“You shall make an altar to burn incense on… Aaron shall burn on it sweet incense every morning… And when Aaron lights the lamps at twilight, he shall burn incense on it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations.” —Ex 30:1,7-8
“Take sweet spices, stacte and onycha and galbanum, and pure frankincense with these sweet spices; there shall be equal amounts of each. You shall make of these an incense, a compound according to the art of the perfumer, salted, pure, and holy. And you shall beat some of it very fine, and put some of it before the Testimony in the tabernacle of meeting where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you.” (Ex 30:34-36)
In both the Old and New Testaments, incense symbolizes prayer (Ps 141:2; Rev 5:8).
The ingredients of the holy incense were quite costly and extremely valuable, just as prayer should be very precious to us. As priests of God through the Lord Jesus, we, too, must offer our sweet incense every morning and evening by giving Him our full attention in prayer and the best of our time.
When observing the named ingredients of the incense, a pattern starts to appear: stacte, galbanum, and frankincense are all materials that essentially “come from within.” They are gum resins, so harvesters had to peel away at the bark and tap into the wood for the fragrant resins to be extracted. Likewise, it is our inner essence that is being extracted and offered up to God. We must peel away at the hardness of our hearts. Sometimes, when we kneel before God, our hearts are not ready yet. We must calm down and prepare our hearts so that what we offer to God is not superficial: “But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matt 6:6).
Interestingly, one of the ingredients of the holy incense is galbanum. Alone, galbanum was not known to have an aromatic smell, but rather a foul one. When mixed with the others and burned, however, it turned into a pleasant aroma. Our sins and mistakes are pungent and foul, like galbanum. Yet when we are willing to bring them before God in prayer, our penitence becomes a sweet incense acceptable to Him: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise” (Ps 51:17).
The burning of the sweet incense is like being filled with the Holy Spirit and God’s Word. As God’s Spirit and His will amplifies within us, we ourselves decrease, just as the ingredients of the incense diminish as the fire comes out. Initially, we may have brought many of our own questions and burdens before God, but after deep prayer in the Holy Spirit, there is less of us. The trial may still remain, but our perspective has changed into God’s perspective. We focus more on God, His Word, and His essence. This is the goal of prayer, which is the fullness of the Holy Spirit.
May our prayers become more and more genuine, and our lives more and more submissive to God’s will. As our will diminishes and His will is magnified, our prayers will ascend to the heavens, a sweet aroma to the Lord.