There is symbolism in the Bible that may not be obvious to all readers. For instance, if you look up all the places where the word “incense” is used, it becomes apparent that it is more about prayer than perfume. Two OT passages popped out when reading in Exodus. They are about the altar of incense was used in the tabernacle. Because the nation of Israel was mobile and on the move, it had to be portable: “And you shall make two golden rings for it. Under its molding on two opposite sides of it you shall make them, and they shall be holders for poles with which to carry it.” (Exodus 30:4)
Because this is about prayer, I started thinking about instructions for praying in the NT where God tells me to pray without ceasing and to pray about everything. That is, wherever I go, take my prayer life along with me. Make it mobile.
The next verses gave more instruction: “And the incense that you shall make according to its composition, you shall not make for yourselves. It shall be for you holy to the Lord. Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from his people.” (Exodus 30:37–38)
This suggests that prayer is not about me (although I am to pray for my own needs). Instead, this carries the idea of not using prayer to make myself more presentable (like perfume) or to make others think better of me. It reminds me of what Jesus said in His sermon on the mountain . . .
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:5–8)
Prayer is a conversation between God and His child, not one-sided, not posted in social media for the whole world to read, and not a performance for others to admire or applaud. When I pray, it is not to look good, or to appear more pious. Otherwise, I have missed the point. If I only pray for myself and what I want for me, then I am being selfish also. Prayer must include intercession for others.
And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.” But Moses implored the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ” And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people. (Exodus 32:9–14)
There is more to that story, but as I read about intercession, I thought of Jesus and how the Bible says that He is always interceding for His people. Surprisingly, the next reading is about the ‘groom’ (a symbol or type of Jesus Christ) who always in the place of incense, always interceding for His bride. It says, “Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, I will go away to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense.” (Song of Solomon 4:6) These two, myrrh and frankincense, are main ingredients in making incense!
There are more symbols that represent great truths. Moses represents the Law of God that no one has ever wholly kept, the Law that accuses us of our guilt. Jesus used this reality in speaking to the religious leaders. He said to them, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me . . . Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:39, 45–47)
The OT Scripture bears witness of Jesus. Moses wrote about Jesus. When I read the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, I am to search for Jesus. He said He is in both, and I need to believe both. As Jesus said, if I cannot believe what Moses wrote and consider that the Law is not important, then how can I believe what Jesus says about the Law or about anything else?
For me, my prayers are too often me-oriented, about what I want, about how I feel. I need to focus on Jesus more, and the glory of God more, intercede for others more, and even in the pages of the Law, always be on the lookout for Jesus.