We know what it says … but what does it mean?
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 censer 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 censer, 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 imagery was deeply familiar to John’s audience, reaching back to the stories of their beginning in the Exodus. The writer of Hebrews went into great depth discussing the tabernacle and its furnishings as the earthly representation of the greater and more-perfect tabernacle not made-by-human-hands— that is, not of this creation. John had been given the rare privilege of seeing the true tabernacle of heaven, and the original golden altar of incense.
The tremendous power in the prayers of the holy ones was also revealed to John. You and I think of that power as reaching up to God and the Lord responding in divine might. But this time, John watched as these sacred prayers were thrown forcefully back to earth in a startling reversal of how prayer has ever been viewed.
John saw the resulting upheaval all across the planet as the thunder sounded and lightning flashed. John heard the multitude of praying voices coursing like an avalanche through the sky as the sacred incense spread through the atmosphere. John felt the reverberating impact as prayer collided with the earth. It must have taken John’s breath away.
The Angel is Jesus
So far, in John’s visions, Jesus has been depicted as the slain Lamb. But theologians from varying perspectives often agree that in a shift of perspective, Jesus is now the angel acting as High Priest of Heaven. It is a role the writer of Hebrews spent a great deal of time on, explaining that
- Jesus’s was a better priesthood, founded in the order of Melchizedek, a far more ancient caste and one that superseded the Levitical priesthood.
- Jesus provided a better hope because He could save once and for all time.
- Jesus ministered in a better sanctuary, for it was the template upon which the blueprints for the earthly tabernacle had been taken.
As our intercessor, the incense Jesus adds to the prayers of the holy ones – all those who come to the Lord in faith – makes them a sweet aroma unto God.
Christ as Intercessor
but he holds his priesthood permanently because he continues forever.
Consequently, he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.
For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.Hebrews 7:24-26 (NRSV)
The Spirit Intercedes for the Saints
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with groanings too deep for words. And God, who searches hearts, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.Romans 8:26-27 (NRSV)
Interpreters with an historical view equate the prayers represented at the altar with the martyrs’ prayer in the fifth seal.
The Martyrs are the Holy Ones
These had been slain during the great Roman persecution, the Time of the Martyrs. When God first responded to their cries for justice it was to rest and wait. It is possible the half hour of silence in heaven was that time of rest.
But now God was ready. Justice was about to roll down.
The prayers of the holy ones readied the seven angels with their horns of horror and the earth shuddered in terrified anticipation. Each trumpet would usher in a new wave of invaders, weakening the Roman Empire on every side until it was finally crushed beneath the heal of the Turks, and the eastern division was lost.
Or perhaps the judgment that rolled down was not upon Rome, but rather upon the land once known as Israel—on Galilee, Samaria, Judea, and most prominently Jerusalem. In this case, it is not the whole “earth” that quaked, but rather the “land,” a word often used to connote the Promised Land. The angel hurled the fiery coals and incense onto God’s apostate people.
Jerusalem Slated for Holy Herem
God had given specific instructions to the Israelites when they were to take the city-states of Canaan.
All of its spoil you shall gather into its public square, then burn the town and all its spoil with fire as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God. It shall remain a perpetual ruin, never to be rebuilt.Deuteronomy 13:16 (NRSV)
The only fire to use was the fire of the altar, the one God had personally ignited. This is what it meant to put a city under a sacred ban, holy herem (Hebrew: חרם, ḥērem). As a whole sacrifice, it was meant to be translated from earthly to heavenly by means of divine fire, the smoke reaching up through the skies to God. It is this judgment the Roman armies unwittingly exacted against Jerusalem.
The shofar sounded the warning of enemy armies drawing near, and also rallied Israel’s troops for war. Now God had the heavenly shofars sounding divine wrath against those who resisted and opposed God, even the Lord’s own apostate people.
But what if the prayers are being offered up by a people of a future time?
The Prayers of Tribulation
Many scholars who view this as prophecy still to be fulfilled also see Christ ministering to those who fly to God in fearful faith during the Seven Year Tribulation. Others see Jesus, in His High Priestly role, giving the incense to the angel, who will also hurl the coals of heaven down to the earthly plane.
The focus, however, is noting the censer both offers up the prayers of the holy ones and throws down divine fire. This is God’s direct response to the people’s cry, and now will come the final judgment of the cosmos.
Here, the seven trumpets are not a chronological series of woes to follow the seven seals.
Instead, the seven seals, trumpets, and bowls will all correlate to each other, describing the same time period or event from three vantages. Each woe is a judgment to be expected when God is opposed.
The prayers of all the faithful over millennia are made a sweet aroma through Christ’s intercession, for it is Jesus Who makes these prayers powerful. Some offer the idea of victory, for in John’s day, Roman triumphal parades included incense.
Believers as the Fragrance of Christ
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.
For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing: to the one group a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.2 Corinthians 2:14-16 (NRSV)
God brings justice in response to faithful prayer,
The four perspectives taken from Revelation: Four Views A Parallel Commentary, edited by Steve Gregg