Sitting under the open sky in the Temple court, the pale, stone platform-like altar was the size of a house. Within the sanctuary there was a much different kind of altar. A little more than waist high, its ornate gold designs enclosed a wooden interior.
Freshly arranged coals glowed atop the golden altar’s square surface. An elderly priest stood with his cupped hands full of reddish powder. His colleague stood at the doorway, peering out and waiting for the correct moment. “Burn it!” he called, then departed, leaving the priest alone in the holy place.
Immediately the old man reached over the coals and began to let the powder sift through his fingers. He started on the far side first, drawing his hands back toward his body so that they would not be burned by the rising smoke. As the fine dust hit the coals it billowed and sparked with a crackling noise, sending a pungent, bittersweet fragrance into the air. The hot smoke raced toward the ceiling.
The old man gasped as a humanlike figure to his right caught his eye. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard” (Luke 1:13).
Prayer and sacrifice have strong parallels, but they are not entirely the same. The sacrificial service was designed to draw the entire world collectively near to God, so it happens externally in a central location. Prayer connects each individual with our Father in heaven, and this takes place within each one of us.
The two are not interchangeable or redundant. To the contrary, prayer was always to accompany the sacrifice. To sacrifice without sincere prayer would be pointless and empty.
On the other hand, prayer stands on its own. Even in situations where sacrifice is not possible, prayer is worthwhile and effective. Prayer is a powerful opportunity to meet with the Creator of the universe in the comfort of your own heart.
When the Temple was destroyed and the sacrificial services could no longer be performed, the leading Jewish voices at the time assured their community that prayers could continue nonetheless. They based this on Hosea 14:3:
Take words with you, and return to the LORD. Say to him, “Forgive all iniquity, and accept what is good. Let us exchange bulls for our lips.” (Author’s translation)
The Hebrew of this biblical passage is difficult but clever. The word for “exchange” sounds as if it means “bring a peace offering.” The word “bulls” is similar to the word “fruit,” making a phrase reminiscent of “the fruit of our lips.”
Hosea pleaded with Israel at the time when the northern kingdom had fallen into apostasy and were worshiping false gods. Their sacrifices to God were meaningless because of their unfaithfulness. Hosea explains that the solution was not to offer more empty sacrifices. Rather, he says, “I desire covenant devotion rather than sacrifices, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). Hosea’s desire was for the people to repent by turning to God with prayer and changing their ways.
The author of Hebrews also picks up on this theme, comparing words and good deeds to sacrificial offerings:
Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. (Hebrews 13:15-16)
King David also expressed the connection between the offering of incense and his prayers:
Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice! (Psalm 141:2)
This theme also appears in Revelation:
And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. (Revelation 8:3-4)
This spiritual reality should encourage us. Just as the sacrifices were powerful and effective in bringing the Presence of the infinite God to our finite earth, so too, prayer draws the Spirit of God into our hearts. However, sacrifice requires elaborate preparation, a sanctified priesthood, and an undefiled environment. How are we to emulate this in prayer, especially when we feel unprepared and unworthy?
The writer of Hebrews gives us hope that the Messiah has already prepared the way, allowing us to engage in prayer—the “service of the heart”—with confidence and assurance:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:19-22)
Let’s not take this opportunity lightly. When we draw near in prayer as disciples of Yeshua of Nazareth, we capture the attention of the infinite, all-powerful Being who created us, chose us, and loves us.