Prayers of the Apocalypse

Prayers of the Apocalypse

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.”

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).

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