May my prayer be set before you like incense. – Psalm 141:2
All throughout the Old Testament we see incense playing an important role in the way God prescribed that the people should worship Him. There was even an altar of incense in the Holy Place. As we look at this, it is important to remember the ceremonies of the old covenant were pictures and shadows of what Christ would accomplish in His atoning work on the cross, and incense is part of that picture. Ultimately, incense is a picture of the sacrifice of Christ which is the sweet aroma that goes before the Father on our behalf, but in another sense, incense also typifies prayer.
John Owen in his commentary on Hebrews lays out four ways incense is like prayer.
1. Incense was beaten and pounded before it was used. Likewise acceptable prayer proceeds from a broken and contrite heart.
Psalm 51:17 says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Elsewhere we are told that God “resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.” In order for our prayers to be as incense we must be broken enough to be aware that we are poor in spirit, knowing that our sinfulness has separated us from God, and that only through Christ our mediator do we have peace with Him. If we approach God in any other way we are like the tax collector leaning on our own righteousness, and he went away unjustified.
2. Incense rises toward heaven, and the point of prayer is that it ascends to the throne of God.
One of the major points made in the book of Hebrews is that Christ is exalted and sitting at the right hand of the Father. Yet we are encouraged to approach the Throne of Grace with confidence. When we pray, we are doing that very thing. We are bringing our praises and petitions to the throne of God. In doing this we need to remember three things. First, we are approaching a throne, and we need to approach it with reverence and not flippancy. Second, we need to remember that it is a throne of grace in the sense that we have no merit there. We make our petitions without making demands. Third, we need to remember that it is a throne of grace in a different sense. Though we have no merit there, we still find favor because of the merit of Christ and His righteousness. So for our prayers to be as incense, we need to be aware of the great heights they are reaching when we commune with the exalted Christ.
3. Incense requires fire for it to be useful, and prayer has no virtue unless is set on fire by the power of the Holy Spirit.
By this we are not referring to some mystical experience. The very fact that a believer desires to go to the Lord in prayer is the work of the Holy Spirit. The natural man desires to be independent and self-sufficient. Prayer is not his natural disposition. Most prayer will never take place apart from the Spirit’s work. The only prayer that would take place without Him would be prayer that is not in accord with the Word of God: for example, prayers to false gods, and ritualistic prayers by those who believe they will be heard because of mere formality. We must pray in accordance with the Word of God. When this happens it is because the Spirit is moving.
4. Incense yields a sweet aroma, and our prayers are a sweet aroma to the Lord.
This seems to be at the heart of the cry of the Psalmist. “May my prayer be as incense,” means, may it be a sweet aroma to you. In Revelation 8:4 we see that the smoke of incense rose with the prayers of the saints. This seems to signify that there is a sweet fragrance associated with our prayers, and the sweet fragrance is due to the fact that we approach the Lord in Christ’s name. This teaches us that our prayers are pleasing to the Lord, and the very fact that we can bring pleasure to God is something that should cause us to drop to our knees with joy.
As you spend time with the Lord in prayer this week, may you approach him with a broken and contrite heart, may you be reverent and hopeful as you understand the exalted nature of the One with whom you commune, may your prayers be set on set on fire by the Holy Spirit, and may you approach Him with joy knowing that your prayers bring him pleasure. In so doing, your prayers will be as incense before the Lord.