May 31, 2020
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts around 16:55 in the audio file.
Or, How the Prayers of the Saints Fuel the Judgment of God
Every prayer we make adds fuel to the fire of God’s wrath. When we feel pain and cry for help, when we observe evil and cry for deliverance, when our chests pound with longing for God to do something, God does something. Even our tastes of blessing and our gratitude for His goodness makes the fury of the furnace of His righteous anger hotter.
Christians are gun-shy when it comes to imprecatory prayers, that is, prayer-curses, such as asking the Lord to break the teeth of His enemies and let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime (Psalm 58:6, 8). Many church-goers in this generation imagine themselves to be the kinder, gentler type of believers, but softness does not decrease God’s vengeance. We pray that God would grant repentance, and if He won’t, that He will do what is right.
The church cannot have it only one way. Christians cannot love grace and how grace teaches us about God and brings us to God without recognizing that grace is also great because of what wrath we deserved. It can be reverse engineered as well. The more we consider wrath, the more valuable we see His mercy to us in Jesus, and the glory of the Lamb slain and resurrected. The evaluation of one side isn’t one-sided. For another example:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them;
Sin and Love.
(George Herbert, “The Agony”)
Try to get to the bottom of love without understanding love’s reach to the sinner. Try to consider the depth of sin without understanding its rejection of love. At the cross we see both; Christ took God’s judgment to ransom a people for Himself, and at the end of the world we see God’s love for righteousness and love for the righteous as He judges the sins of men.
The martyred souls under the altar in Revelation 6:9-11 prayed for justice, and while those cries may be included in this paragraph (Revelation 8:1-5), nothing in the text or context limits the identity of the pray-ers to martyrs or limits the nature of the prayers to calls for judgment.
Verses 1-2 describe the scene and introduce seven angels and seven trumpets. Verses 3-5 describe the work of one angel and one instrument.
Worship of the Lamb happened immediately preceding the seals being broken by the Lamb (chapter 5 then 6), and worship of the Lamb happens again immediately before the trumpets being given (chapter 7 then 8).
When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. (verse 1)
Every one of the seven seals is opened by the Lamb. To the one who has born the judgment of God by being slain and ransoming people for God by His blood (5:6, 9, 12; 7:14), jurisdiction is given. Jesus taught this Himself, that the Father has given to the Son to the Son to execute judgment (John 5:22, 27).
The seventh seal is the last one (cf. Revelation 5:1). The scroll is now fully open. This may indicate that the final judgments on the earth will begin, the end of world history as anticipated.
Silence seems significant contrasted with the great multitude “crying out with a loud voice” in the previous scene (Revelation 7:10) along with the angels praising, presumably with the same loud voice (Revelation 5:12).
This is the only silence in Revelation, which would be a unique feature as a hinge in the judgments. It is silence around the throne in heaven, not on earth, and again, “silence is not a characteristic of heavenly rest” (Thomas).
Silence doesn’t mean empty, it means full of tension, pregnant. This silence consumes. Silence is often connected to awe and judgment.
That the silence lasted for about half an hour begs for some attention. Why so specific about a time, 30ish minutes, rather than even something vague such as “a while”? There is one, rare Greek word for half-hour which is used only here in the NT. The tempo is about to speed up, but the hush increases the suspense.
Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. (verse 2)
The seven angels must be known. They get a definite article, and a relative pronoun, “the seven angels, those who have been standing before God.” In the Apocrypha, the angel Raphael says he is one of “the seven angels” when he introduces himself to Tobit (Tobit 12:15). Maybe that fits the identity of these seven, maybe not.
Previous to chapter 8, the voice of Jesus sounded “like a trumpet,“ but these trumpets are numbered, one for each angel. Trumpets are used to call people together, to sound alarm, to direct troops in battle, and to celebrate offerings (examples of all of these in are found in Numbers 10). Seven trumpets were blown by seven priests on the seventh day marching around the walls of Jericho. Trumpets were also used ceremonially to enthrone kings and to bring up the ark.
We don’t know it yet, but these seven trumpets will occupy our attention from 7:6-15:6, though the seventh trumpet is blown in Revelation 11:15-19.
What are the arguments for thinking that the trumpets are basically a repeat of the seven seals? That approach, where judgment events are parallel, is called recapitulation or retracing. The primary arguments for recapitulation depend on genre.
“the interpretive relationship calls for an imagination freed from the prosaic mentality of the Western world and more open to the possibility of understanding that comes from insight rather than logic.” (Mounce)
But why can’t apocalypse have order? As if “awe-inspiring visions” can’t be patterned. Mounce compares what follows in Revelation to an “abstract painting that resists all attempts to explain systematically why certain colors and lines appear as they do.” Yet justice is measured by a known standard, so it’s an assumption to say that justice can’t be meted out with structure.
Another argument for recapitulation would be that the sixth seal seems to describe “the end,” and the fact that the storms accompany the seventh seal, trumpet, and bowl. But similarities do not make them identical.
To me, it seems on the contrary, that the events are successive/progressive, described as “telescopic” or “dovetailing“ (per Thomas).
The breaking of the seventh seal brings with it the blowing of the seven trumpets. The instruments are different (seals, trumpets, bowls), the numbers progress in a series, and the narrative also progresses toward a climax. Clues for combining the judgments are not evident, no “this is like this” but instead “this follows this.” There is no retelling language, or zooming in, such as the account in Genesis 2 provides a detailed look at part of the account in Genesis 1.
The seven trumpets describe some judgments that are similar to the previous seals, but with greater intensity and/or extent. Seals affect a “fourth of the earth” (6:8) while trumpets a “third of the earth” (8:7, 8, 11, 12), and the bowls bring the judgments to a finish (16:17). We’ll pick up with the trumpet blowing in verse 6.
Why mention the trumpets in verse 2, but then immediately “interrupt” with the additional angel and the prayers?
This makes verse 3 the key verse. Verses 1-5 belong together, since “another angel” expects the previous angels. But verses 3-5 are about a separate piece than the trumpets. The parenthesis is pointed.
And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, (verse 3)
another angel means that there is an eighth angel. It follows the pattern of the four angels holding back the winds in 7:1, and “another angel” came to instruct the four in 7:2.
A censer is a container, an open topped pan, a “fire-pan,” for burning incense, a tool typically used in cultic settings. The only reference to censers in God’s presence are here, and again in chapter 8:3, 5.
The altar and the throne belong together again, this altar is before the throne.
The prayers of all the saints. We’ve already met some of the martyred saints crying out for justice (Revelation 6:9-11). Those coming out of the great tribulation, whether martyred or not, certainly had made their case in supplication. But this is all the holy ones.
The prayers must include imprecatory prayers. This is a fantastic image of prayers being collected and kept by God. They are not bouncing off the ceiling. Prayers, in one sense, have a life of their own.
Think Psalm 56, especially verse 8.
You have kept count of my tossings;
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your book?
The LORD counts our turnings better than Fitbit. He saves our tears. He does not forget. They are not lost into the void.
Why is incense added? Incense was a combination of spices to produce a certain aroma. Whether or not the prayers were bitter, the incense makes them sweet and pleasing.
and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. (verse 4)
What does this verse really add to verse 3? The only extra is of the smoke that rose, but otherwise, the incense-infused prayers, brought by the angel before God, are the same.
Note the travel upward. Next is travel downward.
Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake. (verse 5)
How did the angel know to do it? A banana, for example, suggests what to do with it. But because the action is without instruction, the angel must be following “prior divine decision” (Beale). Even the fact that the angel “was given” incense means God is behind the liturgy.
A censer is a worship tool, but here it is a weapon, loaded with fire and tossed like kid’s toy.
Oxygen and fuel make fire, so the incense and prayers. But what provides the heat? God’s wrath. The angel threw it, cast it, hurled it.
Worship and prayers do not spontaneously combust, but when lit by God’s justice, they burn. In other words, worship is fuel to justice. There is a terrific joy in worshipping the Lamb directly, and there is a terrible joy in the Lamb’s wrath. Vindication of the righteous and vengeance on the rebels cannot be separated.
The most similar scene so far in Revelation to the peals of thunder and flashes of lightening is in Revelation 4:5, also around the throne. We’ll see these events again with the seventh trumpet in 11:19 and the seventh bowl in 16:18. These are atmospheric catastrophes that no one wants to be caught in.
On one hand, you can’t help but add fuel to the fire. Your gratitude makes the ingratitude more obnoxious, your imprecations make the justice of it more personal.
But why be unaware? Why not be aware that your prayers are accepted, and be encouraged that none of them are lost, and be emboldened to pile on. Pray! And know that justice will be done.
Your prayers are an offering to God. Your whole life, in a different way, is an offering to God. Sow and spend and sacrifice in love, just as Your Savior did. None of it will be lost.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1–2, ESV)