A close-up shot of an ancient scroll, its weathered pages revealing biblical verses mentioning frankincense, surrounded by small vials of fragrant resin, creating a visual connection between scripture and the sacred substance.

What Is Frankincense In The Bible?

Frankincense is one of the most well-known substances in the Bible. This aromatic resin was highly valued in ancient times and was often associated with spirituality and divinity.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Frankincense is an aromatic gum resin that was used in sacred incense and anointing oils in the Bible. It symbolized holiness and the divine presence.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the various biblical references to frankincense and analyze its spiritual symbolism and significance.

The Origin and Composition of Frankincense

The Boswellia Trees

Frankincense is derived from resinous trees in the Boswellia genus, with Boswellia sacra being the most popular species. These small, thorny trees are native to the deserts of Yemen, Oman, and Somalia.

To produce resin, the bark of Boswellia trees is sliced, and the sap seeps out over the course of months. When exposed to air, the sap hardens into orange-brown resin nuggets known as frankincense tears. Frankincense trees thrive in arid climates with limited rainfall and can grow up to 25 feet tall.

Their taproot system allows them to penetrate deep into the rocky soil to access groundwater, which helps them survive in harsh desert conditions.

Harvesting and Production

Frankincense resin is harvested by hand during the dry season. Skilled harvesters use tools called mingafs to make delicate cuts in the bark, being careful not to harm the tree. The trees are rested for a few months between harvests.

It takes around 15 years for Boswellia trees to reach full maturity and produce high quality resin. After collection, raw frankincense tears are sorted, graded, and exported around the world. Top-grade resin is often sold as-is, while lower grades are distilled into essential oils.

Frankincense trees are sustainably wildcrafted, meaning harvest does not deplete natural stands. In fact, some experts believe that moderate tapping may help trees produce more resin over time. As demand for frankincense essential oil rises, commercial resin farms have emerged in Africa and India.

Chemical Composition

Frankincense contains a complex mixture of organic acids, polysaccharides, and volatile oils that provide its therapeutic profile. The monoterpenes alpha- and beta-pinene are major components of frankincense essential oil and contribute to its woody, earthy aroma.

It also contains sesquiterpenes like beta-elemene and incensole acetate, which have been studied for their anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects. The resin itself consists of about 5-9% essential oils, 65-85% alcohol soluble resins, and the remaining water soluble gums.

Variations in climate, soil, harvest season, and distillation contribute to different Boswellia species producing resin oils with distinct aromatic and medicinal qualities.

Frankincense in the Old Testament

Used in Sacred Incense

Frankincense was one of the most precious substances in ancient times and was used extensively in religious ceremonies and rituals. The Old Testament records numerous instances where frankincense was burned as incense to God.

When God gave instructions for building the Tabernacle, He specified that only the purest frankincense was to be used in the incense offerings (Exodus 30:34). Burning incense was symbolic of the prayers of the people rising up to God (Psalm 141:2).

The smoke from the incense was also thought to spiritually purify sacred spaces and objects. Frankincense incense was a key component of many of the grain offerings and burnt offerings made by the priests on behalf of the people (Leviticus 2:1-2, 15-16).

Its sweet aroma and smoke ascending heavenward signified the prayers and obedience of the people.

Part of Anointing Oils

In addition to incense, frankincense oil was also used to make the sacred anointing oil described in Exodus 30:22-25. This oil was specially formulated from precious spices and used to consecrate the Tent of Meeting, the Ark of the Testimony, and the priests.

The anointing oil was a symbol of God’s spiritual blessing and authority being imparted to people and objects. The inclusion of frankincense in this oil showed its sanctity and value. We also see the prophet Samuel use frankincense oil to anoint both Saul (1 Samuel 10:1) and David (1 Samuel 16:13) as kings of Israel.

An Item of Luxury Trade

Frankincense was an exotic import for the people of ancient Israel and was obtained through trade with southern Arabia. Isaiah 60:6 and Jeremiah 6:20 reference how the valuable resin was transported to Israel by caravan.

The “gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” given by the Magi to the young Jesus (Matthew 2:11) also highlight how highly prized it was in the ancient world. Frankincense cost as much as precious metals, so only the wealthy and temples could afford large quantities of it.

Burning or offering frankincense demonstrated one’s wealth and status. The writer of Ecclesiastes mentions how the increase of material luxuries like frankincense does not satisfy the soul (Ecclesiastes 2:8).

Frankincense in the New Testament

One of the Gifts of the Magi

In the biblical story of the nativity, frankincense was one of the precious gifts brought by the three wise men or magi who visited the infant Jesus. This valuable spice was given along with gold and myrrh, indicating that the magi recognized the baby Jesus as the king of the Jews.

The gift of frankincense symbolized Christ’s divine birth and his purity. When burned as incense, the aroma of frankincense was considered to be spiritually uplifting. Presenting frankincense to the Christ child was a sign that he would become a great religious leader.

The imagery of the three rich gifts given by the magi reinforced that a new era was dawning with the birth of Jesus.

Frankincense continues to be used in Christian religious ceremonies today. The smoke from burning frankincense resin represents the prayers of the faithful rising to heaven. In this way, frankincense maintains its ancient association with honoring the divine.

Symbolic of Christ’s Divine Nature

In addition to its appearance at Jesus’ birth, frankincense oil was likely used to anoint Jesus before his crucifixion. This anointing oil was made from expensive spices like frankincense and demonstrated honor and devotion to Christ.

Frankincense oil appears in the Bible again when the resurrected Jesus visits his disciples. The disciple Thomas initially doubts that Jesus has returned from the dead. But when Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds, Thomas exclaims “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

This statement confirms Christ’s divinity and his victory over death.

To reinforce the divine nature of Jesus, the Bible notes that the linen cloths in his tomb were “wrapped in spices, according to the burial custom of the Jews” (John 19:40). Experts believe this spice-infused shroud likely included frankincense resin, which was commonly used for embalming at the time.

So in the New Testament, frankincense signifies Jesus Christ’s holy birth, sinless life, sacrificial death, and resurrection from the grave. The fragrant resin points to his dual human and divine natures as the Son of God.

The Spiritual Symbolism of Frankincense

Associated with Prayer and Intercession

In the Bible, the burning of frankincense represents prayers rising up to God (Psalm 141:2, Revelation 5:8). The smoke and fragrance signify the prayers and intercessions of believers reaching heaven. In the temple, incense containing frankincense was burned morning and evening along with the daily burnt offerings, pointing to the importance of regular prayer (Exodus 30:7-8).

Signified Holiness and Consecration

Frankincense was closely associated with the holy spaces of the tabernacle and temple. God instructed Moses to use frankincense oil to consecrate the furnishings and utensils of the tabernacle to make them “most holy” (Exodus 30:23-29).

It was forbidden for anyone to make this special oil for personal use. Frankincense also was incorporated into the grain offerings, which were holy offerings given to the Lord (Leviticus 2:1-2). So its use symbolized objects and sacrifices being made holy and set apart for God’s purposes.

Pointed to Christ’s Sacrifice

Frankincense had medicinal uses in the ancient world, being applied to wounds for healing. The Bible notes that the wise men brought frankincense as a gift celebrating Jesus’ birth (Matthew 2:11). This points forward to Jesus’ death on the cross providing spiritual and eternal healing from sin.

Isaiah 53 prophesies that the coming Messiah would be led like a lamb to the slaughter, making a sacrificial atonement for all people (Isaiah 53:5-7,10). So frankincense symbolized both Jesus’ priestly role and his perfect sacrifice taking away sin.

Modern Spiritual Uses of Frankincense

Frankincense, one of the precious gifts brought by the three wise men to baby Jesus, continues to be an important part of Christian spiritual practices today. Its earthy, pine-like aroma and associations with biblical events have made it a staple in churches and religious ceremonies across the world.

Burned as Incense in Churches

Frankincense resin, harvested from Boswellia trees, is commonly burned as incense during religious services. The smoke carries the fragrance and represents prayers rising to heaven. Throughout the Bible, incense symbolizes the sweet fragrance of worship to God (Revelation 5:8).

Today, censers of burning frankincense remain integral to Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican liturgies.

Used in Religious Ceremonies and Rituals

In addition to routine services, frankincense is used in special religious ceremonies and rituals:

  • Frankincense may be burned during rites of passage like baptisms, weddings, and funerals to sanctify the proceedings.
  • In the Eastern Orthodox church, frankincense is simmered with citrus fruits as an offering on Feast Days.
  • During Christmas Eve masses, frankincense resin is often burned to represent divinity as services commemorate Jesus’s birth.

The aroma of frankincense is thought to deepen spiritual awareness and lift prayers to a higher plane. Thus, it accompanies important observances when believers seek to transcend the mundane.

Valued in Meditation and Healing

In addition to corporate worship, many Christians and New Age adherents use frankincense to enhance their personal spiritual devotion through:

Meditation Burning frankincense in a home setting aids meditation by promoting feelings of mental clarity and a connection to the divine. One study showed improved stress levels and immune function.
Healing prayers Some charismatic churches anoint congregants with frankincense oil as elders lay on hands in faith healing prayers. Frankincense mixed with oils like myrrh, cinnamon, and cedarwood is thought to facilitate healing.
Essential oils Essential oil of frankincense is mixed with a carrier oil and applied topically or diffused into the air during prayer times. Inhaling the aroma purportedly aids spiritual focus.

The global market for frankincense essential oils was estimated at $310 million in 2022 (source). Much is attributed to individuals desiring the uplifting, meditative properties of frankincense for personal use.


Frankincense has maintained an aura of sanctity from biblical times to the present day. Its spiritual symbolism as an accessory to prayer and emblem of holiness stems from the Old Testament temple rituals.

The precious resin remains a part of many modern religious observances. And its mysterious, bittersweet fragrance continues to inspire awe and lift hearts to the divine.

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