Q: #445. What was frankincense in the Bible?
A: Frankincense is mentioned 17 times in the Bible (15 OT, 2 NT) (plus called “incense” in 6 other verses). Easily, the most famous mention is that it was one of 3 presents that the wise men presented to the child Jesus (Mt 2:11). But, what exactly WAS frankincense? Do you know? I really didn’t.
Frankincense is a resin (or dried sap) which comes from the Boswellia sacra tree. This resin is obtained by making small incisions in the bark of the tree. From these incisions, resin/sap is excreted. It is allowed to dry for several weeks, and then removed. This hardened resin is then used primarily as incense (it can also be eaten). The Boswellia sacra tree is found in very few places; primarily in Arabia and parts of Africa. The Bible mentions “incense” coming from “Sheba” = Arabia (Isa 60:6)(Jer 6:20). Because of the scarcity of these trees, it was (and is) a rare commodity, and quite valuable. In fact, I read that the frankincense and myrrh presented to Jesus were likely more valuable than the gold.
In the Old Testament, we see that God had a special recipe for making incense for the Tabernacle that no one was allowed to use for themselves (Ex 30:34-38). Frankincense was one of the ingredients in this special incense. Frankincense was also to be used when making a grain offering (Lev 2:1-2,14-16)(Lev 6:14-15). However, it was not to be used when making a sin offering (Lev 5:11)(Num 5:15). In (Ps 141:2), David said, “Let my prayer be set before thee as incense (frankincense).”
Although this cannot be proven, it is said that each of the 3 gifts given to the child Jesus had symbolic meaning. For frankincense, some of these symbols are “said” to be: Jesus’ role as a priest, His future sacrifice, His sinless perfection, His deity, and His holiness and righteousness.