Prayers Like Incense

by John Paul Jackson

Let my prayer be set before You as incense,

The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.

Psalm 141:2

Have you ever wondered about the scriptural tie between incense and prayer? Many of us weren't raised in cultures that use incense on a regular basis, and in fact, for some of us, the only reference point we have for the word might be the thin, rectangular packages we could buy at the local food co-op. When God says that our prayers "rise before Him like incense," many of us have no idea what that actually means.

Why would God refer to our prayers this way? There is more than one answer to that question. First, incense is referred to as "sweet" several times in Scripture not something that carries an unpleasant odor or a headache, but something that gives pleasure. Our prayers rise "as incense" before Him, as something desirable. God could have told Moses and Aaron (Exodus 30:34) to craft this smoke of bitter spices, but He didn't, which should alleviate any fear on our part of approaching Him in prayer. We can broach the same topic again and again; we can come as we are, without impressive words, because He never tires of us.

Prayer is more than just a welcome aroma for Him; it is a favorite of favorites, and He savors every molecule, every particle, that comes up before Him. Not only is the mere sound of our voice something He treasures (Song of Songs 2:14), but the prayer itself is sweet to Him.

Second, prayer begins and ends with God; we're His middlemen, so to speak the bridge He has chosen to work through. I talk more about this concept in my teaching set Unlocking the Mysteries of the Lord's Prayer, but here is how it relates to incense: In order for incense to function properly, it requires fire. Incense burns. In other words, God gives us the unction to pray; He starts the fire within us, and we respond by praying His desires back to Him. Prayer begins in the heart of God and then eventually returns there but only after it has mingled with us, which makes it even more valuable to Him. Salt was one of the ingredients to be mixed with the spices, and we are the salt of the Earth.

That is what incense is.

This is what incense does:

  • Prayer allows us to resist what we couldn't resist before; it enables us to stop sinning.
  • Prayer gives wisdom, which permits repentance. We recognize that we're experiencing the consequences of our actions.
  • Prayer helps us to understand God's truths. I believe that Daniel didn't understand Jeremiah's prophecy about Israel's restoration, as well as the reason for their captivity, until he had spent time in prayer (Daniel 9).
  • Prayer recognizes God's attributes and greatness, which alters our thought processes and allows us to see our circumstances the way God sees them.

Now, how does prayer accomplish so much within us, when we may not even be praying for these specific things? Incense affects the heart of God. It moves Him, and anything that moves God moves us as well. Every time we pray in honesty and humility, we become more like Him, and the fragrance of our words wafts through the throne room.