In Luke 1, as Zechariah is in the temple at the altar of incense, we read:

And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. (Luke 1:11, ESV)

Why include the information about the angel being on the right side of the altar? The big deal here is that an angel appeared to Zechariah, so why bother recording that the angel was on the right side (rather than just "next to", for example)?

  • 1
    The greek word used in this verse is δεξιός, an adjective and also means metaphorically a place of honour or authority. Feb 26, 2014 at 4:45
  • @paul-vargas True, but judging from the reactions recorded in the bible of those who have had angelic visitations, the angels don't seem to lack authority or honour. A bit of extra honour by appearing to the right of the alter would hardly seem necessary.
    – cdjc
    Feb 26, 2014 at 5:36
  • 1
    @cdjc I see what you're saying with "appearing to the right side of the altar would hardly seem necessary". Jesus on the other hand told the fishermen "Cast the net on the 'right' side of the ship, and ye shall find", so they did (John 21:6 KJV). To me it seems there must be some symbolism with these and the right hand side. May 15, 2014 at 0:26
  • Do we know if this means the 'right side' from Zechariah's viewpoint, or from the angel's? I don't see any clear indication. Unfortunately this ambiguity makes it difficult to visualize the scene and distracts from the message. Dec 7, 2017 at 21:16

5 Answers 5


What is the significance of the angel being on the right side of the alter of incense in Luke 1:11?

We must assume (I know that is a banned word here) that Zechariah was standing facing the altar and, also, the Holy of Holies. If that position is allowed, the significance would be that the angel was not standing between Zechariah and the entrance to the Holy Place. In other words, Zechariah was free to exit anytime he wished.

  • We allow well-reasoned assumptions, just show your work for making them (it's pretty apparent in this case so you'll be alright) ;)
    – Dan
    Feb 26, 2014 at 22:16
  • They key thing to keep in mind is that we care less about what you know and far more about how you know it (we do care about both, but we don't want the former without the latter).
    – Dan
    Feb 26, 2014 at 22:45

It's hard to determine why "on the right" might be used in this citing (with angels possibly not lacking "authority or honour”). At the same time Jesus probably didn't need more honor while in heaven; he sat on the right hand of God.

Mark 16:19 (KJV)

So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God.

Of the several ways in the “biblical usages of ‘right’ and ‘left’ ”, one was just that the right side was traditionally considered better than the left, all the way back to Genesis, because the right was the “side of honor” and “recognized in many ways to be the better”. The right side of a person received “special prominence”. Actually, being left-handed was even considered a disqualification for priesthood. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12757-right-and-left

Right was also considered the "stronger" side. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0017_0_16755.html In one case in Genesis when blessings took place, Isaac was blessing two grandsons he had next to him, but he even crossed his hands since he knew the younger would surpass the older.

Gen 48:13-16

13 And Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand toward Israel's left hand, and Manasseh in his left hand toward Israel's right hand, and brought them near unto him.14 And Israel stretched out his right hand, and laid it upon Ephraim's head, who was the younger, and his left hand upon Manasseh's head, guiding his hands wittingly; for Manasseh was the firstborn. 17 And when Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand upon the head of Ephraim, it displeased him: and he held up his father's hand, to remove it from Ephraim's head unto Manasseh's head. 18 And Joseph said unto his father, Not so, my father: for this is the firstborn; put thy right hand upon his head. 19 And his father refused, and said, I know it, my son, I know it: he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great: but truly his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations.

In summary there may not be clearer reasons for emphasizing the right side, especially with the angels, then Jesus in heaven.


There is a distinct difference between a mere "angel" and an "Angel of the Lord." With this knowledge, we can better understand why in particular, the Angel of the Lord(AOTL) stood at the right hand of the altar. This is to draw attention to His divinity. When the AOTL makes an appearance, this signifies that a christophany has occurred. It is Jesus who sits at the right hand/side of the Father. The mentioning of "the right side of the altar" along with the AOTL is to draw our attention to the presence of Jesus. The AOTL has the divine authority to forgive "transgressions" (Exodus 23:21); and receive worship (Joshua 5:14).Furthermore, one will find that the Lord's name is in him (Exodus 23:21). Isaiah writes, "For he said, Surely they are my people, children that will not lie: so he was their Savior. In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old." (Isaiah 63:8-9)

  • This does not tell us why the author of Luke specifically says that the angel was on the right side of the altar. Please consider editing your answer to pare it down to relevant details about why the angel was on the right. Feb 8, 2015 at 0:24
  • Luke 1:11 simply states, "And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord" standing on the right side of the altar of incense." The reference is made to the divine "Angel of the Lord" and not just an "angel." Feb 8, 2015 at 15:27
  • @Bernadine Coggins- Your answer makes sense to me when i consider Mark 16:19- After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them,he was taken up into Heaven and he sat at the right hand of God.
    – Bagpipes
    Feb 12, 2015 at 9:48

The right side of the altar of incense puts the angel on the same side as the table of showbread. Here's a discussion of the Tabernacle Table of Showbread from the-tabernacle-place.com:

'Showbread' also was called “bread of the presence” because it was to be always in the Lord’s presence. The table and the bread were a picture of God’s willingness to fellowship and communion (literally speaking, sharing something in common) with man. It was like an invitation to share a meal, an extension of friendship. Eating together often is an act of fellowship. God was willing for man to enter into His presence to fellowship with Him, and this invitation was always open.

So maybe the significance of this side of the altar is indicative of the angel's purpose with Zechariah, and, in a larger way, anticipatory of the prophetic (i.e., God-communing) nature of John, and, through his prophecies, Christ, whose work on the cross opens such communion to the priesthood of all believers.


The right side of the altar was the side traditionally reserved for God and the left for the angel. When Gabriel showed up on the right, Zechariah was afraid. His first thought was that he was seeing God, and no man can see God and live (Exod. 33:20). He may have assumed that God was appearing to him and his death could be immediate.

It's important to note in the following verse that Zechariah was afraid . And also that every word in the Bible is important in some way.

  • Welcome to Bible Hermeneutics and thank you for your contribution. When you get a chance, please take the tour to understand how the site works and how it is different than others.
    – agarza
    Nov 2, 2022 at 17:21
  • Hi @tracy-f, It would be great if you could edit your answer to include references for your statement about the right side traditionally being reserved for God and the left for angels. I couldn't find any last time I looked.
    – cdjc
    Nov 8, 2022 at 20:52

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.