At the end of Revelation 7, the apostle John had been treated not merely to a great musical performance on earth but to the mixed choir of saints and angels in heaven, giving glory to God and to the Lamb. The opening of the first four seals on God’s scroll had showed the riders of woe going forth into the earth. The fifth seal sounded the souls of the martyrs crying out for justice, followed by the sixth seal and the unleashing of God’s judgment. Chapter 7 cut back and forth between heaven and earth, showing how God’s servants are sealed below and glorified above. John’s angel interpreter finally looked ahead to the ultimate bliss awaiting Christ’s people, with God sheltering them with His presence and the Lamb leading them to springs of living water.

There remained one seal to be opened, however, and Christians naturally expect it to bring Jesus’ appearing to end the age of judgment. At the start of chapter 8, the seventh seal is opened, yet instead of a glorious vision of Christ’s return, “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (v. 1). At the brink of the very end, the music above is stopped and every breath is held. “Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord,” commanded the prophet Zechariah, “for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling” (Zech. 2:13).

We should understand the silence of Heaven at the opening of the seventh seal in two ways. First, it reflects awe at the glory and majesty of the Sovereign Lord who comes in splendor and light. In the Old Testament, awed silence is commanded before the coming of God to judge: “Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is near” (Zeph. 1:7). In addition to expressing awe, the silent pause of the seventh seal serves the literary purpose of John in writing the Book of Revelation. If we were listening to it being read for the first time, we might think that the book was concluding with the opening of the seventh seal. Yet there is more to reveal: more contours of history and more details of God’s plan to save His people. Therefore, just when Christ is about to step out from the clouds of glory onto the earth, Revelation pauses with only the silence that attends His coming.

The opening of the seventh seal produces more than silence in heaven. Immediately, John is shown “the seven angels” who will appear in the next section, who “stand before God,” and to whom “seven trumpets were given” (v. 2). We are not told the identity of these seven angels. However, in Scripture we find two angels “who stand before God,” Gabriel (Luke 1:19) and Michael (Jude 9). Jewish aprcryphal writings supply the names of the other five as Uriel, Raphael, Raguel, Sariel, and Remiel (1 Enoch 20:2-8). Since John identifies these angels as “the seven,” it’s probably best to understand them as the seven archangels.

Before any trumpets are blown, however, another angel “came and stood at the altar with a golden censer.” This bowl or fire pan contained “much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne” (v. 3). As he made his offering, “the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel” (v. 4). Having performed this ministry, the angel “took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were pearls of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (v. 5).

In Luke 12:49, Jesus said, “I came to cast fire on the earth, and I wish that it were already burning!” The flaming judgments of Revelation 8:5 correspond to the opening of the seventh seal, the silence of which signifies Christ’s return and the fiery cleansing of the world to which Jesus looked forward. It is further obvious that His fire is cast down in response to the prayers revealed by the fifth seal (Rev. 6:10). In judgment of the seventh seal, Christ has responded to their pleas and avenged His martyred church.

The emphasis on prayer in this passage makes a number of important points. First and foremost, we see that prayer is the means by which God accomplishes His purpose in history. This is the point that we are to notice in verses 3-5, a point so important that the seven archangels are interrupted from blowing their trumpets. God reveals the strength of His covenant bond with His people and His attention to their prayers by first sending the angel to offer up the prayers of the saints and only then using their container to cast fiery judgments on the world. One reason that this needs to be emphasized is that Christians tend to rely on our own activity and to focus on what we can do against sin and evil, while we often neglect the far more important resource of prayer. In contrast, the biblical idea of holy warfare places prayer first and our own activity second.

As Christians in America face mounting threats to religious liberty and furious assaults on moral decency and truth, we must therefore recommit ourselves to the ministry of prayer. Worldly powers advance, and Christians have tried to meet them with worldly means: through the legislature, the media, and the courtroom. These are legitimate means, but means that the world is able to use more effectively than Christians can. These are the arenas in which the spirit of unbelief has power. Prayer is the arena in which Christians have a greater power than that of the world. While our own activity must fail without prayer, prayer alone in the hands of God is mighty to bring God’s judgment on the enemies of His kingdom.

A second vital point from this passage is that the prayers of Christians are certain to be received and answered by God. This is the point of the incense that the angel mixed with the censer of prayers to offer before God. The function of the incense was to make the prayers sweet-smelling in God’s presence. There is no doubt that something needs to be done to make our prayers acceptable to and effective with God, as were the prayers brought to God’s temple by this angel. All our prayers are defective, many are selfish or foolish, and all are corrupted in some way by the sin that makes them unacceptable in God’s presence.

What will not only get our prayers through but make them sweet-smelling in God’s presence? The answer is not found in the angel himself, since angels cannot mediate for God’s people, which is why we should never pray to them. The answer is found in the mediation of Jesus Christ, through His perfect life and sin-atoning death, and by means of His present intercession on behalf of the church (Rom. 8:34; Heb 7:25). The Bible teaches that “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). Jesus told His disciples, “Whatever you ask the Father in my name, he [will] give it to you” (John 15:16).

Finally, the vision of the seventh seal shows that the great prayer of the church is prayer for the kingdom of Christ to come. The prayers placed in the angel’s golden censer came from the martyrs who sought God’s judgment to avenge them (Rev. 6:10). Jesus’ teaching on prayer placed a similar priority of His kingdom (Matt. 6:9-10). Christians are encouraged in the Bible to pray for our own needs and for those of friends and neighbors. But the priority of our prayer lives should be given to the spread of the gospel, the preservation and strength of the church, the ministry of God’s Word, and the thwarting of godless and wicked powers in our world. These are the prayers that according to Revelation matter the most, the prayers that God will answer with power from heaven at the time of His choosing, and the prayers that we should be most privileged to offer in Christ’s name.

Will you commit to pray for the kingdom of Christ? Praying in His name for the cause of His gospel and for His judgment on rebellious evil, we may be heartened by the vision of the angel gathering our prayers into a golden censer, sweetened with the incense of Christ’s atoning work, and offered up before God’s throne, awaiting the day when our most fervent prayer will be answered. This is the prayer with which the entire book of Revelation – and the whole Bible – concludes. “Come, Lord Jesus!” we pray. He answers with words most precious to our hearts: “Surely I am coming soon” (Rev. 22:20).

Revelation 8:1-5 Study Questions:

What mood and feeling is created by these opening verses of chapter 8?

How does the pause of chapter 7, as we wait for the seventh seal finally to be opened in chapter 8, heighten the drama and add emphasis here?

What role do you think the trumpets will play in this vision? What is the role of the angel with the censer (vv. 3-5)?

How does the picture of the prayers of the saints being offered up before the throne at this crucial moment challenge the way we think about prayer?


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