In Psalm141:2, David prayed, “Let my prayers be set before You as incense…” What a prayer! David really had a heart for God, and he wanted to please Him with his prayers—he wanted his prayers to be as the sweet smell of incense that rose up to God continually in the tabernacle.
It is my prayer that we would desire that our prayers—and really, our whole life—would be as incense to God.
Consider what the writer to the Hebrews said in Hebrews 9:24: “For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us.” M. R. DeHann comments on this verse:
The writer of Hebrews, therefore, leaves no doubt whatsoever about the typical significance of the tabernacle…the Holy Place (the tabernacle) was a ‘figure of the true’; the priest was a figure of the Lord Jesus Christ; his ministry at the altar of incense a figure of Christ in heaven offering the incense of His prayers in our behalf, so that the smoke of his incense rises constantly before the ark and the mercy seat, representing the throne of God.
As DeHann has indicated, all the things that happened in the tabernacle represent for us what is going on now in heaven: namely, that Christ is our High Priest in heaven, interceding for us.
But it is not only the things that went on in the tabernacle that represent the work of Christ in heaven. According to DeHann, “The tabernacle was in every detail a shadow and type of the coming Redeemer.” Therefore, every part of the tabernacle and its furniture, gives us a shadowy picture of Christ and His work as our Priest in Heaven.
So with that in mind, let us take a look at some of the pieces of furniture, those that have most to do with prayer. First, for this post, we will look at the golden altar of incense.
THE GOLDEN ALTAR OF INCENSE (Exodus 30:1-10, 34-38; 37:25-28; 40:5, 26-27)
The golden altar of incense, only 36 inches high and 18 inches square, sat (from left to right) in the center of the tabernacle, in front of the veil that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. On the left of the golden altar (facing the veil) was the golden candlestick; on the right was the table of shewbread. And on the other side of the veil, in the Most Holy Place, was the Ark of the Covenant with the Mercy Seat, which was symbolic of God’s throne and presence.
This golden altar of incense, made of acacia wood (a very durable wood) and overlaid with gold, was the place where incense was burned—signifying that it was the place of prayer.
The wood of the altar is symbolic of Christ’s humanity, and the gold of His deity. Together they remind us that He is a most perfect and worthy High Priest and advocate. His deity shows us that He is ever strong enough and righteous enough to help us; His humanity, likewise, shows us that He is able also to sympathize with our weaknesses. Thus we have a High Priest who was tempted in all points as we are, yet He was without sin (Heb. 4:15).
We must also point out that around the top of the altar was a crown of gold, which symbolizes for us Christ’s glory and exaltation. According to Charles Fuller, “[This crown] points…to His work of intercession which He is now doing as our ascended Lord who is far above all principalities and powers.” Accordingly, we have a sympathetic and worthy High Priest, who is busy doing the work of a priest, but is also now sitting and reigning in a place of glory and honor. Yes, God gave Him all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18), and has exalted Him to His own right hand—to sit down with Him on His throne and to reign with Him as Prince and Savior (Rev. 3:21, Acts 5:31).
The incense that was burned on the golden altar was a symbol of true prayer. I think the clearest proof of this is in Revelation 5:8. Here the apostle John gives us a picture of the vision he saw of heaven. In this vision he saw four living creatures and twenty-four elders falling down before a lamb, each elder having a harp and golden bowls full of incense. The Lamb is Christ, the living creatures are possibly angels, and the twenty-four elders represent the church. The incense, John says, “…are the prayers of the saints.”
What I think is happening here is that, as the saints pray, their prayers are collected in the bowls as burning incense, and the aroma of the sweet smelling prayer is offered as a pleasing sacrifice to the Lamb and to the Father.
But we must take note carefully that the twenty-four elders represent saints. And a saint is a saint because Christ lives in him. Therefore, the sweet aroma comes from the perfect and pure life and work of Christ. He is the only reason our prayers are as incense. He makes our prayers sweet.
This blog post was adapted from my books Prayer A to Z, and Joy of Prayer.