A Precarious Affair


Early in Exodus 30 we are given wonderful words indeed. They are words, to be sure, that sound much like the rest of their lot: what I mean is that they repeat much of the measurements and material specifications that are used to describe the sanctuary Moses is to build. I do not mean to show that they are different in tone or import from this large body of text. No; it is a wonderful body of text. God in precise detail outlines the means and modalities of His communion with the Israelites, in a way that is both reminiscent and prophetic of his meticulous plan for the redemption of fallen humankind.

In these first verses of Exodus 30, the instructions concern the altar of incense. Mark the words:

Ex. 30:1   And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon: of shittim wood shalt thou make it.  2 A cubit shall be the length thereof, and a cubit the breadth thereof; foursquare shall it be: and two cubits shall be the height thereof: the horns thereof shall be of the same.  3 And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, the top thereof, and the sides thereof round about, and the horns thereof; and thou shalt make unto it a crown of gold round about.  4 And two golden rings shalt thou make to it under the crown of it, by the two corners thereof, upon the two sides of it shalt thou make it; and they shall be for places for the staves to bear it withal.  5 And thou shalt make the staves of shittim wood, and overlay them with gold.  6 And thou shalt put it before the vail that is by the ark of the testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the testimony, where I will meet with thee.

We will not belabour the much-repeated significance of the parts and their dimensions and materials. We will not even exhaust the symbolic significance buried in them. All I mean to do is touch on the special place that God has in His heart for prayer, for communion, and for meeting with us.

Thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon. If the incense is our prayer then our prayer is sweet in the ears of God, for such is the fragrance of incense. The Hebrew economy would have supported the making of incense with sweet spices, and God picked them Himself: frankincense, stacte and onycha and galbanum (v 34). It would have been a sweet smoke to smell, though it was the smoke of sinful men. Marvelous thought, that God counts our communication so dear, given our fallen – and indeed often unsanctified – lips and hearts.

Where Art Thou?

When God came walking in the garden six thousand years ago, that terrible day when man ceded his dominion over to wickedness itself, God was likely to have come to the place where time after time, day after day, he came to meet with them. It is reasonable to expect this. God is a God of special things, and loves to give places and beings and times and things special significance. I can easily see Him say to Adam and Eve, I will meet with you here each day. Possibly more than once. Let’s make it nice and keep it clean. Perhaps a special grove of the loveliest trees, perhaps a cool and sparkling stream running by the side, perhaps the tree of life close-by or in the view. It may have been here that Adam was born; for God loves to continue where special things begin. It may have been here where God formed every beast of the field and “brought them to Adam to see what he would call them.”

They must have shared many a laugh, for I wonder at what Adam would have named some of the animals. The giraffe and sloth would have been particularly interesting.

It may well have been the place where God anaesthetised Adam with a deep sleep, and formed from his rib the woman of his dreams, if dreamed, and “brought her to the man.” If so then it is here that Adam named her, for his declaration was swift upon the encounter. “She shall be called Woman, because she was taken our of Man.”

Here dreams came true, prayers were answered, and perfect love enveloped the human-divine family. But one day, God came into the garden, walking in His usual manner on His usual paths, “in the cool of the day”, and Adam and Eve were not to be found.

The timeless call belongs not just to Adam. “Where art thou, O reader?” Where are you when God comes to meet with you? In the breaking of the dawn, in the cool of the day, or in the dim of twilight? The divine schedule has space blocked out for us but where are we?

Before The Veil

“Prayer is the master key,” we sing. If it is a key, then it is the key to a very important door.

Moses and Aaron offered up the prayer of the people with clouds of incense, and by that means gained access to the most sacred chamber on Earth. They may not have entered themselves, but their hearts, and the hearts of the people, were admitted in their daily contrition.

The veil did not hide the Lord from them so much as it shielded sinful man from the consuming presence of a holy God. And the veil went across the arc of the Testimony, and stood before the mercy seat, the covering of grace, that was over the Testimony. You see the picture is beautiful. God sits upon His throne, which is called the mercy seat because He rules in the spirit of restoration, forgiveness and grace. His mercy endureth forever, as the Psalmist declares. This is so because His throne in turn is seated above the Testimony, the law, the “Ten Commandments” of God. The government of God is founded upon the tenets of divine law and order. Without the law, there is no lawgiver, no authority, no government, no throne, no God, and certainly no need for grace. Those who teach that the law has vanished from the equation of salvation will reach a wrong sum, for they eliminate from it the denominator of mercy and grace. These two are only ever meaningful in the context of transgressed law, and punishable guilt.

A Precarious Affair

Few realise that the two words “prayer” and “precarious” share a linguistic stem. They both derive from an old Latin stem, “precaria”, meaning “obtained by prayer”. That stem in turn derives from “precari“, meaning, “to ask or beg”.

When Peter shouted on his way down the depths “Lord, save me!” that was precari. When Nehemiah shot up a silent prayer before presenting his momentous intentions before a heathen king that was precari. When Daniel inquired about the end of a seventy-year long bondage of Israel that was precari. Of prayer, William Cowper has penned the couplet:

“Satan trembles when he sees

The weakest saint upon his knees.”

When we pray, speaking with God “as friend to friend”, it is a precarious situation for the enemy.

I Will Meet With Thee. Better Believe It!

The promise is certain and sure. God declared that his presence was assured when the priest came to the altar. The veil may separate us that you are not consumed, but I will meet you still in prayer. How is this to be? Paul tells of a supernatural transference of meaning that is worked out for us by God through His Holy Spirit: “or we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” Romans 8:26.

God’s promise is that He will meet us in our prayer. If we believe it, we believe Him. We must pray “believing that we receive the things we ask for” Mark 11:24, and it shall be. Nothing is more displeasing to the Lord than that we doubt His promises. Do doubt His word is to doubt Him. “Hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?” Numbers 23:19.

One old man was taught a signal lesson in this regard. He was a man who ought to have known better. Not only was he a priest in the temple of God, standing at the altar and bearing the people’s prayers up with sweet incense, but he also had a prayer of his own, a longing of his heart. His name was Zacharias. It was his turn to serve in the temple, according to the calendar of priestly ministration. Even if God would not meet Him in person, He would meet him another way.

Luke 1:

10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. 11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” 19 The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

God has often sent angels in answer to prayer. To Daniel, to Lot, to John, to Zacharias, and indeed, if you will believe it, to you and to me. For Hebrews 13:2 declares that some have entertained angels without knowing it. But the divine condescension is beyond angelic. Of united prayer the Lord Himself declares: “Where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” Matthew 18:20. In our preaching of the gospel of peace He promises: “I am with you always.” Matthew 28:20. And of our secret and silent prayers, His commitment is to reward you for what is done in secret (Matthew 6:6), no doubt with an answer to the prayer. Well did Luke sum up the Lesson of Christ’s parable of the persistent widow:

“Men ought always to pray, and not to faint.”

Agana-Nsiire Agana is a theologian, communicator and writer. His passion is for communicating eternal truth in a contemporary context which is influenced by postmodern, secular thought. The gospel, though unchanging, can and should be expressed in terms of the challenges, philosophy and language of the present day.