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!

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68 COMMENTS

    • Mine is not a comment but question about creation in Genesis 1:1 what's happened? Chapter two onwards is just chronicle of event
      In Job 38:7 confirm when the earth was perfectly created the angels sang with joy. can somebody explain?

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    • How beautiful that the altar of incense lay within a few feet of the Holy of Holies, wherein was the presence of God: where God chose to dwell with his people. What an honor it must have been as a priest to have the chance to offer incense at the altar within the Holy Place. Father Zacharias had that chance and encountered Gabriel, who hadn't been chronicled since the time of Daniel. The angel reminds Zacharias that he stands next to God: his prayers have been heard. The incense rising up signified the offering of prayer and the realization that God hears our prayer. And the best of all, Jesus is at the right hand of the Father and hears our prayers. "Let my prayers come before thee as incense; the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice."

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  1. We find another example with the two sons of Aharon. They also burned incense not following protocol, and costing them their lives.

    Be Blessed
    • Thank you, Roberto! Yes, the story of Nadav & Avihu (Lev. 10:1-3) is certainly related, as is (perhaps) the story of Korach and his faction (Num. 16). The case of Uzziah stands out for emphasizing that even the king is not above the law.
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  2. Yes, Amen. We see that "The Wages of Sin" bring terrible consequences. The ways in which each one pays for their mistakes.

    All Glory Be to Hashem our Melej Ha'Olam.
    • Thank you for the question, Elsa! In some ways this is a complicated issue. Biblical Hebrew has a few different words that are often translated as "incense." The word used in Uzziah's case (and in Exod. 30:8, Num. 16:7, etc.) is קטרת (qetoret), which designates a kind of "sacrifice" or "offering" by smoke. This particular incense offering, which was made according to a special formula, was strictly forbidden to non-authorized persons (see, e.g., Exod. 30:35-38, 37:29). However, it would seem that other types of incense and perfume could indeed be used for everyday purposes (so long as they were not offered to other gods). Moreover, whether king or commoner, anyone could offer “prayer” to God, something that is compared metaphorically to the incense offering (Psa. 141:2).

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  3. This is really interesting to learn and know about the dangerous of incense. My wife and I we use incense to make our room smell fresh. Somehow this keep pondering my thoughts here; what about oil defuse? We use that and it the same as incense. Can this apply biblically with the constitution?
    • Thank you, Timothy! I'm no expert, but I think that oil diffusion, which uses vapor, is not actually the same as the Biblical burning of קטרת (qetoret) "incense offering by smoke." Please see my reply to Elsa (above), which may help with your question.
  4. Thank you Dr Gruber. Doesn't it make us think how Our God is jealous that we serve Him in the way He has allotted? Isnt it fearsome how so many churches today in the UK that I know are blatantly defying Biblical worship? I think of such as Christian Cinema, Dance etc. I'm sure you agree that our worship must not be merely to entertain ourselves but to bring praise and thanksgiving to the great God we adore. Again I thank you for your challenging article.
    • Thank you for the comment, Colin. I feel like your questions could open up a number of provocative and controversial discussions. People would probably have a wide range of views depending on their interpretive frameworks and personal backgrounds. The Hebrew Bible of course has no instruction directed toward "churches" (which didn't even exist at the time). Given that historical reality, I wonder what precisely you regard as "Biblical worship"?
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