Vol. 7, No. 8
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Every authorized form of worship is subject to abuse and misuse; the Old Testament practice of burning incense is no exception. An altar of incense was authorized in Exodus 30:1-10. Even in that presentation, the warning to avoid offering "strange incense" is prominent. After preparing incense for burning in their censers, Nadab and Abihu were consumed by fire because of offering "profane fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them" (Leviticus 10:1-2). Incense burning became a popular trend among the ancients as an act of worship to a false deity (1 Kings 11:8; 2 Kings 17:10-11; 23:5-6, 8), or as a feel-good measure made in unauthorized places and means (1 Kings 3:3; 13:1-2; 22:43; 2 Kings 12:3).
The burning of incense apparently helped Israelites appreciate the reverence necessary when coming into the presence of God, and thus was connected with the idea of prayer. The cloud from incense protected the high priest from dying in the presence of God in the Most Holy Place (Leviticus 16:11-13). The Psalmist wrote: "Let my prayer be set before You as incense, The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice" (Psalm 141:2).
The imagery of incense in correlation with prayer continues in New Testament visions of grand worship to God. Revelation 5:8 identifies "golden bowls full of incense" of the heavenly vision as "the prayers of the saints." In Revelation 8:3-4, an angel offers incense "with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel's hand."
The association of incense with prayer prods some observations. In New Testament times, no such practice of incense burning is ever authorized. It was a part of the Old Law, which was fulfilled (Matthew 5:17-18), done away with and nailed to the cross (Ephesians 2:11-16; Colossians 2:14; Hebrews 8:6-13). Nevertheless, its parallel to prayer is instructive. Just as the burning of incense was abused, so prayer can be misused.
As incense often was burnt to honor imagined idols, sometimes prayers are offered to false gods. This obviously displeases a jealous God who wants worship reserved for him alone (Exodus 20:3-6; 34:14). God has no competition, and doesn't want anyone imagining that he does (Acts 17:24; 14:15; 1 Thessalonians 1:9).
As incense often was used in unauthorized means, so prayer is frequently offered through unauthorized mediators. Many in the religious world pray through Mary or some other so-called saint who is supposed to have gained higher honor than regular members of that particular denomination. But an inspired apostle reminds, "For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus" (1 Timothy 2:5).
As incense was abused to try to secure God's attention to feigned worship, so prayer is often misused to attempt to manipulate God. The utterance of vain repetitions has roots in pagan practices by which people thought they would be heard if they only repeated (even mindlessly) their prayer enough times. Christ did not discourage fervent prayer (James 5:16), but forbade repetitions made in vanity (Matthew 6:7).
Christians should appreciate the privilege of prayer through an understanding Mediator (Hebrews 2:17-18; 4:14-16) and respect the authorized uses of this means of approaching God.