There are many great arguments that are presented as to why we should not pray to anyone besides God. One underused argument, however, is the analogical or typological argument. The Old Testament worship of God employed incense. That incense is a symbol and picture of our prayers. We can see its connection to prayer in the New Testament:
According to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.
And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.
It was, indeed, prophesied in the Old Testament that incense would be offered unto the name of the Lord throughout the world.
Malachi 1:11 For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering: for my name shall be great among the heathen, saith the LORD of hosts.
Furthermore, Scripture informs us of the fact that prayer corresponds to incense and sacrifice:
Psalm 141:2 Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.
Thus, today we do not offer literal incense to God but instead offer prayers. This understanding, of course, is not unique to me, but is confirmed by such fathers and early Christian writers as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Cyprian of Carthage, Methodius, Lactantius, Athanasius, Ephraim the Syrian, John Chrysostom, Augustine, and John Cassian (see the expanded version of this post for the actual quotations from those fathers – link) Doubtless many more could be added to these.
The point is that Scripture is fairly clear in making the association between Old Testament incense and prayer, and the fathers agreed. In the New Testament we no longer use incense. I realize that there are churches today who use incense, but that was not the practice of the ancient churches. Arnobius (flourished about A.D. 284-305) acknowledges this in Against the Heathen, Book 6, Section 1. Similarly, John Chrysostom explains: “You must worship ‘in truth’; as former things were types, such as circumcision, and whole burnt offerings, and victims, and incense, they now no longer exist, but all is ‘truth.’” (John Chrysostom, Homily 33 on the Gospel of John, at John 4:24)
But how does this tell us that we should not pray to saints? Let us look closely at the institution and formula of incense:
And the LORD said unto Moses, Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight: and thou shalt make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure and holy: and thou shalt beat some of it very small, and put of it before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation, where I will meet with thee: it shall be unto you most holy. And as for the perfume which thou shalt make, ye shall not make to yourselves according to the composition thereof: it shall be unto thee holy for the LORD. Whosoever shall make like unto that, to smell thereto, shall even be cut off from his people.
Notice that the incense is reserved for Jehovah: “it shall be unto thee holy for the LORD.” Furthermore, God threatens with death those who used it for any other purpose: “Whosoever shall make like unto that, to smell thereto, shall even be cut off from his people.” By analogy, prayer is reserved for Jehovah as well.
Thus, as we saw above, the prophet Malachi declares that incense will be offered “unto my name … saith the LORD of hosts.” It is to God and God alone that we make our prayers. Prayers to anyone but God is an abuse of the incense of prayer. We are not free to pray to whomever we want to, but instead we are to pray to God alone by the merits of Christ alone, since he is the only mediator between God and man. I realize that there are other and excellent arguments against prayers to others than God, but for what it’s worth I offer this additional argument for your consideration.