The Power and Danger of Incense
King Uzziah or Azariah of Judah (reigned ca. 785-734 BCE/BC) achieved extraordinary success in war, trade, diplomacy, agriculture, and engineering. His two names עזיה (Uzziah) and עזריה (Azariah) mean something like “Yah [=the Supreme God YHWH] is strength” and “Yah aids.” The Biblical narrative connects these meanings with the historical events of his rule: “And God aided him… he was marvelously aided until he became strong” (2Chron. 26:7, 15). The annals of the Neo-Assyrian Emperor Tiglath-Pileser III (reigned 745-727 BCE/BC) mention “Azriau of the land of Iaudai” as the head of an opposing military coalition.
Yet King Uzziah suffered a dramatic downfall brought on by something not normally connected to political power: incense. The Biblical narrative continues: “And when he had become strong, his heart became elevated to the point of destruction; and he acted treacherously against YHWH his God and came into the court of YHWH to burn incense upon the altar of incense” (2Chron. 26:16). When the king refused to back down after being confronted by the temple workers (“priests”), God immediately struck him with “leprosy” (which might refer to a variety of skin diseases). This made him “an outcast from the house of YHWH” (2Chron. 26:17-21; compare Lev. 13-14).
Why was it such a serious crime for King Uzziah to try to offer incense to God? And why did he want it so badly that he “became furious” (verse 19) when resisted?
The system of rulership in ancient Israel/Judah included what today we call “separation of powers.” Israel’s “constitution,” as defined in the Torah (God’s Instruction-Law) and later decrees, provided for separate domains of activity for kings, prophets, priests (and Levites), judges (and elders), and the people as a whole. What was permitted to the king was not permitted to everyone; what was commanded to the priests was forbidden to others. Even the king was subject to the constitution; in fact, he was obliged to write his own copy of the Torah, to study it, and to follow it carefully (Deut. 17:18-20).
By entering the temple court to burn incense, King Uzziah was attempting to place himself above the law and seize “extraconstitutional” power and authority for himself. In resisting this coup, the temple workers were defending the regulation that only the sons of Aaron could legally burn incense on the altar of incense (see Exod. 30:1-9, Num. 3:10; compare Num. 16, Heb. 5:4).
The story of Uzziah parallels the more famous cases of David and Solomon. After experiencing extraordinary success as the result of divine favor, these kings also committed crimes against YHWH (see 2Sam. 12:7-12, 1Kgs. 11:1-14). Moreover, the arrogance in Uzziah’s heart can be compared to the ambition and pride of “the Morning Star” who sought elevation to the level of God (Isa. 14:12-15). Similarly, in the late Second Temple Period (or just after) the book of Judah/Jude described the punishment of spiritual beings “who did not keep to their own domain” (1:6). It’s always best to check the constitution before burning incense!
The Bible can provide us with truth, but it can also be difficult to decipher! Whether you’re looking for some biblical direction, stumped on scriptural questions, or just want to confirm that you’re already on the right track, continue following us for more biblical interpretations.
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