Psalm 141:2

 

EXPOSITION

Verse 2. Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense. As incense is carefully prepared, kindled with holy fire, and devoutly presented unto God, so let my prayer be. We are not to look upon prayer as easy work requiring no thought. It needs to be "set forth"; what is more, it must be set forth "before the Lord," by a sense of his presence and a holy reverence for his name: neither may we regard all supplication as certain of divine acceptance, it needs to be set forth before the Lord "as incense," concerning the offering of which there were rules to be observed, otherwise it would be rejected of God. And the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. Whatever form his prayer might take his one desire was that it might be accepted of God. Prayer is sometimes presented without words by the very motions of our bodies: bent knees and lifted hands are the tokens of earnest, expectant prayer. Certainly work, or the lifting up of the hands in labour, is prayer if it be done in dependence upon God and for his glory: there is a hand prayer as well as a heart prayer, and our desire is that tiffs may be sweet unto the Lord as the sacrifice of eventide. Holy hope, the lifting up of hands that hang down, is also a kind of worship: may it ever be acceptable with God. The Psalmist makes a bold request: he would have his humble cries and prayers to be as much regarded of the Lord as the appointed morning and evening sacrifices of the holy place. Yet the prayer is by no means too bold, for, after all, the spiritual is in the Lord's esteem higher than the ceremonial, and the calves of the lips are a truer sacrifice than the calves of the stall.

So far we have a prayer about prayer: we have a distinct supplication in the two following verses.

 

EXPLANATORY NOTES AND QUAINT SAYINGS

Verse 2. Let my prayer be set forth before thee. Margin, directed. The Hebrew word means to fit; to establish; to make firm. The Psalmist desires that his prayer should not be like that which is feeble, languishing, easily dissipated; but that it should be like that which is firm and secure. --Albert Barnes.

Verse 2. Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense. Literally, Let my prayer, incense, be set in order before Thee, -- implying that prayer was in the reality what incense was in the symbol ... Passing to New Testament Scripture, though still only to that portion which refers to Old Testament times, we are told of the people without being engaged in player, while Zacharias was offering incense within the Sanctuary ( Luke 1:10 ); they were in spirit going along with the priestly service. And in the book of Revelation the prayers of saints are once and again identified with the offering of incense on the golden altar before the throne. Revelation 5:8 8:3-4. --Patrick Fairbairn, in "The Typology of Scripture."

Verse 2. Set forth. Prayer is knowing work, believing work, thinking work, searching work, humbling work, and nothing worth if heart and hand do not join in it. -- Thomas Adam, 1701-1784.

Verse 2. Set forth before thee as incense, whose fragrant smoke still ascends upwards. But many times in the very ascent, whilst it strives up higher and higher, infimo phantasmate verberatur, saith Gregory, "it is beaten back again by earthly imaginations which intervene", and then is extenuated by degrees, and vanisheth to nothing. Therefore the prophet prays ut diriyatur oratio, "that his prayer may be set before God", ut stubiliatur; so some render it out of the Hebrew, "that it may be established", that it may neither evaporate itself nor be whiffed about with the wind of vain and contrary imaginations, which come ab extrinseco from without], and may corrupt it. --Anthony Farindon.

Verse 2. As incense. That in general by incense prayer is signified, the Scripture expressly testifieth. And there is a fourfold resemblance between them:

  1. In that it was beaten and pounded before it was used. So doth acceptable prayer proceed from a broken and contrite heart: Psalms 51:17 .
  2. It was of no use until fire was put under it, and that taken from the altar. Nor is that prayer of any virtue or efficacy which is no kindled by the fire from above, the Holy Spirit of God, which we have from our altar, Christ Jesus.
  3. It naturally ascended upwards towards heaven, as all offerings in the Hebrew are called twl[, "ascensions", uprisings. And this is the design of prayer, to ascend unto the throne of God: "I will direct unto thee, and will look up"; that is, pray: Psalms 5:3 .
  4. It yielded a sweet savour; which was one end of it in temple services, wherein there was so much burning of flesh and blood. So doth prayer yield a sweet savour unto God; a savour of rest, wherein he is well pleased. --John Owen.

Verse 2. As incense ... as the evening sacrifice. Though this address of mine must necessarily want all that solemnity of preparation required in the service of thy holy Tabernacle, the cloud of incense and perfume, etc., the "mincha" or oblation of fine flour, etc., yet let the purity and fervour of my heart, and the innocency of my hands, now lifted up to thee in tiffs sad hour of my distress, be accepted instead of all these, and prevail for deliverance and a safe retreat to me and my companions. --Charles Peters (--1777), in "A Critical Dissertation on the Book of Job", 1751.

Verse 2. As the evening sacrifice. This should be our daily service, as a lamb was offered up morning and evening for a sacrifice. But, alas! how dull and dead are our devotions! Like Pharaoh's chariots, they drive on heavily. Some, like Balaam's ass, scarce ever open their mouths twice. --Thomas Adams.

Verse 2. My hands. Spreading forth our hands in believing and fervent prayer is the only way of grasping mercy. --F. E., in "The Saints of Ebenezer", 1667.

Verse 2. In the gorgeous ceremonial worship of the Hebrews, none of the senses were excluded from taking part in the service ... The sense of smell occupied, perhaps, the most prominent place; for the acceptance of the worship was always indicated by a symbol borrowed from this sense: "The Lord smelled a sweet savour." The prayer of the people ascended as incense, and the lifting up of their hands as the evening sacrifice. The offering of incense formed the essential part of the religious service. The altar of incense occupied one of the most conspicuous and honoured positions in the tabernacle and temple ... On this altar a censer full of incense poured forth its fragrant clouds every morning and evening; and yearly, as the day of atonement came round, when the high priest entered the holy of holies, he filled a censer with live coals from the sacred fire on the altar of burnt offerings, and bore it into the sanctuary, where lie threw upon the burning coals the "sweet incense beaten small", which lie had brought in his hand. Without this smoking censer lie was forbidden, on pain of death, to enter into the awful shrine of Jehovah. Notwithstanding the washing of his flesh, and the linen garments with which he was clothed, tie dare not enter the holiest of all with the blood of atonement, unless he could personally shelter himself under a cloud of incense.

It has been supposed by some writers that incense was invented for the purpose of concealing or neutralizing the noxious effluvia caused by the number of beasts slaughtered every day in the sanctuary. Other writers have attached a mystical import to it, and believed that it was a symbol of the breath of the world arising in praise to the Creator, the four ingredients of which it was composed representing the four elements. While a third class, looking upon the tabernacle as the palace of God, the theocratic King of Israel, and the ark of the covenant as his throne, regarded the incense as merely corresponding to the perfume so lavishly employed about the person and appointments of an Oriental monarch. It may doubtless have been intended primarily to serve these purposes and convey these meanings, but it derived its chief importance in connection with the ceremonial observances of the Mosaic ritual from the fact of its being the great symbol of prayer. It was offered at the time when the people were in the posture and act of devotion; and their prayers were supposed to be presented to God by the priest, and to ascend to him in the smoke and odour of that fragrant offering. Scripture is full of allusions to it, understood in this beautiful symbolical sense. Acceptable, prevailing prayer was a sweet smelling savour to the Lord; and prayer that was unlawful, or hypocritical, or unprofitable, was rejected with disgust by the organ of smell.

Doubtless the Jews felt, when they saw the soft white clouds of fragrant smoke rising slowly from the altar of incense, as if the voice of the priest were silently but eloquently pleading in that expressive emblem in their behalf. The association of sound was lost in that of smell, and the two senses were blended in one. And this symbolical mode of supplication, as Dr. George Wilson has remarked, has this one advantage over spoken or written prayer, that it appealed to those who were both blind and deaf, a class that are usually shut out from social worship by their affliction. Those who could not hear the prayers of the priest could join in devotional exercises symbolized by incense, through the medium of their sense of smell; and the hallowed impressions shut out by one avenue were admitted to the mind and heart by another.

The altar of incense stood in the closest connection with the altar of burnt offerings. The blood of the sin offering was sprinkled on the horns of both on the great day of annual atonement. Morning and evening, as soon as the sacrifice was offered, the censer poured forth its fragrant contents, so that the perpetual incense within ascended simultaneously with the perpetual burnt offering outside. Without the live coals from off the sacrificial altar, the sacred incense could not be kindled; and without the incense previously filling the holy place, the blood of atonement from the altar of burnt offering could not be sprinkled on the mercy seat. Beautiful and expressive type of the perfect sacrifice and the all prevailing intercession of Jesus -- of intercession founded upon atonement, of atonement preceded and followed by intercession! Beautiful and expressive type, too, of the prayers of believers kindled by the altar fire of Christ's sacrifice, and perfumed by his merits! --Hugh Macmillan, in "The Ministry of Nature", 1871.

 

HINTS FOR PASTORS AND LAYPERSONS

Verse 2. True prayer acceptable as incense and as the evening sacrifice. It is spiritual, solemn, ordained of God, brings Christ to remembrance.

Read Psalm 141:2