“When Aaron trims the lamps at twilight, he shall burn incense. Perpetual incense before the LORD throughout your generations.”
Funny thing about the altar of incense is that it gets overlooked. I mean, it’s this comparatively small altar that sits quietly, unobtrusively in the midst of all the splendor that is the tabernacle and later the temple. God commands that it have “perpetual incense” burning on it and, in a very practical sense, this is a great idea. The tabernacle and temple were places where sacrifices were offered regularly. This meant the tabernacle and temple could easily have come to smell like a slaughterhouse. But the incense was the be kept burning at all times. Keep the air scented with pleasant smells. Practical.
But the tabernacle is a shadow of Heavenly things, as the writer of Hebrews says, so there’s more to this altar than merely acting as an air freshener.
Fast forward to Revelation and an angel is pouring out incense on an altar before the throne of God. Cool, so the altar in the tabernacle was a shadow of the altar in God’s throne room. Mystery solved. One more thing, though: the incense that the angel pours out is the prayers of the saints. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian church encourages them (and us) to pray without ceasing.
I did a quick check on the ingredients for the incense in the tabernacle (spices, stacte, onycha, galbanum, frankincense) to see if there was any insight into what or how I should be praying. My conclusion: those don’t really help. There is something interesting in God saying that they should be in equal proportions, but that could be a matter of how the recipe works rather than some mandate about how much of each part of prayer I should be including.
Almost more important—definitely more noteworthy for this passage—is the fact that I am told to pray without ceasing; to pray at all times and for any reason; and that the altar of incense was to be kept burning at all times. Aaron is to offer incense—to refresh the incense burning on the altar, one might say—twice daily: morning and evening. So it is that I should be continually in an attitude of prayer — ready at a moment’s notice to speak with my Heavenly Father about whatever is happening: good, bad, or just interesting. I should also be starting and ending my day in God’s presence. And that, right there, is the application of this. The altar of incense was to be kept going at all times. My prayer should be likewise kept up.