“Take for yourself spices, stacte and onycha and galbanum, spices with pure frankincense…And with it you shall make incense…salted, pure and holy” (Exodus 30:34-35 NASB).
Frankincense, the fourth ingredient in God’s recipe for prayer, is probably the most well-known. One of the scents that permeated the Magi’s luggage (Matthew 2:11), frankincense (Hebrew: “the highest quality incense”) was a highly-prized perfume in the ancient Middle East (Song of Solomon 3:6). This woodsy, lemony-sweet scent remained so popular for centuries that it is still used in today’s perfumes and oils.
Like stacte and galbanum, frankincense is harvested from the gum resin of its particular genus of tree. Slashes are made in the trunk to drain out the precious resin, but multiple extractions every year doesn’t harm these trees. They were built for the knife. As I think of my Master Gardner’s pruning shears (John 15:2), I pray that I too can receive the cuts without complaint.
All three of these resin-bearing trees do best in arid, harsh environments. Despite the rocky landscapes around them, they thrive in seemingly poor soil. Their perseverance encourages me, especially when my own prayers seem arid and dry. Maybe my life needs the harsh winds and arid winters to produce the sweetest smelling sap.
Of these three types of trees, the Boswellia (frankincense) is the hardiest. If needed, the Boswellia can even live without soil. With roots adaptable to swell and attach to solid rock, this botanical marvel stands strong in the midst of the violent winds of the North African desert. Despite its bleak surroundings, frankincense is considered the most aromatic fragrance of all the ingredients listed for holy incense.
Frankincense mirrors the worship portion of our prayer. As heat rises off the altar, so does the fragrance of the offering. The law of worship is that it must be sent heavenward. But before the incense of our worship can ascend upward as “a soothing aroma to the Lord” (Leviticus 2:2), the Spirit must fan the flame in our hearts. Maybe that’s why broken confession (stacte), willingness to listen (onycha) and intercession for the world’s stench (galbanum) come first (Exodus 30:34).
“God is spirit and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Spirit-worship never sources from mere stimulated emotions or lofty thoughts. “The flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:8).
Worship is an offering of our entire flesh — body, soul and will — presented to Him as a living and holy sacrifice. The external stirring of emotions is only the veneer of praise. The deeper, “spiritual service of worship” that is “acceptable to God” occurs when we allow His very own Spirit to touch us with coals from the altar (Romans 12:1; Isaiah 6:6-7). Once we’ve experienced Him in spirit, our worship begins to blaze, burning and yet not consumed (Exodus 3:2).
I have to admit that although the concept of worship seems pleasant from afar, I find experiential follow-through a struggle. Too often, my desire is to give the Father a token offering and keep back the bulk of the incense for myself, like the Egyptian royals did when using creamed frankincense for their own wrinkles.
For worship to be truly in spirit and in truth, it begins as “a sacrifice of praise to God…the fruit of lips that give thanks of His Name” (Hebrews 13:15). It’s not easy to reprogram our thoughts and time upon Him, but the essence of fragrant worship demands it.
“Who is this coming up from the wilderness like columns of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense?” (Song of Solomon 3:6) May it be you and I in true spirit-worship. “Yes O Lord, set our hearts on fire with worship in spirit and in truth.”
Thanks to Jane Bromley for her fragrant spirit of counsel towards this article.