In the Bible incense is used for worship. It represents the prayers of the people as those prayers ascend into heaven. Typically, It is reserved for God and when incense is offered to another it is always sinful. 1 Kings 3:3 “And Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David, except that he sacrificed and burned incense at the high places.”
We are in need of visible and tangible representations of those Holy Persons to whom we offer our prayers. Holy Icons remind us of these Holy Persons or events, just as ordinary pictures remind us of people we love. As a loving son find an outlet for his affection by imprinting fond kisses upon the faded photograph of his mother, so does the true child of God express his love for the Saviour and His friends, the Saints, by tender veneration of their representations. We honor Icons in much the same way that we respect the portraits of those whom we love or esteem. Just as no one would say that we are worshipping the statue or portrait of some national hero when we salute it or uncover our heads before it, so we cannot be accused of adoring the sacred portrait of a hero of the Church. When we venerate the Cross we are worshipping Him Who died thereon. When the book of the Gospels is kissed, it is the Word of God therein contained that is venerated. And when incense is burned or tapers lighted before Icons, it is a symbol of the light of the Holy Spirit and the virtues with which the Saints were endowed. It is not from the Icons themselves that we ask help, it is from God, through the intercessions of the Saints. (emphases mine)
He goes on to say that every Christian home should have icons therein and that it does not speak well of us that we have only secular pictures on our walls. That could be a post for another day, but I don’t see the sacred secular divide the way he does.
Though the good father says that he is asking help from God, notice he states that incense is burned before the icon and tapers are lighted before them. Prayers are offered to the Saint through the icon the Saint then responds by intercession on behalf of the one petitioning.
Scripturally, if you place something before someone else this thing is an offering to that person. This is particularly true when talking about that which is commanded in worship. Giving to another what rightly belongs to God alone is idolatry. When talking about incense the Bible says:
Lev 4:7 ‘And the priest shall put some of the blood on the horns of the altar of sweet incense before the LORD, which is in the tabernacle of meeting; and he shall pour the remaining blood of the bull at the base of the altar of the burnt offering, which is at the door of the tabernacle of meeting.
Num 10:1 THEN Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.
Num 16:7 “Let each take his censer and put incense in it, and each of you bring his censer before the LORD, two hundred and fifty censers; both you and Aaron, each [with] his censer.”
Notice that even when it was strange fire, not commanded by God, it was still “before the LORD”.
If one burns incense or bows before a pagan god it is worship of that god (not that the icon is a god to the Orthodox):
2 Chron 25:14 Now it was so, after Amaziah came from the slaughter of the Edomites, that he brought the gods of the people of Seir, set them up to be his gods, and bowed down before them and burned incense to them.
In Acts 10:4 (also Zech 8) are prayers and our alms (gifts) are a memorial before the Lord.
You see, worship is done before the Lord. Praying before an icon, burning incense before an icon and kissing an icon is worship and as such it is a violation of the 2nd Commandment.
I think if we look at constructin of an Eastern Orthodox church we will see the icons separating the altar of worship (where God is ) from nave of the church where the people are. That will have to wait until next time.