When Prayers Are Like Oil, Incense and Tears

3 metaphors from the Bible that will help you envision praying in new and powerful ways

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Posted in , Sep 11, 2017

Pray like incense, oil and tears

To some people, prayer is an esoteric exercise, not unlike the word “esoteric” itself. It is something mysterious and elusive, far removed from daily life. But that’s not at all the way prayer is pictured in the Bible. In fact, we can profit a lot from a little attention to the Bible’s metaphors for prayer:

1.  Like Oil
In the ancient world, various oils like olive oil were some of the cleanest, purest substances to which they had access. Their water sources were often cloudy. They had no Ivory soap or anti-bacterial hand wash. But they had various kinds of oils, which were used for cleaning and healing and smelling nice. So, when Jacob awoke from a dream of angels ascending and descending between earth and heaven, the Bible says:

Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it (Genesis 28:18, NIV).

Both pillar and oil were tangible prayers. Prayers to say, “thank you,” perhaps. Maybe a “let me never forget.” Or simply, “Wow.” 

2.   Like Incense
In a world where people bathed infrequently and animals occupied the same living space as people, any event at which more than a handful of people gathered could be a real stinkfest. No wonder, then, that part of the prescribed order of worship for God’s people was the offering of strong, sweet-smelling incense. Thus, David sang, “Let my prayer be set before you as incense” (Psalm 141:2, NIV). In other words, let it rise all the way to God’s throne, let it please Him, let it remove the stink I carry with me. And that symbol of prayer appeared again in the last book of the Bible, the Revelation recorded by John:  

Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand (Revelation 8:3-4, NIV).

3.  Like Tears
Job, who lost fortune, family, health and happiness for no good reason he could see, said, “My eyes pour out tears to God” (Job 16:20, NIV). And David, in a similarly low point of his life, said, “You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book” (Psalm 56:8, NLT). What is more honest than a tear? More vulnerable? More emotional? Prayers are like tears when they are poured out without art, without guile, without pretense.

So pray like oil. Picture pure and fragrant oil flowing from your hands as you say, “thank you,” or “let me never forget.” Or simply, “Wow.”

Pray like incense. Imagine your prayers burning, smoking and rising to God’s throne. Imagine God closing His eyes and inhaling as your prayers arrive. Imagine His unmitigated pleasure at their aroma. 

And pray like tears. Pour out your true, honest, heartfelt thoughts and feelings to God, without art, without guile, without pretense. Let them flow and flow until none are left. And then imagine Him saving each one in a bottle, like the precious substance that they are.

Praying like oil, incense and tears can and should change how you pray. Maybe that’s why the Bible pictures them that way. 

Tags: Prayer,Bible
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