The power of incense
The tabernacle of Moses was full of symbolic items and procedures that foreshadowed things in the New Testament (Heb 8-10). One of the 5 pieces of furniture in the tabernacle was the altar of incense. Incense is symbolic of prayer (Ps 141:2, Lk 1:9-11, Rev 8:3-4). Therefore, we can learn some valuable things about prayer by looking at what the Bible says about the incense of the tabernacle.
1. The incense was made of 4 precious spices (Ex 25:6, Ex 30:34-38). The Israelites were forbidden from making this formula to smell it for themselves. It was to be respected as something holy. We should never take the privilege of praying to the holy, almighty Creator and Lord and calling upon His great name as something common. It is a sacred opportunity we should never take for granted. The 4 spices were:
a. stacte - an aromatic gum resin from a shrub. It was collected in drops. Sometimes
teardrops should accompany our prayers (2Ki 20:5, Job16:20, Ps 6:6, Ps
39:12, Ps 42:3, Ps 56:8, Mk 9:24, Lk 7:38). Even Jesus prayed with tears (Heb
5:7). Jeremiah has been called the weeping prophet (Jer 9:1 & 18, Jer 13:17, Jer
17:14, Lam 2:11). God takes note of the prayerful tears of His people (Is 25:8, Rev
7:17, Rev 21:4).
b. onycha - derived from a mussel shell or a date pod by peeling. Intimate prayer with
God requires peeling back the layers of superficiality and carnality that interfere.
c. galbanum - a strong smelling gum. The incense had a distinct smell which rose as a
fragrance to God. Our prayers are like sweet incense to God (Rev 5:8). The Bible
says 44 times that the burnt offerings smelled sweet to God. Burnt animal skin and
flesh and burnt bread do not smell sweet. It was not the physical smell that pleased
God. It was the repentance, the seeking of God, the obedience, the sacrifice, and the
symbolic putting to death of the fleshly nature that pleased God.
d. frankincense - a white resin taken from the boswella tree by slashing its bark. This
process causes the resin to bleed from the tree in a process called striping. The resin
hardens into what are called tears. Isaiah 53 says Jesus was a "tender plant" and
"with his stripes we are healed". His blood is the only antidote for sin (Mt 26:28, Acts
4:12, Heb 8-10).
1. The frankincense tree can grow in unforgiving environments, even rock. The
Lord can take our hard, unforgiving hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of
flesh (Eze 36:36-27).
2. Frankincense was placed on the bread offerings (Lev 2:1 & 16, Lev 6:15, Lev
24:7). The bread is symbolic of the Word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ (Jn
1:1-3 & 14, Mt 4:1-4, Jn 6).
3. The name of the Lord is like frankincense (S.O.S. 1:3).
4. The wise men from the east offered the Lord frankincense (Mt 2:11).
5. Frankincense is used to treat digestive issues, skin problems, arthritis, female
hormones, and to purify air.
2. The altar of incense was placed before the veil of the most holy place (Ex 30:1, Ex 40:5).
Prayer strategically places us before the presence of God. There are other means of
access to God such as worship and the word of God, but all other means hinge on
prayer. How can we have a relationship with someone we never talk to?
3. The incense was to be burned every morning and evening, perpetually (Ex 30:7-8).
Prayer should be part of our daily lives. Psalm 55:17 says, "Evening, and morning, and at
noon will I pray, and cry aloud..." "Pray without ceasing (1Thes 5:17)." There is no
particular time of day we have to pray, although it is generally better to pray before rather
than after we do things.
4. There was to be no strange incense offered to God (Ex 30:9). 2 of the high priest's sons
tried this and died (Lev 10). We need to be careful what we bring into the presence of
God. Sins of attitude, words, and actions can hinder our prayers (Prov 15:8 & 28, Ecc
5:1-7). Marriage problems can also do this (Mal 2:11-17, 1Pet 3:7).
5. The altar had to be annually purged with blood (Lev 4:7). Our prayer life can become
stagnant. It needs to be purged periodically by the blood of Jesus. We need to clear it of
the ashes of the dead things of this world and renew our altar.
6. The incense was to be beaten small (Lev 16:12). A real prayer relationship with God
requires repentance, humility, and sacrifice. The fleshly nature will never want to pray. It
requires discipline. We must be ready to get up early, wake in the night sometimes, and
pray when it is inconvenient. Samuel told Saul that God called him when he was little in
his own eyes (1Sam 15:17). The disciples fell asleep on Mt. Olivet while Jesus was
agonizing in prayer before His arrest (Mt 26:30). He told them the spirit is willing but the
flesh is weak. Jesus used this place during His last week (Lk 21:37, Lk 22:39, Jn 8:1),
and other times (Mt 21:1, Mt 24:3). He had specifically asked them to pray. When it was
time for Him to ascend to heaven, He took the disciples back there (Acts 1:12). He will
return to this place (Zech 14:4, Acts 1:11). He turned the place where they failed to pray
in their weakness to the place of His triumph.
7. The high priest could only approach the ark of the covenant one day each year - the day
of atonement (Lev 16:2). He would bring in the incense which would form a cloud to
cover the mercy seat where he would sprinkle the blood to obtain the atonement so he
would not die (Lev 16:15). Prayer is how we obtain the mercy of God. Without it we die
8. When Korah and his company rebelled, Moses presented the incense test to see who
was really called of God (Num 16:1-40). God destroyed Korah and his company, but He
accepted Aaron the priest. God answers prayers His way in His time according to His
will, but if our prayer life is ineffective, we need to examine ourselves and see why.
9. The day after the company of Korah was judged, the Israelites rebelled again (Num
16:41-47). Moses had interceded previously and turned the wrath of God away from
Israel (Ex 32-34, Num 14, Num 16). This time the wrath of God was immediately
released as a plague. Moses told Aaron to take a censer and run into the congregation.
The incense made atonement and the plague was stayed. Aaron stood between the
living and the dead. Prayer is a difference maker (Jam 5:13-20, Jude 20-23). It can
change the course of history of individuals and nations. We do not have to just sit here
and watch the world destroy itself. We can stand in the gap and make up the hedge to
turn the wrath of God from destroying the land (Eze 22:30). Abraham did it (Gen 18).
David did it (2Sam 24). Ezra did it (Ezra 9). Nehemiah did it (Neh 1). Daniel did it (Dan
9). Jesus did it (Is 53:12, Lk 23:34). Paul did it (Rom 9:1-4, Rom 10:1). It is part of the
ministry of Jesus Christ through His church (Rom 8:26-34, Heb 7:25).
10. Incense was also often burned in the high places to idols. We must always direct our
devotion and worship to God only.