“Verily, verily, I say unto you, ye must watch and pray always, lest ye be tempted by the devil, and ye be led away captive by him.“
The altar of incense is a symbol of honest and sincere prayer. “Let my prayer be set before thee as incense…” (Psalms 141:2). The ordinances performed upon this altar, and the restrictions placed upon it are richly symbolic of true prayer as found in the scriptural record. The placement of this altar immediately before the veil also illustrates a requirement of eternal life, which is making your will, the will of the Father. As with all other teachings along the straight and narrow path, the Lord Jesus Christ demonstrated the essence of prayer throughout his life, his teachings, and especially during the last twenty-four hours of his mortal existence. This page discusses the symbolism of the altar, please visit this link for a discussion of the physical characteristics.
Answer to Prayer
Perhaps the greatest association of the altar of incense with prayer comes from the account of the angel Gabriel, and his visit to Zacharais:
“According to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled and fear fell upon him. But the angel said unto him, Fear not Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.” ~ Luke 1:9-12 (emphasis added)
Do Not Offer Strange Incense
The Father can only be approached through sincere prayer. Any other petition unto him is equivalent to offering strange incense. The priets Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, offered strange incense upon the altar contrary to the commandment of God and were executed (see Lev. 10:1-3). Their physical destruction is symbolic of the spiritual destruction that will come upon anyone who thinks they can approach the Father without real intent.
Strange incense and other types of offerings were prohibited upon the altar of incense in the following verse:
“Ye shall offer no strange incense thereon, nor burnt sacrifice, nor meat offering; neither shall ye pour drink offering thereon.” ~ Exodus 30:9
This prohibition is symbolic and instructive of true prayer as taught by the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, the following verses demonstrate how we can offer authorized incense upon the altar (spiritually speaking):
“And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they might be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall freward thee openly. But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.” ~ Matthew 6:5-8
Strange incense is equivalent to vain repetitions, and praying to be praised by men. This type of ‘incense’ or prayer is prohibited by the Lord because it is not sincere and does not reflect the will of the Lord.
“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. For the day soon cometh, that men shall come before me to judgment, to be judged according to their works. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” ~ Matthew 5:23-24
Eternal life is granted only to those who have made their will, the will of the Father. The temporal punishment for offering strange incense was executed by the Lord and was either physical death or physical disease (see Lev. 10:1-2, and 2 Chron. 26:16-22). These temporal punishments are symbolic of the spiritual punishments for offering insincere prayer. Those who offer insincere prayer, or who seek not the Kingdom of God, will suffer spiritual death after their judgment. Or in other words, they will not live with the Father nor enjoy eternal life. Sincere or real intent is required if we desire to draw closer to the the Father. The prophet Mormon taught:
“For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing. For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness. For behold, if a man being evil giveth a gift, he doeth it grudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God. And likewise also is it counted evil unto a man, if he shall pray and not with real intent of heart; yea, and it profiteth him nothing, for God receiveth none such. Wherefore, a man being evil cannot do that which is good; neither will he give a good gift.” ~ Moroni 7:6-10
We offer ‘authorized incense’ upon the altar when we pray unto the Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, with pure intentions and desires to draw closer to him, and abide in His love.
Day of Atonment = Yom Kippur = Garden of Gethsemane
When the High Priest entered into the Most Holy Place on the day of atonement and performed the required ordinances as set forth in Leviticus 16, no one else was allowed to be in the inner sanctuary.
“And there shall be no man in the tabernacle of the congregation when he goeth in to make an atonement in the holy place…” ~ Leviticus 16:17
On the literal Day of Atonement in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Lord Jesus Christ symbolically obeyed this commandment.
“And he came out, and went, as he was wont, to the mount of Olives; and his disciples also followed him. And when he was at the place, he said unto them, Pray that ye enter not into temptation. And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast, and kneeled down, and prayed. Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done. And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and he sweat as it were great drops of blood falling to the ground. And when he rose up from prayer, and was come to his disciples, he found them sleeping for sorrow, and said unto them, Why sleep ye? Rise and pray, lest ye enter into temptation. ” ~ Luke 22:39-46
The high priest on Yom Kippur would make a cloud of smoke from the burning incense as he entered into the Most Holy Place. When Jesus Christ was in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he was crucified, he prayed unto the Father. The high priest would sprinkle the blood of the sacrificed animal upon the veil. Jesus Christ sprinkled his blood in the Garden as he began the most sacred ordinance of the Priesthood, the Atonement. I testify that altar of incense teaches us about sincere prayer, and demonstrates the means by which we are to approach our Father in prayer, in the similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father. This video portrays the Atonement of Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the blood He shed.
The Lord Jesus Christ did not personally desire to suffer in Gethsemane, or upon the cross, it was not his will. It was his will however, to do everything the Father willed. Jesus Christ therefore superseded his will with the will of the Father. This is an example unto everyone, and illustrates the true order of prayer.
Prayer and Meditation = Incense Ascending to Heaven
Bishop H. Burke Peterson gave the following simple teaching regarding how we are to approach the Father in prayer:
“As you feel the need to confide in the Lord or to improve the quality of your visits with him – to pray, if you please – may I suggest a process to follow: go where you can be alone, go where you can think, go where you can kneel, go where you can speak out loud to him. The bedroom, the bathroom, or the closet will do. Now, picture him in your mind’s eye. Think to whom you are speaking, control your thoughts – don’t let them wander, address him as your Father and your friend. Now tell him things you really feel to tell him – not trite phrases that have little meaning, but have a sincere, heartfelt conversation with him. Confide in him, ask him for forgiveness, plead with him, enjoy him, thank him, express your love to him, then listen for his answers. Answers from the Lord come quietly – ever so quietly. In fact, few hear his answers audibly with their ears. We must be listening carefully or we will never recognize them. Most answers come from the Lord are felt in our heart as a warm comfortable expression, or they may come as thoughts to our mind. They come to those who are prepared and who are patient.” [Source]
Direct prayer with the Father should also be accompanied by meditation which is a form of prayer. The prophet Alma the Younger taught that we should continually pray or meditate:
“…When you do not cry unto the Lord, let your hearts be full, drawn out in prayer unto him continually for your welfare, and also for the welfare of those who are around you.” ~ Alma 34:27
Direct prayer, and continual meditation can be visualized with the smoke rising from the altar of incense up to heaven. As we pray and mediate upon the scriptures, the words of the living prophets, and the doctrines of Jesus Christ, we are, spiritually speaking, offering up incense unto the Lord continually as commanded. President David O. McKay taught the following regarding meditation:
“I think we pay too little attention to the value of meditation, a principle of devotion… Meditation is the language of the soul. It is defined as ‘a form of private devotion or spiritual exercise, consisting in deep, continued reflection on some religious theme.’ Meditation is a form of prayer… Meditation is one of the most secret, most sacred doors through which we pass into the presence of the Lord.” [Source]
I testify that David O. McKay’s words are true. The altar of incense was placed immediately before the veil, which separated the Holy Place, from the presence of the Lord. Perhaps the closest I have felt the presence of the Lord in my life, has been during times of pondering and meditation. It is the means whereby the Lord can draw closer to us as we become in tune with His mind and thoughts. Elder Boyd K. Packer gave the following instruction regarding proper meditation:
“When you have a problem, work it out in your mind first. Ponder on it and analyze it and meditate on it. Read the scriptures. Pray about it. Ponder on things a little each day and don’t always be in the crisis of making major decisions on the spur of the moment. I have learned that the best time to wrestle with major problems is early in the morning… The blackboard of your mind has been erased by a good night’s rest. The accumulated distractions of the day are not in your way. Your body has been rested also. That’s the time to think something through very carefully and to receive personal revelation.” [Source]
The Pure Love of Christ
The King of Kings, has given us a new commandment:
“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” ~ John 13:34-35
The natural man is an enemy to this commandment. The world is filled with envy, pride, covetousness, mockery, and vain ambitions. Yet, if we desire to dwell with the Man of Holiness in the hereafter, we must be stripped of these things. We must be filled with the pure love of Christ, which is charity. What is charity? The scriptural record teaches the following:
“…Charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” ~ Moroni 7:45
This love can only be obtained through a bestowal of the Father. We can only receive this great blessing in our hearts through prayer and meditation.
“Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure.” ~ Moroni 7:48
Prayer is the only means whereby this gift of charity or pure love might be obtained. True prayer purges our souls and will make us more and more like the Son so that “we shall be like him”, and be “purified even as he is pure”. This purity is akin to holiness. Holiness represents life, even eternal life. Unholiness represents death or separation from righteousness. We must be holy, we must be filled with pure love to return to the Father. He has called unto us: “Ye shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2).