“When he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was unfaithful to the Lord his God and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense” (v. 16).
Israel’s history shows that, for the most part, the people did not follow God’s commands for worship faithfully. The people were not content to pray exclusively to their covenant Lord Yahweh but instead erected altars of incense where they were not supposed to build them and offered prayers there to foreign gods. Isaiah 27:9, for example, calls upon the people to tear down the incense altars they had built to the Asherim and other pagan deities.
Yet praying to other gods was not the only problem that Israel had when it came to prayer. Second Chronicles 26 describes the reign of King Uzziah, the ruler of Judah just before Isaiah received his call to prosecute God’s covenant (Isa. 6). The reign of Uzziah started out well, as he initially sought after God and walked according to His ways (2 Chron. 26:4–5). He fortified Jerusalem’s defenses, making them strong against the Philistines and other enemies (vv. 6–15).
Unfortunately, Uzziah forgot the One who made him strong towards the end of his life. Instead of humble reliance on the Lord, Uzziah let his strength get to his head and took it upon himself to “burn incense on the altar of incense” (v. 16), which was the prerogative of the priests alone (Ex. 30:1–10). The priests warned the king against his foolhardy course of action, but Uzziah persisted and broke out with leprosy from the hand of God, finally dying in disgrace (2 Chron. 26:17–23).
As new covenant believers, it is no longer possible for us to disobey the Lord at the altar of incense simply because there is no altar of incense today. Still, as incense represents the prayers of God’s people, there is still a warning in this text about how we should approach our Creator in prayer. We can never stand before Him in pride and demand that He answer us because of our own goodness or strength. Neither can we proudly think we are so strong that we have no need to pray to Him. On the contrary, we must always come before Him with humility, not boasting of our own strength but relying on Him alone. Blaise Pascal, the influential seventeenth-century mathematician and Christian apologist, recognized this truth when he said “Jesus Christ is a God whom we approach without pride and before whom we humble ourselves without despair.”
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
We are always to be humble servants of the Lord, coming before Him in prayer boldly (Heb. 10:19–22) not on account of what we have done but knowing that such access has been to granted to us in Christ alone. He looks with favor only upon those who are contrite and humble (Isa. 66:2), and if we are not humble before Him, we cannot rightly expect Him to hear or answer our prayers. Let us all cultivate humility in His presence.