Prayer and Incense

Scripture: Psalm 141:1-2 (The Message)

God, come close. Come quickly! Open your ears—it's my voice you're hearing! Treat my prayer as sweet incense rising; my raised hands are my evening prayers.

My daughter while cleaning her room this past week lit some incense. At first I thought that the local foundry was pouring castings until I realized the odor was coming from inside the house. I must state right here for the record I’m not a fan of incense because it causes my throat to become irritated and the spices burn my nose. Perhaps I should moderate my stance and just say that I can tolerate it in moderation.

But it got me thinking about how I sometimes use the phrase “may our prayers be like incense.” In this Psalm David opens to us the ‘hidden’ meaning to the sacrificial worship that was in place in the Old Testament. Throughout the Old Testament there are two schools of thought about worship; the first that you had to very careful in the ritual observance of all the requirements and the second that worship is all external, symbolic and external to the participant. Samuel even says, “Obedience is better than sacrifice and to hearken than the fat of rams.” This and other similar sayings suggest that prominence was given to the spiritual side rather than the heart of the worshipper.

The use of incense as a symbol is in many places throughout Scripture. Two quick references come to mind; John the Baptists father was lighting the incense when he met the Angel Gabriel and the Apostle John wrote in Revelation where the heavenly Temple opened to our gaze, we read that elders, the representatives of redeemed humanity, have “golden bowls full of odors, which are the prayers of the saints.” So it is easy to see how we can interpret incense to be prayers of devout hearts.

Now if you are not familiar with the Temple layout let me remind you that it was divided into three areas; the Outer Court, the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. The Altar for burning sacrifices stood in the Outer Court, the Golden Candlestick, the Table of Shewbread and the Altar of Incense was in the Holy Place and the Ark of the Covenant was in the Holy of Holies. Twice a day the Alter of Incense was kindled into flame by the priest when he brought coals from the Altar of Burnt Offerings into the Holy Place.

But I want to think of the image of the smoldering incense, roped around the censor, wafting fragrance into the heavens. The incense lay dead, unfragrant and with no capacity for soaring until there was a flame applied to it. Unless there is a flame in my heart there will be no rising of my aspirations to God. We find that cold prayers do not go up because they have no power to soar. There has to be the inflaming before there can be a mounting of aspiration.

And where was the incense kindled from; coals from the Alter of Burnt Offering. To complete our image, the fire of your heart is lit with a coal brought from Jesus’ sacrifice. Once lit it will flame and love will well upward and the desires of our heart will be ‘set on things above.’ But one last thing to think about; have you ever been to a Cathedral and watched the altar boys in procession carry the censors, swinging them backwards and forwards and all around? The reason they do that is to let air into the censor so the incense does not go out. There is a constant need to keep the incense of our prayers lit. We have to swing the censor of our hearts in order to rid it of the things that make our hearts cold; we have to stir the fire so that we can be continually smoldering (pray without ceasing) ready to flame through our special acts of worship throughout the day.

In our lives there are times when we feel empty-handed, coming to Him not only with hearts like incense but with petitions that confess our need for His grace. In those times, stop and let the breath of heaven stir your heart and ‘let your soul be rekindled with fire from above.’
Hallelujah – revise us again!

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful,
and enkindle in them the fire of your love.
Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created.
And you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.