In 1982 I served for a few months, as an independent reporter in the press corps during a war. I reported from southern Lebanon and northern Israel during a terrible conflict that gripped the Near East for a time. The government of Israel crossed into Lebanon with a huge fighting force, after sustained shelling from Lebanon by the PLO backed by Syrian forces. They decided to aid a group called the Southern Lebanese Christian Militia (the Phalange) by crossing into Lebanon and routing as much of the PLO and the supporting Islamic force as possible. The spark that lit the fuse was the brazen nature of the Abu Nidal Organization’s assassination attempt against Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Shlomo Argov.
In the wake of this conflict, Beirut lay in ruins, and Israel and its allied militia force occupied the southern part of Lebanon. The PLO fled Lebanon to Tripoli by June of 1982. Stains like the massacres committed at places like Sabra and Shatilla haunted Israel, who, it appears, naively armed a beaten down Southern Lebanese population that was filled with revenge against their neighbors. Israel hoped, according to the late Menachem Begin, to sign a treaty of “forty years of peace” – but it was not to be. Like all things in war, when the smoke cleared and the rubble was exposed, the damage was greater than any such gain.
One of the things that became a daily part of the experience of Israelis living in the north in places like Qiryat Shmona, Metulla and along the Naftali Ridge was that of shelter living. Day and night, Israelis lived under the constant barrage of ‘Ketusha rockets’, that fell in the dozens on their schools, town squares, clinics and shops. They became adept at maintaining some level of normalcy underground, building a network of tunnels and shelters in their cities. Not content to let the children hold up like moles, they decorated the shelters both inside and out. Even today the shelters of the north are the most colorful and ornate in the country. They showed that shelters are practical in a war zone – but they can be beautiful!
Why do I mention this little “blast from my personal past” today? I want to talk about a shelter that each of us must learn to take advantage of. You may not realize it – but you need a shelter. This is a time of war. If you are one who has submitted your heart to following Jesus, you were born into a SPIRITUAL WAR. You may not realize it right now, but you are in desperate need of a SHELTER, and God has provided a beautiful one in which you can HIDE when the attack of the enemy closes in. He is trying to advance, but the battle belongs to the Lord. God’s victory is sure. Our posture is to be ready at arms with our armor on, and to be sheltered in Him until He calls for us in the moment of battle. The deliberate sheltering in Him is what believer’s refer to as a “prayer life”.
Key Principle: Prayer is not the fleshly action of closing my eyes and speaking well learned words. It is the deliberate hiding of my vulnerable self in His powerful grasp. It is an exercise of submission.
Before we go further, let’s admit a sad truth about Christians in the modern era: “The fastest way to empty a room is declare a prayer meeting.” The quickest way to add to guilt and make even some of the most active believers cringe is to speak about our individual prayer lives. None of us are satisfied, I suspect, with this aspect of our walk with God! It may be that way because we have been convinced that the battle is not truly going on, or it may be because we haven’t been feeling the darkness coming on us. It may be a problem of immature thinking, or it may be simple forgetfulness. Yet, the Bible makes clear that prayer is not a flesh action – it is much more. Prayer is like a retreat to shelter. It is a hiding place in communion with God Himself.
Today I want to both encourage you and speak about your prayer life – and the two subjects should not be at odds with each other.
Let’s establish the problematic backdrop for those who may not have looked closely… Something is very wrong with the self-powered church of our time. Our planning sessions have overtaken our praying sessions. We have lost our edge in many believing circles, to the reality of the spiritual nature of the battle for the hearts of men, women and children. We have advertised instead of asked of God. We have programmed and planned what should have been prayed over and pleaded for. We have worked in the flesh to contest a battle fought over on spiritual grounds… and many have been wounded, left tired and disillusioned by the fight.
Frankly, it requires much less of the spirit to throw myself into the involvement of the activities of my church, but much more to pull close to the Lord and hide in His will. It is far easier to build a bridge than nurture a relationship, and many of us have taken the easier path – activism over intimacy. As a result, for many believers, their church – the very vehicle that was made to help them grow – became the very place where their energy was sapped away and they worked on – often with an empty spiritual tank. It is time to find our place of intimate refuge in our Heavenly Father, before the empty tank starves all forward progress from our spiritual journey. It is time to reassess our journey and do the hard thing. Eternity will not be spent simply accomplishing for God – but celebrating Who God is, and recognizing His greatness and power. It will be more awe then accomplishment – and, believe it or not, it can be that way NOW.
Pastor Tim Boal, a friend and colleague, spoke recently about the history of prayer and its power at the recent Vision 20/20 conference in California. He read an illustration that will serve as my beginning point today, as we look at the incense altar in the Tabernacle – the place of the “prayer altar” of the Bible.
“Six hundred years ago in about 1400 CE, John Huss started in Moravia, close to the Czech Republic. Huss taught the Bible, but was eventually burned at the stake by the church leadership under Papal authority. Before his martyrdom, Huss predicted that the seed of the Word planted in that community would one day spring up in a powerful revival. Two hundred years passed before the fruit of that work dramatically showed itself. In about 1600, a revival occurred under the ministry of God through John Amos Comenius, who led the Moravian Christians out of their native land, where they were suffering extreme persecutions. He sought for a safe haven for them to live within, and for about the next 100 years they bounced from place to place, looking for a safe home. Just before Comenius died, he referenced the prophecy of John Huss from 200 years before and said:”Within one hundred years the prophecy of Huss will unfold in the Moravian community providing a revival to all the western world.” Comenius died, and so – it appeared – did his dream. The next generation completely forgot about those words. It wasn’t until 1700, when German Count Ludvig Von Zinzendorf was born into a wealthy aristocratic family, and turned his heart to Christ in his native Lutheran Church. At age 27, he took in a single Moravian refugee. In time, he took in 300 more refugees on his estate, and began to lead them. Under Zinzendorf’s leadership, they prayed together, studied together, and worshipped together. As he studied, Zinzendorf came across Comenius’ prophecy about the Moravians made one hundred years before to the very week he found that prophecy, He called the Moravians together in mid – August of 1727 to his house for an all-night prayer meeting – one hundred years to the day after the death of Comenius. The next day is referred to by church historians as the Moravian Pentecost, August 13, 1727. The Spirit moved in a very significant way, and though the Acts 2 work was not wholly repeated, it was clear to everyone God was there, and God was at work. They decided to match the awesome days’ events by beginning another prayer vigil. They designated a place of prayer in the village, broke into groups of three, and each group took one hour of prayer in succession. In the 168 hours that make up a week, every hour, three people were praying. That prayer meeting went for 110 consecutive years – three people each hour, 24 hours a day, 110 years long! What happened to this small group of Moravians? Over the next 15 years, 70 of their number left the group to go to a mission of unreached peoples, learning other languages and sharing the Gospel. They became the first group to begin a modern foreign missions movement that lasts to this day. Moravians would today be the largest denomination, many feel, but they most often gave away any church founded to another fellowship after it was established. John Wesley was converted by the testimony of the Moravians – and the movement of Methodism is traceable back to them.” Tim closed the story by asking a poignant question: “What will extraordinary prayer accomplish?”
We are all stirred by such stories, but that is just the beginning. Prayer offers more than Kingdom advancement. It offers battlefield survival strategy. It offers a blanket of warmth in a cold world…It offers peace amid tumult. Some reading this are perhaps experiencing a POUNDING of their life by the enemy right now. They aren’t trying to fulfill a prophecy or reach a continent – they are trying to get through the month in one piece! What can prayer do to make that possible? How can my prayer life become a source of solace and power instead of a place of fault and guilt? The Scriptures have some words on the subject that are critical to grasping God’s purpose for us. Look at the small altar that God ordered made and covered with gold for the celebration of the time of prayer by the people. It was called the altar of incense:
Exodus 37:25 Then he made the altar of incense of acacia wood: a cubit long and a cubit wide, square, and two cubits high; its horns were of one piece with it. 26 He overlaid it with pure gold, its top and its sides all around, and its horns; and he made a gold molding for it all around. 27 He made two golden rings for it under its molding, on its two sides—on opposite sides—as holders for poles with which to carry it. 28 He made the poles of acacia wood and overlaid them with gold. 29 And he made the holy anointing oil and the pure, fragrant incense of spices, the work of a perfumer.
What does this short reading offer to help us?
First, the inclusion of this altar in the holy furnishings reminds us that God desires His people to gather in prayer – it has a Divine purpose. The incense would allow God to participate with them because GOD WANTS TO HEAR OUR VOICES and God wants to enjoy our prayers.
This incense provided a smell for the delight of GOD ALONE. That God loved the smell of the sacrifice is well documented (see Leviticus 3:16, 6:21). But God also waited to SMELL the prayers that were so well embraced by the aroma of the sweet-smelling incense. The time of prayer was marked by the time of the incense burning and the two were mixed together into the “nostrils” of God. This assumption is part of the background of the opening of Luke’s Gospel, in a the story at the time of incense burning:
Luke 1:8 “Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, 9 according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering.”
Second, the uniqueness of prayer, its many facets of comfort and its role in driving into God’s arms is recognized by the process of making the incense. This was a special moment before God –a time when God perceived in a special way the needs and presentation of His people. It was a pleasing aroma to Him:
Exodus 30:34 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Take for yourself spices, stacte and onycha and galbanum, spices with pure frankincense; there shall be an equal part of each. 35 “With it you shall make incense, a perfume, the work of a perfumer, salted, pure, and holy. 36 “You shall beat some of it very fine, and put part of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting where I will meet with you; it shall be most holy to you. 37 “The incense which you shall make, you shall not make in the same proportions for yourselves; it shall be holy to you for the LORD. 38 “Whoever shall make any like it, to use as perfume, shall be cut off from his people.”
Simply put, verse 36 sets the whole passage – the place of prayer was the intimate meeting place with God. There was a time, preparation and a pattern – and people met with their God. The whole environment of the Mishkan (meeting place) was marked by a unique fragrance – never used in other times or places in life. Like God’s name – it was sacred and guarded. Look closely at the ingredients. We don’t know if God intended us to see anything in them, but the rabbis of old certainly did – all in relation to PRAYER. I cannot say this was God’s intent on these fragrances – maybe He just delighted in the combination as a Personal preference – but I love the imagery the rabbis reminded us of:
- Stacte – is Nataf in Hebrew, a bitter gum resin that naturally oozes to the surface. Some rabbis noted in sermons long ago that it appeared on the face of the tree forced out of the inner heart of the tree by some stress or pressure, causing it to be abundant on the outside of the tree. Still others noted that God made the tree with so much sap that it always had much to “give away”. What is clear is that it was a resin that oozed out of the tree – as some of our prayers do from our heart because of stress and pressures that we need to pour out willingly to God, or our abundance from which it flows.
- Onycha – is shekh-ay’-leth in Hebrew, (an unused root in association with a lion’s roar). The word likely refers to the operculum (closing flap of gill in fish, but a special gland in some shell fish). This comes from below the surface of the Red Sea and may be representative of prayers from the “depths”… Some prayer comes from the depths of our lives that need to be carefully rooted out of the encased shells of our lives, and shared with the God who loves us. It is the only way deep issues can be healed!
- Galbanum – (Chelbanum from cheleb or fat – drawn out) – is a word used for a number of differing processes – as in being tapped from the commiphora tree like Maple Syrup. A tap is burrowed from the outside into the tree, piercing the exterior and “wounding the tree” to get the bitterness inside out. Some prayer, the rabbis taught, was to empty our souls of the bitterness trapped within us before God, who alone could handle it. (The word is now more commonly associated with the sap extraction from “Ferula gummosa – a low shrub of Persian slopes. Galbanum of this type is used in the making of modern perfume – the ingredient which gives the distinctive smell to the fragrances “Must” by Cartier, and “Chanel No. 19″).
- Frankencense – is tapped from Boswellia trees and is milky white in color. Frankencense is “levonah” in Hebrew, (lavan=white). It is not only white in color, it makes a thick whitened smoke when it burns. Many Old City shops carry it and Catholic Churches use it in the liturgical incense burners to this day. The point is that addition to the incense was that, like the prayers of God’s people, that which made an impact or a change that was evident to all. Prayer changes people and the spiritual atmosphere with a noticeable fragrance and color.
Regardless of whether God wanted us to know something of prayer through the ingredients or not, don’t miss the big picture – GOD LOVES THE PRAYER TIME.
When it is hard to do, remember this – It is loved by your Father. It is a joy to Him.
- We have seen that God desires prayer to be a part of worship and celebration.
- We have seen that God LOVES the time His people meet with Him. Yet, there is more…
Third, the beauty, value and position of the altar reinforced the importance of the actions performed on it. The altar was made of precious gold. It was crowned with beauty, and placed just outside the curtain that blocked the view of the Ark with the Mercy Seat. It was, for all practical purposes – at the access point to the holiest place before God.
Fourth, the mercy involved in the altar is underscored by the horns that were places of refuge for men and women to receive the mercy of God. I am thinking of the story in 1 Kings 2, where Benaiah was sent by Solomon to kill Joab in the Tabernacle. He held fast to the horns of the outer altar, because they were a place of mercy – and another set was found on this altar as well. Horns denoted strength in the time, but they also denoted God’s mercy in the worship setting.
Fifth, the incense altar was made with transport poles and rings on two corners, keeping it flexible and with the people on the move – as our prayer life should be. We are not given ONE WAY to pray, stilted, read and memorized –but a whole array of presentations and examples. I want to take time to observe one of them found in the heart of the Psalter. Listen to this rich expression of love for God and the place of His shelter in prayer:
Psalm 91:1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. 2 I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress, My God, in whom I trust!” 3 For it is He who delivers you from the snare of the trapper and from the deadly pestilence. 4 He will cover you with His pinions, and under His wings you may seek refuge; His faithfulness is a shield and bulwark. 5 You will not be afraid of the terror by night, or of the arrow that flies by day; 6 Of the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or of the destruction that lays waste at noon. 7 A thousand may fall at your side and ten thousand at your right hand, but it shall not approach you. 8 You will only look on with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked. 9 For you have made the LORD, my refuge, even the Most High, your dwelling place. 10 No evil will befall you, nor will any plague come near your tent. 11 For He will give His angels charge concerning you, to guard you in all your ways. 12 They will bear you up in their hands, that you do not strike your foot against a stone. 13 You will tread upon the lion and cobra, the young lion and the serpent you will trample down. 14 “Because he has loved Me, therefore I will deliver him; I will set him securely on high, because he has known My name. 15 “He will call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him. 16 “With a long life I will satisfy him and let him see My salvation.”
Truth #1: The writer shares that there is a place where I can find God’s protection, but I must both SEEK it and STAY in it. It is not beside God – it is within the place of His very nature (91:1,9).
Psalm 91:1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. The translation reads: “I can hide in the shadow of the Great One if I stay in His secret place.” God has a place, beyond any enemy’s grasp, where I can find shelter and security. It is with Him. It is in His Holy Presence. Where exactly is this place? Is the place something God created? How can I find it?
Psalm 91:9 can be read two ways – that God has created the refuge place, or that God Himself IS the refuge place – that it is WITHIN HIM. Dr. Martin Luther understood it in the second way. The statement is this: “For you have made the LORD, my refuge, even the Most High, your dwelling place.” Why read it in such an awkward way (that God Himself is the very shelter in Whom I should dwell)? Because other places in Scripture make that same point. In the Psalm of Moses (Psalm 90), he opens with “Lord, YOU have been my home.” The point is this: I can find refuge in God when I intentionally move to the place of shelter, and my commitment to stay there when tempted to emerge and defend myself.
Truth #2: There is a prayer that helps me recognize my Protector (91:2).
Psalm 91:2 I will say to the LORD, “[You are] My refuge and my fortress, My God, in whom I trust!” In essence, the text declares: “I will proclaim aloud before God from inside His shadow that I KNOW He is my protector – I trust Him! No information coming from my lips will teach God anything. I am not speaking for His benefit – but for MINE. I must constantly recite the protection of the Lord to appropriate in the Spirit what I cannot see with my eyes. The prayer that I recite helps ME to recall the work that God is doing on my behalf. One of the great helps in prayer is the aspect of reminder that I NEED in my daily walk. If you don’t know what to pray for, celebrate what God’s Word says He is doing right now for you!
He is your Shepherd. He is your Rock. He is your Fortress. He is your Strong Tower. He is you Salvation and Rescue. He is your Source. He is your Destination. He is your Journey. He is all that you truly need, and He provides all you truly have…
Truth #3: There is a provision in His presence! (Psalm 91:3).
Psalm 91:3 For it is He who delivers you from the snare of the trapper and from the deadly pestilence. God protects those who place their trust in Him. The writer exclaims “I constantly recall His protection while He loots the traps my enemy has set before me, and gives me the proceeds from the looting.” God plunders the enemy snares, cashes in on them and offers me the spoils! God isn’t just One Who delivers – He takes the things meant for EVIL and TURNS them into valuable things that help me! Joseph learned this – King Asa experienced this!
That provision of protection has a tender image behind it. Psalm 91:4 He will cover you with His pinions, and under His wings you may seek refuge; His faithfulness is a shield and bulwark. The poetry of the song is rich in image. The writer says: “His (ebrah) beautiful feathers cover me, His wings (kaw-nawf’) shield me”. His faithfulness (or more properly His absolute reliability in terms of truth “emet”) is both my front guard and my rear protector (so-khay-raw’: bulwark or buckler, used only here in the Hebrew terminology of the Bible). Don’t miss that God’s wing is always there to cover us, but only the one who SEEKS refuge beneath its impenetrable shield senses that protection. Life lived apart from prayer is uncertain life – vulnerable and ambiguous. His reliability in protection and His revealed nature in truthful exposure do not change – but we are often distracted, reaching for solace in places other than the ones provided for by our Heavenly Father. Time spent in prayer adds surety to your walk and reinforces God’s protection over you.
If you drop your eyes further down in the song, the Psalmist continues this theme: Psalm 91:10 “No evil will befall you, nor will any plague come near your tent. 11 For He will give His angels charge concerning you, to guard you in all your ways. 12 They will bear you up in their hands, that you do not strike your foot against a stone. 13 You will tread upon the lion and cobra, the young lion and the serpent you will trample down.” Be careful with these verses about protection. Loud voices argue that because of texts like these, God has made an eternal promise that nothing that hurts me will enter my life – but that just isn’t so. This is a truth about a man in a battle that has been given a grand vision of victory – but battles leave many good men and women wounded. If that is the case, what is the value of these verses? What do they promise, if anything, to the believer who is seeking God’s protection.
First, recall this is a song of celebration by a warrior who has been shown protection by God amidst the pain of battle. Look very closely at both the prerequisite and at the promises! To be eligible for this extreme protection, the warrior had to deliberately place himself in the shelter of God Himself. The place of shelter was not simply a place God dwelt in for communion- it was the very place of God’s nature and person (Psalm 91:9, more below).
In other words, the one who wraps their life in the truth of God’s attributes and cloaks themselves with God’s purposes with intent to glorify God – that is the one who will see life from God’s perspective.
Now examine the promises. In the midst of their assignment by God, evil will be unable to wound them, for God will use them to gain the victory. Wounds (nehgah) will not enter their covering, for God will dispatch mighty unseen protectors, angels from His side, to stand beside us. We may retreat from the battle, but our feet will be protected from the damaging stones beneath. The terrifying serpent, the roaring young lion, the slithering cobra – will all be unable to stop our march and mighty trampling. Our timidity will dissipate in God’s grip. Our strength will increase, our promises certain – for we will know that we serve God’s ends and be assured that no power is His match.
When all is said about the Psalmists words, one truth remains: Clutched in the grip of the power of God, cloaked in the beauty of His Divine presence, I can stand with confidence in the face of the foe.
I need not quiver at the whistling of his arrows, nor quake at the pounding of the footsteps of his advancing army. Confidence comes as my walk with God envelopes more of my vision than my earthly view. God is BIGGER than the foe. God is GREATER than his weaponry. God’s TEAM is vastly larger than the mere men and women I can see around me. I must be able to hide in Him to truly get His perspective on the darkness descending. I need to intentionally pull the cloak of His holy goodness over me to find His protection. Spiritual life cannot be nurtured by fleshly pursuit – only time in His covering will sustain when the battle draws near. Prayer isn’t an abstract reality when the shells fall and bullets of battle are all around me – it is the shelter of protection. It is the foundation of confidence. Yet, it is something more… it is the wellspring of peace….
Truth #4: There is a peace that accompanies my closeness. (Psalm 91:5-8)
Psalm 91:5 You will not be afraid of the terror by night, or of the arrow that flies by day; 6 Of the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or of the destruction that lays waste at noon. 7 A thousand may fall at your side and ten thousand at your right hand, but it shall not approach you. 8 You will only look on with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked.
The peace of the one who hides constantly in the Father is noticeable. Restlessness is the stuff of the wanderer, but enduring security is the way of the man or woman that has deliberately pulled the cover of God’s protection over them. The Psalmist iterates sources of fear in couplets first from the night, then from the day:
- The dread of a night’s disaster (91:5a) and the plague of the darkness (91:6a): Pain often intensifies at night. With the decent of darkness, uncertainty rises. Since the language here is one of a man or woman of God under attack – the imagery is even more vivid. It is the anxiousness of the foxhole on the night battle field. It is the soldier dug in on the front, nervous of every movement from the enemy opposite them. In the darkness, the enemy’s movement is far less discernible, and fear plays on the mind and heart. Memories of the fight from days’ past flood the mind. Lost comrades and fallen friends fill up the mind as the cold and quiet night provides the unnerving isolation from others. It is here that reciting God’s protection will become critical to keep peace reigning in the heart.
- The assault of weapons in the day (91:5b) the withering of the noonday sun (91:6b): Not only the dark of night, but the terror of the fight and the scorching of the midday sun give rise to fear. The sound of the weaponry and the sight of the fallen fellow soldier raises any warrior’s anxiety. In the heat of daytime battle a soldier fights thirst and heat as much as enemy and arrow – all seems poised to destroy him. Yet, the constant call to God’s shield of protection can provide cool shade from the sun, and powerful protection from the arrow!
Sit with the soldier in the bunker who calls continually on the Lord – the prayer warrior who covers himself or herself with the beautiful expanse of the wings of the Protector of Heaven. Watch the battle from their eyes.
It is not bloodless – a thousand may fall around them. It is not distant – ten thousand may fall at their own right hand. The destruction, nevertheless, will not overtake you (the term “nawgash” suggests both approach and overtake). The warrior sees the fall of the foe, and recognizes the victory of the Lord.
The idea of 91:8 is not that the warrior does not see the losses of good men and women in the battle – it is one of perspective. The losses are real, but the gains are eternal and powerful. The pains of fallen friends don’t dominate the thinking of the warrior sheltered under God’s protection – the advances of his King are foremost in His mind. The recompense to the wicked foe is more vivid than any cost of the battle. Victory is assured and the glory of his King is certain. No cost is too great for right to triumph. No payment is too demanding for evil to be vanquished. With such a perspective, the hidden warrior watches, not with blindness to the cost – but with assurance that all of our struggle is worth the doing of it.
Truth #5: The proclamation of God is heard from the hiding place. (Psalm 91:14-15)
Psalm 91:14 “Because he has loved Me, therefore I will deliver him; I will set him securely on high, because he has known My name. 15 “He will call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him. 16 “With a long life I will satisfy him and let him see My salvation.”
The Psalmist hears the gentle voice of God. He is proclaiming promises over His beloved ones. He recognizes their submission and love – and He promises deliverance. He acknowledges the believer’s cry out to Him – and He promises to answer that cry. He sees the troubles of His people – and offers them His presence amid the pain and toil. He promises rescue, and He alone can deliver it.
Prayer is not the fleshly action of closing my eyes and speaking well learned words. It is the deliberate hiding of my vulnerable self in His powerful grasp. It is an exercise of submission.
Prayer is the air tank of the diver. It is the life line to the climber. It is the ship’s hull – holding fast in the storm. It is no luxury, no part-time, half-hearted pursuit. It is the difference between understanding the world from God’s perspective, and being disillusioned – even in the presence of His greatness.