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.
We see it in Justin Martyr (lived about A.D. 100-165):
What sober-minded man, then, will not acknowledge that we are not atheists, worshipping as we do the Maker of this universe, and declaring, as we have been taught, that He has no need of streams of blood and libations and incense; whom we praise to the utmost of our power by the exercise of prayer and thanksgiving for all things wherewith we are supplied, as we have been taught that the only honour that is worthy of Him is not to consume by fire what He has brought into being for our sustenance, but to use it for ourselves and those who need, and with gratitude to Him to offer thanks by invocations and hymns for our creation, and for all the means of health, and for the various qualities of the different kinds of things, and for the changes of the seasons; and to present before Him petitions for our existing again in incorruption through faith in Him.- Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 13
We see it in Irenaeus (lived about A.D. 115 - 202):
But what other name is there which is glorified among the Gentiles than that of our Lord, by whom the Father is glorified, and man also? And because it is [the name] of His own Son, who was made man by Him, He calls it His own. Just as a king, if he himself paints a likeness of his son, is right in calling this likeness his own, for both these reasons, because it is [the likeness] of his son, and because it is his own production; so also does the Father confess the name of Jesus Christ, which is throughout all the world glorified in the Church, to be His own, both because it is that of His Son, and because He who thus describes it gave Him for the salvation of men. Since, therefore, the name of the Son belongs to the Father, and since in the omnipotent God the Church makes offerings through Jesus Christ, He says well on both these grounds, "And in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure sacrifice." Now John, in the Apocalypse, declares that the "incense" is "the prayers of the saints."- Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 4, Chapter 17, Section 6
We see it in Clement of Alexandria (lived about A.D. 150 - 215):
Now breathing together is properly said of the Church. For the sacrifice of the Church is the word breathing as incense from holy souls, the sacrifice and the whole mind being at the same time unveiled to God. Now the very ancient altar in Delos they celebrated as holy; which alone, being undefiled by slaughter and death, they say Pythagoras approached. And will they not believe us when we say that the righteous soul is the truly sacred altar, and that incense arising from it is holy prayer? But I believe sacrifices were invented by men to be a pretext for eating flesh. But without such idolatry he who wished might have partaken of flesh.- Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, Book 7, Chapter 6
We see it in Origen (lived about A.D. 185 - 254):
Celsus then proceeds to say that "we shrink from raising altars, statues, and temples; and this," he thinks, "has been agreed upon among us as the badge or distinctive mark of a secret and forbidden society." He does not perceive that we regard the spirit of every good man as an altar from which arises an incense which is truly and spiritually sweet-smelling, namely, the prayers ascending from a pure conscience. Therefore it is said by John in the Revelation, "The odours are the prayers of saints;" and by the Psalmist, "Let my prayer come up before You as incense."- Origen, Contra Celsus, Book 8, Chapter 17
We see it in Cyprian of Carthage (died about A.D. 258):
That the ancient sacrifice should be made void, and a new one should be celebrated- Cyprian of Carthage, Treatise 12, Book 1, Section 16
In Isaiah: "For what purpose to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? Says the Lord: I am full; I will not have the burnt sacrifices of rams, and fat of lambs, and blood of bulls and goats. For who has required these things from your hands? " Isaiah 1:11-12 Also in the forty-ninth Psalm: "I will not eat the flesh of bulls, nor drink the blood of goats. Offer to God the sacrifice of praise, and pay your vows to the Most High. Call upon me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver you: and you shall glorify me." In the same Psalm, moreover: "The sacrifice of praise shall glorify me: therein is the way in which I will show him the salvation of God." In the fourth Psalm too: "Sacrifice the sacrifice of righteousness, and hope in the Lord." Likewise in Malachi: "I have no pleasure concerning you, says the Lord, and I will not have an accepted offering from your hands. Because from the rising of the sun, even unto the going down of the same, my name is glorified among the Gentiles; and in every place odours of incense are offered to my name, and a pure sacrifice, because great is my name among the nations, says the Lord."
We see it in Methodius (died about A.D. 311):
Therefore, also, it stands nearer to God within the Holy of holies, and before the veil, with undefiled hands, like incense, offering up prayers to the Lord, acceptable as a sweet savour; as also John indicated, saying that the incense in the vials of the four-and-twenty elders were the prayers of the saints.- Methodius of Olympus, Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Discourse 5, Chapter 8
We see it in Lactantius (lived about A.D. 250 - 325):
But the worship of God consists of one thing, not to be wicked. Also in that perfect discourse, when he heard Asclepius inquiring from his son whether it pleased him that incense and other odours for divine sacrifice were offered to his father, exclaimed: "Speak words of good omen, O Asclepius. For it is the greatest impiety to entertain any such thought concerning that being of pre-eminent goodness. For these things, and things resembling these, are not adapted to Him. For He is full of all things, as many as exist, and He has need of nothing at all. But let us give Him thanks, and adore Him. For His sacrifice consists only of blessing." And he spoke rightly. For we ought to sacrifice to God in word; inasmuch as God is the Word, as He Himself confessed. Therefore the chief ceremonial in the worship of God is praise from the mouth of a just man directed towards God.- Lactantius, Divine Institutes, Book 6, Chapter 25
We see it in Athanasius (lived about A.D. 293 – 373):
For such meditation and exercise in godliness, being at all times the habit of the saints, is urgent on us at the present time, when the divine word desires us to keep the feast with them if we are in this disposition. For what else is the feast, but the constant worship of God, and the recognition of godliness, and unceasing prayers from the whole heart with agreement? So Paul wishing us to be ever in this disposition, commands, saying, "Rejoice evermore; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks." Not therefore separately, but unitedly and collectively, let us all keep the feast together, as the prophet exhorts, saying, "O come, let us rejoice in the Lord; let us make a joyful noise unto God our Saviour." Who then is so negligent, or who so disobedient to the divine voice, as not to leave everything, and run to the general and common assembly of the feast? Which is not in one place only, for not one place alone keeps the feast; but "into all the earth their song has gone forth, and to the ends of the world their words." And the sacrifice is not offered in one place, but "in every nation, incense and a pure sacrifice is offered unto God." So when in like manner from all in every place, praise and prayer shall ascend to the gracious and good Father, when the whole Catholic Church which is in every place, with gladness and rejoicing, celebrates together the same worship to God, when all men in common send up a song of praise and say, Amen; how blessed will it not be, my brethren! who will not, at that time, be engaged, praying rightly? For the walls of every adverse power, yea even of Jericho especially, falling down, and the gift of the Holy Spirit being then richly poured upon all men, every man perceiving the coming of the Spirit shall say, "We are all filled in the morning with Your favour, and we rejoice and are made glad in our days."- Athanasius, Letter 11, Section 11
We see it in Ephraim the Syrian (lived about A.D. 306 - 373):
Glory be to You Who clothed Yourself in the body of mortal Adam, and made it a fountain of life for all mortals. You are He that livest, for Your slayers were as husbandmen to Your life, for that they sowed it as wheat in the depth [of the earth], that it may rise and raise up many with it. Come, let us make our love the great censer of the community, and offer on it as incense our hymns and our prayers to Him Who made His cross a censer for the Godhead, and offered from it on behalf of us all. He that was above stooped down to those who were beneath, to distribute His treasures to them. Accordingly, though the needy drew near to His manhood, yet they used to receive the gift from His Godhead. Therefore He made the body which He put on, the treasurer of His riches, that He, O Lord, might bring them out of Your storehouse, and distribute them to the needy, the sons of His kindred.- Ephraim the Syrian, Homily on Our Lord, Section 9
We see it in John Chrysostom (lived about A.D. 347 – 407):
The psalmist therefore asks for his prayer to become like that sacrifice defiled by no blemish of the offerer, like that pure and holy incense. Now, by his asking he also teaches us to offer prayers that are pure and fragrant. Hence he is also the one who touched on the stench of prayer in saying, "Because my iniquities rose up over my head, they weighed me down like a heavy load. My wounds were putrid and foul-smelling." As, then, the incense even of itself is fine and sweet-smelling, but gives particular evidence of its fragrance at the time when it is mixed with the fire, so too is prayer fine of itself but becomes finer and more sweet-smelling when offered with ardor and a glowing spirit, when the soul becomes a censer and lights a burning fire. I mean, the incense would not be added unless the brazier had previously been lit, or the coals set alight. Do likewise in the case of your own mind: first light it with enthusiasm, and then offer your prayer.- John Chrysostom, Commentary on the Psalms, at Psalm 141:2
We see it in Augustine (lived about A.D. 354 – 430):
"Let my prayer be set forth in Your sight as incense, and the lifting up of my hands an evening sacrifice" Psalm 140:2. That this is wont to be understood of the Head Himself, every Christian acknowledges. For when the day was now sinking towards evening, the Lord upon the Cross "laid down His life to take it again," John 10:17 did not lose it against His will. Still we too are figured there. For what of Him hung upon the tree, save what He took of us? And how can it be that the Father should leave and abandon His only begotten Son, especially when He is one God with Him? Yet, fixing our weakness upon the Cross, where, as the Apostle says, "our old man is crucified with Him," Romans 6:6 He cried out in the voice of that our "old man," "Why have You forsaken Me?" That then is the "evening sacrifice," the Passion of the Lord, the Cross of the Lord, the offering of a salutary Victim, the whole burnt offering acceptable to God. That "evening sacrifice" produced, in His Resurrection, a morning offering. Prayer then, purely directed from a faithful heart, rises like incense from a hallowed altar. Nought is more delightful than the odour of the Lord: such odour let all have who believe.- Augustine, Exposition on Psalm 141 at verse 2.
We see it in John Cassian (lived about A.D. 360 – 435):
Wherefore we ought to pray often but briefly, lest if we are long about it our crafty foe may succeed in implanting something in our heart. For that is the true sacrifice, as "the sacrifice of God is a broken spirit." This is the salutary offering, these are pure drink offerings, that is the "sacrifice of righteousness," the "sacrifice of praise," these are true and fat victims, "holocausts full of marrow," which are offered by contrite and humble hearts, and which those who practise this control and fervour of spirit, of which we have spoken, with effectual power can sing: "Let my prayer be set forth in Your sight as the incense: let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice."- John Cassian, Conference 9, Chapter 36
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. 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) tells us:
Having shown briefly how impious and infamous are the opinions which you have formed about your gods, we have now to speak of their temples, their images also, and sacrifices, and of the other things which are nailed and closely related to them. For you are here in the habit of fastening upon us a very serious charge of impiety because we do not rear temples for the ceremonies of worship, do not set up statues and images of any god, do not build altars, do not offer the blood of creatures slain in sacrifices, incense, nor sacrificial meal, and finally, do not bring wine flowing in libations from sacred bowls; which, indeed, we neglect to build and do, not as though we cherish impious and wicked dispositions, or have conceived any madly desperate feeling of contempt for the gods, but because we think and believe that they — if only they are true gods, and are called by this exalted name — either scorn such honours, if they give way to scorn, or endure them with anger, if they are roused by feelings of rage.- Arnobius, 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.