Continuing our series in Revelation 4-11, we’ve come to chapter 8. The story so far: God is in control of his world (Rev 4) , and has already dealt with injustice once-and-for-all through the sacrifice of the slain-yet-risen Lamb (Rev 5). One day, God will judge those who continue to rebel against him and oppose his people. But until then, he’s pouring out a measure of his judgement on his rebellious world in hope that they will realise what eternity without him will be like, and repent (Rev 6). His people will get caught in the crossfire, yet they’ll be sealed with God’s protection, and have the hope of a glorious future to sustain them (Rev 7).
In chapters 8 and 9, the judgement scenes continue. But first, there’s a brief interlude:
Rev 8:1-5 When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake.
There’s a bit of dramatic tension here, which you’d pick up if you read all the way through from chapter 6. The first six seals were opened in pretty quick succession, and each time a seal was opened it ushered in an act of judgement. We’re all waiting for the seventh seal, as we know that it’s the last one – it’s got to be something big, right?
But then chapter 7 gets in the way. A nice interlude about God’s people, to be sure, but can we get back to the seal?? It’s like a movie dealing with a ticking bomb, and just as it gets to the final few seconds – a different part of the storyline takes over. Frustrating, and it heightens the tension.
Finally, we’re back to the seal. And what happens?
For half an hour.
Talk about an anticlimax! All the noise of praise in heaven from chapters 4 and 5 – it stops. All the sounds of judgement and calamity on earth from chapter 6 – they stop, too.
Now there is a bit of preparation for the next scene, as the stage manager rushes on and gives each of the seven angels a trumpet. The promise of more action. After all, one of the main uses for trumpets in the ancient world was warfare. (See Zeph 1:14-16. That’s right Zephaniah. When was the last time anyone referred to Zephaniah. Enjoy.)
But the focus isn’t on the trumpets just yet. It’s on the angel with the golden censer. (For Baptists: that’s the dangly thing with smoky smelly stuff in it.) And this censer contains “the prayers of all the saints.”
Heaven stopped – for half an hour – so that God could listen to the prayers of his people. Think about that for a minute. He’s not just mumbling “mm hmm” distractedly while playing Angry Gods on his Android. (There are no iPhones in heaven. The last time humans had an Apple in God’s presence things didn’t go so well.) He’s closed the Smite-ify app, turned off the screen, and given full attention to what his children are asking him.
What were they asking him? Everyone’s got a different idea of what “the prayers of all the saints” are: all prayers; prayers for God to help in times of suffering and persecution; prayers of the martyrs for justice and vindication; prayers that God’s kingdom might come soon. I’m not sure, either, but if what happens next is any guide, they are prayers for God to act against injustice.
The prayers are received by God, symbolised by the incense. (This is why incense is used by many churches, as a symbol of our prayers rising to God. I’m a Baptist largely because I have allergies.) And then God acts.
The angel then takes the censer containing these prayers, filled it with fire from the altar (symbolising judgement?), and hurls it onto the earth. (Or onto “the land,” which could imply a judgement against unfaithful Israel.) Our prayers for justice get a response, as God sends yet more judgement on his rebellious world.
This scene finishes with a description of the “peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake.” This is the language of theophany, where God appears to humans. Another reminder that God – far from being enthroned in some distant universe – is actively involved. He’s heard his children cry for justice, and he’s come running to help.
To think about
What strikes you about this little scene of silence – where God takes time out of his busy schedule to listen to his children’s cries?