“May my prayer be set before you like incense. Psalm 141:2
When I caught myself thinking these words last week I thought, “I wonder where that phrase came from? I “googled it and got over 35,000 hits; basically 35,000 quotes of people who have used it to voice their displeasure with something or other. When I sought out the origin of the phrase, online dictionaries would only give definitions for single words like “stinks, not the phrase itself. So I did my own exegesis. There are definitely some smells I abhor like stale cigarette smoke saturating the fabric in a hotel room where previous travelers disregarded the No Smoking sign, or the “aromas arising from rotting garbage dumps. You get the point. Opposite smells are enticing and refreshing rather than repulsive, like the cinnamon and cloves my wife keeps simmering on the stove, the variety of essences for our Lamp Bergere which fill the entire home, the aroma of bread baking in the oven, or the fresh pine smell blowing in the breeze by a mountain stream. But what really got me thinking were the thoughts that came to my mind of the God directed use of incense in Old Testament worship and the fragrant or detestable aroma, as the case may be, that rose into “high heaven or before the “nose of God.
God directed Moses, “Aaron must burn fragrant incense on the altar every morning when he tends the lamps. He must burn incense again when he lights the lamps at twilight so incense will burn regularly before the Lord for the generations to come. (Exodus 30:7) The analogy of incense with prayer and worship is unmistakable in the Scriptures. David wrote in the Psalms, “May my prayers be set before you like incense. And on the negative side God spoke to the people through Isaiah the Prophet, “Stop bringing meaningless offerings; your incense is detestable to me. In yet another instance God says through Ezekiel, “I will accept you as a fragrant incense when I bring you out from the nations and gather you from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will show myself holy among you in the sight of the nations. Then you will know that I am the Lord. So fragrant incense equated with the faithful and perpetual prayers of God’s people, coupled with their obedience, reverence, humility (a broken and contrite heart I will not despise) which was metaphorically a sweet savor in God’s “nostrils. As in Proverbs 27, “Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart and the pleasantness of one’s friend springs from his earnest counsel.
The fact that the use of incense is not a part of the believer’s practice of worship today, does not mean the truth of its Old Testament purposes of instruction should be neglected by us. Can it be said of us that our lives and our hearts “stink to high heaven or that they are a fragrant incense rising before the face and nose of the Lord? The truth is that our hearts and minds are continually “burning incense in the sense that they are never at rest in the message they send out. There is a perpetual spiritual aroma that emanates from them into the presence of our Heavenly Father and Mediating Savior. The fire of burning incense never goes out on the altar of any heart. There is either a pleasing and acceptable incense rising from it to God, or there is a detestable one that stinks to high heaven.
“Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart; naught be all else to me, save that thou art—thou my best thought by day or by night, waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.
(1st verse of St. Patrick’s hymn, “Be Thou My Vision, ca. 8th century)
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