John must have been overwhelmed by all he had experienced thus far.
Consider the sheer magnitude of global destruction, massive loss of life, of terror and horror, unspeakable suffering, the explosive collision of God’s wrath with the corruption of sin.
Yet side-by-side with the scenes below was the mighty multitude of worshippers robed in purity and light, rapturous music sounding from the choirs eternal, joyous praise to God and to the Lamb, the elders casting their golden crowns upon the glassy sea, the four living beasts, the angels, and torrent of rainbow luminescence cascading from the brilliance of the Lord.
And these visions had only just begun.
History or Prophecy?
Not only is John’s revelation filled with strange and frightening images accompanied by often cryptic messages, but those who have studied this book have come away with wildly different conclusions on what the Lord meant to convey to us, its readers.
From this view, the trumpets announced a course of incursions made by various would-be conquerors of the Roman Empire—the Vandals and Huns, coming in from both sides of the empire, the Saracens and Turks rising up from the increasingly powerful Islamic forces. The sixth trumpet blew in 1453, proclaiming the fall of Constantinople to Turkish Forces. The little book is the Bible, made available by the new printing press to the masses in the west.
Alternatively, when the focus is on the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in 70 CE, the trumpets take on an entirely different meaning. The first four relate directly to the Jewish war with Rome in 66-70 CE. The fifth trumpet unleashed demonic spirits wreaking spiritual and emotional havoc among those of Jewish faith. The sixth trumpet sounded the mournful dirge of Roman armies razing Jerusalem, ravaging its citizens, and banishing God’s people from the land of their inheritance.
When looking to the future, the fulcrum swings again, and now the trumpets represent increasingly horrific calamities the inhabitants of earth will suffer as they shake their fists at God, refusing to repent. Whether symbolic or literal, whether delivered directly from the hand of God or occurring as natural consequences of humankind’s corruption and abuse of the planet, each trumpet will heap suffering and death on the earth.
This perspective notes the similarities between the ancient plagues of Egypt and the trumpets, and the ills that have befallen humankind over the course of history. Each calamity is a divine call to repentance which is met with human resistance.
Prayers of the People
Remember the prayers of the martyrs, who were swirling in the blood drain of the altar? It was as though the altar appeared in the center of heaven, the true tabernacle. And John watched as God responded to their prayers with white robes and an invitation to rest, for much was to happen before all was restored to righteousness.
Now, the inner chamber of God’s heavenly tabernacle was revealed to John, the Holy Place, where the golden altar of incense offered up the prayers of all God’s people.
John’s audience would have instantly recognized what John described.
Then I beheld the seven angels who have stood in the presence of God, and seven trumpets were given to them.
Then another angel came and stood over the altar having a golden censor and it was given to him much incense in order that he will give [this incense] to the prayers of all the holy ones over the golden altar of incense standing in the presence of the throne.
Then the smoke of the altar arose to the prayers of the holy ones out of the hand of the angel in the presence of God.
Then the angel has taken hold of the censor, and he filled it out of the fire of the altar of incense, and cast [the incense] into the earth: and there came thundering, then voices, then lightning, then shaking.
Then seven angels, they having the seven trumpets, made them ready in order that they would sound their blast.Revelation 8:2-6
The Altar of Incense
Within the Books of Moses were God’s instructions concerning the furnishing of the tabernacle.
You shall make an altar on which to offer incense; you shall make it of acacia wood.
It shall be one cubit long and one cubit wide; it shall be square and shall be two cubits high; its horns shall be of one piece with it. You shall overlay it with pure gold, its top and its sides all around and its horns, and you shall make for it a molding of gold all around.
And you shall make two golden rings for it; under its molding on two opposite sides of it you shall make them, and they shall hold the poles for carrying it. 5 You shall make the poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold.
You shall place it in front of the curtain that is above the ark of the covenant, in front of the cover that is over the covenant, where I will meet with you.
Aaron shall offer fragrant incense on it; every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall offer it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall offer it, a regular incense offering before the Lord throughout your generations.
You shall not offer unholy incense on it or a burnt offering or a grain offering, and you shall not pour a drink offering on it.
Once a year Aaron shall perform the rite of atonement on its horns. Throughout your generations he shall perform the atonement for it once a year with the blood of the atoning purification offering.
It is most holy to the Lord.God to Moses, Exodus 30:1-10 (NRSV)
Sweet Hour of Prayer
Think of the precious treasure this altar represented, covered completely in pure gold, tended every morning and evening by the priests. The pleasing fragrance of sweet spices, pure frankincense, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, seasoned with salt, pure and holy, would rise up to God as billows of prayers from the people. Later, the Psalmist would write,
Let my prayer be counted as incense before you and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.Psalm 141:2 (NRSV)
The Fire of God
Only fire from the bronze altar – the immense altar of sacrifice that stood in the public area of the tabernacle, and later the temple – could be used to light the incense, suggesting that prayers are made acceptable to God through the Lord Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross.
The fire on the bronze altar had been ignited by God’s own person.
Moses and Aaron entered the tent of meeting and then came out and blessed the people, and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came out from the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces.Leviticus 9:23-24 (NRSV)
From that time forward, the altar’s fire was to be kept burning forever. Symbolically, then, the fire that fueled the people’s prayers originated with the Lord.
Rising Up, Hurled Down
There is something of a dream quality to John’s narration, as though he were himself enrapt in the incense. For thousands of years, the imagery was of sweet, aromatic clouds of smoke rising up to God, through the sky, up into the heavens, translating the earthly adoration and yearnings of God’s people into heavenly prayer. It must have been a transcendent experience for those who prayed outside the Holy Place as the incense was sprinkled upon the altar. Certainly John, a faithful Jew, would have often prayed in the courtyard as this heavenly perfume filled the air.
But here in heaven, the altar was already in the very presence of the Almighty. Where would the prayers of the people now spread?
In a swift and unexpected movement, the angel took the power of these prayers and hove them forcefully through the heavens back down to the earth, causing terrifying upheaval. And it is to this we now turn.
The four perspectives taken from Revelation: Four Views A Parallel Commentary, edited by Steve Gregg