Psalm 141:2
Let my prayer be set forth before you as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(2) Set forth . . .—See margin; but more literally, be erected, suggesting the pillar of smoke (comp. Tennyson’s “Azure pillars of the hearth”) continually rising to heaven. Some think the incense refers to the morning sacrifice, so that the verse will mean, “let my prayer rise regularly as morning and evening sacrifice.” But this is hardly necessary.

Sacrificei.e., the offering of flour and oil, which followed the burnt offering both at morning and evening (Leviticus 2:1-11; in Authorised Version,” meat offering “), and here probably associated specially with evening, because the prayer was uttered at the close of the day. (See Note, Psalm 141:3.)

For the “lifted hands,” here, from the parallelism, evidently only a symbol of prayer, and not a term for oblation, see Psalm 28:2, Note.

“For what are men better than sheep or goats,

That nourish a blind life within the Drain,

If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer,

Both for themselves, and those that call them friend.”

TENNYSON: Morte d’ Arthur,

Psalms

THE INCENSE OF PRAYER

Psalm 141:2
.

The place which this psalm occupies in the Psalter, very near its end, makes it probable that it is considerably later in date than the prior portions of the collection. But the Psalmist, who here penetrates to the inmost meaning of the symbolic sacrificial worship of the Old Testament, was not helped to his clear-sightedness by his date, but by his devotion. For throughout the Old Testament you find side by side these two trends of thought-a scrupulous carefulness for the observance of all the requirements of ritual worship, and a clear-eyed recognition that it was all external and symbolical and prophetic. Who was it that said ‘Obedience is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams’? Samuel, away back in the times when many scholars tell us that the loftier conceptions of worship had not yet emerged. Similar utterances are scattered throughout the Old Testament, and the prominence given to the more spiritual side depends not on the speaker’s date but on his disposition and devotion. So here this Psalmist, because his soul was filled with true longings after God, passes clear through the externals and says, ‘Here am I with no incense, but I have brought my prayer. I am empty-handed, but because my hands are empty, I lift them up to Thee; and Thou dost accept them, as if they were-yea, rather than if they were-filled with the most elaborate and costly sacrifices.’

So here are two thoughts suggested, which sound mere commonplace, but if we realised them, in our religious life, that life would be revolutionised; first, the incense of prayer; second, the sacrifice of the empty-handed. Let us look at these two points.

I. The Incense of Prayer. ‘Let my prayer come before Thee as incense.’

Now, that symbol of incense is thus used in many places in Scripture. I need only remind you of one or two instances. You remember how, when the father of John the Baptist went into the Holy Place, as was his priestly duty at the time of the offering of the evening oblation, the whole multitude were in the Outer Court praying; he in the Inner Court, presenting the symbolical worship, and they, without, offering the real. Then, if we turn to the grand imagery of the Book of the Revelation, where we find the heavenly temple opened up to our reverent gaze, we read that the elders, the representatives of redeemed humanity, have ‘golden bowls full of odours, which are the prayers of the saints.’ So there is no fancifulness in interpreting the incense of the ancient ritual as meaning simply the prayers of devout hearts. Of course there has been a great deal of nonsense talked about the symbolical signification of these Old Testament rites, and there is need for sober sense to put the rein upon a vivid imagination in interpreting these; still clear utterances of Scripture as well as this verse itself remove all need for hesitation to accept this meaning of the symbol.

Now, let me remind you of the place which the Altar of Incense occupied. The Temple was divided into three courts, the Outer Court, the Holy Place, and the Holiest of All. The Altar of Incense stood in the second of these, the Holy Place; the Altar of Burnt Offering stood in the court without. It was not until that Altar, with its expiatory sacrifice, had been passed, that one could enter into the Holy Place, where the Altar of Incense stood. There were three pieces of furniture in that Place, the Altar of Incense, the Golden Candlestick, and the Table of the Shewbread. Of these three, the Altar of Incense stood in the centre. Twice a day the incense was kindled upon it by a priest, by means of live coals brought from the Altar of Burnt Offering in the Outer Court, and, thus kindled, the wreaths of fragrant smoke ascended on high. All day long the incense smouldered upon the altar; twice a day it was kindled into a bright flame.

Now, if we take these things with us, we can understand a little more of the depth and beauty of this prayer, and see how much it tells us of what we, as the priests of the most High God-which we are, if we are Christian people at all-ought to have in our censers.

I need not dwell upon the careful and sedulous preparation from pure spices which went to the making of the incense. So we have to prepare ourselves by sedulous purity if there is to be any life or power in our devotions. But I pass from that, and ask you to think of the lovely picture of true devoutness given in that inflamed incense, wreathing in coils of fragrance up to the heavens. Prayer is more than petition. It is the going up of the whole soul towards God. Brother! do you know anything of that instinctive and spontaneous rising up of desire and aspiration and faith and love, up and up and up, until they reach Him? Do you realise that just in the measure in which we set our minds as well as our affections, and our affections as well as our minds, on the things which are above, just to that extent, and not one hairsbreadth further, have we the right to call ourselves Christians at all? I fear me that for the great mass of Christian professors the great bulk of their lives creeps along the low levels like the mists in winter, that hug the marshes instead of rising, swirling up like an incense cloud, impelled by nothing but the fire in the censer up and up towards God. Let us each ask the question for himself, Is my prayer ‘directed’-as is the true meaning of the Hebrew word-’before Thee as incense’?

Remember, too, that the incense lay dead, unfragrant, and with no capacity of soaring, till it was kindled; that is to say, unless there is a flame in my heart there will be no rising of my aspirations to God. Cold prayers do not go up more than a foot or two above the ground; they have no power to soar. There must be the inflaming before there can be the mounting of the aspiration. You cannot get a balloon to go up unless the gas within it is warmer than the atmosphere round it. It is because we are habitually such tepid Christians that we are so tongue-tied in prayer.

Where was the incense kindled from? From coals brought from the Altar of Burnt Offering in the outer court; that is to say, light the fire in your heart with a coal brought from Christ’s sacrifice, and then it will flame; and only then will love well upwards and desires be set on the things above. The beginning of Christian fervour lies in the habitual realising as a fact of the great love which ‘loved me and gave itself for me.’ There is no patent way of getting a vivid Christian experience except the old way of clinging close to Jesus Christ the Saviour; and in order to do that, we have to think about Him, as well as to feel about Him, a great deal more than I fear the most of us do.

Further, does not this lovely symbol of my text suggest to us a glorious thought, the acceptableness even of our poor prayers, if they come from hearts inflamed with love because of Christ’s great redeeming love? The Psalmist, thinking humbly of himself and of the worth of anything that he can bring, says, ‘Let my prayer come before Thee as incense,’ an ‘odour of a sweet smell, acceptable to God’; yes, even our prayers will be sweet to Him if they are prayers of true aspiration and mounting faith, leaping from a kindled heart, kindled at the great flame of Christ’s love.

Were you ever in a Roman Catholic cathedral? Did you ever see there the little boys that carry the censers, swinging them backwards and forwards every now and then, and by means of the silver chains lifting the covers? What is that for? Because the incense would go out unless the air was let into it. So a constant effort is needed in order to keep the incense of our prayers alight. We have to swing the censer to get rid of the things that make our hearts cold; we have to stir the fire, and only so shall we keep up our devotion. Remember the incense burned all day long on the altar; though perhaps but smouldering, like the banked-up fires in the furnaces of a steamer that lies at anchor, still the glow was there; and twice a day there came the priest with his pan full of fresh glowing coals from the altar in the Outer Court, and kindled it up into a flame once more. Which things are thus far an allegory that our devotion is to be diffused throughout our lives in a lambent glow, and if it is, it will have to be fed by special acts of worship day by day.

You hear people talk of not caring about times and seasons of prayer, and of the beauty of making all life a prayer. Amen! I say so too. But depend upon it that there will never be devotion diffused through life unless there is devotion concentrated at points in the life. There must be reservoirs as well as pipes in order to supply the water through the whole city. So the incense is perpetually to be heaped on the Altar of Incense, but also it is to be stirred to a fragrant blaze and fed, morning and evening, by fresh coals from the altar.

II. Now let me say a word about the other thought here-the sacrifice of the empty-handed.

‘The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.’ In accordance with the genius of Hebrew poetry the same general idea is repeated in the second member of the parallelism, but with modifications. What is implied in likening the uplifted empty hands to the evening sacrifice? First, it is a confession of impotent emptiness, a lifting up of expectant hands to be filled with the gift from God. And, says this Psalmist, ‘Because I bring nothing in my hand, Thou dost accept me, as if I came laden with offerings.’ That is just a picturesque way of putting a familiar, threadbare truth, which, threadbare as it is, needs to be laid to heart a great deal more by us, that our true worship and truest honour of God lies not in giving but in taking. ‘He is not worshipped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, seeing that He giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.’ That one truth, Paul felt on Mars Hill, was sure enough to make all the temples and statues by which he was surrounded crumble into nothingness. But it does not merely destroy idolatry. It cuts up by the root much of what we call Christian worship. How many people worship because they think they ought? How many people talk about Christian worship as being a duty-’Our duty we have now performed’? How many have never had a glimpse of this thought, that God wills us to draw near to Him, not because it pleases Him but because it blesses us, and that we are to worship, not in order that we may bring anything, either the sacrifices of bulls and goats, or the more refined ones that we bring nowadays, but in order that, bringing our emptiness into touch with His infinite fulness, as much of that fulness as we need to make us full, and as much of that blessedness as we need to make us blessed, may pass into our lives. Oh! if we understand ‘the giving God,’ as James calls Him in his letter; and if we had learned the old lesson of that fiftieth Psalm, ‘If I were hungry I would not tell thee. . . . Will I eat the flesh of bulls and drink the blood of goats? He that offereth praise glorifieth Me, and to him that ordereth his conversation aright will I show the salvation of God’-if we had learned that, and laid it to heart, and applied it to our own worship and our lives, mountains of misconception would be lifted away from many hearts. In our service we do not need to bring any merit of our own. This great principle destroys not only the gross externalities of heathen sacrifice, and the notion that worship is a duty, but it destroys the other notion of our having to bring anything to deserve God’s gifts. And so it is an encouragement to us when we feel ourselves to be what we are, and what we should always feel ourselves to be, empty-handed, coming to Him not only with hearts that aspire like incense, but with petitions that confess our need, and cast ourselves upon His grace. See that you desire what God wishes to give; see that you go to Him for what He does give. See that you give to Him the only thing that He does wish, or that it lies in your power to give, and that is yourself.

Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to Thy Cross I cling.

‘Let the lifting of my hands be as the evening sacrifice’; as the Psalmist has it in another place, ‘What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits?’-it is not a question of rendering, but ‘I will the cup of salvation.’ Taking is our truest worship, and the lifting up of empty, expectant hands is, in God’s sight, as the evening sacrifice.Psalm 141:2. Let my prayer be set forth before thee — Hebrews תכון לפניךְ, be directed to thy face, person, or presence. Let it not be lost, but let it come unto thee and find audience; as incense — Let it be owned and accepted by thee, no less than if it had been offered with incense at thine altar, from which I am now banished, and so am prevented from offering it there. And the lifting up of my hands — My prayer made with hands lifted up, which was the usual gesture in praying; as the evening sacrifice — In which he instances rather than the morning sacrifice, either because this prayer was addressed to God in the evening, or because the evening sacrifice was more solemn than that of the morning, and was attended with more company and more prayers; whence the ninth hour, which was the time of this sacrifice, is emphatically called the hour of prayer, Acts 3:1.141:1-4 Make haste unto me. Those that know how to value God's gracious presence, will be the more fervent in their prayers. When presented through the sacrifice and intercession of the Saviour, they will be as acceptable to God as the daily sacrifices and burnings of incense were of old. Prayer is a spiritual sacrifice, it is the offering up the soul and its best affections. Good men know the evil of tongue sins. When enemies are provoking, we are in danger of speaking unadvisedly. While we live in an evil world, and have such evil hearts, we have need to pray that we may neither be drawn nor driven to do any thing sinful. Sinners pretend to find dainties in sin; but those that consider how soon sin will turn into bitterness, will dread such dainties, and pray to God to take them out of their sight, and by his grace to turn their hearts against them. Good men pray against the sweets of sin.Let my prayer be set forth before thee - Margin, "directed." The Hebrew word means to fit; to establish; to make firm. The psalmist desires that his prayer should not be like that which is feeble, languishing, easily dissipated, but that it should be like that which is firm and secure.

As incense - See the notes and illustrations at Luke 1:9-10. Let my prayer come before thee in such a manner as incense does when it is offered in worship; in a manner of which the ascending of incense is a suitable emblem. See the notes at Revelation 5:8; notes at Revelation 8:3.

And the lifting up of my hands - In prayer; a natural posture in that act of worship.

As the evening sacrifice - The sacrifice offered on the altar at evening. Let my prayer be as acceptable as that is when it is offered in a proper manner.

PSALM 141

Ps 141:1-10. This Psalm evinces its authorship as the preceding, by its structure and the character of its contents. It is a prayer for deliverance from sins to which affliction tempted him, and from the enemies who caused it.

Be set forth before thee, Heb. be directed to thy face. Let it not be lost, but let it come unto thee and find audience.

As incense; owned and accepted by thee no less than the increase, which by thy command, Exodus 30:7, &c., is offered upon thine altar, from which I am now banished, and so disenabled to offer it there, and therefore I trust thou will accept my prayer instead of it. The lifting up of my hands; my prayer made with hands lifted up, which was the usual gesture. See Job 11:13 Psalm 63:4 88:9, &c.

As the evening sacrifice; which was offered every evening, Exodus 29:39, &c.; which he mentions either,

1. By way of opposition to the incense which was offered in the morning: or,

2. Synecdochically, so as to include the morning sacrifice, and all the sacrifices of the day, of which this was the close; such synecdoches being most frequent, as hath been already observed: or,

3. Because the evening sacrifice was more solemn than the morning, and was attended with more company and more prayers; whence the ninth hour, which was the time of this sacrifice, is called the hour of prayer, Acts 3:1. Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense,.... Which was offered every morning on the altar of incense, at which time the people were praying, Exodus 30:1; and was an emblem of it, even of pure, holy, and fervent prayer; which being offered on the altar Christ, which sanctifies every gift, and by him the High Priest; through whom every sacrifice is acceptable unto God; and through whose blood and righteousness, and the sweet incense of his mediation and intercession, it becomes fragrant and a sweet odour to the Lord; and being directed to him, it goes upwards, is regarded by him, and continues before him as sweet incense; which is what the psalmist prays for; see Malachi 1:11;

and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice; the burnt sacrifice of the evening, according to Ben Melech, the lamb slain every evening; or else the minchah, as the word is; the meat, or rather the bread offering made of fine flour, with oil and frankincense on it, which went along with the former, Exodus 29:38; and so the Targum,

"as the sweet gift offered in the evening.''

This only is mentioned, as being put for both the morning and the evening sacrifice; or because the incense was offered in the morning, from which it is distinguished: or it may be, as Kimchi thinks, this psalm was composed in the evening; and so the inscription in the Syriac version is,

"a psalm of David, when he meditated the evening service.''

Or because this was the last sacrifice of the day; there was no other after it, as Aben Ezra observes; and the most acceptable; to which may be added, that this was the hour for prayer, Acts 3:1. Wherefore "lifting up of the hands" was a prayer gesture, and a very ancient one both among Jews and Gentiles (x); Aristotle (y) says, all men, when we pray, lift up our hands to heaven; and it is put for that itself, 1 Timothy 2:8; and is desired to be, like that, acceptable unto God; as it is when the heart is lifted up with the hands, and prayer is made in the name and faith of Christ.

(x) Vid. Barthii Animadv. in Claudian. ad Rufin. l. 2. v. 205. (y) De Mundo, c. 6. Vid. Plutarch. in Vita Camilli. "Sustulit ad sidera palmas", Virgil. Aeneid. 2. so Ovid. Fasti, l. 3.

Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the {b} lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.

(b) He means his earnest zeal and gesture, which he used in prayer: alluding to the sacrifices which were by God's commandment offered in the old law.

EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
2. Let my prayer be set forth] Lit. be prepared, set in order. The same word is used of the service of the Temple in 2 Chronicles 29:35; 2 Chronicles 35:10; 2 Chronicles 35:16. Or, be presented, avail.

incense] Either the daily offering of incense by the priests upon the altar of incense (Exodus 30:7-8), or the ‘sweet smoke’ from the azkârâ or ‘memorial,’ the portion of the meal-offering which was mixed with oil and frankincense and burnt upon the altar (Leviticus 2:2, see note on the title of Psalms 38), may be meant. But in the only other passage in the Psalter in which the word ‘incense’ (q’tôreth) is used (Psalm 66:15), it denotes the ‘sweet smoke’ of the sacrifice generally; and as in the next line the Psalmist mentions the evening oblation or meal-offering, he may be thinking of the burnt-offering of which the meal-offering was the accompaniment.

the lifting up of my hands] The gesture of prayer (Psalm 28:2; Psalm 63:4; 1 Timothy 2:8), the outward symbol of an uplifted heart (Psalm 25:1).

as the evening oblation] Minchâh properly denotes the oblation or meal-offering which accompanied the daily burnt-offering (Exodus 29:38-42); but it may be used here to include the whole of the evening sacrifice (cp. 2 Kings 16:15; Ezra 9:4-5; Daniel 9:21); or the burnt-offering may have been already alluded to (see preceding note) by the word ‘incense.’

The evening sacrifice may be specially named because the Psalmist was in the habit of praying at that time (cp. Daniel 9:21), and composed the Psalm for use as an evening Psalm.

The sweet smoke of the sacrifice or of incense rising towards heaven was a natural symbol of prayer ascending to God. Cp. Revelation 5:8, where incense represents the prayers of the saints; and Revelation 8:3-4, where the angel adds incense to the prayers of the saints. It would seem that the Psalmist lived at a time when the daily sacrifice was suspended, or at a distance from Jerusalem; but he had learnt that he could approach God as truly in prayer as if he were assisting at the daily sacrifice. Cp. Malachi 1:11. For the correspondence of prayer and sacrifice cp. Proverbs 15:8; Hosea 14:2; Psalm 19:14, note.Verse 2. - Let my prayer be set forth (or, "established") before thee as incense; i.e. with the regularity of the incense, and with its acceptableness. And the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. The hands were "lifted up" in prayer, which was reckoned a serf of sacrifice (Hosea 14:2). The strophic symmetry is now at an end. The longer the poet lingers over the contemplation of the rebels the more lofty and dignified does his language become, the more particular the choice of the expressions, and the more difficult and unmanageable the construction. The Hiph. הסב signifies, causatively, to cause to go round about (Exodus 13:18), and to raise round about (2 Chronicles 14:6); here, after Joshua 6:11, where with an accusative following it signifies to go round about: to make the circuit of anything, as enemies who surround a city on all sides and seek the most favourable point for assault; מסבּי from the participle מסב. Even when derived from the substantive מסב (Hupfeld), "my surroundings" is equivalent to איבי סביבותי in Psalm 27:6. Hitzig, on the other hand, renders it: the head of my slanderers, from סבב, to go round about, Arabic to tell tales of any one, defame; but the Arabic sbb, fut. u, to abuse, the IV form (Hiphil) of which moreover is not used either in the ancient or in the modern language, has nothing to do with the Hebrew סבב, but signifies originally to cut off round about, then to clip (injure) any one's honour and good name.

(Note: The lexicographer Neshwn says, i.:279b: Arab. 'l-sbb 'l - šatm w-qı̂l an aṣl 'l-sbb 'l - qaṭ‛ ṯm ṣâr 'l - štm, "sebb is to abuse; still, the more original signification of cutting off is said to lie at the foundation of this signification." That Arab. qṭ‛ is synonymous with it, e.g., Arab. lı̂štqt‛fı̂nâ, why dost thou cut into us? i.e., why dost thou insult our honour? - Wetzstein.)

The fact that the enemies who surround the psalmist on every side are just such calumniators, is intimated here in the word שׂפתימו. He wishes that the trouble which the enemies' slanderous lips occasion him may fall back upon their own head. ראשׁ is head in the first and literal sense according to Psalm 7:17; and יכסּימו (with the Jod of the groundform kcy, as in Deuteronomy 32:26; 1 Kings 20:35; Chethb יכסּוּמו,

(Note: Which is favoured by Exodus 15:5, jechasjûmû with mû instead of mô, which is otherwise without example.)

after the attractional schema, 2 Samuel 2:4; Isaiah 2:11, and frequently; cf. on the masculine form, Proverbs 5:2; Proverbs 10:21) refers back to ראשׁ, which is meant of the heads of all persons individually. In Psalm 140:11 ימיטוּ (with an indefinite subject of the higher punitive powers, Ges. 137, note), in the signification to cause to descend, has a support in Psalm 55:4, whereas the Niph. נמוט, fut. ימּט, which is preferred by the Ker, in the signification to be made to descend, is contrary to the usage of the language. The ἅπ. λεγ. מהמרות has been combined by Parchon and others with the Arabic hmr, which, together with other significations (to strike, stamp, cast down, and the like), also has the signification to flow (whence e.g., in the Koran, mâ' munhamir, flowing water). "Fire" and "water" are emblems of perils that cannot be escaped, Psalm 66:12, and the mention of fire is therefore appropriately succeeded by places of flowing water, pits of water. The signification "pits" is attested by the Targum, Symmachus, Jerome, and the quotation in Kimchi: "first of all they buried them in מהמורות; when the flesh was consumed they collected the bones and buried them in coffins." On בּל־יקוּמוּ cf. Isaiah 26:14. Like Psalm 140:10-11, Psalm 140:12 is also not to be taken as a general maxim, but as expressing a wish in accordance with the excited tone of this strophe. אישׁ לשׁון is not a great talker, i.e., boaster, but an idle talker, i.e., slanderer (lxx ἀνὴρ γλωσσώδης, cf. Sir. 8:4). According to the accents, אישׁ חמס רע is the parallel; but what would be the object of this designation of violence as worse or more malignant? With Sommer, Olshausen, and others, we take רע as the subject to יצוּדנּוּ: let evil, i.e., the punishment which arises out of evil, hunt him; cf. Proverbs 13:21, חטּאים תּרדּף רעה, and the opposite in Psalm 23:6. It would have to be accented, according to this our construction of the words, אישׁ חמס רע יצודני למדחפת. The ἅπ. λεγ. למדחפת we do not render, with Hengstenberg, Olshausen, and others: push upon push, with repeated pushes, which, to say nothing more, is not suited to the figure of hunting, but, since דּחף always has the signification of precipitate hastening: by hastenings, that is to say, forced marches.

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