The Book of Exodus seems to slow down after it tells the story of the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt, as it then begins to detail how Israel will be different from the world. There are regulations for how to build a unique sanctuary, how to decorate it, of what materials it should be made, how the priests should dress, how they should be ordained, how they should offer sacrifices–all of this to show Israel is different from the rest of the nations around them. There are even regulations for specific formulas for anointing oil and incense to be used in worship. Both are summed up with the same warning:
When you make incense according to this formula, you shouldn’t make any of it for your own use. You should regard it as holy to the Lord. Whoever makes incense with this same formula to enjoy its fragrance will be cut off from the people.
Everything in this section could be summarized with this statement. The worship of the Lord is something that is not like the rest of the world. God is holy, and the worship of God is holy in one of the truest senses of the word: set apart. What we do in our devotion to the Lord is not like what we do in other aspects of our lives.
Aaron’s clothes, as high priest, are different from normal clothing because he is going before the Lord of heaven and earth, not the next door neighbor. The oil and incense are unique because they are used in service of the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, not lighting our own homes and for our own personal enjoyment. The sense we are to get from all of this is that we are to intimately know that we are doing something out of the ordinary when we approach the Living God. There ought to be a sense of something holy, something other, something grander and more intense than the rest of the world.
There is a strand within the Church today that takes the exact opposite approach to God and worship–everything should look and feel just like the rest of life. The idea is that people need to feel welcome and familiar when approaching God through Church so they will be more likely to accept what is being presented. There is some merit to this idea, but it does have some dangers to it. After all, if approaching God is no different than approaching anyone else we know, then we may become complacent in our lives before God and (consciously or not) assume that all we do is acceptable in the sight of the Lord.
God is different and God is holy. And God calls us to be the same as him–holy. Perhaps there is a little more room for majesty in our worship, for the One we worship is Magnificent.
(As a complete side note: I know many people who consider things like using incense in worship as a man-made tradition that should be avoided at all costs. Here God gives even the exact recipe for what incense he desires to be used in worship. In Isaiah 6 we get a glimpse of heavenly worship and it includes the incense altar, and in Revelation we see heavenly worship complete with incense. Could it be safe to say that incense in worship is a commandment of God and not using it is a tradition of men?)