58. The Incense of Prayer

Howard Morgan

This article is based on the transcript of a talk given to a congregation in the USA. Just as individuals were addressed in the context of their church fellowship on the occasion of the talk, so other individuals and fellowships can receive the message as if delivered to them. The message invites a renewed commitment to intercession according to the principles of God This is a very real call in the present day. We see that not only is incense likened to prayer; but we ourselves become that The incense. This is a deeper revelation of the typology of the Tabernacle in the wilderness.

When Moses went up onto the mountain after the Israelites had come out of Egypt, God began to reveal things to him about Heaven and about earth. He showed Moses things about life in God upon the earth, about who He really is and who men really are. He told Moses that when he went down from the mountain, he was to build according to the pattern shown him on the mountain (Exodus 25:40). This is very important. We too must learn to build our lives according to that pattern.

It is very easy to adopt patterns for our lives that God did not give. In fact we can have delusions about God Himself. We can have certain ideas about God that we invented, and build theologies around our ideas. We can then worship a God of our own invention and become disappointed when our prayers aren’t answered. We may then get frustrated, hardened of heart and give up. If this is the case we may be guilty of idol worship, in which we fail to worship the one true God, worshipping the one we made up, instead. Such a God may not exist and so can t answer our prayers. This can happen if we are not building our lives according to the Word of God. There is a concept about prayer, which could revolutionise lives not presently built according to God’s pattern.

If our lives are not based on the right pattern, we will wander; wander spiritually; wander into church each Sunday morning; wander through the worship service; wander into our giving; and wander out again. God surely did not intend for this to be the sum total of our Christian experience. This is certainly not the inheritance our Messiah died to secure for us. The present day ministry of the Holy Spirit is filled with purpose and power, not aimless wandering. Having been offered the abundant life, however, we are free to wander through our Christian experience if we choose.

There is a pattern in the Tabernacle that Moses was shown on the mountain that is a revelation of how we should live, how we should organise our lives and how we should fellowship with God. God commanded Moses to tell the people that they could only approach Him in one specific way. In fact, the Priests were required to dress and minister in a particular way – even down to special underwear! These things have spiritual lessons for us. God made things very specific and we must understand this or we will become upset, discouraged and frustrated, because we will be walking after our own imaginations rather than approaching God the way He commanded.

The Lord made it clear how the sacrifice, His means of atonement, must be made, in order that we might approach Him. This was on the Brazen Altar at the entrance to the Tabernacle (the Tent of Meeting). Then, in the Holy Place there was a special altar called the Altar of Incense. This was made out of wood covered with gold. The wood speaks of our humanity and the gold speaks of Messiah’s divinity. Wood overlaid with gold speaks of the fact that we have received Divine life; Christ’s life has been imputed to us. We received the Lord Jesus when we were born again. He is the Righteous One who comes to live inside us and so we are made righteous by faith. We are not righteous through obedience, but through faith. Obedience itself is a fruit of righteousness, which is given as a gift. This is why our works don’t save us or impress God. It is through faith that we please God (Hebrews 11:6). Then the fruit of faith is good works (James 2:17-18).

If we are in God, fruit will be born out of the life of Christ within us, for there is a passion from the Spirit of God within to do the will of God. We can resist this passion and even backslide, or we can respond to the passion and go on, step by step. We, of ourselves, cannot obey God or do what is right. We will fall short if we try to obey God out of the strength of our own will, for our resolutions will not last. We must simply say, “Yes!” to Jesus, and it is then His life that enables us to obey.

Incense was placed on the altar in the Holy Place. Incense speaks of prayer (Revelation 8:3-4) and so the pattern of the altar with its incense, in the Tabernacle, can provide tremendous insight into what true prayer is. If we come to prayer without the proper understanding, our prayers will be to no avail and we may even fall prey to one or more of the devil’s accusations (“you have no faith, you’re filled with doubt, you’re so carnal and sinful God will never answer your prayers”). Therefore, we need to consider this model and it will help us to learn to pray effectively.

If the God to whom we pray is created after our image, rather than we after His, we will not be praying according to the Scriptural pattern. For example, the liturgical prayers in our prayer books, though they may have been effective prayers once, may not be so any more. They may have lost their anointing long ago. We must go back to the pattern revealed in the Scriptures. A simple example may help us to understand this.

When the roof of a house is constructed, each rafter must be cut to exact size and put in place. There is a template, which provides the pattern for the rafters. Some builders, to save time, will use the template to cut the first rafter, and use the first rafter as a model for the second, and so on, so that each rafter becomes a model for the next one along, rather than modelling each one separately on the original template. Unfortunately, only the rafters cut according to the template will be the exact size. If you cut each succeeding rafter based on the one cut previous to it, rather than the template, any and all slight variations will be exacerbated and passed on down the line. The result is that the final rafters cut can be quite a lot different from the template and may not even fit in the roof. In the Church many of us have built on the experiences of previous generations, rather than going back to the original “template” from which to build our lives. Because of this, many of us are unhappy and feel that our lives are not working, not “fitting together”. We must go back to the original revelation of Scripture, it we want to experience what God has promised to us in His Word. Our prayer life must be built according to the pattern.

God told Moses to harvest four kinds of spice for the incense. It is significant that the number four often represents the universality of God’s call in Scripture. Other examples are the four horns on the altar of sacrifice, four winds from Heaven and four corners of the earth (Jeremiah 49:36, Isaiah 1:12, Revelation 7:1). This indicates the opportunity that God gives for everyone to be saved, no matter what their background. The Gospel is to be preached to the ends of the earth and whosoever will, may come into fellowship with God. Thus with the ingredients of the incense there is a symbol of inclusion of people from all over the world.

The process of preparation of the incense is an example of God’s ways, and a lesson so that we will pray according to His pattern. This is the kind of prayer that God will receive. Note that fervency of prayer is a criterion (“The fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much”. (James 5:16). This revelation of the incense in the Tabernacle, the “Template” for our prayers, shows a pile of incense on the golden surface of the altar, and this is a picture of us individually and corporately. This is the picture of true prayer which God will answer. We note that God is waiting to answer prayer. In 2 Chronicles 16:9 we are assured that the eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His. Our hearts may not be sinless, but God is looking for hearts that say “Yes” to Him. Repentance is not change (transformation), so much as change of direction towards Him, who can give the strength to accomplish what needs to be, done. Turning and saying “Yes” is repentance, and God’s grace can be given.

The four plants used for the incense (Exodus 30:34-38), were found by the people in the wilderness and they were cut down. This is what God did to us. We were without God and without hope – pagans. Jesus came. We were harvested out of our natural life, cut down, as it were, and He brought us to Himself.

Next we were sanctified by the Lord; set apart for God. He called us and we made a choice. Exodus 30 speaks of this: “Now you are mine”, says the Lord. “Yes Lord, we are yours”, we reply. Then we can be made into incense; broken, ground into powder, made like Jesus.

Our natural inclination is to cry, “No! I came to Jesus to be healthy and wealthy and to have an easy life!”, but it is to a God of our own imagination that we cry. We cannot manipulate Him into what we want. He alone is Lord and we must do what He says. God is not impressed by our temper tantrums. We must go through the process whereby He creates pray-ers. We might try to invent our own ideas of prayer and even meet with groups which try to co-operate with one another to produce “agreed prayer”. We might try to “twist God’s arm” by quoting Bible verses to Him, but we will simply end up frustrated with no answers to our prayers if we are not being formed according to His pattern. People who become incense are true pray-ers. Yes, we can become meeting attendees, givers of time and money, but these activities will not create spiritual maturity. Our salvation and the forgiveness of sins is not lost if we resist the call to maturity. Our maturity, our bearing fruit for the King, fulfilling our destiny, our very reason for life; these are the issues at stake here.

So, it is God’s plan that we come to Him, are cut out of our old life (harvested), and sanctified (set apart). Then, if we are willing, He begins to deal with our life. We, as it were, go to the apothecary shop where incense is made. There we are put into a bowl and “ground down into powder”. This is done through the daily experiences of life, and fellowship in Church, in counselling, prayer, deliverance, teaching, discipleship, home groups, our ministries and the ministries of others, and so on. All these can be “pestles” for “grinding down”. This is where sin and self is revealed and dealt with. We are put into places of pressure, and preparation. We are prepared for the next place, that of mixing together.

Recall that four kinds of plants are harvested for incense, all going through the process of grinding so that they can be mixed together. The many are put into a unity. Unless this grinding into powder takes place, we are like unground sticks without unity, standing alone. There can be no true unity with those who have not been ground into fine powder. This is readily discovered in everyday circumstances of meeting with believers. It is clear when there is unity and mixing and when there is stiffness and separation. We know when we meet someone who is “powdery” If we ourselves are in the place of stiffness, like a dry unground stick, we must not make the mistake of blaming others for our condition, (pastors, churches, family, friends, circumstances, etc.). If we have refused to let Jesus grind us to His likeness, then it is between us and Him that it must be resolved. Each of us must take personal responsibility for our relationship with the King. Excuses or blame shifting are simply lies. We might take the easy way out, but this is not His way. The Scriptures guarantee, however, that the Lord will be ready to respond individually to each one of us anytime we are willing (Psalm 34:18, 145:18, James 4:8, Hebrews 4:16).

Jesus did not take the easy way out. He went right to the cross, inviting us to, “Come follow me.” He was made perfect through His suffering, so this is where we must go, but we will not be alone. We must not run from difficulty. Here in the “mortar” of life, Jesus uses the “pestle” of circumstances to transform us into His image (Romans 8:29, 2 Corinthians 3:18).

There are people who say they have known the Lord for many years, but there is no evident change in them. Why? They never “went to the apothecary shop” so that the Lord could deal with them and prepare them as incense. They said “No! I don’t want to change. It’s too difficult, too painful. I’ll just go to church.” They may go through the motions of praying and praising and giving, but their lives and their relationship with God lacks deeper meaning and purpose. Their Christian life is only superficial at best. While the trials and tribulations of the breaking process may be painful for a season, the fruit that is born is eternal and deeply pleasing to the Lord:

Returning to the analogy of the unground sticks, we must understand that these sticks can be bent, even bent right round into a circle, but this leaves the sticks under an extreme pressure until they are broken. When the stick finally breaks, there is a distinct “snap”. This is the same “snap” Christians hear within themselves when they finally yield to the Lord. After the breaking, your testimony will be like that of the Apostle Paul who said of himself, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). No-one can truly begin to walk with God until they have heard the “snap”, and as we go on with God, we will hear that “snap” again and again. Only after the “snap” can we be ground into fine powder and become different people, rejoicing that our old life no longer dominates us.

Bad attitudes, judgementalism, criticism, fear, lust, greed and all the sins of the flesh will be ground out. As the powdery incense, we can be mixed with other kinds of “plants/sticks” which have gone through the same process.

There is a difference between praying with people who are like sticks standing together and praying with people who are like powder mixed together. A quality that powder has, when compared with a bunch of sticks, is that it ignites very quickly. The picture of incense rising like prayer can be developed to another stage. We ourselves are prepared like the incense. Our personal wills are submitted to the Lord’s will and we want nothing more than for the King to be glorified as our destiny in Him is fulfilled. Surely we will see a new dynamic release regarding the Kingdom of Heaven when we are like powder mixed together, rather than from superficial prayer with artificial agreement, (ie. A bundle of sticks). Being in agreement comes from a particular mixing of lives and listening to the same voice, rather than just being physically together in one place. We must listen to God for what we should do rather than telling God what He should do. This place of mixing and fellowship, is like the High Priest taking the mixture from the apothecary shop to the Holy Place where it is put on the altar. He will only carry the powder that has been prepared and mixed properly, which is symbolic of a special group of people for a special ministry; a people no longer living for themselves, but harvested for the Kingdom, sanctified, ground into powdered incense, offering the Lord prayers that have been ignited by the fire of the Holy Spirit.

It is a fact that those who are “powdery” can easily recognise each other and quickly enter into fellowship even if they are from opposite sides of the planet. Prayer is an automatic consequence of the mixing of such people. They are set into their ministry and have a passion for that ministry: they can do no other thing. Come what may, nothing can dissuade them. If they truly have a passion for it, then nothing will deter, obstruct or thwart them. It is an unquenchable passion. In fact, it is the passion of Jesus that is within them. When we truly give our life to Christ, it is He who puts the passion there, even though it may, at first, be a passion for something that is impossible to do. This is because He does not intend that you fulfil your destiny alone. Rather, He must do it in you and through you. Because it is His call by its very nature, it is impossible for you to succeed alone and, therefore, He ensures that you join your life to His so that, together, you can do “all things” (Philemon 4:13).

Now the fire on the Altar of Incense is taken from the Brazen Altar of sacrifice. The High Priest takes coals in the Golden Censer from the altar and lights the Menorah and the incense. No other fire is allowed. False fire led to men being struck dead, as in the Biblical account of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, who did not obey the Lord, and offered false fire (Leviticus 10:1). Only that which comes from God is allowed. Indeed, the fire came from God to ignite the first burnt offering (Leviticus 9:24) and this same fire ignited the incense from that time on, because the priests kept the altar fire going day after day. The fire that is put into each mixture of incense to burn it before the Lord, came from the original fire from Heaven, and it is all part of the original pattern set forth by God.

As the incense is lit, the whole temple is filled with smoke and sweet smelling aroma. God is looking for this – the incense of our lives to be ignited by the Holy Spirit. Human desire and sympathy, good intentions, intellectual concepts and ideas will serve as false fires, resulting in unanswered prayers. Only the Holy Spirit, revealing God’s will and purposes, must be allowed to ignite this incense! Then the Lord will answer prayers in astounding and miraculous ways.

On the Day of Pentecost, the Brazen Altar had already been set up on Calvary’s hill. Jesus the Messiah had died for our sins, His blood was shed, He had risen from the dead, and the Gospel was ready to go forth. There was a pile of incense gathered together in one place, harvested, sanctified, ground into powder and in one accord. The disciples had been prepared and were waiting in obedience. The fire from Heaven fell, as is recorded at the beginning of the Book of Acts. The original fire that ignited this first incense is still burning. It has been kept burning since the Day of Pentecost and will fall on us. God won’t accept any other fire, any other religion, any other services or ministries – only that which comes from Heaven. There are many who are in ministry and others who go to church but are not following God’s pattern. They are building according to some ideas that may have been passed on through many generations but have changed from the true pattern. They may be creating their own religion in their own sanctuary, with their own programmes. This is not pleasing to God and will not bring His Glory.

We must go back to God’s original pattern revealed in the Tabernacle. We must allow ourselves to be harvested, sanctified, ground into powder and wait for the Holy Spirit to ignite the fire. Then we will see the difference between simply praying because we see a need and praying because we are on fire and cannot do anything else. God is looking for a people who will be an incense on the altar.

to some ideas that may have been passed on through many generations but have changed from the true pattern. They may be creating their own religion in their own sanctuary, with their own programmes. This is not pleasing to God and will not bring His Glory.

We must go back to God’s original pattern revealed in the Tabernacle. We must allow ourselves to be harvested, sanctified, ground into powder and wait for the Holy Spirit to ignite the fire. Then we will see the difference between simply praying because we see a need and praying because we are on fire and cannot do anything else. God is looking for a people who will be an incense on the altar.

(Reprinted from Tishrei Vol 3 No 3, Prayer, Autumn 1995)