Within the Tabernacle, there were six main objects. The Ark of the Covenant was placed in the Holy of Holies and shielded by a veil. In the next chamber was the Altar of Incense, the Menorah, the seven branched lamp stand and the Table of Shewbread. The Altar of Burnt Offerings and the Brazen Laver for ritual washing, were situated in the outer courtyard.
Here we look at the Altar or Golden Altar of Incense. The biblical description can be found in Exodus 30.
1 Moreover, you shall make an altar as a place for burning incense; you shall make it of acacia wood.
2 Its length shall be a cubit, and its width a cubit, it shall be square, and its height shall be two cubits; its horns shall be of one piece with it.
3 You shall overlay it with pure gold, its top and its sides all around, and its horns; and you shall make a gold molding all around for it.
4 You shall make two gold rings for it under its molding; you shall make them on its two side walls—on opposite sides—and they shall be holders for poles with which to carry it.
5 You shall make the poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold.
6 You shall put this altar in front of the veil that is near the ark of the testimony, in front of the mercy seat that is over the ark of the testimony, where I will meet with you.
7 Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it; he shall burn it every morning when he trims the lamps.
8 When Aaron trims the lamps at twilight, he shall burn incense. There shall be perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations.
God commanded that incense be burnt on the golden altar every morning and evening to be left burning continually throughout the day and night as a pleasing aroma to the Lord. The incense was made of an equal part of four precious spices stacte, onycha, galbanum and frankincense and was considered holy.
34 And the LORD said unto Moses, Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight:”
Below is an article by Ex Comp. T M Greensill which gives a more concise explanation and deeper insight into the Altar.
The provenance of the altar of incense used in our present Chapters is undoubted: it is defined in Exodus 30: 1-2:
1) And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon: of shittim wood shalt thou make it.
2) A cubit shall be the length thereof, and a cubit the breadth thereof; foursquare shall it be: and two cubits shall be the height thereof: the horns thereof shall be of the same.
This was the first altar of incense erected by Moses in the wilderness of Sinai – a double cube.
The Bible contains several other references to altars of incense; some two hundred years later, in II Chronicles 26:16, where Uzziah went into the Temple and himself burnt incense upon it:
16) But when he was strong, his heart was lifted up to his destruction: for he transgressed against the LORD his God, and went into the temple of the LORD to burn incense upon the altar of incense.
Such an act was considered unseemly, even for a king, as it was the traditional preserve of the priestly caste to perform this sacred duty. Uzziah’s subsequent leprosy was directly attributed to his act of profanity.
Uzziah’s successor, Ahaz, became a heretic and burnt incense to the Assyrian gods, thus defiling both the altar and the Temple. Such blasphemy was only atoned by his successor, King Hezekiah , cleansing the Temple and causing the altars of incense to be cast into the brook of Kidron.
In ancient times the altar of incense was within the Holy of Holies, the Tabernacle, probably being placed to the west of the Ark of the Covenant. As I am sure you are aware, the incense was symbolic, not only of paying homage to the deity, but also that the rising of the perfume in the air symbolized the passage of the prayers of the faithful, through the ether, even to the very presence of God himself.
The incense itself, being made from the resin exuded from the trunk of the pine and cedar, was believed to save the faithful from corruption and to provide a substitute for burnt offerings; the latter being burnt on altars situated outside the Temple.
The altar of Moses was of shittim wood, nowadays considered to be acacia wood, and completely covered with gold. This altar travelled with the Children of Israel during their wanderings in the desert.
The altar of incense in King Solomon’s Temple was of a heavier wood, cedar, and was also overlaid with gold, but the altar found by the Sojourners was of white marble and described in the Mystical Lecture as, “…in the form of an altar of incense…”
The significant difference in the materials used underlines the great transition from the rigors of the wilderness of Sinai to the opulence of Solomon’s Temple.
The position of the altar in our present chapters is probably not the same as in the Operative and early Speculative Lodges of the 18th century. There are indications that in those days the altar was in the center of the squared pavement and we still have evidence of the use of the Craft squared pavement as it is perpetuated in the present Supreme Grand Chapter certificate. The reason for the change in position may well be associated with the adoption of the Chapter floor cloth which gives a perspective view of the floor as it would have been seen by the Sojourner when looking down into the vault.
The doubled cube of our present altar, whilst of great masonic significance, seems to have had little symbolism in Biblical terms although the Sanctum Sanctorum was specifically built in the form of a cube, the perfect figure in solid geometry, which has many symbolic connotations. In one version of the address for the presentation of the Supreme Grand Chapter certificate we find traces of the inner symbolism of the doubled cube in the following words:
“From earliest times the doubled cube was a venerated symbol representing immensity of space, extending from the base of the earth, represented by the bottom square of the doubled cube, even to the very zenith of the heavens, represented by the top square.”
The symbolism of the doubled cube can be taken a stage further. The bottom cube representing the rough-hewn ashlar of the Entered Apprentice, being in itself symbolic of worldly man, still uncouth in the spiritual ideals of Freemasonry, being engrossed in the material aspects of living and still expecting material benefits from his labours. The upper cube represents the polishing which has been achieved by obedience to the moral code of the Order and its perfect shape to the minimizing of his ego by bending to the will of the Great Architect of the Universe. The beginning of man’s spiritual journey is symbolized in the upper cube when he becomes aware of the first groping’s towards the non-material, represented by the heavens-the unknown.
On the top of the altar found in the vault was a “plate of gold’”. I submit that this phrase was not meant in its present connotation – that of a flat dish, but rather that it was ‘plated’ with gold. It is probable that whilst the previous altars of incense were overlaid with gold to give them the necessary dignity and safety, that the altar found in the vault being of white marble did not need such embellishment, except the top.
The characters and words on the top of the altar are explained in some to the most beautiful phraseology found in Freemasonry and much has been written on their significance. Let me therefore confine myself to the geometrical figures.
Although some of the symbolism of the circle and triangle is found in the Mystical Lecture, I suggest that their meanings go far deeper in ancient symbolism; a field which was undoubtedly known and explored by many of the early Speculative masons who had so much influence on the fashioning of the ceremony so that it was ultimately to blossom into the brilliance which we now know.
The circle symbolizes the ‘flux of creation’, of God manifest in creation and also the eternal movement of a non-static universe. It not only represents eternity but also Cyclic time, the time of the Universe, where time is no longer measured in our mortal, linear time-scale which must necessarily have a beginning and an end. In Cyclic time the end is the beginning and there is timelessness. Our mortal linear time shackles man, who must obey it, yet it is only relative to our mortal lives. Cyclic time as not relative to earth and is self-perpetuating.
To the Chinese, the circle represents the heavens which, in some respects, the ancients considered the unknown, the incomprehensible. In most Eastern religions the circle symbolizes Enlightenment, that ultimate state when mere man appreciates the Unknowable.
The triangle represents the number ‘3’, the mystic number, and its symbolism goes back to the Egyptians and possibly beyond. The Triad to which the Craft mason was introduced through the ‘Three Great Lights’ and many other series of ‘threes’ is, in the Royal Arch, elevated to a far greater height where it becomes the core of the ceremony and ultimately the repository of the second Word. In nearly all of the ancient religions the Triad was revered in some form: as Heaven, Man and Earth; as Osiris, Isis and Horus by the Egyptians and as the Three Aspects of the Deity in many others. The equilateral triangle is the accepted symbol of completion.
Although the combination of the square, circle and triangle is mentioned in the Mystical Lecture there is, of necessity, only a short explanation of what must have been one of the most powerful combinations of symbols known to the ancient world. The important symbolism of the square is not even mentioned. This omission can scarcely be attributed to an aversion by our early companions to the square as the Craft squared pavement was used by them and, in fact, is still found in use in many old chapters. It seems quite possible that the ensigns were set around the four sides of the pavement. Was this omission of an explanation of this powerful combination of symbols caused by some feeling that the inner meaning should be made known only to the elite? Certainly, this combination was known to Elias Ashmole and his friends who were privy to the work of contemporary alchemists.
These early alchemists were not, as popular tradition has it, mere chemists attempting to change base metals into gold; many were erudite men, philosophers and mystics who were trying to find the answer to life’s ‘Great Riddle’. The search for the Philosopher’s Stone, the Rebis – from the Latin res bina, meaning dual or double matter, it is the end product of the alchemical magnum opus or great work, was the quest for regaining the Mystical Centre where the ‘Two would become One’ in the Hermetic Androgyne. To such men the square, circle and triangle was the complete symbol and as such was given by the great 17th century alchemist, Michael Maier, a great friend of Ashmole, who expressed it so cryptically in his Scrutinium Chymicum:
“Make a circle out of a man and a women, From which a quadrangular figure arises with equal sides, Divide from it a triangle, which is in contact with all sides of a round sphere, Then the Stone shall come into existence, If such a thing is not immediately clear to your mind, Then learn that you will understand everything, if you understand the theory of Geometry.”
If we take this combination of the square, circle and triangle and consider them in masonic terms, then, with the exception of the words, they represent the ultimate symbolism of the ceremony and I submit might be expressed thus: The square symbolises Earth, God manifest in creation; its straight lines depicting Man, the only living thing which acts in the Linear, indicating that Man is bound by Linear time. Yet the unique spirituality of Man enables him to look to the Unknown-the Heavens, symbolised by the circle. The circle represents Cyclic time where and ending (death) is a beginning (birth). Beyond the circle, and mystically far beyond it, is the equilateral triangle, the symbol of completion – the completion we all seek, when we become one with the Great All.