For thousands of years, people have fashioned various oils and herbs into incense for a variety of purposes. Incense can cover unpleasant odors, and some forms of incense made from frankincense and myrrh, for instance, have been shown to reduce inflammation and relieve pain. Incense typically produces a pleasant, sweet scent when burned.
Incense is used in many expressions of both Jewish and Christian worship. A crucial basis for this association is the Altar of Incense, a fixture in both the wilderness tabernacle and in Solomon’s temple and on which incense was burned regularly (see Ex. 30:1–10 and 1 Kings 7:48).
But as we see in our text today, the use of incense in worship also serves as a sensory metaphor for our prayers, which have properties similar to incense (v. 2). As the smoke of incense rises toward the heavens and creates a fragrant experience, so too our prayers should rise to God with a sweet, pleasing quality.
Psalm 141 offers a sense of what such a pleasing prayer might look like. While the author cries out for his own sake, asking God not to give him “over to death” (v. 8) and to keep him safe (v. 9), his most fundamental wish is not for his own vindication. Rather, he desires to attain the righteousness that glorifies God. Out of this desire he prays to God to “set a guard over my mouth” (v. 3) and “not let my heart be drawn to what is evil” (v. 4), and he even vows to accept blows from a righteous man who would correct him (v. 5). Such a prayer, centered around the desire that our eyes remain “fixed on you, Sovereign Lord” (v. 8), surely rises to God with a sweet scent.
We might assume that we will recognize and reject evil. Today’s psalm corrects our arrogance. Evil will often be alluring, drawing our hearts and appearing to be as tempting as “delicacies” (v. 4). What temptations might be seeking to draw you from the path of righteousness? Pray that God would help you see them and guard your heart against them.