Prayers of the Apocalypse

As the Author reads the final sentences of this world’s story, as the final sheep steps into the fold, as the last martyr’s blood spills to the ground, we hear heaven suddenly swell — with silence.

The hallelujahs halt. As a “darkness to be felt” stretched over the land of Egypt (Exodus 10:21), now a silence to be felt stretches over heaven itself. The burning ones bite their tongues from screaming “Holy, holy, holy!” Saints momentarily quiet their songs about the crucified Lamb. The apostle John reports “silence in heaven for about half an hour” (Revelation 8:1). Heaven, that place of highest praise, sinks into the solemn stillness of an army on the eve of battle.

As all quiets onstage, trumpets are distributed to seven archangels, and the spotlight shines on a priestly angel (possibly the Lord Jesus himself), who wades through silence to stand at an altar with a golden censer and much incense. He is to burn the incense before the throne. He performs what the Old Testament priests once did in the temple, when the gathered people went silent, and the fragrant smell of burning incense rose into heaven. But what cloud of aromas now rises before the Lord? Incense from the golden bowls, the prayers of the saints (Revelation 5:8).

At the end of this world, heaven quiets itself to solemnize the prayers of God’s people, rising as worship before God. John writes, “And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel” (Revelation 8:4).

And for what do these prayers plead? In one word: justice.

Appeals of the Apocalypse

The hushed scene picks up from the intermission of chapter 6, where John sees the ascended Lamb break the seven seals one by one. The breaking of the first four seals unleashes different horsemen, who bring violence, famine, and sickness (Revelation 6:2–6). Hades gallops close behind (verses 7–8). Saints are slaughtered during this period of broken seals.

At the breaking of the fifth seal, John sees their host, “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” (Revelation 6:9). In silence, overhear the theme of their prayer:

They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10)

“Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been” (Revelation 6:11). That moment arrives in chapter 8. Silence to hear solemn appeals of murdered saints now crying out for God to avenge their blood.

Commentator Grant Osborne strikes the vital note: “The silence in heaven is an expectant hush awaiting the action of God, but that is not to be just an outpouring of wrath but God’s answer to the imprecatory prayers of the saints (6:9–11 recapitulated in 8:3–4). Thus there is worship (the golden censer with incense) behind the justice” (Revelation, 339). The scent of worship will soon rise from the wrath. God’s sentence against the impenitent persecutors is not just a response to sin’s penalty, but to his saint’s prayers.

Before this volcano, mouths do not open, eyes do not shut. How does God respond?

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. (Revelation 8:5)

Fire falling, thunder crashing, rumblings, lightning lashing, earth quaking — “Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord, for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling” (Zechariah 2:13). And so begins the final judgment, for verse 5, writes G.K. Beale, “is to be interpreted as the final judgment, not as some trial preliminary to that judgment” (Revelation: A Shorter Commentary, 169).

Prayers to End the World

Again, God’s wrath against the impenitent is not just a response to sin’s penalty, but a response to his saint’s prayers. His children’s pleadings escort that judgment, beckon it forth. “The utterly astonishing thing about this text,” comments John Piper,

is that it portrays the prayers of the saints as the instrument God uses to usher in the end of the world with great divine judgments. It pictures the prayers of the saints accumulating on the altar before the throne of God until the appointed time when they are taken up like fire from the altar and thrown upon the earth to bring about the consummation of God’s kingdom. (The Prayers of the Saints and the End of the World)

Do we find this astonishing? Are we more prone to interrogate (rather than to appreciate) such prayers? “Do our prayers,” asks Beale, “come out of a sacrificial life, or do we come asking God only to throw us life-preservers to rescue us from our own foolishness? The prayers of the saints as pictured there focus on the holiness and truthfulness of God and a desire for that to be manifested in the execution of his justice. Are our prayers directed toward obtaining benefit for ourselves or glory for God?” (168).

Sheltered from much persecution, the sweetness of this incense has not yet pleased me as deeply as it might. It hasn’t needed to. Egypt’s whips have not struck my wife’s back. Pharoah has not tossed my children into the Nile. The unjust judge has not yet denied me a hearing. Romans 12:19 hasn’t met any existential crisis: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” But it has for many saints who have been more profoundly inflicted by injustice and scarred by sin.

Hesitations about imprecatory prayers, especially in the West, often expose (among other things) a lack of sympathy with our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world and throughout history.

Venerating His Vengeance

Whether you and I can relate circumstantially to these prayers for justice, such judgments have their place in our worship. The first thing we see Israel doing after deliverance from Egypt is gathering at the Red Sea, tears of gratitude flowing down their cheeks, voices joining in song to praise God for saving them by sinking their foes like a stone (Exodus 15:5). Saints of old could see the crushing of their enemies as God’s covenant love for them:

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
     for his steadfast love endures forever . . .
to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt,
     for his steadfast love endures forever; . . .
to him who divided the Red Sea in two,
     for his steadfast love endures forever;
and made Israel pass through the midst of it,
     for his steadfast love endures forever;
but overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea,
     for his steadfast love endures forever. (Psalm 136:1, 10, 13–15)

The psalmist can’t finish sentences detailing God’s righteous judgments without inserting praise for God’s love to his people displayed in the same act. Thus, after the prayed-for judgment falls at the end of time, we hear the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out,

Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants. (Revelation 19:1–2)

Thy Kingdom Come

When the priestly angel reaches into his golden bowl, will he find our prayer there? While many of us may not often have prayed for God’s retribution to fall upon the wicked, Jesus teaches us to fill up that bowl in the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9–10).

Martin Luther once taught us that this is to place all that opposes our God’s dominion into a pile and pray: “Curses, maledictions, and disgrace upon every other name and every other kingdom. May they be ruined and torn apart, and may all their schemes and wisdom and plans run aground” (Luther’s Works [1956], 21:101). “Thy kingdom come” is the positive way of praying, “Destroy every other kingdom that resists your will or stands in your way.”

Or as Piper exults,

What we have in Revelation 8:1–5 is an explanation of what has happened to the millions upon millions of prayers over the last 2,000 years as the saints have cried out again and again, ‘Thy kingdom come. Thy kingdom come.’ Not one of these prayers, prayed in faith, has been ignored. Not one is lost or forgotten. Not one has been ineffectual or pointless. They all have been gathering on the altar before the throne of God.

We pray for God’s dominion, a dominion that will overthrow all others. We pray for King Jesus to return, knowing judgment must come with his heaven (Revelation 1:7). We desire God’s righteous justice to be satisfied — at the cross or in hell. And we desire most of all that our Savior come so that the dwelling place of God is again with man — thy kingdom come!

Not one of our prayers for Christ to come, to bring his kingdom, and to make all our deepest wrongs right will be lost. They are gathered in a bowl, soon to be burned as incense before the throne and scattered as fire upon our enemies. Some of us stare at the skies, joining that solemn silence, groaning for justice, and aching for home. He will not disappoint. He will not delay a moment longer than his Father determines. As we wait, we close the distance and assault the interval with one beautiful weapon: prayer. Come, Lord Jesus!