And when he broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. And I saw the seven angels who stand before God; and seven trumpets were given to them. And another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden censer; and much incense was given to him, that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God out of the angel's hand. And the angel took the censer; and he filled it with the fire of the altar and threw it to the earth; and there followed peals of thunder and sounds and flashes of lightning and an earthquake.
Prayer and the Consummation of History
The utterly astonishing thing about this text 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.
In other words, what we have in this text 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 have all been gathering on the altar before the throne of God.
And the flame has been growing brighter and brighter and more and more pleasing in the presence of God. And the time will come when God will command his holy angel to take his mighty censer and fill it with fire from the altar where the prayers burn before the Lord, and pour it out on the world to bring all God's great and holy purposes to completion. Which means that the consummation of history will be owing to the supplication of the saints who cry to God day and night. Not one God-exalting prayer has ever been in vain.
This is an astonishing tribute to the enormous historical importance of prayer. Now let me stand back with you and see that this is so. Let's go back and get the flow of John's thought in front of us before we look in more detail at the text.
The Opening of the Seventh Seal
Our text begins in Revelation 8:1 with a reference to the opening of the seventh seal, "And when He broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour." To understand the meaning of this reference to a seventh seal we need to go way back to the beginning of chapter 5, where John begins to talk about the seven seals.
The Scroll of History and Its Seven Seals
In 5:1 John says, "I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne [God the Father] a book [or scroll] written inside and on the back, sealed up with seven seals." What we are looking at here is a scroll rolled up with seven seals across the opening flap. What the opening of the scroll represents is the unfolding of the end of history. In 4:1 John had been brought up into heaven "in the Spirit" and promised that he would see "what must take place after this"—in other words he was told he would be given a glimpse into the way history would come to a climax. So this sealed up scroll represents the unfolding of that promise for John and the end of history.
The scroll has seven seals that have to be removed before it can be opened. God is holding the book. An angel (in 5:2) cries out, "Who is worthy to open the book and to break its seals?" So the purpose of God the Father is to involve someone besides himself in the opening of history and the administration of the end times.
One Worthy to Open the Book and Break Its Seals
Verse 3 says that "no one in heaven, or on the earth, or under the earth, was able to open the book, or to look into it." John begins to weep, thinking that his hope of seeing the end of history would be denied.
Then in verse 5 one of the elders around the throne of God said to John, "Stop weeping; behold, the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah [Jesus], the Root of David, has overcome so as to open the book and its seven seals." And if we ask, "In what sense has Jesus 'overcome'? and why is he worthy to open the seals?" the answer is given in verses 9–10,
And they [those around the throne] sang a new song [to Jesus], saying, "Worthy art thou to take the book, and to break its seals; [Why?] for thou wast slain, and didst purchase for God with thy blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. And thou hast made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth."
So God views his Son Jesus as having the right to open the seals of history and oversee its final unfolding, because Jesus died, and in dying he ransomed a great multitude of saints from all the nations, and he has made them priests and established them as rulers of the earth. In other words, what happened at the cross was the key to history. It unlocks the future unfolding of God's plan. The one who will ride forth with a sword and rule the nations with a rod of iron has the right to do that because once he was a Lamb slain. God is willing to give the judgment of history only into the hands of one who came not to judge but to save.
Jesus Begins to Break the Seals
So Jesus begins to open the seals of the scroll of history. And with the opening of each seal, a vision is given to John not of the actual end of the world—that comes when the scroll itself is opened after all the seven seals are taken off its outer edge (the seven trumpets and seven bowls)—but what John sees is, I think, what Jesus called in Mark 13:8, "the beginning of the birth pangs"—the kinds of things in history that lead up to the end and mark this age with increasing intensity. Jesus said, "For nation will arise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will also be famines. These things are merely the beginning of birth pangs."
- The breaking of the first seal (6:1–2) reveals a white horse going forth to conquer—perhaps a symbol of Christ and the spread of the gospel, but more likely a symbol simply of military conquest.
- The opening of the second seal (6:4) reveals a red horse that stands for war and the taking away of peace and men killing each other.
- The opening of the third seal (6:5–6) reveals a black horse that stands for famine—a quart of wheat costs a day's wages.
- The opening of the fourth seal (6:8) reveals an ashen horse representing Death by pestilence and wild beasts.
- When he opens the fifth seal (6:9–11), he gets a glimpse of the souls of the Christian martyrs under the altar of God crying out for the vindication of the cause of truth and the blood they had shed.
- The opening of the sixth seal (6:12ff.) brings us as close to the end as we get in the "beginning of the birth pangs" with all the apocalyptic signs of earthquake, darkened sun and moon, stars falling, the heavens splitting, mountains and islands moving out of their places, and the enemies of God trying to hide from the wrath of the Lamb (v. 16).
A Vision of the Saints' Final Destiny
Then before the opening of the final seal John is given a vision of the destiny of the saints in all this upheaval. In 7:1–8 he sees that they will be sealed by God on the earth so they are preserved for his own. Then in 7:9–17 he sees them in the final triumphant state in heaven as an uncountable multitude from every nation serving God in security and joy forever and ever.
The Significance of the Silence After the Final Seal
Then in 8:1 the Lamb, Jesus, opens the seventh seal—the last one before the entire scroll can be opened and the end of history unfolded. The result is silence: "And when he broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour." The next sound that we hear is in verse 5 when the angel of God takes the fire of the altar and throws it to the earth with "peals of thunder and sounds and flashes of lightning and an earthquake."
During this silence what happens? Probably the hosts of heaven stand in dread awe—dumbstruck, as it were, with what is about to happen with the opening of the scroll. But more than dread and awe is in this silence. Just at this point God wants to show something to John about the role of Christians in all this tremendous upheaval in history. Up till now the breaking of the seals has simply shown the utter, awesome sovereignty of God controlling history and all its cataclysmic disasters and the fate of believers secure in heaven (7:15–17) and unbelievers crying out for the mountains and the rocks to fall on them (6:16).
But now God has something else to show us. What is our place in all this? Do we have any role to play? Do we make anything happen? Are we only feathers in the wind of providence, and leaves floating on the sea of divine sovereignty?
The answer is utterly astonishing. Leon Morris puts it like this:
The saints appear insignificant to men at large. But in the sight of God they matter. Even great cosmic cataclysms are held back on their account. And the praises of the angels give way to silence so that the saints may be heard (The Revelation of John, p. 119).
In other words, in this silence after the opening of the seventh seal we don't just have a picture of the dread and awe of the hosts of heaven before the end of the world unfolds, we have a dramatic presentation of the importance of the prayers of the saints. Before the scroll is opened God wants to make clear to John and to his readers—us—that the unfolding of the end of the world will happen by the prayers of the saints.
God Has Preserved All the Prayers of All the Saints
Look at verse 3:
And another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden censer; and much incense was given to him, that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne.
Notice: it is the prayers of "all the saints" that have been piling up on the altar. If you wonder where your prayers go and what God does with them, here is one of the answers. They go onto an altar before his throne. If mere human beings can invent a microchip that holds millions of bytes of communication, it is not difficult to imagine that God has no trouble at all devising a way to preserve on his altar every prayer that has ever been prayed in the name of Jesus.
What God Does with All These Prayers
Then when the time is right God does something with these prayers. He sends an angel to mingle heavenly incense with these prayers—perhaps signifying that the hosts of heaven and the prayers of the saints are one, great unified act of worship. In verse 4 that worship ascends before the Lord: "And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God out of the angel's hand."
Then something happens which shows that the prayers of the saints are the cause of great historical upheavals as history comes to an end. Verse 5:
And the angel took the censer; and he filled it with the fire of the altar [that is, with the burning prayers of the saints] and threw it to the earth; and there followed peals of thunder and sounds and flashes of lightning and an earthquake.
These great events: thunder, sounds, lightening, earthquake simply represent the action of God from heaven on the world as the scroll of the end of the age begins to open and the seven trumpets and the seven bowls are poured out. The unmistakable point is that your prayers bring that about.
What Others Have Said About This Passage
Listen to what others have said about this passage:
The fire comes from the very altar on which the prayers of the saints have been offered. This surely means that the prayers of God's people play a necessary part in ushering in the judgments of God. "What are the real master-powers behind the world and what are the deeper secrets of our destiny? Here is the astonishing answer: the prayers of the saints and the fire of God. That means that more potent, more powerful than all the dark and mighty powers let loose in the world, more powerful than anything else, is the power of prayer set ablaze by the fire of God and cast upon the earth." (Thomas Torrance, quoted in Morris, Revelation, p. 121)
The events that follow this episode of incense-offering, as one trumpet after another sounds, are the answer to these prayers of the suffering, expectant Church. (Isbon Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John, p. 552)
This verse  dramatically pictures the fact that it is in answer to the prayers of the saints that God's judgments will fall upon the earth. (George Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John, p. 125f.)
What God wants us to believe about our God-exalting prayers is that none of them is lost. None is wasted or pointless. They are stored up on the altar of God until the proper time when God pours them out on the earth to accomplish his great purposes of judgment and redemption.
Two Practical Implications for Us
There are at least two practical implications of this for us. One is what Jesus said in Luke 18:1, "We ought to always pray and not to lose heart." This truth—that prayers are stored up on the altar of God and made the power for great divine interventions in history—should encourage us that it is not pointless to pray again and again, "Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
And I can't help but conclude from this that the principle applies to answers to prayer in the shorter run—that is, as we pray for any given thing, our prayers are stored up on the altar of God with the prayers of others for that thing until they reach God's appointed proportion and then God pours them out in blessing in the best way for all concerned. So that no believing prayer is in vain. Ever.
One last implication for us is that we should be encouraged to pray through Operation World in 1994. Over four hundred households at Bethlehem have one of these. Let's make it one of the unifying efforts of our church in 1994. God will take the hundreds of prayers for the coming of the kingdom in all the world and store our prayers up on the altar of God. We will not have prayed in vain. On the contrary, we will have shaped the end of history for the glory of God. What a great investment as a church in 1994!