3.1.7 Incense: Prayer
Volume 3: Living Symbols—Chapter 1.7
Like many of Yahweh’s chosen symbols, what incense was meant to signify was overtly spelled out a couple of times in scripture: “Let my prayer be set before You as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” (Psalm 141:2) Or, if that’s a little too poetic for you, we always have John’s Revelation to fall back on: “And when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” (Revelation 5:8) Incense is prayer—and specifically, the prayers of the “saints”—not the Roman Catholic variety of course, but the hagios (in Greek), those who are holy (i.e., set-apart), dedicated and consecrated to God: the redeemed, those whose covenant of familial relationship with Yahweh is ratified by the indwelling presence of His Holy Spirit.
That’s not to say that prayer itself will never be heard by God if you’re not already one of His children. Prayer, in point of fact, is the only vehicle in which we may arrive at this happy state of affairs at all—invariably, the one that says “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” But incense as a symbol apparently doesn’t include this initial cry for help. Rather, it’s a picture of intimate communication between Yahweh and His children—a parable of private, personal inter-family communication. You have to be Yahweh’s child before you can sit on His lap and whisper in His ear.
Incense is seen in scripture not only as prayer, but also with prayer—the vehicle for it, as if to remind us never to substitute a picturesque religious rite for the reality it represents, like spinning some sort of mindless Tibetan prayer wheel. “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.” (Revelation 8:1-5) The imagery is right out of the Torah’s tabernacle, but this scene is in heaven, the abode of God. It is intimated here that the “tent” Moses was instructed to build in the wilderness was modeled upon a heavenly prototype, not so much in physical form as in symbolic purpose. (And we’re told as much in plain English in Hebrews 8 and 9.) The elements are all there: the altar, the censer, the smoke, and the throne.
But here in John’s vision, the “prayers of the saints” are petitions to Yahweh to finish the job He had started—judgment. Remember, this is the seventh seal—the last of the series. Previously, in the fifth seal, these saints had asked how long it would be before their martyrdom was to be avenged, and God told them to be patient just a little longer. Now, we see the fire from the altar being “thrown onto the earth”—the end of the Tribulation’s terror is at hand; the prayer is at last being answered. (I realize the seals, trumpets and bowls of John’s apocalypse can be confusing, but it’s essential to understand that the three series are not consecutive; they overlap to some extent. They’re not like a banana—to be consumed from one end to the other; they’re more like the layers of an onion, one inside the other: each one provides greater detail, a more focused view, than what was revealed in the previous series.) So under the seventh trumpet judgment (Revelation 11:15-18) we see the response of the twenty-four elders (whom we met in Revelation 5:8, above) to God’s response (in the seventh seal) to the saints’ prayer (in the fifth seal). As God answers this prayer, we see that the events of the seventh trumpet judgment (Revelation 11:19) coincide precisely with those of the seventh bowl (Revelation 16:18). Confused yet?
Sorry about that. All I really wanted to do here was demonstrate the symbolic role of incense and how it relates to prayer. When we see incense in scripture, we should perceive communication between the saints and their God—always initiated by man and heard (not to mention answered) by Yahweh.
Because hearing from us is really important to Yahweh, He made incense a big part of the ritual worship of the tabernacle and temple. As we saw with the table for the bread of the presence, the sheer volume of instruction concerning the altar of incense gives us a hint as to how important its function was—and how critical it was that we understood what Yahweh was telling us through its symbols. “You shall make an altar to burn incense on; you shall make it of acacia wood.” As before, something living had been cut down to provide the structure of the altar. “A cubit shall be its length and a cubit its width—it shall be square—and two cubits shall be its height. Its horns shall be of one piece with it.” It wasn’t very big or impressive, about a foot and a half square and three feet tall, about the size of the average bedside nightstand. The “horns” at the corners were to be “anointed” with the blood of sacrificial animals by the priests (e.g., the peace offerings, Leviticus 4:7). “And you shall overlay its top, its sides all around, and its horns with pure gold; and you shall make for it a molding of gold all around….” Though made of wood, the altar was to be completely covered in gold. The lesson: what is alive but mortal in this world must be covered with immutable purity if it is to stand before God.
“Two gold rings you shall make for it, under the molding on both its sides. You shall place them on its two sides, and they will be holders for the poles with which to bear it. You shall make the poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold.” As with the table of showbread and the ark of the covenant, human hands were not to touch the altar of incense when it had to be moved. Rather, four golden rings would receive two gold-covered wooden poles, with which the Kohathite Levites would carry the altar of incense from place to place. “And you shall put it before the veil that is before the ark of the Testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the Testimony, where I will meet with you.” The altar of incense stood directly in front of the “holy of holies,” the small veil-partitioned room that housed the ark of the covenant (above which the Shekinah glory of Yahweh was said to dwell). The imagery is hard to miss: until and unless we can stand in the physical presence of Yahweh Himself, our prayers are the way He has provided for us to commune with Him, to petition Him, to draw close to His presence. “Aaron shall burn on it sweet incense every morning; when he tends the lamps, he shall burn incense on it. And when Aaron lights the lamps at twilight, he shall burn incense on it, a perpetual incense before Yahweh throughout your generations.” (Exodus 30:1-8) The incense was to be burned here morning and night, something of a Torah euphemism for “all the time.” (As I read Deuteronomy 6:7, the instruction to meditate on the Torah “when you lie down and when you rise up” doesn’t mean you’re supposed to forget all about it at noon—it means its precepts are essential continuously.) Or as Paul put it, “Pray without ceasing.” (I Thessalonians 5:17) This picture of remaining in God’s presence through prayer was also intended to endure “perpetually,” and “throughout your generations.” In other words, as long as the human race inhabits these mortal bodies, it is Yahweh’s plan and desire that we come before Him in prayer. Of course, this should be second nature if Yahweh’s Spirit is dwelling within us.
The altar of incense stood directly before the curtain separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy. One day a year, on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippurim), the High Priest was to enter the Most Holy Place and sprinkle the blood of certain sacrifices upon the mercy seat—the “lid” of the ark of the covenant. But before he could do this (since this was symbolically tantamount to walking right into the presence of Almighty God) he had to “cover himself” with prayer: “And he shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before Yahweh, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil and put the incense on the fire before Yahweh, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die.” (Leviticus 16:12-13) The lesson was that one may not approach Yahweh with any attitude other than total reverence and respect—even when acknowledging the sacrifice He made on our behalf. The High Priest was, for all intents and purposes, insulated from Yahweh’s glory by prayer—represented by the cloud of incense. In light of the events of Christ’s passion, the definitive Passover, this takes on earth-shaking significance. If you’ll recall, as Yahshua was dying, a great earthquake tore the heavy veil of the temple from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51), symbolically indicating that access to the Most Holy Place—the very throne of God—was henceforth available to everyone. But the truth remained: we are to approach Him only with reverence and respect, with prayer (as before) the critical matrix enabling us to stand before Him.
It should come as no surprise that Yahweh specified the exact formula by which the incense was to be compounded. Each of the ingredients means something significant, and even the number of them (five, if “sweet spices”—the Hebrew noun sam—is, as it seems, a catch-all phrase describing the entire recipe) is meaningful. Five is the number of grace. “Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Take sweet spices: stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part), and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy. You shall beat some of it very small, and put part of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you. It shall be most holy for you….” Note first that as with grain, olive oil, and wine, the incense ingredients had to be crushed before they could be useful. Christ’s sacrifice (as He was “wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities”—Isaiah 53:5) is once again in view. Where the incense was to be used—“before the [ark of the] testimony in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you”—is also extremely significant: our access to Yahweh in prayer was literally achieved by Yahshua’s sacrifice before God. As the veil of the Holy of Holies in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom at His death, our admittance into Yahweh’s presence was thereby achieved and assured—forever.
As with the anointing oil, the formula for the holy incense was exclusive: “And the incense that you shall make according to its composition, you shall not make for yourselves. It shall be for you holy to Yahweh. Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from his people.” (Exodus 30:34-38) The bottom line here is to all intents the same as that of the first three Commandments: prayer to anyone other than Yahweh is an abomination—and that includes ourselves. Self-reliance is just as pointless and destructive as reliance upon false gods like Ba’al, Allah, or Mammon. The ingredients, then, mixed in equal proportions (except for the last one) are symbols indicating what the character of our prayer should be.
(1) Stacte is derived from myrrh, but the Hebrew word (natap) stresses its form: a drop of this ingredient. Stacte is the liquefied resin or gum derived from pressing fresh myrrh, or from a more complex process that extracts drops of oil from it. The Greek botanist Theophrastus notes: “From the myrrh, when it is bruised, flows an oil; it is in fact called ‘stakte’ because it comes in drops, slowly.” And Dioscorides, a Greek physician, describes how stacte was made: “having bruised the myrrh and dissolved it in oil of balanos over a gentle fire, they pour hot water on it; and the myrrh and oil sink to the bottom like a deposit; and as soon as this has occurred, they strain off the water and squeeze the sediment in a press.” Myrrh (one of the three symbolic substances presented in homage to the infant Messiah by the Magi—Matthew 2:11) was used widely as a balm, a healing ointment. It was valued as an astringent, an antiseptic, antispasmodic, stimulant, and it had strong painkilling properties. It was also used to treat gum disease and mouth ulcers, menstrual and circulatory problems, wounds, bruises, boils, and pressure sores.
Healing power? The prophecy, “By His stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5) springs to memory. And squeezing or bruising, producing stacte drops? I am immediately reminded of Dr. Luke’s account of Yahshua’s intense prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. He reports, “And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. And His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” (Luke 22:44) Stacte, then, implores us to pray passionately to the One who was bruised for our transgressions, healing us in the process.
(2) Perhaps the most surprising ingredient on the list is “onycha,” the Hebrew shacheleth. This is the “processed claw-shaped closing flap of certain types of mollusks…of the genus Mollusca with a pungent odor when burned.” (Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains) One source I consulted defines the biblical Onycha as “the dried and processed secreted lids of a group of mollusk opercula found primarily in the Red Sea.” An “opercula” is the rounded plate that seals the mouth of the shell of certain gastropod mollusks when the animal’s body is inside—a seal secreted around the shell opening as a natural defense against dehydration. So the onycha (itself the Greek word for “fingernail,” recalling the shape of the mollusk’s shell) speaks of God’s design for a miraculous self-preservation mechanism for a lowly shellfish—the kind of thing that—a billion times over—prompted Him to call His finished creation “very good.”
What’s surprising about the inclusion of onycha is, first, that this ingredient is fauna—not flora—in origin. But beyond that, the animal from which it comes is (according to the Torah’s dietary rules) ritually unclean. It’s as if Yahweh is telling us, “I know you’re not perfect. I know you’re defiled. I know you have unclean lips. Let’s talk anyway. I have provided a miraculous means through which you, like this dumb shellfish, can maintain life. My Spirit, living within you, knows just what to say in prayer, even if you don’t.” So Paul informs us, “The Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” (Romans 8:26)
(3) Galbanum is an aromatic bitter gum resin from the Ferula plant family—fennel. This dark amber-colored substance exudes a powerful, complex, fresh, earthy, spicy, woody, balsamic-resinous fragrance, and it is highly prized as fixative in perfumes. Discharged from the roots or stem of its source plant, this milky substance quickly stiffens to a thick, honey-like consistency. It’s Hebrew name is chelbanah—derived (notes Strong’s) from a word with which we’re now quite familiar: cheleb—fat. As we saw earlier, cheleb denotes “the best one has to offer.” And unless I’m mistaken, another component of the word might be anah, the central requirement of the Day of Atonement, which means both to mourn, lament, or groan—to “afflict one’s soul”—and to meet, answer or respond. This is turning out to be a “complex fragrance” indeed. Galbanum, it seems, symbolizes the concept that the best we have to offer Yahweh in our sinful state is our bitterness of soul—and our subsequent response to His grace, in a word, repentance. We have nothing of value with which to come before a holy God in prayer, other than our brokenness and contrition.
Once again, I am compelled to refer to Isaiah’s prophetic description of our Messiah: “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” (Isaiah 53:3-4) That’s the very picture painted by chelbanah—galbanum—if I’m not mistaken. Yahweh wants to carry our sorrows—not to mention our worries. He understands our grief.
(4) The fourth ingredient on Yahweh’s list, frankincense, is one that carries so much scriptural baggage with it, I’d like to defer its discussion to the next chapter of this section. But in a nutshell, frankincense is symbolic of purity through sacrifice. Again, we can easily see how this would be an essential component of prayer: if someone were not pure, he could not stand before a holy God, even in prayer—at arm’s length, so to speak. But let’s face it: in our own strength, we are not pure, and cannot become so (the lesson of leaven, if you’ll recall)—which is where sacrifice comes in. The positional or conceptual purity we attain through the sacrifice of Christ is the only thing that qualifies us to communicate with our Creator. Of course, it is entirely up to us whether or not to avail ourselves of the opportunity we have to do so—to clothe ourselves in the righteousness imputed to us through His grace. God will not force us to do anything of the sort. But make no mistake, there is no other way to stand in His presence.
With the introduction of frankincense, we may note that all three gifts presented by the “wise men” to the infant Christ—gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11)—are represented in the Torah’s instructions for the burning of incense, symbolic of our prayer to Yahweh. (1) The altar of incense was completely overlaid with gold, indicating that our prayers are covered with—or presented upon—Christ’s immutable purity. (2) Frankincense was used in the formulation of the incense itself. It’s symbolic of the purity—attained through the Messiah’s sacrifice—that qualifies or authorizes us to come before a holy God in prayer. And (3), in an equal amount, myrrh (processed and pressed in the form of stacte) was also present in the incense recipe—reminding us that prayer would be impossible were it not for the pressure Yahshua endured on our behalf. The prayers of the saints, represented by incense, are thus intimately associated with the sacrifice—beginning with the advent—of Christ. And beyond that, it is clear that we are specifically authorized to pray to Yahshua—something of an epiphany if you’re used to thinking of Him merely as God’s anointed representative and not God Himself in human form. Only when we comprehend what it means for Yahshua to be our High Priest—the ultimate fulfillment of the picture of the Chief Intercessor presented in the Torah—does it become apparent that our prayers are pointless without His life, death, and resurrection.
(5) Salt, the last incense ingredient named, symbolically added flavor and acted as a preservative, which is why Yahshua called believers (i.e., the “saints” whose prayers incense represents) “the salt of the earth.” Salt wasn’t supposed to be added to the incense formula in amounts equal to the other four ingredients. Rather, the mixture was only to be “seasoned with salt,” i.e., tempered or influenced by those attributes salt represented. Prayer’s “formula” was thus to embrace or enhance the preservation, purification, and “flavor” of one’s mortal life. I’d take that to mean that we would be ill advised to petition God for things that are not in our own long-term best interests, both physically and spiritually. And since we seldom have the foresight or mental acuity to identify these things with any degree of accuracy, we should couch our requests in terms of God’s sovereignty—asking Yahweh to reveal His will, or asking Him (as Solomon did) to give us the wisdom we need to deal with the challenges of life.
We discussed salt at length earlier in this chapter, so I won’t start over from scratch—I’ll merely bring a few salient points to remembrance. Paul counseled us, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Colossians 4:6) That, I’d say, goes double for our prayers to Yahweh. When our incense-prayers are “seasoned with salt,” they’ll be “gracious”—the Greek charis: “that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness, good will, and loving-kindness.” (Strong’s) We normally think of these attributes as gifts showered upon our unworthy carcasses by God, and they are, but there’s no reason our responses and entreaties to Him can’t be rendered in the same sweet tone. Somehow I get the feeling that our usual pious “lectures toward heaven” aren’t exactly the sort of communication Yahweh was hoping for.
Remember the concept of the “covenant of salt” we discussed? The idea was that salt “vanishes” or “dissipates” into whatever it’s mixed into, making our “salt”—our agenda, our value system, that which we hold dear—indistinguishable and inseparable from that held by the one with whom we are entering into the covenant. So when we’re told to add salt to our incense, God is telling us that in our prayers, our mindset and purpose should be impossible to differentiate from His own: we are to be “on the same wavelength.” This, of course, requires us to become familiar with what Yahweh has revealed about what He wants and what He values. Where can we find such revelation? In His written word. It’s all well and good to consult with preachers or pundits (including me), but don’t trust us. Do your own homework. I endeavor to be helpful and informative, but you’re not required to concur with me. It’s really dumb, however, to disagree with Yahweh.
And do you remember the phrase melach hekal melachna, literally, to “eat salt of the palace”? It means “to be under obligation” to the ruling authority upon whom you depend. It implied a subject’s solemn oath of loyalty to the interests of the king, since he was in the king’s debt—the “king,” of course, ultimately being Yahweh, in the persona of Yahshua. So by adding salt to the holy incense, we are demonstrating our obligation to be loyal and thankful in our prayers.
Since incense is symbolic of “the prayers of the saints,” it behooves us to look into what scripture has to say about prayer itself. It may come as something of a surprise, but personal prayer, as a scripturally mandated principle, is a rather late development. It seems to have come into its own as the authorized way of communication with Yahweh with the advent of the Torah—delivered to us, ironically enough, by a man who spoke to Yahweh face to face (mostly through the Shekinah). I’m not unaware that in the days of Enosh (Seth’s son), “men began to ‘call on’ the name of Yahweh” (Genesis 4:26), but the verb here is qara—to call, recite, or proclaim: the point seems to be that Yahweh had distanced Himself from sinful man; He had ceased routinely appearing among men as He had with Adam (or even with Cain)—as a theophany. Rather, Yahweh had relegated Himself, for the most part, to the role of Legend—the “God of our fathers.” Men no longer talked to Yahweh; they only spoke about Him. If you look hard enough, you can find pre-Mosaic instances of prayer (e.g. Genesis 24:12-14). But before Moses (as far as we’ve been told) God communicated with man mostly through theophanies or in dreams and visions.
Our attitudes toward prayer are largely shaped by the Psalms. David pleads, “Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have given me relief when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!” (Psalm 4:1) Remember a few pages back, when I offered evidence that the efficacy of our prayer depends on the life, death, and resurrection of Yahshua? The question left unanswered was, “What about prayers made before the Messiah showed up? Were they therefore pointless?” No, they weren’t, for the simple reason that our redemption and reconciliation to Yahweh, through Yahshua, were a prophetic fait accompli from the dawn of time. From Adam’s faith in Yahweh’s remedy for his sin, to John the Baptist’s hopeful proclamations concerning the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, those who died prior to Yahshua’s passion believing God’s promise (to whatever extent He had revealed it) were redeemed under the same covenant of grace as those of us who live in the shadow of Calvary. So David calls upon the “God of my righteousness.” His own goodness, he knew all too well, was insufficient to reconcile him to Yahweh. But he felt he could pray in confidence anyway, because God was his righteousness.
The kind of two-way communication we now enjoy with Yahweh is described (somewhat poetically) by the sons of Korah: “By day Yahweh commands His steadfast love, and at night His song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.” (Psalm 42:8) God seldom speaks to us in an audible voice anymore. Rather, the “commands” of Yahweh are recorded in His word, and the greatest of these (as both Yahshua and Paul confirmed) is love. But as night follows day, our verbal response to His command to love is a “song” (to be precise, it’s His song) acknowledging that Yahweh is “the God of our lives.” Notice too that the song is, in fact, a prayer. That is, the One to whom the message is ultimately addressed is Yahweh Himself, even if it’s not worded in the second person. As I said, whatever we say about Yahweh is heard by Him.
The reason God commands us to love is that He Himself is love personified. He wants us to fulfill our destiny as people who are “made in His image and likeness.” David (whose name, not coincidentally, means “love”) wrote Psalm 109 about his own experiences, but in hindsight, we can see that this is actually a prophecy describing his descendant, Yahshua the Messiah, and His accusers. I have therefore taken it upon myself to capitalize the personal pronouns: “They encircle Me with words of hate, and attack Me without cause. In return for My love they accuse Me, but I give Myself to prayer.” (Psalm 109:3-4) As God cloaked in human flesh, Yahshua did the only thing He could do—He “gave Himself to prayer” (as we read time after time in the Gospels). Don’t look now, but that’s really all any of us can do.
To be of any value, of course, prayer has to connect us to God. That is, when we pray, it would be of no use if there were nobody on the receiving end of our praises or petitions. The Psalms make it clear that Yahweh does hear us: “For Yahweh builds up Zion; He appears in his glory; He regards the prayer of the destitute and does not despise their prayer.” (Psalm 102:16-17) “O You who hears prayer, to You shall all flesh come.” (Psalm 65:2) The problem is, at the moment, “all flesh” hasn’t come to Yahweh. Literally billions of people pray to figments of their own imagination. For example, some Buddhists, knowing intuitively that there’s no one there to receive the prayers they nevertheless feel compelled to offer, compromise with reality by automating the process—spinning a prayer wheel. They instinctively know their prayers are a waste of time, so they waste as little time as their consciences will allow.
Orthodox Jews at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall refuse to pray alone or offer unrehearsed, unauthorized prayers to Ha-Shem (i.e., “the Name,” so-called because they refuse to use the actual name by which Yahweh identified Himself seven thousand times in the Tanach. What’s wrong with this picture?). So they wait around until they have a quorum (called a minyan—ten or more adult males) and then recite a canned, rabbinically approved prayer. This (no less than the Buddhist method) is precisely what Yahshua warned us against: “vain repetitions” in prayer (Matthew 6:7), something the heathens are wont to do. The word is the Greek verb battologeo: to stammer, repeat the same things over and over, babble or prate. How the Black Hats expect this sort of thing to impress a God who’s name they won’t even utter is beyond my meager powers of comprehension. Do our children refuse to talk to us by themselves, or without a script? Do we demand eloquence from them? Of course not.
Not to be outdone, Muslims for the past thirteen centuries have felt compelled to endure a complicated obeisance ritual, bowing toward Mecca five times a day, offering pre-approved “prayers” to Allah. (Actually, according to the “Night’s Journey” account, Allah originally demanded fifty prostrations a day. But Muhammad negotiated the number down to five. Oh, that’s much better!) Considering the fact that over all those centuries, Allah has never answered a single prayer—from anyone, including Muhammad—Muslims ought to at least be a little suspicious, it seems to me.
And where did they get the idea of a qibla—of bowing toward a sacred place? Actually, they got that from Solomon. (Whatever Muhammad didn’t borrow from Arabian pagans, he got from the rabbis of Yathrib, from the Talmud—except, of course, for his deep-seated hatred.) Muhammad, learning that the temple was located in Jerusalem (and apparently not aware that it had been destroyed over half a millennium before he was even born) set his first qibla toward Zion. But then he got miffed at the Yathrib Jews for failing to appreciate his “messianic” qualities, so he switched the qibla to his hometown (the very place he’d been run out of at knifepoint a few years before). Mecca was the home of the Qa’aba, an ancient pagan shrine where the black rock representing Allah was kept (along with about three hundred other rock gods. So much for monotheism).
So what does Solomon have to do with it? At the dedication of the temple, he prayed, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You; how much less this house that I have built! Yet have regard to the prayer of your servant and to his plea, O Yahweh my God, listening to the cry and to the prayer that your servant prays before you this day, that Your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you have said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that You may listen to the prayer that Your servant offers toward this place. And listen to the plea of Your servant and of Your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. And listen in heaven Your dwelling place, and when You hear, forgive.” (I Kings 8:27-30) There was nothing magical about praying “toward this place,” of course. Bodily facing a certain direction in prayer, as if God could be contained within the walls of the holy of holies, was the last thing Solomon had in mind—and he made that perfectly clear. But he realized that the temple, like the tabernacle that preceded it, meant something: its design and service were intended to symbolically convey Yahweh’s plan for mankind’s redemption. When one “faces the temple” in prayer, then, he is communicating with Yahweh in the context of His love and provision—no matter which direction his nose is pointing.
Solomon offered some examples of what sort of thing might be prayed “toward this place.” I guess Solomon really was a “wise man”—the list is heavily slanted toward the people’s recurring need for forgiveness. He asks Yahweh to heed his people’s pleas and forgive them, “if a man sins against his neighbor” (verse 31), “when Your people Israel are defeated before the enemy because they have sinned against you” (verse 33), “when heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you” (verse 35), or “if there is famine in the land, if there is pestilence or blight or mildew or locust or caterpillar, if their enemy besieges them in the land at their gates” (verse 41). All of these curses and more had been promised to Israel if they refused to heed Yahweh’s precepts. But the door of repentance was always open. Yahweh’s response to Solomon’s prayer is recorded elsewhere: “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among My people [all things Solomon had been worried about], if My people who are called by My name humble themselves, and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now My eyes will be open and My ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place.” (II Chronicles 7:13-15) Both factors—the symbolic significance of the temple toward which Israel was to pray and God’s stated conditions for “healing their land”—boil down to the same thing: our reconciliation with God through His sacrifice and our subsequent reliance upon its efficacy. And the doorway to this reconciliation was prayer.
Was this restoration restricted to Israel? No. Solomon also prayed for repentant gentiles: “Likewise, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for Your name’s sake… hear in heaven Your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to You, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know Your name and fear You, as do Your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by Your name.” (I Kings 8:41, 43) He’s describing the largely-gentile Church. Unfortunately, most gentiles remain just as clueless as Israel has been. But Solomon’s point—and prayer—is that when we do come to Yahweh, He will receive us.
Isaiah predicts this very thing: “And the foreigners who join themselves to Yahweh, to minister to Him, to love the name of Yahweh, and to be His servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast My covenant—these I will bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on My altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:6-7) Israel’s job was to tell the world of Yahweh’s Salvation: Yahshua. The world’s job was to receive this Good News. And the temple—that is, what it represents—was to be “a house of prayer for all peoples.” It should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that “keeping the Sabbath,” “holding fast to Yahweh’s covenant,” and making “burnt offerings and sacrifices on God’s altar” are all symbolic of Yahshua’s finished work; they’re not rules we must slavishly perform in order to earn our salvation. Yahshua is our rest, He is the covenant, and He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Nothing we can do is remotely good enough to be “accepted on God’s altar.” Only Yahshua can—and did—do that.
As if to make my point for me, Solomon tied all the pieces together: “Now as Solomon finished offering all this prayer and plea to Yahweh, he arose from before the altar of Yahweh [that speaks to the offerings and sacrifices of which Isaiah spoke], where he had knelt with hands outstretched toward heaven. And he stood and blessed all the assembly of Israel with a loud voice, saying, ‘Blessed be Yahweh who has given rest [that’s the Sabbath] to His people Israel, according to all that He promised [and that’s the covenant—we’re three for three]. Not one word has failed of all his good promise, which He spoke by Moses His servant.” (I Kings 8:54-56)
While Solomon’s examples of what we should pray for were heavily weighted toward our need for forgiveness, Yahshua would later fine tune that a bit: since (with His advent) we have been forgiven, we need to pray that others—even our enemies—will find the same forgiveness we have been granted. So He taught: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ [This was the basic rabbinical view, though not one fostered in the Torah.] But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:43-45) Luke records the sentiment like this: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-28)
A couple of elements in this formula require clarification. First, what does it mean to “love my enemy” or “bless someone who curses me”? Does it mean I should assist him in perpetrating his hateful agenda against me? If he wants me dead, am I to oblige him by slitting my wrists? No. Love has nothing to do with surrender or compromise or feeding your antagonist’s hatred. It has everything to do with selflessly helping him—not according to his standards, but according to God’s. I’ll take it as a given that your enemy’s hatred is unfounded and unfair. (If it’s not—if you’re at fault—then job number one is restitution, apology, and repentance—providing justice for your antagonist.) What does someone who hates you unjustly (especially because of your faith) really need? He needs the truth, or failing that, a loving, compassionate heart—something only a relationship with the living God can provide. So the best thing you can do for someone who hates you is to demonstrate Yahweh’s love toward him in your own life. He still has to make his own choices, of course, but at least you can show him the difference between good and evil.
Second, who is my enemy? How do I define him? I realize I don’t get out much, but I can’t think of a single person I’d call my “enemy” in any personal sense. But there are billions of people who would count me as an enemy (if they knew me) because of my pro-Yahweh, pro-Israel, and pro-life proclivities. To my mind, we must learn to differentiate ideas from the people who hold them. There are concepts I hate with every fiber of my being. But with very few exceptions, the people who espouse these concepts—even those who may count me as an enemy—are (in my view) merely mistaken, misled, deluded: they’re victims of satanic prevarications. We can’t really divide the world into “friends” and “enemies” based on the details of what we know and believe. It has, in the past few years, become a rather disconcerting personal reality for me that virtually no one—even among my closest Christian friends—agrees with me about every nuance of doctrine and scriptural interpretation. Why? Because I continue to learn new things all the time. For that matter, I myself probably don’t completely agree with the “me” from three or four years ago. Points of disagreement do not define one’s list of enemies. I love my children with all my heart, but I don’t agree with some of them about very much at all.
Another “loaded” concept is tolerance. Scripture makes it quite clear that while we are to forgive people who sin against us, we are not to tolerate or condone sin itself. I realize that the distinction is lost on most folks. But it’s not quite as counterintuitive as it sounds. We should not tolerate bad, worthless, or destructive ideas, but we should remain (as much as possible) charitable toward the people who hold them. A few examples to illustrate the point: (1) Palestinian Arabs derive their hatred for Israel directly from Islam. If we were smart, we would condemn Islam for its unabashed political agenda of total world domination, while safeguarding the personal human rights of individual Arabs. (Those “rights,” of course, do not include murdering Jews, or anybody else. Israel has a right—even a responsibility—to defend itself against Muslim terrorists.) And (2) Evangelical Christians tend to be conservative in their outlook, believing in individual liberty under God, financial responsibility, the fundamental right to life, and even in reaping what you’ve sown. Liberals, meanwhile, believe it’s government’s proper role to fix every problem, real or imagined, no matter whose fault, and no matter how many individual freedoms must be suppressed in order to achieve the goal. While it is no doubt a good thing for us to condemn insanity like Keynesian economics, state-funded abortion, special privileges for homosexuals, and the replacement of God with government, we need to remember that Christ died for people who believe in such things. We should uphold them in prayer—not that they might be successful, but that they might be enlightened.
Perhaps the best way to get a handle on this is to analyze how Yahshua related to the people He encountered—all of whom were sinners (and thus by definition “at enmity” with Him, since He was God incarnate), but very few of whom He counted as “enemies.” He never condoned adultery or usury, and yet He was gentle and forgiving with the prostitutes and tax collectors He encountered who, confronted with His holiness, repented of their sins. In short, He embraced sinners, but did not tolerate sin. He clearly perceived the difference between the prisoner and the chain that bound him.
And yet, there were those whom Yahshua considered enemies. Although He never bothered defending Himself (since His job was to be “bruised for our transgressions”), He did count as enemies those who actively worked to prevent honest seekers from entering the Kingdom of Heaven—something He characterized as “murder” in the eternal sense. They pursued the agenda of their spiritual father, Satan (see John 8:39-59). The Pharisees and their allies the scribes (lawyers) only pretended to honor God by keeping the Torah’s precepts. In reality, they were honoring themselves. This became evident in their ostentatious public prayers. So Yahshua taught His disciples, “When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward….” Their reward wasn’t a relationship with Yahweh, but the deference of men. It was all an act.
But remember the layout of the tabernacle: the incense was burned inside the holy place—not out in the courtyard, and certainly not outside the camp. One had to encounter the altar of sacrifice and the laver of cleansing, and experience God’s illumination and provision, before he could offer the incense—the prayer of a saint. The incense represented intimate communion with Yahweh. “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Our “reward” for praying in secret to God is close, personal, one-on-One fellowship with the very Creator of the universe. In comparison, it makes being invited to the White House for a serious two-hour closed-door discussion with the president seem trivial. “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him….” God is not impressed with our eloquence, nor is He swayed by flattery or attempts at bribery. Like a father with his children, he knows what we need and what we want. But what He wants is for us to come to Him, sit on His lap, and whisper into His ear—even if it’s only to tell Him how much we love Him.
Yahshua then proceeded to tell His disciples precisely what God expected to hear in our prayers. He said, “Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We should preface everything with acknowledgment of Yahweh’s relationship with us, His deity, holiness, and authority. Our first petition is to be that God’s purpose is brought to fruition in our world. It may seem strange to pray for what God wants (rather than what we want) but the reason is self-evident: what Yahweh “wants” is by definition beneficial to us. He desires to meet our needs, to love us, and to maintain a close personal relationship with us. These things are all to our eternal advantage. Yahweh is not our adversary; He is our Father. He’s on “our side.” We need to get that fact through our thick skulls. Only then are our personal petitions to be presented: “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation [that is, testing or trial], but deliver us from evil….” We are to ask God for provision, forgiveness, guidance, and deliverance.
But there’s a caveat: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:5-15) God’s forgiveness of our sins depends on our willingness to forgive others in turn. He made this abundantly clear in the parable of the king and his unforgiving steward (Matthew 18:21-35). Yahweh has forgiven us a great debt—one we could never have paid. He wants us to show our appreciation by forgiving any and all affronts against us. If God doesn’t hold His grudges, we certainly shouldn’t either. But there are parallel propositions left unstated here. I’ll therefore phrase this in the form of a question: if we are to forgive others their trespasses as God has forgiven us, then are we not also to provide for others as God provides for our needs? Are we not also to be careful to avoid subjecting our brothers to any sort of temptation or trial? Are we not also to shelter from evil (to whatever extent we can) the people we meet in our walk through life? Beside defining the golden rule all over again, all of these things are either implied or stated outright in the Torah. If we are unwilling to supply, forgive, and shelter others, why would we expect God to do these things for us? Yahweh’s response to our prayer, then, depends in part upon our willingness to follow His instruction and example. He is not a celestial Santa Claus: His gifts are designed to improve us, not amuse us.
Another factor is our faith—our deep seated belief that God is actually capable of doing what we ask of Him. “Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea,” and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.’” (Mark 11:22-24) The context here is important, for this would be easy to misconstrue. It’s Yahshua’s cursing of the fig tree on the road to Bethany. On Tuesday, He had found it barren of fruit, though it had plenty of leaves, so (as a prophecy of what would happen to Israel, who would prove their own barrenness by crucifying Him before the week was out) He told the tree, “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.” (Mark 11:14) By Wednesday morning, the tree was dead—it would no longer be allowed to masquerade as a “fruit tree.”
He used the occasion to teach on the efficacy of faith: if He had not had sufficient confidence in Yahweh’s ability to do what He had asked, nothing would have happened to the tree. But the context reveals several conditions that temper His remarks. (1) What we’re asking “in faith” must be in alignment with Yahweh’s plan, purpose, and character. It was not Yahshua’s intention to place a loaded spiritual gun in the hands of a child. Though our belief is necessary, it’s not the only thing that’s necessary. (2) The point of the example He chose is that there is no limit to what God can accomplish. The “impossible” is not necessarily out of bounds—whether healing the sick, raising the dead, or moving mountains. (3) The mode of our prayer’s fulfillment, and its timing, is strictly at Yahweh’s discretion and under His authority. Example: I have a grown daughter who suffers from post-polio syndrome and Huntington’s Chorea (for starters). From time to time, godly well-meaning people have earnestly prayed for her complete healing, “not doubting… believing that it will come to pass… certain that they have received it” for all I can tell, just as Yahshua’s words indicate. And yet, she remains confined to her wheelchair or hospital bed, losing ground by the day, though thankful for every new sunrise. I do not pray in terms of her body’s healing, for I know that she will be given a glorious new immortal body—completely free of the ravages of her diseases—soon enough. What I pray for in total faith is that her mother and I will continue to have the strength, patience, wisdom, and resources needed to care for her as long as Yahweh desires. And that prayer has been granted.
One more thing. It would seem at first glance that Yahshua’s extreme example—of praying for mountains to be thrown into the sea—is mere hyperbole, exaggeration for effect. But this more likely refers to a prophecy that will come about in the waning days of the coming Tribulation—an actual prayer and its literal fulfillment: “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before You will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’ Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” There’s the prayer, along with God’s admonition for patience. But without pausing to take a breath, the narrative continues: “When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake…. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’” (Revelation 6:9-17) The seventh bowl judgment describes the same “great earthquake” in terms that should be hauntingly familiar to those conversant with Yahshua’s instruction concerning praying in faith: “And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found.” (Revelation 16:20) So much for hyperbole.
Admittedly, our prayers normally need not always be quite so “earth shaking” as this one. Rather, like the smoke of the incense filling every nook and cranny of the Holy Place, they should be an ever-present feature of our daily lives. This was certainly true of Yahshua’s mortal life: “Those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. Immediately He made the disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He dismissed the crowds. And after He had dismissed the crowds, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray.” (Matthew 14:21-23) The miracles, the good works, and the preparation were all well and good, but what Yahshua Himself found valuable and useful was His time alone with the Father. As His “popularity” increased—as His power and reputation became more and more compelling to folks—He did precisely the opposite of what we might expect: He ignored the adoring masses in order to spend more time with God. “But now even more the report about Him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear Him and to be healed of their infirmities. But He would withdraw to desolate places and pray.” (Luke 5:15-16)
Because of the miracles Yahshua performed, we tend to think of Him as God among men, and we should, because His identity and Yahweh’s are the same. But what we tend to overlook is that in becoming fully human, He had divested Himself of any and all intrinsic power He might have had as “God.” In other words, the only miraculous power Yahshua wielded (and He wielded a lot) was due to the Holy Spirit operating through Him—the same Holy Spirit that indwells and empowers each of us believers, and has since the Day of Pentecost. How did Yahshua feed the multitudes, heal the sick, and raise the dead? By using precisely the same “power source” that spiritually quickens us. Why, then, have we not emptied the hospitals and depopulated the graveyards? It’s not that these things are impossible for Christ’s followers, for Peter did them (see Acts 9:32-43). But such miracles are strictly the prerogative of God, and are granted only on His schedule and for His purposes. That being said, few of us can truly say we’ve accessed the full power of the Holy Spirit that’s available to us. What’s missing? Why have we failed in this regard? If Christ’s life is any indication, the answer would seem to be our lack of “face time” with Yahweh: we don’t pray as we ought. We don’t make communication with God a priority.
One of the most important lessons we might do well to learn about prayer is that God will grant our petitions only according to His own perfect will. Our flesh—let’s face it—doesn’t always have a very good handle on what’s best for us, never mind for the guy down the street we don’t even know about. Yahweh, however, factors in everything and provides what’s best for all concerned (being careful not to abridge our privilege of free will, of course). The classic example of this principle is the agony of Yahshua’s prayer just prior to his crucifixion. “Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane [literally, “the oil press”], and He said to His disciples, ‘Sit here, while I go over there and pray.’ And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, He began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then He said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with Me….’” I find it touching that Yahshua (who had always preferred to pray by Himself) wanted his companions with Him, nearby, in His hour of deepest trial, even though He knew there was nothing they could do to help. For Immanuel to ask for “moral support” from weak and clueless men is, I think, one of the most remarkable displays of divine empathy in the entire Bible. The simple fact is, Yahshua loved these guys. What would you do if you found out the island your house was on was about to be swallowed by a giant tsunami? Would you want your kids with you when the end came, in your arms—or up in their rooms playing video games?
Yahshua’s petition, as we now know, was doomed to being rejected. “And going a little farther He fell on His face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will….’” Just because Yahshua was willing to die for our sins, it doesn’t follow that He was looking forward to it. He would have preferred to find another way, if such a thing were possible. Yahweh had established from the very beginning, however, that the only way to reconcile the guilty with the holy was to sacrifice the innocent.
What does it mean to die for someone? In December, 2001, I visited Israel, doing research for a novel I was co-authoring (Tea With Terrorists). One unforgettable afternoon, we interviewed several bona fide blood-on-their-hands Islamic terrorists. But one of them stood out from the rest: rather than fancying himself a “freedom fighter” or “soldier of Islam,” this young man was in preparation to become a suicide bomber. He had bought the lie, hook line and sinker: there was, in his twisted mind, no greater glory (or reward) than to kill oneself in the act of murdering Jews. He was honestly looking forward to his pointless death. The insanity was palpable—fidgeting hands and twitchy eyes, nervous laughter, and every question answered (a bit too loudly) with a quote from the Qur’an or Hadith—whether it made contextual sense or not. (I later learned that the IDF killed this fellow in a gun battle before he could do much real damage, thank God.) The contrast between this Muslim wannabe suicide bomber and Yahshua couldn’t be more striking. The Muslim wanted to be a martyr; Yahshua wanted to be our Savior. The Muslim pursued death for himself and others; Yahshua reluctantly but obediently surrendered Himself to death so that others could live. The Muslim’s driving motivation was blind hatred; Yahshua’s incentive was pure love. The Muslim chanted canned prayers to Allah, counted out on prayer beads (sort of like a Catholic’s rosary); Yahshua engaged in intense personal dialog with Yahweh. The Muslim expected to be rewarded with lustful virgins in paradise; Yahshua knew His death would rescue His bride, the Church, by making her clean, spotless, and pure. The Muslim had been duped by imams too cowardly to put their own lives on the line; Yahshua’s resurrection established His own divine authority. Nobody made Him do anything.
As if to prove that we were incapable of helping—much less saving—ourselves, Matthew reports the failure of the disciples: “And He came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And He said to Peter, ‘So, could you not watch with Me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’” We let God down time and again, but although He never excuses our weakness, He always encourages us to do better—to “Go and sin no more.” He, having been a man Himself, knows how hard it is for us. “Again, for the second time, He went away and prayed, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, Your will be done.’ And again He came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So, leaving them again, He went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again.” (Matthew 26:36-44) Yahshua asked three times for the burden of the passion, if possible, to be removed. Paul also asked three times for his “thorn in the flesh” to be relieved (II Corinthians 12:8). The precedent seems to have been established back in the Torah: the Israelites were to appear before Yahweh three times during the year. The point, I believe, is that the proper pattern for personal petition in prayer is persistence without impertinence—or, if you will, perseverance without petulance. Asking Yahweh for the desires of your heart is an important privilege: we may do so more than once. But God isn’t deaf. If He hasn’t granted your request after the third mention, it’s safe to say the answer is either “no” or “wait.” In any case, His grace is sufficient for us. His perfect will is perfect, after all.
James (the half-brother of Yahshua and leader of the Jerusalem Church) had some advice of his own concerning prayer: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:13-16) In any healthy local assembly of believers, these things go on all the time. Note that as with Yahshua’s admonition that “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses,” (Matthew 6:14-15) James too stresses forgiveness—the first step of which is confessing your sins, admitting your guilt, to the one you have wronged.
James continues: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” None of us is completely “righteous” in our own power, of course. Our righteousness before God is borrowed. But the word (the Greek dikaios) used here means “him whose way of thinking, feeling, and acting is wholly conformed to the will of God, and who therefore needs no rectification in the heart or life.” (Strong’s) An example of just such a man is offered by way of explanation: “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.” (James 5:16-18) Interestingly, the record (I Kings 17:1) doesn’t actually say that Elijah prayed at all—he merely announced Yahweh’s word to King Ahab. His “prayer” consisted of being perfectly in sync with Yahweh’s purpose—the result of being “conformed to the will of God.”
There is a right way and a wrong way to utilize any of Yahweh’s metaphors, and the burning of incense is no exception. In post-Horeb Israel, the censer quickly became a potent image of the wielding of God’s power—which, if you think about it, is part of what prayer is. Thus Aaron, the brother of (and spokesman for) God’s prophet Moses, the one appointed and anointed as the High Priest of Israel, seemed to represent the very definition of cultic power and prestige in the infant nation. (At least he dressed the part.) Aaron alone was authorized to burn the holy incense (see Exodus 30:7-8).
For his part, Aaron seems to have understood that his role was symbolic—that performing it as directed would serve Yahweh’s greater purpose, even if he didn’t fully understand what that purpose was. But who knows? Maybe I’m being overly charitable: scripture doesn’t record a single original thought from Aaron, good or bad. Even when he got into trouble (which he did on occasion), it always seems to have been at somebody else’s instigation. I would not be surprised to learn that Aaron was fully aware of his own personal limitations, and realized that Yahweh had chosen him as His priest—and all of his male heirs through him—not because of their worthiness or abilities, but simply because he was available and willing. His eldest sons, however, assumed that since they were his eldest sons, they were something special—and that their privileged position put them above the law. “Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before Yahweh, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before Yahweh and consumed them, and they died before Yahweh. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what Yahweh has said, “Among those who are near Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.”’ And Aaron held his peace.” (Leviticus 10:1-3)
The lessons here are numerous and obvious: (1) Don’t pervert or “adapt” Yahweh’s precepts in an attempt to elevate your own status. This, unfortunately, is a core tactic of religious practice in the world today. (2) The penalty for doing so is death by fire—itself a picture of the separation of the impure from the holy by means of destructive force wielded by God. (3) Prayer (that which incense represents) is not meant to impress the “eavesdroppers” in the congregation of the saints. It is to be, rather, meaningful communication with God, including intercession, petition, and praise. (4) Yahweh requires a proper attitude when we pray—literally, when we “come before His face.” First, He must be regarded as holy. “Sanctified” here in the ESV is a misleading translation. The Hebrew word is qadash—set apart, consecrated, hallowed, honored, and treated as sacred. Second, He insists on being “glorified” (Hebrew: kabad)—literally, “to be heavy or weighty,” that is, honored, promoted, distinguished, glorified, or considered great. (This same word—and principle—is used in the Fifth Commandment: “Honor your father and your mother,” which is a thinly veiled way of saying “Honor Yahweh,” of whom your earthly parents are symbolic.) And (5) We needn’t mourn the demise of those who have chosen to rebel against Yahweh. It’s one thing to be mistaken, to hold erroneous views, to be confused or misguided: none of us perfectly understands everything God has to teach us, and no one is faultless in his behavior before Yahweh. But it is another thing entirely to choose to revolt, to mutiny against God—to purposely attempt to usurp His place and authority in the lives of men. Such rebels’ demise is no loss to the world.
A little later, a fellow named Korah led a rebellion designed to remove Moses and Aaron from “office” and replace them with “better” people. From a human resources point of view, Korah may have had a point. We’ve already seen how Aaron was weak and suggestible: he didn’t display a lot of courage or moral certitude, but tended to drift with the tide. And Moses? He was a spoiled-brat rich kid, turned murdering fugitive, turned mumbling loser who had apparently spent too many years out in the desert sun tending somebody else’s sheep—hardly “leader” material. Korah’s cadre, by comparison, would have done great in the Iowa caucuses. They were proven talents, including 250 of the most qualified men in Israel, leaders whom scripture itself calls “men of renown.” The story is recorded in Numbers 16. Korah’s challenge (verse 3) was that Moses and Aaron had no particular right to lead Israel, since the whole congregation had been set apart, and Yahweh was among them. What he had missed, of course, was that Yahweh had chosen Moses and Aaron—they had not “exalted themselves” or “taken too much upon themselves,” as Korah alleged. In fact, Yahweh had had to twist Moses’ arm to get him onboard; Aaron, true to character, simply did as he was asked—he was just along for the ride. As Moses himself said, “What is Aaron, that you murmur against him?” (v. 11) Gee, thanks, bro.
Moses “suggested” that both Aaron and Korah’s company take censers and burn incense before Yahweh, and God would choose who’s prayer to accept. At the same time, he prayed (v. 15) that Yahweh would not receive Korah’s petition, for the rebellion was not really against Moses’ leadership at all, but against Yahweh’s will. “Moses said to Korah, ‘Be present, you and all your company, before Yahweh, you and they, and Aaron, tomorrow. And let every one of you take his censer and put incense on it, and every one of you bring before Yahweh his censer, 250 censers; you also, and Aaron, each his censer.’ So every man took his censer and put fire in them and laid incense on them and stood at the entrance of the tent of meeting with Moses and Aaron. Then Korah assembled all the congregation against them at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And the glory of Yahweh appeared to all the congregation." (Numbers 16:16-19) Because the rebels represented the whole congregation, Yahweh now intimated that He was willing to wipe them all out (v. 21), but Moses frantically interceded for them (v. 22). That, in case you missed it, is prayer—the very thing that the Levitical incense was designed to represent. And Yahweh heeded his prayer not to destroy the congregation.
But Korah and his merry men? They (like Nadab and Abihu before them) were doomed to destruction—and for roughly the same reason: they had not regarded Yahweh’s revealed will as holy, nor had they honored Him. The ringleaders, again in an answer to Moses’ prayer (v. 29), were swallowed alive by the earth. The 250 “men of renown” were subsequently consumed in flame (v. 35), just as Aaron’s two sons had been. But in the aftermath, something strange and unexpected happened. “Then Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Tell Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest to take up the censers out of the blaze. Then scatter the fire far and wide, for they have become holy. As for the censers of these men who have sinned at the cost of their lives, let them be made into hammered plates as a covering for the altar, for they offered them before Yahweh, and they became holy. Thus they shall be a sign to the people of Israel.’” Yes, the incense-prayers of the 250 usurpers had been rejected, and their rebellion against Yahweh and His anointed crushed. That much makes sense, from a divine retribution point of view. But then their censers—the implements by which their prayers had been offered—were declared to be “holy” (qadash—set apart, consecrated, hallowed, honored, and treated as sacred) simply because they had been presented before Yahweh. “So Eleazar the priest took the bronze censers, which those who were burned had offered, and they were hammered out as a covering for the altar, to be a reminder to the people of Israel, so that no outsider, who is not of the descendants of Aaron, should draw near to burn incense before Yahweh, lest he become like Korah and his company—as Yahweh said to him through Moses.” (Numbers 16:36-40) We (or at least I) might tend to see something that had been used as an implement of evil intent, of rebellion against God, as irredeemable—rendered forever polluted and unholy. So why did Yahweh declare the censers holy?
The answer lies in the symbol: a censer is an implement for burning incense, symbolic of prayer. But what is the actual implement through which our prayers are offered to God? It is our mortal bodies—flawed, sinful, polluted, and rebellious vessels though they are. Yahweh is telling us something remarkable here: although we were formerly at enmity with Him, our bodies can be retasked, set apart for Yahweh’s honor as we were once used against Him. But in order for this to come about, four things must happen. (1) Our old “owner” must be judged, consumed in the flame of separation. That owner, of course, is sin itself, something that was separated from us (if we’ll choose to accept it) through Yahshua’s sacrifice on Calvary. (2) We must be re-formed, hammered into an entirely new shape with an entirely different function. As you might imagine, this can be a painful experience: change is difficult. But we are not expected to change ourselves, any more than a censer can flatten itself into a sheet of metal by sheer force of will. No, the reshaping is done by the hand of God. Like the familiar illustration of the potter with his clay, it is our job to be receptive to Yahweh’s touch upon our lives. The more we resist, the more force it will take to transform us into something useful. (3) We are destined to become “a covering for the altar.” Our transformed lives are to be intimately associated with the altar of sacrifice, where the blood of atonement was shed. When people look at God’s implement of atonement, what they’ll see is us. No pressure or anything. And (4) our reshaped lives are henceforth on display, a testimony to the world. I may be misreading this, but perhaps the most remarkable thing about all of this is that we (the people whose lives have been transformed by having been separated from our sin through the judgment endured by Yahshua—in other words, the Church) are to be “a reminder to the people of Israel.” I realize that “Israel” normally symbolizes the world for whom Christ died, and “the descendants of Aaron” represent those among them who have been granted access to Yahweh through prayer—that is, believers. But could this mean that the changed lives of Christians are supposed to literally be a witness to Israel? To this day they, as a nation, have failed to recognize the Messianic qualifications of Yahshua of Nazareth. It’s the single most fundamental factor dividing us. But we stand before them, censers reborn and retasked to proclaim the eternal truth: Yahshua is the Lamb of God.
Scripture records one more informative instance of the misuse of incense. Uzziah, who reigned as king of Judah from 790-739 BC, started off in spectacular fashion, seemingly doing everything right. (His name, after all, means “My Strength is Yahweh.”) He was counted among the short list of kings who “did right in the sight of Yahweh.” And yet, one disastrous lapse in judgment later in his reign marred his reputation for all time, tainting every good thing he had accomplished. “But when he [Uzziah] was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was unfaithful to Yahweh his God and entered the temple of Yahweh to burn incense on the altar of incense….” The translation “was unfaithful” is a bit off. The word is shachath, a verb meaning to be marred, spoiled, corrupted, injured, blemished, ruined or rotted. Uzziah hadn’t turned his back on Yahweh, but he had grasped for more authority than God had given him—in direct violation of the Torah’s clear directive—injuring and spoiling the relationship they should have shared. God had appointed him king; He had never made him a priest. Those two functions would remain separate until Yahshua fulfilled all of their inherent imagery.
“But Azariah the priest went in after him, with eighty priests of Yahweh who were men of valor, and they withstood King Uzziah and said to him, ‘It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to Yahweh, but for the priests the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense.” God had instituted the original “separation of powers” form of government. “Go out of the sanctuary, for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from Yahweh, God….’” The High Priest was perfectly correct, of course. At this point, Uzziah should have immediately stopped, repented, retreated from the temple, and prepared to make a chata’t, or sin offering, of a male goat as prescribed by law.
But alas, his pride got the better of him: “Then Uzziah was angry. Now he had a censer in his hand to burn incense, and when he became angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead in the presence of the priests in the house of Yahweh, by the altar of incense. And Azariah the chief priest and all the priests looked at him, and behold, he was leprous in his forehead! And they rushed him out quickly, and he himself hurried to go out, because Yahweh had struck him. And King Uzziah was a leper to the day of his death, and being a leper lived in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of Yahweh.” (II Chronicles 26:16-21) The one thing Uzziah had hoped to gain for himself by burning the priestly incense was honor—especially before God. But by doing so in violation of Yahweh’s stated instructions, he lost the very thing he had coveted. The lesson is clear: what we do on our own authority is worthless—even counterproductive. Under Yahweh’s direction, authorization, and empowerment, we can achieve great things—as Uzziah himself had learned in his youth. But when we grasp what has not been given to us, when we seek honor God has not bestowed upon us, we separate ourselves from His fellowship.
However, unlike Nadab and Abihu, or Korah’s 250 wannabe leaders, Yahweh did not kill Uzziah on the spot. The distinction is important. Those rebels who were destroyed by fire had attempted to usurp Yahweh’s power, and in the process had betrayed a disbelief in His authority—or even His existence. Uzziah, on the other hand, had “merely” sought undue honor from Yahweh by performing the function of the priest, an action that—like Moses’ striking the rock at Kadesh to obtain water—destroyed a picture Yahweh had so carefully painted in his Torah. So the proud Uzziah, like the angry Moses, was punished by being denied the one thing he had coveted in this life. God is serious about His symbols. Leprosy was symbolic of sin—an outer manifestation of an inner condition. Not only was it socially debilitating, it disqualified one from entering the temple environs. The honor Uzziah had sought for himself was stripped away by the hand of God—and replaced with ritual uncleanness and isolation for the rest of his life.
I might also note Yahshua’s role in dealing with both Nadab’s type of sin and Uzziah’s. The key is their respective punishments. As John the Baptist noted, Yahshua baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Fire symbolizes purification through separation—the dross from the metal, or the chaff from the wheat. Nadab’s fate defined him as “dross,” the worthless slag doomed to be despised and discarded by God. But Yahshua also cured the lepers—the only one who did so, as it turns out. Though Uzziah’s earthly effectiveness and testimony were sidelined because of his sin, his eternal destiny, I’m convinced, is to be cured, cleansed, and readmitted to fellowship with Yahweh. God’s mercy endures forever.
Our instructions concerning prayer weren’t always couched in symbolic terms, of course. Incense needn’t be part of the picture for us to get the message. “In the hearing of all the people He [Yahshua] said to His disciples, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” (Luke 20:45-47) Yahshua had nothing against literacy. The scribes had served an important function in Israel going back to the days of Moses, when Yahweh Himself had instituted the Sanhedrin, to be populated with “seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be elders of the people and officers over them.” (Numbers 11:16) The “officers” here were shoter, scribes or overseers—officials or clerks who were charged with writing, recording, and interpreting the decisions of the elders. Later, they were the lawyer class who advised the Sanhedrin on the fine points of Torah law—as they viewed it. Today, we’d call them civil servants (a misnomer if ever there was one), those who write the regulations that turn a simple twenty-page statute into a thousand pages of incomprehensible legal gobbledygook. They’re the power behind the throne, the unseen bureaucracy, the ever-growing cancer that can suck the life out of an otherwise vibrant society.
In first-century Israel, these lawyers dealt in religious law, the endless (and totally unnecessary) “clarifications” to the Torah that comprise the foundation of Judaism to this day. The scribes had learned how to “game the system” (a system largely of their own invention), making themselves prosperous while leaving the legitimate poor with no power and no recourse—“devouring widows’ houses.” Not knowing God, they coveted the praise (or at least the recognition) of men, using their sartorial splendor and the prestige of power to obtain the best of everything for themselves. (Does any of this sound familiar?) The one word that describes them best is “pretense.” Their ponderous prayers were performed in public to impress the unwashed masses—not to commune with Yahweh.
Yahshua didn’t content Himself with merely warning His disciples (and us) about the dangers of this kind of behavior. He wasn’t a bit reluctant to directly confront and publically chastise the scribes, along with their allies the Pharisees (a small but incredibly influential sect or party, who made a show of keeping the law as the scribes interpreted it). “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation.” (Matthew 23:13-14) It took Paul half a dozen books to explain what Yahshua stated here in a few words: the door to the kingdom of heaven cannot be pried open by slavishly performing the rites of the Torah, and most certainly not by applying the minutiae of the scribes’ “oral law” on top of it. Reliance on your own “goodness,” on your own works, alms, penance, and righteousness, will actually prevent you from having a relationship with God.
By the Torah’s inflexible standard (as presented by the scribes and ostensibly practiced by the Pharisees), keeping the entire thing for a lifetime, but failing in one small point (like, for instance, failing to notice that the blue thread in your tsitzit had come undone one Tuesday afternoon) defines you as a “sinner.” That’s not fair! you may whine. God’s standards are impossible to keep perfectly. That, my friend, is precisely the point. If we ignore the symbolic significance of the Torah and instead attempt cold literal performance of every precept, we will find ourselves doomed to failure. For that matter, if we forget the Torah altogether and merely attempt to live our lives in total compliance with our own consciences, we will fail there, too. Paul, to my mind, did such a good job pointing all of this out, he is seen as being anti-Torah. But he was no such thing. Speaking as a twenty-first century American Christian, I could wish that the apostle had spent more time explaining what the Torah was designed to do, rather than pointing out what it couldn’t do—and was never intended to. But I’m aware that he was fighting different errors back then than I am now.
After repeating the charge against the scribes and Pharisees of “making long and pretentious prayers,” Yahshua (again) described the inevitable outcome of such pretense: “Therefore you will receive greater condemnation.” It’s easy enough to understand why “greater condemnation” would come to one who “devoured widows’ houses.” But for praying badly? Yes. This is precisely the same situation we saw with Nadab and Abihu, who, you’ll recall, offered unauthorized incense before Yahweh, and were promptly toasted for their trouble, God’s explanation being, “Among those who are near Me I will be honored, and before all the people I will be glorified.” God is not stupid, even though in our “religious fervor,” we sometimes act as if we think He is. When we pray in public just to hear our lips flap, it’s not honoring to Yahweh; if we pretend to glorify God in prayer while we’re really just demonstrating our eloquence among our peers, it’s time to repent. Reality check: we should talk to God in the same tone we’d use talking to our earthly fathers (provided, of course, we love and respect them). If we don’t use “King James” English when we order pizza, we shouldn’t employ it when we converse with God, either.
God has gone to ridiculous lengths to relate with mankind on a level we can comprehend and appreciate. The symbols in His Torah are there to help us bridge the gap between what we can see and what we need to know is the truth. Incense is one such symbol, designed to teach us that we can, through Christ, come into close, intimate fellowship with Yahweh Almighty. God reached out to us in love. The very least we can do is return the gesture: “Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:1-2) In the end, Yahshua is Himself the “fragrant offering” required in the Torah—the sweet incense of prayer offered up on our behalf, morning and evening, in the tabernacle of our lives.
The incense of prayer may seem like a poor substitute for the personal presence of Yahweh that we (or at least I) crave, though I realize that as long as we inhabit these mortal bodies, it’s as close as we can get to God. But during the kingdom age, during the Millennial reign of Yahshua, such prayer will be more universal, and more intimate, that it has ever been. “For from the rising of the sun to its setting My name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to My name, and a pure offering. For My name will be great among the nations, says Yahweh of hosts.” (Malachi 1:11) May Your kingdom come; may Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
(First published 2015)