“You shall make an altar to burn incense on; you shall make it of acacia wood. 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. 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. 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 two poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. 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.
“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 the LORD throughout your generations. You shall not offer strange incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering; nor shall you pour a drink offering on it. And Aaron shall make atonement upon its horns once a year with the blood of the sin offering of atonement; once year he shall make atonement upon it throughout your generations. It is most holy to the LORD….”
And the LORD said to Moses: “Take sweet spices, stacte and onycha and galbanum, and pure frankincense with these sweet spices; there shall be equal amounts of each. You shall make of these an incense, a compound according to the art of the perfumer, salted, pure, and holy. And you shall beat some of it very fine, and put some of it before the Testimony in the tabernacle of meeting where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you. But as for the incense which you shall make, you shall not make any for yourselves, according to its composition. It shall be to you holy for the LORD. Whoever makes any like it, to smell it, he shall be cut off from his people,” Exodus 30:1-10, 34-38 NKJV.
He made also the holy anointing oil and the pure incense of sweet spices, according to the work of the perfumer, Exodus 37:29 NKJV.
Then he shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, with his hand full of sweet incense beaten fine, and bring it inside the veil. And he shall put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the Testimony, lest he die, Leviticus 16:12, 13 NKJV.
This is the last article of furniture before one reaches the veil, which is the separation from the holy place, where we are, and the most holy place, where God told His OT people that He would meet them.
There are 139 occurrences of the word, “incense,” in Scripture. All but 7 of them are in the OT. Of those 7 times, 3 are in Luke 1, where Zechariah the priest was burning incense, and the other 4 are in Revelation. The ones in Luke are at the announcement to Zechariah that he and his wife Elizabeth, though both old and well beyond such things, were to be parents, parents of the forerunner and herald of the Messiah.
The first three occurrences in Revelation describe incense as the prayers of the saints, 5:8; 8:4, or as being offered with the prayers of the saints where it is described as much incense being offered with those prayers, emphasis added. The last reference, 18:13, is in regard to the false church.
We don’t often think of our prayers as incense, or that God finds them well-pleasing and fragrant. Too often, I’m afraid, we don’t really think of them at all. We just “say” them. But, at least in theory, we’re coming into the presence of the God who created the universe and holds it together by His power. At the same time, though, He has numbered the hairs on our head. We are never to think that He’s too busy to be concerned about us. We’re never to think that there is any problem that is too great for Him to handle, or too minor to bring to His attention. He already knows all about them; in fact, He might have already set in motion their answer. In promising a time of future blessing for Israel, God said, “It shall come to pass, That before they call, I will answer, Isaiah 65:25, emphasis added. While this speaks of the future, I think it’s also a present reality and blessing for believers.
Nor do we think of the necessity of much incense being added to them as Revelation teaches.
Some religious circles talk of the merits of the saints. The difficulty with that is that “the saints,” whether man-made or Scriptural, have no merit in and of themselves, let alone having any “left-over” for others to borrow. We have only demerits. There’s only ever been One with merit, and that is why we are taught to pray in the name of the Lord Jesus, Ephesians 5:20; Colossians 3:17.
“The name of the Lord Jesus,” “in Jesus’ name” – these are not some sort of magic talisman, some “abracadabra” or “open sesame,” that we can utter in order to get God to grant us three wishes. No, no. It’s the recognition that only through Him, through the Lord Jesus, have we any right – any permission – to come into the presence of God, and that in such fullness that we may come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need, Hebrews 4:16, emphasis added. Using His name is, in effect, pleading His merit, not some imaginary merit of sinful humans.
It is His merit, and His alone, which is the much incense added to the prayers of the saints and makes them effective.
Though we don’t think very much about it, if at all, I’m not sure that God is at all pleased with our negligence in this matter. In the Old Testament, it was forbidden either to make incense for personal use, Exodus 30:37, 38, or to offer any other incense in the worship of God. It is this latter which got Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, though priests themselves, into trouble, Leviticus 10:1, 2.
Just because it might not get us into trouble like it did them, it’s still a serious sin: to make light of or adding to or subtracting from who the Lord Jesus was or what He did for us in His life or on the Cross.