by vanquishing Adonijah (Satan). (8) Solomon’s passion for Abi, and hers for him, was then allowed free reign, chronicled in the Song of Songs, with (9) Israel’s mighty men and the daughters of Jerusalem seen in celebratory support—something that hasn’t happened yet, but surely will.

And frankincense? Where does that come in? If you’ll recall, Solomon’s arrival from the wilderness was heralded by the rich scent of frankincense and myrrh. Remember the recipe for the priestly incense, the symbolic representation of the prayers of the saints: “Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Take sweet spices, stacte [myrrh], and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part), and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy.’” (Exodus 30:34-35) In other words, if we take the symbols of the Song of Solomon to heart, our prayers will precede Christ’s arrival: Maranatha!  


As with salt, the inclusion of frankincense in the minha, or grain offering, ensured that it was a frequently encountered element in the symbolic life of Israel, for bread, then as now, was a staple of the diet. “When anyone brings a grain offering as an offering to Yahweh, his offering shall be of fine flour. He shall pour oil on it and put frankincense on it and bring it to Aaron’s sons the priests. And he shall take from it a handful of the fine flour and oil, with all of its frankincense, and the priest shall burn this as its memorial portion on the altar, an offering by fire with a pleasing aroma to Yahweh. But the rest of the grain offering shall be for Aaron and his sons; it is a most holy part of Yahweh’s offerings by fire.” (Leviticus 2:1-3) As always, we see that what was given to Yahweh was to be utilized by the priests, for they had no inheritance in the land other than Him—when God is honored, His priests prosper. A representative sampling of the grain offering, which included olive oil and frankincense, was to be burnt on the altar to demonstrate that the minha actually belonged to Yahweh. “This is the law of the grain offering. The sons of Aaron shall offer it before Yahweh in front of the altar. And one shall take from it a handful of the fine flour of the grain offering and its oil and all the frankincense that is on the grain offering and burn this as its memorial portion on the altar, a pleasing aroma to Yahweh.” (Leviticus 6:14-15) After that, the bulk of the offering went to support the priests.

The fine flour (God’s provision of our needs, with no worthless chaff present) and the oil (the Holy Spirit) were shared freely between heaven and earth. But all of the frankincense was to be burned on the altar along with the memorial portion. Why? Because the sacrifice that achieves our purity is achieved by God (through Christ) alone. No amount of sacrifice, alms, penance, or self-deprivation will make us pure before God. Yes, we are to wash our hands and feet (our works and our walk) at the bronze laver before we enter the tabernacle, but our bodies—our lives—have been made pure before we ever get there, at the altar. As Yahshua pointed out as He washed the feet of the reluctant Peter during the last supper, “‘If I do not wash you, you have no share with Me.’ Simon Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean.” (John 13:8-10) The frankincense burned with Yahweh’s memorial portion of the grain offering upon the altar, then, represents the fundamental, positional purity believers enjoy, regardless of their subsequent mistakes.

That is a great comfort to me: I received Yahshua as my Savior as a small child. It is therefore axiomatic that I perpetrated most of my life’s sins after I gave my life to God. Over the last six decades, I have become all too familiar with the fact that Christians don’t become perfect, sinless creatures the moment they’re “born again.” (I didn’t, I can assure you.) We still need cleansing along the way—early and often. But the frankincense tells us that even with all our blunders and missteps, we are still pure in God’s eyes, even when we’re not completely clean. It’s just a theory of mine, but I believe that it is this very purity—the essence of our salvation—that makes us uncomfortable when we get our hands and feet dirty. If we’re Christ’s we won’t be happy until we’re clean again.

The Feast of Firstfruits (the second day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread) required that before you ate any of your grain harvest, you’d bring a sample of what had grown in your field to Yahweh as a minha, a grain offering. “If you offer a grain offering of firstfruits to Yahweh, you shall offer for the grain offering of your firstfruits fresh ears, roasted with fire, crushed new grain. And you shall put oil on it and lay frankincense on it; it is a grain offering. And the priest shall burn as its memorial portion some of the crushed grain and some of the oil with all of its frankincense; it is an offering by fire to Yahweh.” (Leviticus 2:14-16) As with a normal minha, all of the frankincense was to be burned with the portion offered on the altar. The only difference (or nuance) here is that for the Feast of Firstfruits, the grain was to be “fresh,” gathered straight from the field—it wasn’t to be taken from someone’s storehouse. There is therefore an immediacy, almost an urgency, about it that’s unique to this particular application. Thus the prophetic picture is reinforced: our purity was achieved by the act of Yahshua’s sacrifice (that’s frankincense) on Passover. But David (speaking for the Messiah) predicted, “You will not abandon My soul to Sheol, nor let Your Holy One see corruption.” (Psalm 16:10) Yahshua’s body had been cut down like a sheaf in the field, but it wouldn’t be “stored” in the silo of sheol. After only one day and two nights, He was presented alive and transformed before the throne of Yahweh, as required, on the Feast of Firstfruits.

The imagery of frankincense was also prominent in the presentation of the “showbread” (literally, the bread of the presence), that was to be displayed within the tabernacle’s Holy Place. The instructions are as follows: “You shall take fine flour and bake twelve cakes with it. Two-tenths of an ephah shall be in each cake. You shall set them in two rows, six in a row, on the pure gold table before Yahweh. And you shall put pure frankincense on each row, that it may be on the bread for a memorial, an offering made by fire to Yahweh. Every Sabbath he shall set it in order before Yahweh continually, being taken from the children of Israel by an everlasting covenant. And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place; for it is most holy to him from the offerings of Yahweh made by fire, by a perpetual statute.” (Leviticus 24:5-9)

This “whiteness” is sprinkled onto the loaves “for a memorial, an offering made by fire,” telling us that we are to remember the judgment Christ endured in our stead, for it made us pure in God’s sight. The setting out of the loaves on the Sabbath reminds us that we cannot work to attain this imputed purity. The showbread was to be eaten by “Aaron and his sons”—in other words, the priesthood, those who minister in God’s very presence, interceding between God and man. This today includes all people of faith in Yahweh, for the veil blocking access to the holy of holies has been torn in two—we believers may now boldly enter His presence in prayer. It’s no wonder Yahshua described Himself as being “the bread of life.”

In the original symbol, the loaves or cakes were to be arranged in two rows of six each, with the frankincense applied to each row independently. On the theory that Yahweh doesn’t instruct us to do things on a pointless whim (but rather, always has a lesson in mind), we should ask why this arrangement was specified. I believe that it’s an indication (one of many) that two distinct segments of humanity—Israel and the largely-gentile ekklesia—will enjoy the provision of Yahweh’s salvation, each crowned with the purity attained through His own sacrifice. We—biological Israel and the church (with its more democratic demographic)—will stand side by side in the kingdom, bathed in the light of Yahweh’s truth (since the bread of the presence was placed precisely where it would be illuminated by the golden lampstand).  


As usual, it should be instructive to look at the times when the symbol was purposely left out. As we have seen, frankincense was normally added to any grain offering, specifically to the portion that was to be burned upon the altar. In the case of the asham, or trespass offering (the appropriate means to acknowledge our mistakes, our unintentional trespasses against God’s perfect standard) a female lamb or goat would normally be sacrificed. But there’s a sliding scale: poor people make mistakes too. If you couldn’t afford a lamb, then a pair of turtledoves would do; and if you were too poor even for that, then you’d bring an tenth of an ephah (about two quarts) of fine flour, of which a representative handful would be burned upon the altar, just as in any minha. But the asham is actually a kind of sin offering, so the rules are altered a bit: “He shall put no oil on it and shall put no frankincense on it, for it is a sin offering.” (Leviticus 5:11) Why no oil or frankincense? It’s because this isn’t a normal minha (a grain offering): we are not acknowledging Yahweh’s provision, but rather our own fault. This is not atonement, but confession. The point is simply that as long as we inhabit these mortal bodies, we will continue to inadvertently stumble into sin. We will never attain absolute purity in these corrupt vessels—which explains why God is planning to replace our bodies with new, incorruptible ones (see I Corinthians 15:35-58). So frankincense, though required when thanking God for His bountiful provision (the heart of which is the purity we gain through His sacrifice), is not appropriate for addressing our sins as long as we remain mortals.

Another example: in Numbers 5, there is a goofy-sounding procedure by which a jealous husband could determine whether or not his wife was cheating on him. An offering was to be made to initiate the procedure: a tenth of an ephah of barley flour, the same thing asked of the poor man bringing a trespass offering, as we just saw. And as with the asham, no oil or frankincense was to be offered: “He shall pour no oil on it and put no frankincense on it, for it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of remembrance, bringing iniquity to remembrance.” (Numbers 5:15) If you’ll recall, we discussed this whole procedure—and its stunning prophetic significance—earlier in this unit, when we were exploring when oil was not to be used. It turned out to be an indictment, God’s charge of infidelity against both Israel and the church, something that played out historically in the year 1033 AD. So I won’t repeat the details and lessons, but merely focus on the frankincense factor: why was it excluded? It’s roughly the same reason as what we saw above: this offering was not to atone for guilt, but to establish it.

The “unfaithful wife,” whether Israel or the church, was performing her part of her “marriage with God” just as she had for the last age. She had no concept of her own guilt. It’s not that these religious institutions were purposely going out and cheating their Husband, Yahweh. They had no clear idea their flirtations with falsehood were actually adulterous liaisons with Satan. Their dalliances with power, prestige, pride, and prejudice had blinded them to the fact that their Husband wasn’t even living under the same roof anymore. Their cold, loveless association with the God with whom they presumed they were living was in truth a mockery of their marriage vows. They had ignored His provision, grown cold to His touch, and even forgotten His name. So Yahweh said, don’t dignify this “union” with a symbol of the purity I’ve provided for you through My sacrifice. And don’t presume you have My Spirit within you. Wake up and smell the divorce papers. Repent!

How could this have happened? For the church’s part, they had forgotten to heed Peter’s warning about false teachers creeping into their midst: “These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved. For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.” (II Peter 2:17-19) To put it bluntly, the church had allowed itself to be talked out of the freedom of Christ’s love, replacing it with religious tradition, compromise with the world, and man’s “version” of God’s truth.

And Israel? They had refused to perceive what the symbols of the Torah, Psalms, and Prophets pointed toward. Yahweh had given them a sign, saying “Home is this way.” But rather than heeding the message and heading for home, they stopped right there and built a shrine to the sign itself. So Yahweh warned them—again. “Hear, O earth; behold, I am bringing disaster upon this people, the fruit of their devices, because they have not paid attention to My words; and as for My law, they have rejected it. What use to Me is frankincense that comes from Sheba, or sweet cane from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor your sacrifices pleasing to Me.” (Jeremiah 6:19-20) God’s law points toward the Messiah: to reject Him is to reject it. Performing a burnt offering is pointless if you don’t accept that it’s a picture of Yahweh’s total commitment to our redemption. Burning frankincense with your grain offering or in your incense is an abomination if you refuse to admit that you’re in need of the purity it represents.

Another prophet takes it even further, saying that keeping the literal law, though without humility before God—perfectly performing its rites and rituals, but doing so in one’s own strength and without regard to Yahweh’s purpose—is in itself sin, blasphemy, and idolatry. “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at My word. He who slaughters an ox is like one who kills a man; he who sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck; he who presents a grain offering, like one who offers pig’s blood; he who makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like one who blesses an idol.” (Isaiah 66:2-3) Ouch! People today who claim to be “Torah observant” just because they follow Yahweh’s ritual calendar or dietary rules have missed the entire point. The Torah isn’t about the rules; the rules, rather, are about the Redeemer. Conversely, people who assume the Torah is now worthless and outdated are equally misled: without it, we would have nothing beyond hollow religious tradition to confirm that Yahshua is the promised Messiah. Without reference to—and reverence for—the God of the Torah, Psalms, and Prophets, Christians might as well be worshipping a common criminal with a good P.R. firm. How would we possibly know Yahshua is God’s anointed if He hadn’t told us what to expect? From Rabbi Akiba to Joseph Smith, from Charlemagne to Mao Tse-tung, there are any number of charismatic historical figures who make more compelling “religious leaders” than Jesus did. The future Mahdi (the Gog of Ezekiel 38) and the Antichrist are, between them, destined to fool pretty much the entire world. Isaiah was right: if we don’t approach God’s word with humility, contrition, and utter reverence, our worship is idolatry.

Frankincense is such a potent symbol, I find it intriguing that it’s included in a list of “commodities” that will be controlled by “Babylon” in the last days—until her sudden and utter destruction, that is. “Alas! Alas! You great city, you mighty city, Babylon! For in a single hour your judgment has come.” As we’ll see in a future chapter, Babylon is God’s metaphor for any form of systematic false worship. There are three “flavors” of Babylon bouillabaisse: religious, political/military, and commercial/financial—and they all smell fishy. The latter is being described here: “And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, cargo of gold, silver, jewels, pearls, fine linen, purple cloth, silk, scarlet cloth, all kinds of scented wood, all kinds of articles of ivory, all kinds of articles of costly wood, bronze, iron and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour, wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls.” (Revelation 18:10-13) I freely admit that I could be seeing something that isn’t really there, but is it possible that the frankincense on this list indicates a false and misleading view of purity, and how to attain it? Babylon, the world’s system of values, wouldn’t see purity as God presents it, of course. Yahweh offers us a chance to wash off the corruption that pollutes our souls, making us clean, holy, and good. In Babylon’s twisted scheme however, the “purity” of frankincense might be purveyed as an opportunity to rise above the unwashed masses, to become one of the “beautiful people,” the elite ruling class. The Nazi SchutzStaffel, or SS, taught us how it works during World War II. This counterfeit “purity” is attained through the sacrifice of other people’s hopes, dreams, and labors. You too can be part of the perfumed elite, if you don’t mind inflicting a little pain in the name of pride. What will it cost you? Only your conscience, the last shred of human compassion, and in the end, your very soul.

Of course, I could be wrong. Frankincense here could mean just what it seems to—a rare and expensive luxury item (like so many things on the list), available only to those few who still have money and the arrogance to blow it on such things. On reflection, it kind of boils down to the same thing, doesn’t it?

But we can’t leave the story of frankincense languishing there in the dark days of the Tribulation’s judgments, can we? “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of Yahweh has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples.” Yes, it will be dark before the dawn, but there are, for those who are Yahweh’s, glorious days ahead. “But Yahweh will arise upon you, and His glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” The prophet is talking about Millennial Israel, repentant, redeemed, and restored. Under King Yahshua, they’ll be the world’s only superpower for a thousand glorious years. Eat your heart out, Adolph. “Lift up your eyes all around, and see; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from afar, and your daughters shall be carried on the hip. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and exult, because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come.” And what will the nations bring in homage to the Messiah-King and His people? “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of Yahweh.” (Isaiah 60:1-6) What does frankincense indicate here? I can tell you this: it’s a far cry from the abuse, threats, and antagonism the world heaps on God’s people today. Take heart: the peace of Jerusalem is just around the prophetic corner.  

(First published 2015)