2 And I saw the seven angels who were standing before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. 3 And another angel came and stood at the altar having a golden censer, and many incenses were given to him, so that he might offer [them] with the prayers of the saints upon the golden altar [that was] before the throne. 4 And the smoke of the incenses with the prayers of the saints went up from the hand of the angel before God. 5 And the angel had taken the censer and filled it from the fire of the altar, and he threw [it] to the earth, and there were thunders and rumbles, and lightnings, and an earthquake.
We opened chapter 8 last time discussing the half-hour silence in heaven, and what that meant. It’s important to remember that these visions are set outside of time, so assigning any chronological sequence to the events they depict is always a dicey venture. However, where we’re given an indication of time (silence for about half-an-hour), it’s not unreasonable to assume the things that John sees afterwards are chronologically subsequent to that half-hour. This is significant if we understand that silence to be the silence that settles in the heavenly courtroom before the Judge suddenly (“about half-an-hour”) renders His verdict, and pronounces the sentence. Judgment is about to fall, and it won’t be pleasant.
Verse 2 introduces the seven trumpets that will occupy our attention for most of chapter 8, and chapters 9-11. But it’s done in a way that appears to be like a teaser trailer. The angels before God are handed seven trumpets, but that’s all that’s said about them at this time. These angels are spoken of as if they are not just random angels, but a specific, designated group of angels who are standing before God. Could these be the same angels as the ones who represent the seven churches (chapters 2 and 3)? That’s certainly possible. Remember, seven is the number of fullness, so as with the seven churches, these seven angels represent a completion or a fullness–maybe a fulfilling. As we will see, these seven trumpets proclaim the Lord’s judgment. As the sixth seal presented us with the beginning of The End, so with the trumpets comes the fullness of God’s judgment upon the earth. The fact that those trumpets are being blasted from before God reminds us of the source of the calamities that will come. More about this later.
Does verse 2 stand alone, intruding into the context of 1 and 3-5? Some see it that way, but as we look at verses 3-5, we see these are a preliminary to the judgment of the trumpets, so the presence of the angels with the trumpets in verse 2 reminds us of the context.
In verse 3 we have an angel with a golden censer standing at the altar. His censer is filled with “many incenses” to offer along with the prayers of the saints. Here we are reminded of the the fifth seal back in chapter 6, where the saints under the altar cry out to God, “How long?” and the Lord tells them to wait. He gives them white robes and says they are to wait until their number is complete. We should also recall the heavenly worship of chapter 5, where, in verse 8, the elders have bowls of incense which are the prayers of the saints. So this angel is offering up the prayers of the saints, along with “many incenses”–the plural is used here to indicate a large quantity. The prayers of the saints are added to with many, many more prayers. Perhaps the implication of this is that the full number of the saints in chapter 6 has been reached by the time the trumpets are about to blow.
Why are the prayers of the saints being offered up by an angel? Why don’t they go directly to the Lord from the saints? We talked for a little while about angels, and the supernatural as a whole. Those of us coming from a Reformed perspective are often hesitant to talk too much about angels and miracles, mostly because of the way these things are abused and misconstrued by the world, and by the more extreme charismatic elements of the church. However, to be a Christian is to believe in the supernatural. Indeed, we understand that the supernatural is around us all the time. We are sustained by a supernatural God, and all things work together to fulfill His purposes. People who don’t accept the existence of God and the supernatural realm filter out these things–they refuse to see them or acknowledge them. To us, however, angels, demons, and the working of the Holy Spirit in the world and especially in the church is real life. Now, our understanding of these things needs to be informed by Scripture, and not experience, but to deny such things is to undermine biblical reality.
So we shouldn’t have a problem with the idea of angels ministering, fulfilling duties and functions both in heaven and on earth (see Hebrews 1:14). And one of these functions could well be presenting the prayers of the saints before God. However, we need to bear two things in mind. First, this is a vision, so the picture of the angel presenting the prayers of the saints before the throne of God could just be a picture of a heavenly reality, not literally what happens. Second, we need to focus in on what’s important here. The angel offering the prayers is not the point; it’s the fact that our prayers don’t just drift off into the ether, but they are presented to the Lord. They reach His very throne, and He hears each and every one. When we partake of the Lord’s Supper, one of our pastors administers the elements. But the important thing about the Supper is not the pastor administering the elements, it’s the elements, and the fact they represent Christ’s presence with us, and our participation by grace in His death. The pastor is just fulfilling his job by presenting them to us, just as the angel is just fulfilling his ministry by presenting the prayers of the saints to the Lord.
Why incense? Its fragrance is symbolic of a pleasing offering, a beautiful aroma before God’s throne. God isn’t disgusted or disappointed by our prayers. Indeed, our prayers come via the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26), so He is always pleased with them. An interesting point about the “many incenses” is how this seems to indicate particularity. Much of Revelation speaks of people as groups–churches, numbers of people–and not as individuals. Here, though, we get a sense of individuality. It’s not the prayers of churches, but the prayers of many, many individual saints that are presented. Yes, we as churches should pray, and the Lord is pleased with those prayers, but He cares just as much about the prayers of each believer.
In verse 5, the business of judgment begins. Indeed, this may be a general encapsulation of all that is about to happen. In other words, the seven trumpets unpack what verse 5 describes. There’s a parallel to this in Ezekiel 10:1-2, where burning coals are taken and cast down upon “the city.” This is after angels had destroyed all the unfaithful in Jerusalem. The passage is symbolic for the coming of the Babylonians to bring God’s judgment against the nation of Judah. This gives us an idea, perhaps, of what’s going on in Revelation. The fire that the angel throws down on the earth is an encapsulation of the judgments that are to come upon the earth. These judgments are aimed at the ungodly, though insofar as they affect the environment, believers will no doubt be caught up in these things. But the Lord has sealed them, so however they may be afflicted physically, they will not receive the eternal torment awaiting those for whom these judgments are intended. We’ll get more into this over the coming weeks as we examine the seven trumpets.
Thunder, lightning, rumblings (the Greek is literally “noises”–phônai–but this word takes its meaning from the context, so here, “rumblings”), and earthquakes usually indicate the presence of God (e.g., Exodus 19:16, 17). Let us not forget, all that is about to happen is from God’s hand.
The seventh seal, therefore, is the judgment of God coming upon the world. This is the answer to the prayers of the saints who have been waiting a long time for God to bring about the fullness of their redemption, and to vindicate His name in judgment. When the seal is opened, silence descends in anticipation of what God will do. The seven angels before God’s throne receive their trumpets. An angel presents the prayers of the saints, their fullness noted, and then the burning censer is cast down to the earth. The Lord is on His throne, and He is about to declare His judgment.
Lord willing, we’ll start looking at the seven trumpets next time!