THE INCENSE OF PRAYER
"Let my prayer be set before you as incense" – Psalm 141:2.
God has a temple outside of heaven. Not all the worship, nor all the worshipers, are confined to that blissful world where he immediately dwells. He has another sanctuary upon earth – other worshipers and other services, where, with whom, and with which, the beams of his presence are as strictly promised and as truly shine as in the general assembly of the church gathered around him in glory. It is not the magnificent structure made with hands, with its splendid ritual and its ponderous ceremonial, flattering to the pride and captivating to the sense of man, but a temple and a temple-service far more beautiful in God’s eye is that of which we speak. "Thus says the Lord, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that you build unto me? and where is the place of my rest? For all these things has my hand made, and all these things have been, says the Lord: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembles at my word." "Thus says the high and lofty One that inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy, I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite one." This is God’s temple upon earth, this his worshiper, and this his worship. The material structure is nothing, the magnificent service is nothing, the formal worshiper is nothing, "but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and that trembles at my word." Oh most solemn truth! Oh most precious words! "Lord! engrave them upon my heart by your blessed Spirit. Be my body your temple, my heart your sanctuary, your presence my life, my life your service."
The believer in Jesus is a royal priest, ordained to offer up spiritual sacrifices to God. He is called and consecrated, clothed and anointed, to a high and holy service. His calling is divine, his consecration is holy, his clothing is costly, his anointing is fragrant. Before the standing and the glory and the service of one of the royal priesthood, all the pomp and gorgeousness of Aaron’s priesthood fade into nothing. Called according to God’s purpose, consecrated and set apart by sovereign grace, invested with the righteousness of Christ, anointed with the Holy Spirit, and offering up the spiritual sacrifice of a "broken and a contrite heart," – is it surprising that God should look with an eye of ineffable delight upon such a worshiper? But of a single one only of these many interesting points must we allow ourselves at present to speak. We refer to the incense which every true believer in Jesus, in his character of a royal priest, offers to the Lord.
The subject presents the Christian to our view in his holiest and most solemn feature – drawing near to God, and presenting before the altar of his grace the incense of prayer. The typical reference to this is strikingly beautiful. "You shall make an altar to burn incense upon…and Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning; when he dresses the lamps he shall burn incense upon it. And when Aaron lights the lamps at even he shall burn incense upon it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations." That this incense was typical of prayer would appear from Luke 1:10, "And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the time of incense." And David, though dwelling in the more shadowy age of the church, thus correctly and beautifully interprets this type: "Let my prayer be set before you as incense." It is an appropriate and an impressive figure. And thankful, dear reader, should we be to avail ourselves whatever in the Divine Word tends to teach us the nature, to illustrate the blessedness, to deepen the solemnity, and to engage our heats in the holy duty and sweet privilege of – PRAYER. Interesting and important as are the topics upon which we have previously addressed you, all must yield to the interest and importance of this one. Prayer is the vital breath of the living soul; prayer is the mode of our approach to God; prayer is the appointed channel of all blessing. The season contemplated throughout this little volume is especially the season in which prayer is found the most soothing and sanctifying.
All the precious blessings which we have endeavored to bring before your sorrowful heart, as calculated to comfort and heal it, are conveyed to you through this one mode – communion with God. Once we can persuade you to pour out your heart to him – thus severing you from all other resources of comfort, and shutting you up exclusively to prayer; in other words, shutting you up exclusively to God, we feel that we have conducted you through the surges of your grief to the rock that is higher than you. May the Eternal Spirit be our Teacher and our Comforter while briefly we speak of the INCENSE OF PRAYER.
The believer’s censer – what is it? From where arises the incense of prayer ascending to the throne of the Eternal? Oh, it is the heart. The believer’s renewed, sanctified heart is the censer from where the fragrant cloud ascends. Ah, believer, there are false, there are spurious censers waved before the throne of grace. There is no precious incense in them, no fire, no cloud. God smells no sweet savor in their offering. True prayer is the incense of a heart broken for sin, humbled for its iniquity, mourning over its plague, and touched and healed and comforted with the atoning blood of God’s great sacrifice. This is the true censer; this it is at which God looks. May we not quote his words again, so expressive, so solemn, so precious are they? "TO THIS MAN WILL I LOOK, EVEN TO HIM THAT IS POOR AND OF A CONTRITE SPIRIT, AND THAT TREMBLES AT MY WORD." This is God’s own chosen censer. This, and this only, will he regard. Oh! who can describe the worth, the beauty, and the acceptableness of this censer to him whose "eyes move to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show himself strong in the behalf of those whose heart is perfect towards him?" To this God looks. "For the Lord sees not as man sees; for man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart" (1 Sam. 16:7). Precious censer! molded, fashioned, beautified by God.
There exists not upon earth a more vile and unlovely thing, in the self-searching view of the true believer, than his own heart. From every other human eye that bosom is deeply, impenetrably veiled. All that is within is known only to itself. What those chambers of abomination are, God will not permit another creature to know. But oh, how dark, how loathsome, how unholy to him "who knows the plague of his own heart!" And yet – oh wondrous grace! God, by his renewing Spirit, has made of that heart a beautiful, costly, and precious censer, the cloud of whose incense ascends and fills all heaven with its fragrance. With all its indwelling evil and self-loathing, God sees its struggles, watches its conflict, and marks its sincerity. He has his finger upon its pulse – he feels every beat, records every throb. Not a feeling thrills it, not an emotion agitates it, not a sorrow shades it, not a sin wounds it, not a thought passes through it, of which he is not cognizant. Believer! Jesus loves that heart of yours. He purchased it with his own heart’s blood, agonies, and tears, and he loves it. He inhabits it by his Spirit, and he loves it. It is his temple, his home, his censer, and never can it approach him in prayer, but he is prepared to accept both the censer and incense with a complacency and delight, which finds its best expression in the language of his own word, "I will accept you with your sweet savor."
And what is the incense pouring forth like a cloud from this precious censer? Oh, it is the incense of prayer! The most precious and fragrant incense that ever rose to heaven from a mere human heart. How shall we describe the costliness of this incense? Its materials, like those which Aaron cast into the censer, which the priests burned before the Lord, the offering of which was termed the "incense of spices," are most costly. They are divine materials cast into it by God himself; the heart’s conviction of sin, its sense of self-loathing, its sweet contrition, its holy sorrow, its sincere repentance, its ingenuous confession, its full, free, and unreserved pouring out of itself before God, the Holy Spirit created. And that must in very deed be costly of which the Holy Spirit of God is the author.
And what shall we say of the fragrance of this incense? Oh how much have we yet to learn of the intrinsic sweetness of real prayer! We can but imperfectly conceive the fragrance there must be to God in the breathing of the Divine Spirit in the heart of a poor sinner. It is perhaps but a groan, a sigh, a tear, a look, but it is the utterance of the heart, and God can hear the voice of our weeping, and interpret the language of our desires, when the lips utter not a word; so fragrant to him is the incense of prayer. And when prayer arises from a heart touched by the Spirit of adoption, and is the breathing of a child’s love and confidence and strong desire in the bosom of God, oh how rich the incense then!
And is the incense of a praying heart borne down by grief, smitten, and withered like grass, less fragrant to God? No, mourning Christian, prayer is God’s appointed and surest relief for your sad heart. Give but yourself unto prayer, now in the hour of your sorrow and loneliness, and your breathings sent up to heaven in tremulous accents, shall return into your own disconsolate and desolate heart, all rich and redolent of heaven’s sweet consolations. The holy breathings which ascend from a believer’s heart, gather and accumulate in the upper skies, and when most he needs the refreshing, they descend again in covenant blessings upon his soul. No real, believing prayer is ever lost, even as the moisture exhaled from earth is never lost. That thin, almost invisible vapor, which the morning’s sun has caught up, returns again, distilling in gentle dews, or falling in plentiful rain, watering the earth and making it to bring forth and bud. That feeble desire, that faint breathing of the soul after God, and Jesus, and holiness, and heaven, shall never perish.
It was, perhaps, so weak and tremulous, so mixed with grief and sorrow, so burdened with complaint and sin, that you could scarcely discern it to be real prayer; and yet, beloved, ascending from a heart inhabited by God’s Holy Spirit, and touched by God’s love, it rose like the incense cloud before the throne of the Eternal, and blended with the fragrance of heaven. Around that throne prayers are gathering, like clustering angels, and although the vision may tarry, yet, waiting in humble faith God’s time, those prayers will come back again freighted with the richest blessings of the everlasting covenant, "even the sure mercies of David." God will grant you the desires of your heart. Jesus will manifest himself to your soul. To nothing has our Heavenly Father more strongly and solemnly pledged himself than to the answering of the prayer of faith. "You shall call, and I will answer."
But there is yet one aspect of our subject indescribably glorious, unspeakably precious. From where does the incense of prayer derive its true fragrance, power, and acceptance with God? Ah! beloved, the answer is near at hand. From where, but from the incense of our Great High Priest’s atoning merit offered upon earth, and by ceaseless intercession presented in heaven. The opening of the seventh seal, in the apocalyptic vision, revealed this glorious truth to the wondering eye of the evangelist. "And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angels hand" (Rev. 8:3, 4). This angel is none other than the Angel of the covenant, Jesus, our Great High Priest who stands before the golden altar in heaven, presenting the sweet incense of his divine merits and sacrificial death; the cloud of which ascends before God "with the prayers of the saints."
Oh, it is the merit of our Immanuel, "who gave himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God, for a sweet-smelling savor," that imparts virtue, prevalence, and acceptableness to the incense of prayer ascending from the heart of the child of God. Each petition, each desire, each groan, each sigh, each glance, comes up before God with the "smoke of the incense" which ascends from the cross of Jesus, and from the "golden altar which is before the throne." All the imperfection and impurity which mingles with our devotions here, is separated from each petition by the atonement of our Mediator, who presents that petition as sweet incense to God. See your Great High Priest before the throne! See him waving the golden censer to and fro! See how the cloud of incense rises and envelops the throne! See how heaven is filled with its fragrance and its glory! Believer in Jesus, upon the heart of that officiating High priest your name is written; in the smoke of the incense which has gone up from that waving censer, your prayers are presented. Jesus’ blood cleanses them – Immanuel’s merit perfumes them – and our glorious High Priest thus presents both our person and our sacrifice to his Father and our Father, to his God and our God. Oh wonderful encouragement to prayer!
Who, with such an assurance that his weak, broken, and defiled, but sincere petitions shall find acceptance with God, would not breathe them at the throne of grace? Go, in the name of Jesus; go, casting yourself upon the merit which fills heaven with its fragrance; go, and pour out your grief, unveil your sorrow, confess your sin, sue out your pardon, make known your needs, with your eye of faith upon the Angel who stands at the "golden altar which is before the throne," and the incense which breathes from your oppressed and stricken heart will "ascend up before God out of the Angel’s hand," as a cloud, rich, fragrant, and accepted.
O, give yourself to prayer! Say not that your censer has nothing to offer. That it contains no sweet spices, no fire, no incense. Repair with it, all empty and cold as it is, to the Great High Priest, and as you gaze in faith upon him who is the Altar, the slain Lamb, and the Priest, thus musing upon this wondrous spectacle of Jesus’ sacrifice for you, his Spirit will cast the sweet spices of grace and the glowing embers of love into your dull, cold heart, and there will come forth a cloud of precious incense, which shall ascend with the "much incense" of the Savior’s merits, an "offering and a sacrifice to God of a sweet-smelling savor."
Remember, that Jesus offers with the "much incense" the prayer of "all saints." In that number you, beloved, are included. The tried saints, the sick saints, the sorrowful saints, the tempted saints, the bereaved saints, the weak and infirm saints, the wandering and restored saints. Yes, "the prayers of all saints" are "offered upon the golden altar which is before the throne." Nor forget that there is evening as well as morning incense. "When Aaron lights the lamps at evening, he shall burn incense." And thus when the day-season of your prosperity and joy is past, and the evening of adversity, sorrow, and loneliness draws its somber curtains around you, then take your censer and wave it before the Lord. Ah! methinks at that hour of solemn stillness and of mournful solitude, that hour when grief loves to indulge, and visions of other days dance before the eye, like shadows upon the wall, that hour when all human support and sympathy fails, that then the sweetest incense of prayer ascends before God. Yes, there is no prayer so true, so powerful, so fragrant as that which sorrow presses from the heart. O, betake yourself, suffering believer to prayer.
Are you a pilgrim, and alone?
Far from the home once called your own?
From friendship’s faithful bosom wrested,
In stranger hands your comforts vested,
Your life a cheerless wintry day,
Unlit by sunshine! – Rise and pray!
Smiled on you once the bliss of earth,
And flittering joys of transient worth?
Have you adored some idol shrine,
Or bent how many a knee at thine?
Faded those creatures of a day,
What have you left? – Arise and pray!
With tears, with bitterest agony,
The Savior wrestled, soul! for thee,
Before he could all-triumphant rise
To plead the accepted sacrifice:
So, until the world shall pass away,
Shall stand his words – Arise and pray!
Bring forth, then, your censer, sorrowful priest of the Lord! Replenish it as the altar of Calvary, and then wave it with a strong hand before the God, until your person, your sorrows, and your guilt are all enveloped and lost in the cloud of sweet incense as it rises before the throne, and blends with the ascending cloud of the Redeemer’s precious intercession. Prayer will soothe you, prayer will calm you, prayer will unburden your heart, prayer will remove or mitigate your pain, prayer will heal your sickness, or make your sickness pleasant to bear, prayer will expel the temper, prayer will bring Jesus sensibly near to your soul, prayer will lift your heart to heaven, and will bring heaven down into your heart. "Lord, I cry unto you: make haste unto me: give ear unto my voice when I cry unto you. Let my prayer be set forth before you as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice." "I GIVE MYSELF UNTO PRAYER."
The prayers I make will then be sweet indeed,
If You the Spirit give by which I pray:
My unassisted heart is barren clay,
That of its native self can nothing feed:
Of good and pious works You are the seed
That quickens only where You say it may:
Unless You show to us Your own true way,
No man can find it: Father! You may lead.
Oh, do then breathe those thoughts into my mind
By which such virtue may in me bred,
That in Your holy footsteps I may tread;
The fetters of my tongue do You unbind,
That I may have the power to sing of Thee,
And sound Your praises everlastingly.