Incense is formed from the resin and gums of certain trees that, when burned, give off a fragrant odor. Incense was widely used in the ancient Near East both domestically, as a perfume, and in religious rites, as a sacrifice or as a means of driving away demons.

The use of incense in Israelite worship parallels its widespread use in Canaanite ritual. The prophets' denunciation of it (e.g., Jer. 6.20) relates to their denunciation of sacrifices offered by unethical persons, or because incense was being burned before idols. The reference in Ezekiel 16.18 to “my [i.e., God's] incense” shows that the offering, which should have been made to God, was being blasphemously misused.

In the Hebrew Bible we find three main uses of incense. First, it supplemented the grain offering, for which pure frankincense was prescribed (Lev. 2.1). Doubtless, some form of incense was used with animal sacrifices to counteract the stench of burning flesh. Second, its use in censers was part of Egyptian ritual, and was included in Israelite worship probably from an early period. Finally, as part of the sacrificial system, incense was burned on the golden altar within the sanctuary; it was burned regularly twice a day (Exod. 30.1–10). This offering was restricted to the priests who officiated according to a roster (1 Chron. 24.1–19; Luke 1.8–9). On the Day of Atonement the high priest entered the holy of holies with a censer (Lev. 16.12–13) to cover the mercy seat with a cloud of smoke, lest he be exposed to the presence of God and die.

In the New Testament there are few references to the use of incense. Most concern Israelite practices, though Revelation 5.8 and 8.3–4, describing the worship of heaven, may reflect early Christian ritual. After the destruction of the Temple and the cessation of the sacrificial system, however, incense is unlikely to have been used by Jews or Christians; its use in other religions, and especially in the imperial cult, would have made it suspect. There are no references to Christian use of incense in the first four centuries CE.

Its use in worship from the fifth century onward probably derived from its ordinary use to show respect for eminent persons, who were sometimes preceded by servants with censers. It is therefore significant that it has been used especially in the Eucharist to cense the ministers, the people, the gospel book, the altar, and the eucharistic elements, all of which are regarded as representations of Christ himself to whom honor is due. This conception was perhaps helped by the understanding of incense as symbolizing the prayers of God's people (Ps. 141.2; Rev. 5.8).

John N. Suggit