Christ as the Incense of Prayer/Psalm 141

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We now come to the final decade of psalms. We first began this series almost twenty years ago—when some of you young marrieds were still pre-school, and the year you college sophomores were born. This might make us feel odd in all sorts of ways, but one thing it should remind us of is the fact that Scripture is a vast storehouse of treasures, and one lifetime doesn’t even begin to touch it.

The Text

“Lord, I cry unto thee: Make haste unto me; Give ear unto my voice, when I cry unto thee. Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; And the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; Keep the door of my lips. Incline not my heart to any evil thing, to practise wicked works with men that work iniquity: And let me not eat of their dainties. Let the righteous smite me; it shall be a kindness: And let him reprove me; it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break my head: For yet my prayer also shall be in their calamities. When their judges are overthrown in stony places, they shall hear my words; for they are sweet. Our bones are scattered at the grave’s mouth, as when one cutteth and cleaveth wood upon the earth. But mine eyes are unto thee, O God the Lord: In thee is my trust; leave not my soul destitute. Keep me from the snares which they have laid for me, and the gins of the workers of iniquity. Let the wicked fall into their own nets, whilst that I withal escape” (Psalm 141:1-10).

Summary of the Text

The psalmist is in real trouble here, and he cries out to the Lord, urging the Lord to hurry up with the deliverance already (v. 1). He asks the Lord to treat his prayer as incense, and the lifting of his hands as the evening sacrifice (v. 2).  He prays that God would set a guard over his mouth. This could be taken generally, but also remember that he is the middle of praying (v. 3). This is a prayer that his prayer might be guarded. He asks the Lord not to incline the psalmist’s heart to wickedness, that he might not become a companion of iniquitous men. He doesn’t want to share in their dainties (v. 4). He would rather have a righteous man strike him than for a wicked man to feed him caviar (v. 5). A righteous blow would be a kindness. The psalmist prays against the wicked (v. 5). When their judges are thrown off a cliff, they will hear David’s words then (v.  6). As when someone plows up the earth, our bones are scattered at the mouth of Sheol (v. 7). This is likely the trouble that occasioned the psalm in the first place. But he still looks to the Lord, expecting deliverance (v. 8). His adversaries are cunning, and so he prays that he not fall into their traps and engines (v. 9). Not only does he seek deliverance, he is asking that their wicked stratagems backfire on them (v. 10).

Palace Intrigues

We cannot say definitively, but this psalm is likely from before when David was king, when he was out in the wilderness, and Saul was still on the throne. David was out there because of Saul’s paranoia, and because of various lies told about him at court (1 Sam. 26:19). The fact that he wants his outstretched hands to serve as the evening sacrifice indicates that he is being kept away from the place of worship, in some sort of exile. The scattered bones around the mouth of Sheol some take as scattered bones because of the words of Saul (v. 7), referring to the slaughter of the priests by Doeg the Edomite. Surrounding all of this, we can see that the plots David is concerned about here appear to be schemes being hatched by the wicked party in Israel. The cause of God appears to be hanging by a thread.   

The Blows of a Hammer

The ungodly could overthrow David in two ways. First, their plots and traps could work. Courageous men do not fear open battle, but they despise secret plots. One of the ways they could work is by provoking David into an exasperated and unguarded response. This is why he asks Jehovah to set a guard on his mouth. He does not want to be goaded into saying something stupid, which could then be twisted around and used against him.

But he also knows that the reason for their antipathy is because he is on the Lord’s side. They could overcome him through an enticing and flattering bribery. Come, sit with us. Come, eat with us. Here is a platter filled with dainties. The temptation here is to turn coat, and David asks for protection from all of it—whether that be hostility or seduction.

He knows the antithesis—this is no masochistic pietism. When he says, “let the righteous strike me,” the word for strike is a forceful one, like a hammer blow (Is. 41:7). He would rather have that than to have a butler in the mansions of the wicked offer him a delectable delicacy. Rebuke a wise man and he will love you (Prov. 9:8). That is a true principle because faithful are the wounds of a friend (Ps. 27:6). But also remember that the treacherous know how to quote that same verse—although they rarely quote the second part of it. The kisses of an enemy are deceitful (Prov. 27:6), which is what they were doing earlier, before the schemes were unveiled.

So David knows the antithesis. When the tables finally turn, and the evil judges he is dealing with are thrown off a cliff, he knows that his words will be validated then. The word for overthrow is the same word that was used for pitching Jezebel down from the balcony (2 Kings 9:33).    

Incense Rising

The comparison of prayer to rising incense is made in various places in Scripture. “And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints” (Revelation 5:8). “And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand” (Revelation 8:4).

Following the suggestion of the great John Owen, if we compare our prayers to the offering of incense, we can take four spiritual lessons from it.

First, the incense needed to be ground, crushed, or pounded before it was used. Don’t offer up wholesale prayers. Prayer must proceed from a crushed heart, a contrite heart. Second, the incense is of no use whatever unless there is fire under it, and it needs to be fire from the altar. Third, the incense was designed to ascend into the heavens. Set your minds on things above. And last, it resulted in a sweet aroma before the Lord.

We pray in the name of Christ because Christ is our ultimate prayer. We pray in the name of Jesus because our prayer is the name of Jesus. And so Christ is our ultimate prayer, and He was crushed for us (Luke 22:44). The name Gethsemane indicates it was probably a press in an olive grove, and there the Lord was crushed in the press of His Father’s will. And Christ also came to earth to cast fire (Luke 12:49). Christ ascended into the heavenly places, there to intercede for us (Acts 1:9). And He was offered up to God as a sweet-smelling aroma (Eph. 5:2).

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