There is a reason you suddenly adore your neighbor when you take in the aroma of what he’s cooking on the grill. You are wired to respond to smells. The portion of your brain that receives and identifies smells is strategically placed. That area rests between the realm of long-term memory and the realm of spontaneous response. Therefore the smell can unlock either or both. It is anything but neutral.
Think about it. What happens when you take in certain smells? Are you not carried back to that place where you first took it in and the feeling that went with it? I unfold an old tablecloth that belonged to grandma. The smell of the cloth enters me, and at once I am at her home in Ohio while ham bakes in the oven slathered in a broth of beer and brown sugar. I walk through an airport and pass the duty free shop. A cloud of retro perfume from the 80s hits me and brings back the girlfriend of that time. I feel like I have to repent all over again for the way I treated her.
Whether it is grandmas or girlfriends, good times or bad, aromas awaken memory and desire. It is the way things are.
What does this have to do with prayer? Everything.
The Scriptures liken our prayers to the persuasive aroma of incense. What is the message of the metaphor?
- Your prayers are deeply relevant
- Your life is highly valued
And as with the natural, so with the supernatural. In the same way a pleasing aroma awakens human memory and desire, the aroma of prayer awakens holy memory and desire in the heart of our heavenly Father.
King David prays for his prayer. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Here is what he asks the Lord.
Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!Psalm 141:2 (ESV)
David has in mind a specific blend of incense, the one the Law of Moses reserved exclusively for worship of the Most High God. “May the breath of my praying mouth be just like the aroma of that exclusive blend!” he cries.
Apostle John sees David’s prayer answered. Transported to the throne room of the Lord, this is what John sees.
And when the Lamb 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 (ESV)
We will not now discuss the crowd of creatures and virtuoso elders synergizing the scene, as fascinating as that topic may be. Let us keep the on ramp to praying at a gentler slope. “Lamb” is code for Christ, the Messianic Passover Lamb. The scroll is the sovereign plan of God handed to Him. The saints are you and the whole community of those who have ever belonged to Him.
(Do not say, “I ain’t no saint.” If you belong to Jesus, the Scriptures call you a saint even if you have not attained Mother Theresa status. “Saint” means “set apart.” If you belong to Him, you are set apart as His. Mother Theresa herself would tell you so.)
The incense is prayers, yours included.
Consider the implication. Before heaven rolls out what must happen, a mystery takes place. Your prayers are incorporated into the plan. Your prayers mingle with all matters the Lord has made up His mind about. Sovereignty makes space for you. You have influenced the outcome.
The metrics of exactly how you have influenced things is as difficult to trace as following a single wisp of incense from the censer. You can track it for a while, but sooner or later it dissolves into a bigger picture. Nevertheless, you know the incense is there. You can smell it even after you can see it.
What is incense? It is a blend of oils from living things. It is the essence of those things. It is the heart of those things, their unique molecular signature. Rather than preserving this valuable essence on earth, where it merely gums up and hardens into homely resin, it is released through fire to rise heavenward. It is precisely the same with the time, energy, and breath we expend in prayer.
For you yourself are a kind of incense. You have a unique signature. Your person, your story, your very fingerprint and DNA, are a rare — indeed, one-of-a-kind — essence; and therefore a rare and one-of-a-kind aroma when released heavenward. This is why when you pray it is quite a different thing than when I pray. This is why it matters that you pray at all. No one else can release the aroma that is you.
Let us go back to the neurological analog of smell and response. Natural aromas tripwire memory and desire. Likewise, spiritual aromas tripwire what God has planned to do for aeons and what He desires to do now; yet He will not do them until He has listened to you first, for His preference — which is our glory — is collaboration. Incense precedes action.
Look at how this works in the court of heaven, where divine decisions are made:
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 censerRevelation 8:1-3a
Did you hear that? Silence. Stay with me…
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.Revelation 8:3b-4
Did you see that? There’s your prayer. Right there.
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 [sounds, voices], flashes of lightning, and an earthquake. Now the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to blow them.Revelation 8:5-6
Did you feel that? Impact on earth.
Heaven goes silent because your prayer is taken seriously. It is as if God says, “Let all that I have purposed pause. The one I love is speaking to me. I will not move forward without listening to her. I will not act without making space for what he says. Only after I have taken in their prayers will I let the trumpets of my timetable sound.”
The results, as we can see here and in the Scriptures that follow, are earth-shattering. This is no saccharine “thoughts-and-prayers” sentimentality. This is the breaking to pieces of all that blocks heaven’s kingdom from coming to earth.
Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula understand incense in a way most Westerners do not. Where I live in a Houston suburb, incense (if it is discussed at all) is of the variety one finds at a gas station and of a quality no better than that of the coffee stagnating in the hotplate carafe one aisle over from the energy drinks. But it was not that way in Kuwait, where I taught at a university. Kuwaitis were incense connoisseurs in the same way some know fine wine. They understood origins; how soil, air, and moisture informed the aroma. Somalian frankincense produced a different fragrance than that of Yemen, for example. Kuwaitis knew the top note, heart note, and base note of each blend of the resins that comprise good incense. They wrinkled their noses at cheap imitations in the same way a cheese connoisseur would gag at Velveeta. The promenades of shopping malls were punctuated with incense stands pouring out billows of the varieties of incense Kuwaitis used for perfuming themselves. They would pause and place the folds of their garments in the smoke until cloth and skin were saturated with the smell. All practiced this joy.
Along with the kind of incense which was of the everyday variety for refreshing the home, there was the kind that was intended for the healing of the home. It was thought, for instance, that incense of myrrh could help cleanse a home of sickness. But there were other varieties reserved for special occasions. Rare varieties. Costly varieties. Incense so unique that it had prophetic significance. It gave a living parable to the Scriptures quoted above.
Take the wedding of one of my Kuwaiti students, for example. She lived under a double blessing. Not only did her fiance love her, arranged marriage though it was; her father loved her too. And in a Middle Eastern world where sons are prized and daughters at times despised, it was no small thing to have a dad who cared.
He cared to the point of going on a quest in search of the perfect incense for his daughter’s wedding. A merchant of means and skilled in the ways of trade, the father made a discrete trip to rural Cambodia, where the evergreen aquilaria tree grew. Also known as the lign-aloes, this tree possessed the coveted agarwood, dense and resin rich. Not content with commercially available agarwood, the father entered the forbidden realm of a botanical forest where the felling of the aquilaria was banned.
He chose a tree. He had it felled. He had it sawed into one-kilogram blocks — each worth $15,000. He paid off-camera compensations to the Southeast Asian officials of two countries and smuggled the tree to Kuwait, where he stored it in a bank vault. He used a lavish portion of the agarwood as a key ingredient in the incense for his daughter’s wedding. Perfumers blended it with substances that would slow its oxidation and round out its aroma, a form of incense called oud [عود]. Some of the rest of the agarwood he sold, gaining a handsome return on his investment. Business is business for a brilliant merchant, after all.
When the wedding guests arrived, the first thing they encountered was the agarwood incense, the “oud.” Its billows filled the entry hall as servants attended to each new arrival. And while they did, the smoke spoke. The aroma announced. The sweet smell said it all. The conversation in the entry hall went something like this:
“The status of the father of the bride is high!” said one guest. “What a man of means! What resources he has at his disposal!”
“Yes,” said another, “and to think that he would lavish such wealth on us, his guests! Behold how he has honored us. He has offered us his very best.”
“Indeed he has,” said another with a smile that filled his face, “but take to heart what this means! If this is how we are treated at the entry hall to the wedding, what will the wedding feast itself be like? Ah, the food, the music, the dancing — the joy! This will be a night to remember! We will sing the songs sung here for years to come!”
“Yes, you speak truly,” said a fourth, the oldest of them all, “but this rare incense speaks of a treasure even more delightful than that.”
The three looked at him with wild surmise. “What is it, uncle? What is that treasure?”
The old man’s face filled with laughter.
“See how the father loves his daughter!”
This is precisely what our prayers communicate. We pray from the limitless resource of the fire of the Holy Spirit, who converts our cares to prayers. We pray because we have been given the high honor of participating with Him in the outworking of His plan. We pray as preparation for the party we are invited to: “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev 19:9). But most of all, we pray — and pray more ardently— as we discover how deeply loved we are. He has purchased us. He has smuggled us out of forbidden territory, the domain of darkness. He has secured us as His own. We are His, and He is ours.
Let us, therefore, burn the incense of our prayers with joy, the fuel of faith-filled hearts, each of us giving off the signature aroma of our unique souls with great anticipation that we will not have to wait much longer in the entry hall. He will rush out to meet us. He will hasten to greet us. He will tear down the wall between Himself and the hall. For what He has longed to do, and what He has always had in mind to do, He will indeed do. For He cannot stay away from the compelling aroma of who you are.
© Kurt Mahler
For more, listen to Kurt’s informal audio commentary: “Prayer as Incense.” 18 April 2016. 37 minutes.
Illustration of how the brain processes smells is from an article in Discover Magazine by Marta Zarasca, 11 Oct 2017.
Tree pictured is one of the genus aquilaria growing in Phuket, Thailand. It is the heartwood of the aquilaria trees that becomes agarwood. It is also called, among other things, eaglewood.Tagged as: aroma, incense, intercession, prayer, revelation