Text: Rev 8:1-5
OT Text: Zeph 1:7-18
Featured Verse: Rev 8:4 and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.
Main Idea: The profound silence of heaven prepares the scene for the final verdict of the judge. The silence is broken only by the prayers of the saints which always come into the presence of God.
We have now returned to the seventh seal. Given all of the chaos that has happened before, we may expect more mayhem when the seal is opened. But instead, we are ushered back into the throne room of heaven where we hear the most startling thing of all - absolute silence. For a half hour.* That is a long period of time. We sometimes have a "moment of silence", which may occasionally stretch to a minute. Also, we usually pause for silent prayer during the worship service at City Reformed. In my experience, people get antsy after 30 seconds. If I am conducting the service I will wait for 45 seconds, but I have to look at my watch because it feels uncomfortable to wait that long. Can you imagine the impact of this in the vision. 30 minutes of waiting for something to happen. So what is going on here?
First, silence is the prelude to the judgment of God. Just as the courtroom is silenced before the arrival of a judge, the silence in heaven prepares the way for the final verdict of God. If you read the background Scripture from Zephaniah, you will see that the long description of the "Day of the Lord" and the judgment of God begins with the command, "Be silent before the Lord God." (Zeph 1:7)
Second, the end of this passage uses the language of judgment that is found at the end of each series of seven.** This shows that what is being portrayed here is one perspective on the final judgment of God.
Third, this is an extension of the the sixth seal. While seals 1-5 seem to cover the entirety of church history, the sixth and seventh seal cover the final judgment. They are two sides of the same coin. The two features that go together in final judgment throughout the book of Revelation are (a.) the destruction of God's enemies - 6th seal, and (b.) the courtroom scene of God as judge - 7th seal. These features are particularly strong at the end of the book in chapters 19-20.
Two other features interrupt this scene of final judgment in the throne room of heaven. The seven trumpets are introduced. They will offer a recapitulation of the scope of the seven seals, but will be more intense. As we will see tomorrow, the impact of the judgments will be increased from one fourth to one third. Also, the presence of incense is highlighted in the throne room. In particular, the incense is connected to the prayers of the saints, which "rise before God" (8:4) in the throne room of heaven.
Conclusion and Application
Maybe it seems weird to think of your prayers being stored in a golden bowl and lifted by the hand of an angel into the presence of God. Again, we recognize that these symbols are meant to convey spiritual truths. When we let the vision ruminate in our minds, the picture becomes really encouraging. John shows us that our prayers are stored before God. They may not be immediately answered - God's timing is not our timing - but God hears us and God will act. In this case, the prayers of the saints in 6:10 - "how long oh Lord?" - are finally answered.
But we can also take encouragement from the vivid picture of prayers being lifted before God like incense rising in wafts of smoke.*** When we pray we don't literally see or hear God. Sometimes, in our weakness we wonder... is God even listening? This vivid picture shows us through visionary means the confidence we can have in prayer. When the throne room is silenced and all of creation hangs on the final word from God... it is the prayers of God's children which "break the silence." Yes, God is the sovereign king of heaven, and yes God is working all things according to his purposes. But he delights to receive the prayers of his children and he determines to use their prayers as part of the chain of events which complete the redemption of the world.
I will close with a quick story that some at church have heard before. My father was an attorney and worked hard to establish his practice, often logging fairly long hours in his office. As part of his work he needed dedicated times to focus on cases. But he made it a point to tell his secretaries and his receptionists that he always wanted to be interrupted by his children. I didn't realize this at first, but when a new receptionist was added while I was away at school they might not recognize my voice or know me by name. But once I was properly identified, the doors were open, his meetings were interrupted, and I was taken off of hold (on the phone.) While his work was important, it was clear that for my father, family was more important and he delighted to be interrupted. (This is something that I really appreciated about my father.) But John's vision shows us a picture of a far greater heavenly office, where God is enthroned and the cases of all humanity are tried. However, the ruler of the universe is our Heavenly Father. He delights in being "interrupted" by his children. In the words of the old song, "what a privilege to carry, everything to God in prayer."
So, find some quiet time today. Sit in silence, then let your prayers interrupt our heavenly Father. Bring to him your joys, your concerns, your frustrations. He is eager to hear and he promises to act in the appropriate time.
*Half hour of silence. Some suggest that this time period is symbolic, and while it may be, it is far from obvious what the symbolism should mean.
** The Seventh Judgment as Final (Similarities)
Rev 8:1,5 When the Lamb opened the seventh seal… 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.
Rev 11:15,19 Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet… Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.
Rev 16:17 The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, “It is done!” And there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as there had never been since man was on the earth, so great was that earthquake.
*** The offering of incense would become a deadly test of faithfulness for first century Christians as Emperor Domitian required his citizens to burn incense in worship of himself. It is believed that the tribulation many Christians in these seven churches might one day face could hinge on their willingness to worship a counterfeit god in this way. Refusing this idolatry could be costly - even deadly. Even as they suffered, their resistance would have been fortified by knowing that their prayers were rising to the real God in the throne room of heaven.