Burning Our Incense Before God
Incense is a fragrant smoke obtained from burning resins. It was burnt ceremonially on an altar before the mercy seat in the Tabernacle. God said it was holy and should be burnt day and night for all of Israel’s generations. Why was it holy? What was its significance? And does it have any implications for Christians today?
When Moses received instruction to build the tabernacle he was told to include an altar on which his brother Aaron was to burn incense every morning and every evening throughout all of Israel’s generations, “And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon:…. …And thou shalt put it before the vail that is by the ark of the testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the testimony, where I will meet with thee. And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn incense upon it. And when Aaron lighteth the lamps at even, he shall burn incense upon it, a perpetual incense before the LORD throughout your generations. Ye shall offer no strange incense thereon, nor burnt sacrifice, nor meat offering; neither shall ye pour drink offering thereon.” (Exodus 30:1, 6 -9).
God provided a recipe from which the incense was to be manufactured, “And the LORD said unto Moses, Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight: And thou shalt make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure and holy: And thou shalt beat some of it very small, and put of it before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation, where I will meet with thee: it shall be unto you most holy. And as for the perfume which thou shalt make, ye shall not make to yourselves according to the composition thereof: it shall be unto thee holy for the LORD. Whosoever shall make like unto that, to smell thereto, shall even be cut off from his people.” (Exodus 30:34-38).
Prayers of the Saints
Why did God say the incense was holy? David likened his prayer to incense, “Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” (Psalm 141:2). The incense was holy because it represented the prayers of the saints, “And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours (incense), which are the prayers of saints.” (Revelation 5:8).
The altar on which the incense was to be burnt was located before the mercy seat, which represented God’s throne. It was separated from the congregation by a veil through which only the High Priest had access. Once a year he entered the ‘holiest of all’ with blood to offer for the sins of the congregation. This ceremony foreshadowed the time when Christ the High Priest of the New Testament, offered His own life for the sins of all mankind and entered the presence of God the Father on His throne in heaven, “But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:11-14).
At the precise moment Christ died the veil in the temple was miraculously torn in two, “Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;” (Matthew 27:50-51) signifying a major event had taken place. It meant that those whom God called through Christ, could now have direct access to the Father. Effectively, in prayer, they could now come before the very throne of God, “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need,” (Hebrews 4:16).
Just as the priesthood in ancient Israel were given a recipe from which to manufacture their incense so have their spiritual counterparts in this age been provided with a recipe for their prayer. It was provided by none other than our High Priest, Jesus Christ, “After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:9-15). This provides a structure on which to build a prayer covering the things that are important and pleasing to God.
The formula for prayer was not a mantra to be vainly repeated as many do, “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.” (Matthew 6:7), but an outline of subjects to be considered (weighed and measured), expounded and discussed in person with God the Father to whom the saints now have direct access. Not as if talking to a God hidden behind a veil, but face to face with a loving Father who is deeply concerned for our wellbeing and future. It is a structure to which can be added certain aspects represented by the ingredients of the incense to provide a well-balanced relationship with God through prayer.
The first ingredient was stacte. Stacte is a gum that exudes from certain trees in liquid drops that harden and are known as ‘tears’. The stacte or storax shrub grows in abundance in the lower hills of Israel. Those tears represent the tears shed in prayer, an example set by Christ Himself, “Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared;”(Hebrews 5:7).
Do we pray with stacte? Do we shed unfeigned tears as we cry out to God for help? Do we shed tears of true repentance? What about the tears when we weep and mourn for what is happening around us in this world today as we pray for God’s Kingdom to come, "Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4). Do we shed tears when we receive forgiveness, or when we forgive others? Are there heartfelt tears in our prayers when we discuss the confusion that abounds in the churches of God today. Do we experience tears of joy and thankfulness as prayers are answered and God’s hand is so apparent in our lives.
Some confusion has arisen among Bible scholars by the use of the Greek word ‘onyx’ in the Septuagint. Onyx is an agate with a fingernail like opacity that has for some reason been associated with a claw shaped shellfish. However, the Hebrew word ‘shecheleth’ is believed to refer to a resin with a nail-like shine. According to the Encyclopedia of Bible Plants (F Nigel Hepper 1992) onycha is more likely to be a plant resin. Other sources (W Walker, All the Plants of the Bible) indicate that it is the rock-rose that grows about three feet high, a soft glutinous resin exudes from its leaves and stems. It is highly aromatic and fragrant. It is also credited as having great medicinal properties.
The resinous substance with medicinal properties seems to be the most likely ingredient for the sacred incense when considering the healing effect prayer has.
We include onycha in our prayer by praying for those in need of healing? Christ had great compassion for the sick, “And Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick.” (Matthew 14:14). The requests from brethren who are suffering from all sorts of illnesses simply cannot be ignored. Christ also had compassion on those who needed spiritual healing, “But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36). It is important to pray for Christ’s return to bring about that spiritual healing.
The third ingredient is galbanum. This one almost seems out of place. It comes from a plant that is found growing from Syria to Iran. It belongs to the same family as fennel and has a sharp biting smell. The resin when burnt gives off a pungent, rather disagreeable odour. This ingredient equates with some of the unpleasant things we need to pray about. We are required to examine ourselves carefully, “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” (II Corinthians 13:5). A genuine self-examination can be a very unpleasant experience. It is not easy to go down on our knees before the Head of the Universe and confess our sins, to admit that we are wrong, to realise before God that we are like filthy rags, unworthy and undeserving.
The fourth and final ingredient is the one that we have all heard about – frankincense – a resin from a tree that grows in the Himalayas in India and on the Arabian peninsular. It is recognised as the finest burning incense in the world and its name means ‘free lighting’. It is referred to as pure frankincense. We pray for our thoughts and deeds to be purified before God, “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded.” (James 4:8). This is done by, “Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ;” (II Corinthians 10:5).
When all these ingredients are mixed together they produce something that is very precious, pleasing and holy to God.
The priests of ancient Israel gathered the ingredients, which were crushed to a powder, weighed out, mixed together and melted down into a large block which was more easily transported. Each day the High Priest would chip off some of the solid block, crush it into fine powder and pour it over red hot coals to release the beautiful fragrant smoke, “And thou shalt beat some of it very small, and put of it before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation, where I will meet with thee: it shall be unto you most holy.” (Exodus 30:36).
Like that large block of incense there is just so much to pray about that we cannot cover everything in one session. All we can do is chip off a little each day, crush it to powder by getting down to fine detail, praying for specific events, individual people, their needs, their healing and well-being, rather than praying in broad statements. The incense was to be burnt perpetually meaning we are to pray continually and be ready to pray at any time as needs arise, “Rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer;” (Romans 12:12).
Burning the resins on hot coals is reminiscent of the fiery trials we must face from time to time. When trials become hot and fiery we immediately cry out to God for help. Just as the heat of the coals releases the aroma of the incense instantly, our prayers in times of need are instantly released. And God is there expecting our prayer and ready to “meet with thee” (Exodus 30: 6 above), implying that He hears our prayer and will respond. He doesn’t want us to quit and walk away when we feel the heat of those trials. He gets great joy when we seek Him out in fervent prayer, “Ointment and perfume (incense) rejoice the heart:” (Proverbs 27:9). Our prayers bring God great pleasure.
Incense burnt on the altar before the mercy seat represented the prayers of the saints and each ingredient represents an aspect of prayer that can be assimilated into the prayer outline that Christ provided to achieve a well-balanced prayerful relationship with God, “After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.” (Matthew 6:9-13).
By coming daily before His throne confessing our sins and with sincere repentance that leads to the purification of thoughts and actions we can also pray effectively for the physical and spiritual well-being of others. Our prayer can achieve a great deal, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” (James 5:16).
When we come before God to burn our incense in prayer, whether on a regular daily basis, or instantly in the heat of fiery trails, we know that our prayers are heard by our Father, to whom they are precious and holy.