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Abraham Heschel refers to the Day of Atonement as Judaism’s holy of holies in time.[1] This day is the most sacred day of the holy calendar. It occurs on the 10th of Tishri, the first month of the civil year and the seventh month of the ceremonial year. A day of fasting, it stood between the two great feasts of Pentecost and Tabernacles. It was on this day that all the sins, transgressions, and iniquities of the people for the entire year were covered over. It was on this day that the high priest entered the holy of holies with blood on his hands.

Jesus Christ died that we might come alive to God. He suffered the banishment of heaven that we might bask in the presence of Almighty God. It is only by His blood that we are able to enter in to the holiest place and meet the heavenly Father instead of the heavenly fire. The ceremonies on the Day of Atonement were given to teach us about Jesus and what He accomplished by His sacrifice. On the Day of Atonement, the sins of the priesthood and the people and the defilement of the tabernacle were cleansed. Aaron and his progeny performed this ceremony year after year for centuries until the destruction of the second temple in AD 70. Let us follow along with Aaron as he performs the sacred duties of that day.

The Cleansing of the Priesthood
Along with the special sacrifices of the day, the daily sacrifices still had to be offered. The morning and evening sacrifices were offered by the high priest in his regular high priestly attire, often referred to as the “golden vestments.” But he performed the ceremonies for the Day of Atonement dressed in simple white linen with a miter of the same material. This meant that after offering the regular sacrifices, he had to change out of his golden vestments into his simple white robes to perform his duties for the day.

Leviticus 16:11
And Aaron shall bring the bullock of the sin offering, which is for himself, and shall make an atonement for himself, and for his house, and shall kill the bullock of the sin offering which is for himself…

In accordance with the law of the sin offering, Aaron would lay his hands on the head of the bullock and confess his sins and the sins of his household over it. “Ah, YHWH! I have committed iniquity; I have transgressed; I have sinned—I and my house. Oh, then, YHWH, I entreat Thee, cover over the iniquities, the transgressions, and the sins which I have committed, transgressed, and sinned before Thee, I and my house—even as it is written in Thy Law, ‘For, on that day will He cover over for you to make you clean; from all your transgressions before YHWH ye shall be cleansed.’[2]”  He would then slice the bullock’s throat and collect the blood in a vessel. This he handed to one of his sons to keep it moving, lest it coagulate.

Leviticus 16:12
And he shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from off the altar before the Lord, and his hands full of sweet incense beaten small, and bring it within the veil…

Careful not to repeat his older sons’ mistake, Aaron gathered coals from off the altar of burnt offering and filled his censer with them. He carries this in his right hand and fills his left with incense. He squares his shoulders and with a determined step, enters into the holy place. The people stand silent, waiting to see if his offering will be accepted. The Lord said He would meet the children of Israel between the cherubim above the mercy seat. His manifest presence appeared in the Shekinah glory cloud. Aaron’s task was to cover that cloud with a cloud of incense to avoid getting killed.

The veil was a singular curtain measuring ten cubits by ten cubits. It had no partitions in it like a stage curtain. Some have entertained that the priest entered the holy of holies from one of the sides. But this seems out of character with the layout of the furniture. The altar of incense was centered on the veil, lining it up with the Ark of the Covenant which was centered in the holy of holies. It is my personal conviction that the high priest entered the holy of holies from the center, which means that he would have to go under the veil to get beyond it. Perhaps with a silent prayer, Aaron would get on his knees before the veil and take a deep breath before plunging in.

Leviticus 16:13
And he shall put the incense upon the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the testimony, that he die not…

Bowing his head, he ducks into the most sacred space on earth. Quickly, he throws the incense onto the coals and it ignites in a cloud of smoke. He waits only long enough to be sure that the fire has taken and crawls backward the half-step he dared to enter with. Smoke was filling the holy of holies and seeping through the cloth to the outside world. Its signal and smell relieved the people. Aaron was alive; the incense had been accepted.

Incense represents prayers and intercession in Scripture.[3]  Aaron had to cover the throne of God with intercessory prayer so that he could venture in and offer the blood of the sin sacrifice without getting himself killed. Jesus Christ offered up strong prayers and supplications in the garden of Gethsemane before becoming the Rent Veil. He was the “sweet incense beaten small” and now intercedes continually for us in the power of an endless life.[4]

Leviticus 16:14
And he shall take of the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it with his finger upon the mercy seat eastward; and before the mercy seat shall he sprinkle of the blood with his finger seven times.

Aaron retrieved the vessel with the blood of the bullock from his son and returned to the veil. The cloud of incense insulated him from the consuming glory of the Lord. With slightly more determination but no less fear, he enters the holy of holies completely now. Dipping his fingers in the blood, he sprinkles the mercy seat once and before it seven times to atone for—to cover over—his sins and the sins of his household.

It is perhaps from this commandment that in Temple times the custom developed to sprinkle the blood eight times, one up and seven down. The number eight is representative of new beginnings and resurrection in Scripture. The blood was applied to the mercy seat eight times for the cleansing on the priesthood. The one sprinkling on the mercy seat was indicative of the one sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. The seven sprinklings before the mercy seat symbolized the seven different ways that Jesus bled while redeeming us.[5]

[1] Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath, The Noonday Press, New York, © Abraham Heschel 1951, printed 1997, p. 8.
[2] Adapted from Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services, Hendrikson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, © 1994 by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., p. 247.
[3] Rev 8:3-4
[4] Heb 7:16, 25
[5] See Dale M. Sides, Perfect Redemption. These seven ways were: His brow while praying in the garden, His head due to the crown of thorns, His back because of the scourging, His hands, His feet, His side, and His bruising for our iniquities. Each of these in turn redeemed us for specific sins: worry, making anything king besides the Lord, sins against our bodies, wicked deeds done with our hands, wicked ways in which we have walked, pierced because of our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities. This resource (audio or book) may be found on the Web at http://www.lmci.org.