The Incense: Seeking

(An Excerpt from The Carpenter and the Cradle, a Bible Study by Connie Cook)

(From Exodus 30:1-10, 34-38: The Altar of Incense; and Matthew 6:9-10: The Lord’s Prayer)

“This is how you should pray: Our Father in heaven…Let your kingdom come” (Matthew 6:9a.-10a).  “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness… (Matt. 6:33a., KJV).

What can be done about what’s wrong with the world has been done!

I’ll skip ahead in the story (it may be no surprise to you, anyway) and say that the first altar shows us this: The substitute sacrifice has been offered.

But there is still a part I play in the question, “What can be done about what’s wrong with me?”  There’s still the question, “What can I do?”  God’s done His part, but He (in His relational way) leaves me free to respond.  Or not.  And the first (really, the only) step in what I need to do comes back to that first and most basic of life’s decisions:  Who’s in control?  I must reverse my original decision and decide after all that God must be in control.  Of me.

Today’s focus verses focus on God’s kingdom.  It took far too long for me to have an understanding of what “God’s kingdom” means.  I now see its meaning in this very simple definition: “All that over which God is King.”

But isn’t God’s kingdom everywhere and everything?  Isn’t He the Supreme Ruler of the universe?  Yes.  And no.  As we’ve discussed, the one territory over which His flag does not fly (until we fly it) is our own lives.

I’ve told you that it’s the decision, “Who’s in control?” that determines which house we live in.  God is on the throne in His house.  And when I decide that that state of affairs is the only way to live, I enter into His household and His kingdom.  There’s a little more knowledge involved in that decision (we must know who is really God: the One in control.  But we must also know who God really is–at least, a few of the important basics), but for now, we’ll leave it in those simple terms and the “more” that’s involved will become clearer as the rest of the story unfolds.

But what does all this have to do with the altar of incense in God’s tent that we read about in Exodus 30?

In this series, I’ve skipped over the portions of Exodus 27-30 that don’t deal directly with the furnishings of the tabernacle.  There were instructions on the courtyard, the priestly clothes, and their consecration service that we’ll pass over.  Seeing the bigger meaning behind all these pieces of the Law is a fascinating process.  But another study entirely.

The next piece of God’s tent that we need to look at for this series is the incense altar.  And I’ll cut to the chase today and tell you a little fact revealed through other passages in the Bible that we wouldn’t likely have figured out on our own.  From Psalm 141:2 and Revelation 5:8, 8:3, 8:4, incense represents prayer.  Whenever it shows up throughout the Bible, it is being used as an offering of worship or entreaty to a higher power.  (The Israelites weren’t alone in their use of incense as a religious sacrament.)

You may still not see the link between prayer and today’s opening discussion on God’s kingdom, so I’ll tell you how they connect up for me.

Some time ago, I began praying the same request one of Jesus’ disciples made to Him in Luke 11:1, “Lord, teach us to pray…”  “Teach me to pray.”

It occurred to me, seeing Jesus responded with the Model Prayer also found in Matthew 6, that maybe I should finally start digging into that prayer and discovering what it means.  Up to that point for me, it had been a group recital that I knew by heart from repeating it from time to time.  (In fact, we tend to use His Model Prayer in the very way that Jesus instructed His disciples not to pray in Matthew 6:7: as meaningless repetition.  Ironic, that!)

I began praying the Model Prayer every day, starting with the statements of the prayer, then examining them to see how they fit me and my situations, really thinking about them so they didn’t become meaningless repetition.

It dawned on me gradually that, through the words of the Model Prayer that I was repeating, I was really asking for the same thing over and over—just in different ways and applied to different areas of life: God’s kingdom.

“Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  I’m asking for Your will.  “Give us this day our daily bread.”  You know what I need today.  Please give me what You know I need.  Again, I’m asking for Your will.  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  This is Your will for my life.  I’m asking for Your will.  “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  In other words, help me to do Your will.  That’s the deliverance I need.  I’m asking for  Your will.  “For Yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever, Amen.”  I’m asking for Your will forever.  So be it.

Now, all this may seem a rather pointless exercise.  We’re told God already knows what we need.  So why bother asking at all?  Especially, when all we’re really asking, anyway, is that God do what He already wants to do?

For me, it’s all about the word “seeking.”  Seeking relationship.  Like a Father who already knows what His kids will ask and is ready to answer, He still wants to be asked.  Exodus 30 shows us that our rightly-directed prayers delight God.  To Him, our time together when we come seeking Him is a sweet-smelling fragrance.  True, the prohibition of Exodus 30:38 against using the sacred incense for any purpose other than seeking God is really a prohibition against praying to or worshipping any other.  But it also reveals to us that we pray not only for our own sake.  But for God’s.

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