The use of incense in worship and prayer has deep roots in ancient Israel as well as in other cultures and religions. The Catholic Church and some other Christian bodies still burn incense as part of their corporate worship.
But what about individual Christians? Can Christians burn incense on their own? And does doing so improve our worship or our prayers?
Christians are permitted to burn incense. As with all matters of conscience, Christians are advised to understand their reasons for burning incense in order to avoid straying into spiritually dangerous practices.
Incense in the Bible
The use of incense in worship was established during the Exodus, at the same time that God commanded the construction of the tabernacle and the various sacrifices. In Exodus 30, God commanded the burning of incense and instituted regulations and procedures for its use, including:
- The construction of a special altar for incense burning: Make an altar of acacia wood for burning incense (v 1)
- The assignment of specific person and times to burn incense: Aaron must burn fragrant incense on the altar every morning when he tends the lamps… (v 7)
- The prohibition against comingling incense with other materials: Do not offer on this altar any other incense or any burnt offering or grain offering… (v 9)
God even provided the Israelites with a specific formula for mixing the incense for worship, and forbid any common (non-worship) use of this particular blend:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Take fragrant spices—gum resin, onycha and galbanum—and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts, and make a fragrant blend of incense, the work of a perfumer… It shall be most holy to you. Do not make any incense with this formula for yourselves; consider it holy to the Lord.”Exodus 30:34-37
When God commanded the construction of His tabernacle, He gave the Israelites detailed instructions for its composition because, as the place where God would dwell among His people, God fashioned the tabernacle to resemble His heavenly throne.
God provided a recipe for incense for the same reason. John recorded his first view into heaven in Revelation 4 and 5. In this scene we find that incense is present and that it has a symbolic function:
…the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people.Revelation 5:8b
Incense and Prayer
May my prayer be set before you like incense;
may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.Psalm 141:2
In Revelation 5 (and again in chapter 8), incense represents the prayers of the saints. The smoke rising from the incense offers a visualization of our prayers ascending to God. God delights in the prayers of His people (Proverbs 15:8), so He required a recipe that would produce an aroma that is both unique to His people and pleasing to Him.
Incense in the New Testament
The burning of incense was still practiced in the time of Jesus. The priest Zechariah was burning incense when an angel appeared to him to announce the coming birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:8-22).
As the church spread beyond the ancient Jewish worship practices, incense became a less prominent component of Christian worship. Like the animal sacrifices of the old covenant, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross completed the work that incense had previously done:
…just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to GodEphesians 5:2b
With Jesus as the sole mediator between the Father and us, Jesus receives our prayers directly, without any need for the symbolic use of incense. Still, some churches today employ incense as a symbol in worship. Even though it is no longer required, the burning of incense has also never been prohibited.
Burn with Caution
Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the Lord?1 Samuel 15:22a
As Christians, we ought to proceed with wisdom and caution before we consider burning incense. First, we must recognize, as the prophet Samuel warns, that symbols and rituals are not meant to take the place of hearts and lives surrendered to the Lord.
We must also take care that we are not compromising—either willfully or absentmindedly—our worship by incorporating the practices of other religions.
Incense and Other Religions
The burning of incense was common throughout the ancient world, and its use is still prevalent in Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism and their offshoots. As stated above, this is one of the reasons that God required a specific incense blend to be used by His people, whom He called to be set apart from the nations.
In modern practice, incense remains prevalent in Eastern mysticism, highly ritualized religions like Santeria and Wicca, and the New Age movement.
New Age practitioners regularly employ incense and aromatic oils in combination with healing crystals and pendulums in hopes to achieve a desired spiritual or material effect.
No Magic in Incense
As Christians, we ought to continue to distance ourselves from all forms of divination, spellcasting, and Spiritism:
Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead.Deuteronomy 18:10-11
Engaging in such a manner with spiritual forces invites the influence of demonic spirits into our lives, and compromises our hope in—and understanding of—God’s sovereign power. When we receive Jesus, we are indwelt with the Holy Spirit and we require no other entanglement with the spiritual world.
So if we are employing incense to “cleanse negative energy,” invoke healing power, or even make our prayers “more pleasing” to God, we are treading into dangerous spiritual territory and ought to turn from such practices.
But if we are burning incense much the same way that we would burn a candle, for the sake of enjoying the fragrance, there is no harm in doing so.
Even in the ordinary, though, we should be mindful of the perceptions of others. As with all matters of conscience, we want to avoid leading others into sin or misrepresenting the gospel and the all-sufficiency of Jesus’ saving grace in any way.
“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.1 Corinthians 10:23-24