May my prayer be set before you like incense. – Psalm 141:2
Throughout the Old Testament, we see incense playing a significant role in the worship God had prescribed for his people. It was so essential that there was an altar of incense in the Holy Place. As we consider this topic, 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. Still, in another sense, incense also typifies prayer. John Owen, in his commentary on Hebrews, lays out four ways incense is like prayer.
1. The incense was beaten and pounded before it could be 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.” For our prayers to be as incense, we must approach the Throne of Grace in poverty of spirit, knowing that our sinfulness has separated us from God and that only through Christ our mediator do we have peace with Him. This is biblical brokenness. If we approach God in any other way, we are like the tax collector trusting on our own righteousness, and he went away unjustified. Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift you up.
2. Incense rises toward heaven, and the point of prayer is that it ascends to the throne of God.
One of the significant 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 precisely that. We are bringing our praises and petitions to the throne of God. Though we have no merit of our own, God still embraces us with love because of the merit of Jesus and His righteousness. For our prayers to be as incense, we need to be aware of the great heights they are reaching as we commune with the exalted Christ. This goes hand in hand with our brokenness. Pray with confidence. Despite your sinfulness, your prayers rise to the Most High, maker of heaven and earth, and there is no one above Him.
3. Incense requires fire for it to be useful, and prayer has no virtue unless it is set on fire by the power of the Holy Spirit.
By this, we are not referring to some mystical experience. The fact that a believer desires to go to the Lord in prayer is the work of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is not the natural man’s disposition. The only prayer that can take place without the Spirit is 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 and many words. We must pray in accordance with the Word of God. When this happens, it is because the Spirit is moving. When you feel the urge to pray, do not neglect that desire because your incense is being set on fire by the power of the Holy Spirit.
4. Incense yields a sweet aroma, and our prayers are a sweet fragrance to the Lord.
This seems to be at the heart of the Psalmist’s cry. “May my prayer be as incense,” means, may it be a sweet aroma to the Lord. 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 scent is because we approach the Lord in Christ’s name. Our prayers are pleasing to the Lord, and the fact we can bring pleasure to God is something that should cause us to drop to our knees with joy. Pray boldly in Jesus’ name, because it brings pleasure to God almighty.
May this short study encourage you to spend more time on your knees this week. You may not feel worthy to approach him, but that is the only proper way to draw near to the Throne of Grace. From there, your lowly supplications will rise to the heavens where Christ is exalted. If this encourages you to pray, know that it is the Holy Spirit who is encouraging you to do so. Finally, as you pray, you will bring pleasure to the only King of Heaven as the offering Jesus made for sin is presented to the Father on your behalf.