There is a small square altar of gold standing in Moses' tabernacle, just outside the screen that covers the ark of testimony. The high priest--Aaron at first, then his son after him in each generation until at Solomon's time the priestly duties are distributed among the various branches of the family tree--will visit that altar every morning and every evening to ensure that incense is burning continually in God's presence.
My life of prayer has for long been hidden, tucked away and seeing only minimal maintenance. When recently I learned that I could no longer travel and meet people as before, I turned intensely to the central activity of every Christian, personal fellowship with God.
At once the incense altar is shown by its position to be intimate and exclusive, tended by the high priest alone at the same time he trims the lamps in the otherwise dark and quiet sanctuary. But incense in the Bible is the prayers of the saints, not of priest. The paradox of the little altar is, how it may serve people throughout the world yet remain intimate and hidden away.
One difficulty in prayer is, the prayer is only as big as your heart. What I care about is what I pray for. The answer to this is the divine heart supplied by the Holy Spirit. The same could be said for strength, stamina. The altar of gold represents a person and the full reach of what they can accommodate in their thought.
At times I would find my whole being stuck in one thought, so that I could hardly remember anything else. Any kind of crisis could drive the ship of prayer. The squareness of the altar is incredible, because no one wants to be that square. I've learned just to be more flexible. Within a given week, I would hope to pray for many people and groups of people, even just to remember their situation. For personal matters I would try to let the Lord know my need right away, and be free to move on to other things.
"When you pray, go to the inner room and shut the door." The words of Jesus on this topic are quite succinct. Saints all over the world go to the inner room with experiments in prayer. What happens there varies from person to person. It's like a kid being grounded, we often feel suddenly small. The whole world seems to shrink after a few minutes in the inner room. I'm facing, "What do I really think, or who do I care for?" The flip side is that we are with the Father, who "sees in secret and will himself reward you openly."
Looking through the Old Testament, we find no significant events at the golden altar. After instructions for Aaron's daily visits and the annual Day of Atonement, the Bible is rather silent on the altar itself. Various people bring out censers of incense, and those stories tend to illustrate if anything the lack of communication between God and man. The incense is brought out for emergencies to stay God's judgement, or the wrong people burn it, or in the wrong way.
At the dawn of the New Testament Luke records the only story of what could be considered an Old Testament saint at he altar. Taking his turn at the daily ritual, Zechariah was surprised to see the angel Gabriel telling him, "Your petition has been heard." Zechariah was burning incense in representation of the whole nation. What was the answer to his prayer? "Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son."
The distinction of saints of the Old Testament is relevant in that they dealt with a "shadow and copy of heavenly things," in reference to the tabernacle or temple in its various forms. Most visible there were the dramatic animal sacrifices outside which mended both public and individual woes of conscience. The little golden altar hidden away from view may be to many people an obscure detail in a labyrinth of ritual. Only those who studied the "shadow and copy" in faith were able to get beyond the ceremony and participate in a heavenly reality transcending time and space.
At least the temple gave those with faith something to hang their hat on. "Let my prayer rise as incense, the stretching out of my hands as the evening sacrifice." Instead of being frustrated by the many levels of barrier between man and God, David discerned the place for his prayer. Once uttered, his prayer was outside of him and was his no longer, as he waited for it to ascend in smoke to be taken up in the Spirit of God.
What about the New Testament? Cornelius, the gentile whose family was the first to enter the kingdom, or spiritually become a part of the church, was greeted by an angel to let him know that his prayers and alms had gone up to God. In response, God had sent him specifically to the apostle Peter for preaching the gospel and baptism. The prayers were verbal and alms non-verbal. In light of the angel's words, we know his prayer went up to God. The principle of New Testament prayer--in secret--was at work.
The most challenging aspect of prayer is endurance. Many Christians testify of "making it through" a season, or going for a long time without a clear sense of God's presence. It is normal to expect prayers answered today, thus we pray, "Give us this day." It would be hard to overemphasize the value of such daily prayers and their answers. These short-term experiences may sustain a person through inevitable long seasons of frustration.
A whole category of long-range prayers are seemingly set on the shelf. Years go by with no answer. Luke records again the story of a widow pleading with a hard-hearted judge, to portray the situation of faith on earth. The church has prayers that God seems unjust not to answer. The time is not yet, and that is a real test of faith.
David's career as a king was largely dominated with accumulating wealth and dreaming up plans for a temple he would never build. "Your son after you will build it." That his lifetime was spent in this way gives us an appreciation for his wish, "Let my prayer be set before You as incense, The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice." Following that evening would come a long, long night.
If David never saw his desire granted, though he poured his whole life strength into it, we have a clue as to how the prayers of the saints throughout history have accumulated. Why the wait? We may think the intention is to train our character, or to fetch a deeper prayer. That could be the case for some people in some times, but all things equal, we realize God was waiting for a certain time and place for the fulfillment of certain prayers.
A scene in Revelation frames God's response to our prayers. First, the angelic court hold golden bowls of incense as they celebrate the arrival of Christ the slain lamb who had accomplished redemption of people from every nation tribe and tongue. What an event! How many problems are solved with that one event. But though the redeemer has appeared, the diverse crowd whom he has redeemed is in a world hostile to them and Him.
Much more the incense has accumulated for a second event, when the seventh and final seal from a scroll of God's will is opened. We see an angel burning much incense at the altar to rise in fragrant smoke to God. Immediately coals from the altar are thrown down to the earth to bring in the judgment of mankind. The saints' cries for justice throughout history are now acknowledged in this moment when the seals have been loosed and the scroll opened. The great work of God in redemption had been accomplished, and the fire of judgement is released.
Pray for fire? Not every day for me, at least not at this point in my life. But the impressive little altar with its gold shows me to pray with God's character. Its small square dimensions remind me that it's just me and my Father. The AM/PM schedule tells me my life begins and will end in this communion.
Today we have a chance to step out of all ritualism. Jesus led us to pray in the secret place of fellowship between only us and God. We seek to pray in such a way that is full, consistent, hopeful. We know not everything will be done right away. But Christian sentiments are not in vain, they belong to God, and those sentiments must be expressed to the Father, secretly until he reward us openly.