In Revelation 5:8, the four living creatures have “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” Geerhardus Vos comments, “That the altar of incense has its place nearest to the curtain before the ‘holy of holies’ signifies he religious specificness of prayer as coming nearest to the heart of God. The offering was of a perpetual character. The notion of the grateful smell of the burning incense in the nostrils of Jehovah is somewhat removed from our own taste of religious imagery, but should not on that account be overlooked.”
Prayer is one of the guiltiest neglects of the Christian’s life. One friend told me he hears nothing on the other end, as if God might be expected to speak on the other end of a phone call. Of course God “answers” prayer through Providence, which is to say He acts, using our prayers to shape the story of the world.
The best and easiest motivation for prayer is God’s pleasure in it. We know what’s it’s like to enter a room filled with good food. That’s what our prayers are like in the ‘nostrils’ of God. He wants us to pray.
Every week in worship we get to lift up our prayers to God. We ask in confidence, knowing God hears and grants our prayers when are according to his will. But we often think of prayer only in terms of the prayers we offer. But we are not the only one praying.
Ps. 40:5 says “You have multiplied, O LORD my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you! I will proclaim and tell of them, yet they are more than can be told.”
In Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17, he prays for us: “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”
Jesus prays for us, and perhaps most wonderfully, the Spirit prays with us and on our behalf as Paul describes in Romans 8:26: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
This is a great comfort when we don’t know what we ought to pray. Even Paul knew what it is like come up empty, and he says the Spirit intercedes for us. In prayer we don’t start a conversation with God but join one already happening between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
“Make me sensible of real answers to actual requests, as evidence of an interchange between myself on earth and my Savior in Heaven.” –Thomas Chalmers
“But St Luke tells us that it was his habit to withdraw himself into the wilderness and pray (Luke 5:16).
Our Authorized Version does not at all give us the force of the original in this verse. Dean Vaughan comments on it thus: ‘It was not one withdrawal, nor the wilderness, nor one prayer — all is plural in the original — the withdrawals were repreated; the wildernesses were more than one, the prayers were habitual.’ Crowds were thronging and pressing him; great multitudes came together to hear and to be healed of their infirmities; and he had no leisure so much as to eat. But he found time to pray.
And this one who sought retirement with so much solitude was the Son of God, having no sin to confess, no shortcoming to deplore, no unbelief to subdue, no languor of love to overcome. Nor are we to imagine that his prayers were merely peaceful meditations, or rapturous acts of communion. They were strenuous and warlike, from that hour in the wilderness when angels came to minister to the prostrate Man of Sorrows , on to that awful ‘angony in which his sweat was, as it were, great drops of blood. His prayers were sacrifices, offered up with strong cyring and tears.”
–David McIntyre, The Hidden Life of Prayer, pp. 41-42