I fear the sharp and sacred edge of prayer is dulled and degraded by familiarity. We profane this sacred art by making it too common. Instead of taking off our worldly stained shoes from our frail fleshly feet before stepping onto prayer’s holy ground, we tromp right in whenever we take a notion, as though all Heaven is paying attention to whatever petitions we’ve personally persuaded ourselves to plea. It never even dawns on us that this flippant exercise in futility is confined to the gullies and ruts of spirituality and has no chance of ever ascending the precipitous slope to the pinnacle of true prayer.
The tabernacle in the wilderness may provide us with the Old Testament’s most tremendous type-of-Christ. It’s altar of incense is a symbol of Christ as our High Priest, who is the one Mediator between God and man, our Advocate with the Father, and who ever lives at the right hand of God to make intercession for the saints (1 Timothy 2:5; 1 John 2:1; Hebrews 7:25; Romans 8:34). However, it also symbolizes the prayers of the saints, as Scripture makes clear elsewhere (Psalm 141:2; Luke 1:10; Revelation 5:8; 8:1-6). This makes the fact that it is singled out as “most holy unto the Lord” particularly poignant (Exodus 30:10).
As a symbol of our prayers, we can glean glorious truths about prayer from this holy altar. First, the blood of the atonement had to be sprinkled upon the horns of this altar (Exodus 30:10). This teaches us that the precious privilege of prayer was made possible by the atoning blood of Jesus Christ. Remember, it was when His flesh was torn on the cross of Calvary that the veil in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom (Matthew 27:50—51). Indeed, it is Jesus’ atoning death that makes access to God possible for sinners whose hearts have been sprinkled from guilty consciences by the atoning blood of Christ (Hebrews 10:22).
In this same vein, Scripture also teaches us that without the smoking censor from the altar of incense, the High Priest was forbidden, upon penalty of death, to enter the Holy of Holies (Leviticus 16:12-13). Here, we are taught that to enter into God’s presence not only requires the redeemed, God’s priests today (Revelation 1:6; 5:10), to do so with the smoking censor of prayer, but also in sacred solemnity and reverential awe. How different this is from the frivolous and irreverent prayers we often flippantly fling toward Heaven as we flitter around in this fallen world? And yet, we can’t figure out why our prayer lives are so frustrating and fruitless?
A second tremendous truth about prayer to be learned from the altar of incense is taught to us by its particular location. It was placed in front of the veil, so that the priest was looking toward the mercy seat behind the veil when he burned incense upon the altar (Exodus 30:6). It was upon this mercy seat, where the Shekinah glory of God came down between the cherubim, that God was believed to be enthroned among His people. Don’t miss this most precious truth; God’s throne is a mercy seat, or as it is called in the New Testament, a throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16). In prayer, we are to look to it, though we can no more see it in Heaven than the Old Testament priest could behind the veil, “to obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
A third tremendous truth about prayer to be learned from the altar of incense is taught to us by the particular times at which the incense was to be burned upon it. The incense was to be perpetually burned when the lamps of the tabernacle were lighted by Aaron every morning and every evening (Exodus 30:7-8). The burning of the incense was to be perpetual, because the offering up of our prayers is to be perpetual. We are to pray “always” and “without ceasing” (Ephesians 6:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:17). Furthermore, prayer should be perpetually observed at those times when we need the lamps of spiritual illumination lighted in our lives. It is when the need for spiritual enlightenment is felt most keenly that we should drop to our knees most sincerely.
Last, but certainly not least, we should learn from the altar of incense that prayer must be prayed as God prescribes, not as we presume. Notice, the altar was only to be used as God specifically stipulated (Exodus 30:9). Furthermore, no strange incense; that is, no human concoction, was to ever be offered upon it (Exodus 30:34-38). Likewise, prayer is to be prayed in the Spirit, never in the flesh. Just as the incense on the altar could not be offered up to God without the divinely ignited holy fire, neither can true prayer ever rise to God without the fire of the Holy Spirit. It is, as Scripture teaches us, in the Spirit that we must always pray; otherwise, true prayer is an impossibility (Ephesians 6:18).
The recipe for the incense to be burned on the altar, which was given by the divine apothecary, was to never be deviated from in the least detail. Furthermore, it was never to be used for any common purpose, lest it be profaned. It is, you may rest assured, a serious affront to God to profane sacred things. Likewise, the sacred art of prayer is profaned when we attempt to use it for common and selfish ends. I’m afraid the smoke of many a prayer prayed today is a stench rather than a fragrant smelling aroma in the nostrils of the Almighty. On their ascent upward they are whiffed about with worldly winds and dissipated by selfish desires until they are entirely evaporated. However, when prayed as the Spirit prescribes by a humble, broken, and contrite heart (Psalm 51:17), as is symbolized by the beaten and small incense burned on the altar of incense (Exodus 30:36), prayers rise and fill the throne room of the universe with a sweet smelling fragrance, resulting in Him who sits on the throne of Heaven holding out His golden scepter to our Spirit-given petitions.
Matthew Henry, the famous Bible commentator, once said, “Nothing comes to God but what comes from Him.” Are you reverently offering God-given prayers to God or do you carelessly pray off the cuff prayers of your own concoction?