Frankincense is a sweet smelling gum resin derived from certain Boswellia trees which, in Year One, grew in Arabia, India, and Ethiopia. The frankincense trade was at its height during the days of the Roman Empire. At that time this resin was considered as valuable as gems or precious metals. The Romans burned frankincense on their altars and at cremations. The mythical Phoenix bird was thought to build its funeral pyre out of frankincense and myrrh. The Israelites also used this popular incense (Is 43:23; 60:6; 66:3; Jer 6:20). Pillars of frankincense's white smoke, accompanying the Bride as she exits the wilderness, represent the pillar of smoke which led the Israelites to the Promised Land, the again with the foreshadowing, the sweet savor of Christ accompany him after he returns from the test in the desert (Song 3:6; Lk 4:1, 14).
Frankincense was an ingredient in the sacred incense and holy anointing oil of the Israelites (Ex 30:34-38). It was burnt with almost every sacrifice offered in Jerusalem's temple (Lev 2:1; 2:2; 2:15-16; 6:15). Salt was added to the mixture to produce a fine white smoke.
Frankincense was associated with prayers and burned on pagan altars in Rome, Persia, Babylon, and Assyria. It was also used in purification ceremonies. Nero burned it by the ton. In ancient Babylon one thousand talents of frankincense was burnt on the altar of Bel during his annual feast. Romans burnt this resin in their homes and on state occasions. Large quantities were burnt along the routes of the Roman triumphs or victory parades.
The ancients mixed frankincense with wine and myrrh to create a "strong drink" which eased the pains of the dying, the bitter, and the condemned (Prov 31:6). In China frankincense was thought to be a treatment for leprosy. Pliny recommended it as an antidote to poison. It was made into perfumes by many peoples (Song 3:6). Egyptians used frankincense to make cosmetics, embalm dead bodies, and provide an aromatic warmth on the braziers of their homes in chilly weather. Today frankincense is burnt during church services and funerals to show respect for whatever is symbolized by the objects incensed. (For example - the deceased or an altar.)
Obviously there were no Babies R Us on the way to Bethlehem.
Except where otherwise indicated all scripture quotes are from the NKJV.
More information about frankincense is available at:
Why Incense In Church Ceremonials?