Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it; he shall burn it every morning when he trims the lamps. When Aaron trims the lamps at twilight, he shall burn incense. [There shall be] perpetual incense before the LORD throughout your generations.
The physical altar of incense was rather small, coming in at about 1.5 feet wide × 1.5 feet deep × 3 feet tall. I think this makes it about the same size as an end table that one might put next to their sofa. But this altar and how often it is to be used teaches something very important about my walk with God.
The altar is prescribed to be used in the morning and the evening. Twice a day. But incense, as anyone who has ever used the stuff knows, can be lit in the morning and burn straight through the day if it is designed to do so. The incense is to be perpetual, always present.
And, since the tabernacle is a parallel to the throne room of God, I skip ahead to Revelation 5:8 and read When He had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints (emphasis added). Incense is a symbol for prayer.
This symbol teaches me a few things about prayer.
First, prayer should be a continual thing. Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). God mandates that the priests burn incense morning and evening and that the incense be perpetual. Prayer is not a one-and-done thing.
Second, prayer is sacred. Among all the altars and implements in the temple, very few have the distinction of God specifically instructing that they not be used for anything else. The altar of incense is one such. God says explicitly that You shall not offer any strange incense on it, or burnt offering or meal offering; and you shall not pour out a drink offering on it (v 9). The altar of incense, and therefore prayer, is something special and serves a unique purpose. Multiple offerings could be made on the bronze altar, but only incense was ever to be put on this altar.
Let me put a sort of 2(b) in here based on verse 9: God is not interested in me trying to pray the way other religions pray. He does not want me to taint my prayer with ritual — Jesus specifically warns against ritualistic prayer when He tells His disciples not to use meaningless repetition (Matthew 6:7). He does not want me to treat prayer like the sacrifices that I may be called on to make. Prayer is something else entirely and should be treated as such.
Third, prayer touches every aspect of my life. The symbol of incense is a powerful one. When incense is burned, it scents the room and any piece of cloth in its vicinity as well as the person who is in its presence. Prayer is meant to leave its mark on me. If I have prayed, it should be apparent just by being around me, because my life should smell of prayer. My home should carry the scent of time spent in God’s presence, pouring out my heart to Him and hearing from Him in return.
The challenge here is to pray. Morning and evening. Without ceasing. Prayer should mark my life. And my life should be pleasanter for it.
Father, thank You for this imagery; for this reminder that prayer is something special and should be treated as such. Please stir up my heart to desire to pray more and still more when that has been accomplished.