The Place of Prayer and the Plan of God (Rev. 8:1-5)

To say that people disagree on how the book of Revelation unfolds is surely one of the understatements of the year. However, you can’t preach through it without taking a position. So I have had to do this, obviously. As we go through this book together, you may find that you do not agree with my particular take on everything, but what I hope we can agree on are the principles that shine through no matter what position you take. We must always remember that the original audience for this book were congregations in the first century Roman province of Asia. This was not meant merely to give them information about the far distant future but was meant to impact their lives in the day and times in which they lived. One of my goals is that the message of Revelation will impact our lives in similar ways. And surely that is something we can all agree on.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean it’s not necessary for me to give you some indication of where I stand on these issues. So before we go further, I need to begin here by sketching out for you my basic understanding of the flow of the narrative so far and in the coming chapters. What we’ve seen so far is this: in the first three chapters we have the vision of the risen Christ who comes to John and gives him specific messages to seven churches in Roman proconsular Asia. Then beginning in chapter 4, we have John’s vision from heaven, a vision which will extend to the end of chapter 16, and which will include three cycles of judgment.

One of the main areas of disagreement among Biblical scholars is how to understand the relationship between these three cycles. Are they to be taken in a temporally linear way? That is, are we to understand the seals as representing one cycle of judgment which is then followed in history by the judgments represented by the trumpets which is then followed in history by the judgments represented by the bowls? Or do these cycles of judgments recapitulate the same basic events from different perspectives, much as we might see the same sports play revisited in multiple ways from different angles? And are they judgments that characterize all of history or are these judgments that will characterize the end of history right before our Lord returns to the earth?

The position I have adopted is that these three cycles are not linearly related but involve some measure of recapitulation. One way to see this is that all three cycles bring us to the end of history. The sixth seal brings us to the coming of Christ in wrath to judge his enemies (6:12-17). After the seventh trumpet is sounded, we read this: “And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 11:15). And then at the end of the pouring out of seventh bowl, we are told that “the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell: and great Babylon came in remembrance before God, to give unto her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath. And every island fled away, and the mountains were not found” (Rev. 16:19-20). These are surely all depictions of the end of things and of this age.

However, I think there is a difference between the first cycle and the next two. As I explained in the message on chapter 6, I believe the seals represent God’s judgments which are common to all history between the first and second comings of Jesus to earth. But I think the next two cycles are more focused on the end of history. Let me give you two reasons why I think this is so.

The first reason has to do with how seals on a scroll functioned for first century legal documents. Scholars are generally agreed that the scroll represents God’s plan for the consummation of history in the final destruction of his enemies and the final salvation of his people. However, this scroll is sealed with seven seals. In John’s time, for legal documents, the seals on a scroll had to be broken for the contents of the scroll to be enacted. So I take that to mean that the end can’t happen until Jesus – who is depicted for us as the Lion and the Lamb – breaks the seals, which he does in chapters 6 and 8. That means a couple of things. The judgments which accompany the breaking of the seals don’t themselves represent the end, but events which precede the end. Of course, when we get to the sixth seal, we are practically at the end. Once the seventh seal is broken (8:1), the scroll is now ready to be enacted and the unfolding of the end begins to be narrated in more detail. This is now done in the trumpets (chapters 8-9, 11) and then later in the bowls of wrath (chapter 16).

Secondly, there doesn’t appear to be any distinction between believers and non-believers in the seal judgments, until you get to the breaking of the sixth seal. These are judgments which are experienced by Christian and non-Christian alike. However, in the trumpet and bowl judgments, there is a clear distinction. In chapter 7, the church on earth is sealed. Why? In chapter 9, you see why: “And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads” (4). Unlike the seal judgments, the people of God are kept safe from the trumpet and bowl judgments. This is certainly not the case in the trials and tribulations of the world as we now experience them, which afflict believer and non-believer alike. Of course, one can argue that there are judgments which even now are only experienced by unbelievers and that this is what is being referred to by the trumpet and bowl judgments. I can only say that I just don’t find that point of view persuasive, if for no other reason that these judgments seem too unusually catastrophic to be referring to present-day temporal calamities which are experienced only by the wicked.

So I think once we get to the seventh seal, we are now going to see the unfolding of God’s plan for the end of history, although this is still not described in a temporally linear narrative but from different vantage points and perspectives.

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t read this as if it is only about giving us information about the end. The conflict that we see unfold in Revelation 8-22 between the triune God and the unholy trinity of dragon, beast, and false prophet, or between the people of God and Babylon, is mirrored in the conflict between the church and the world today. So even though the point of this book is that the final victory is sure and will be accomplished at the end of history when our Lord returns, we shouldn’t read Revelation as if it doesn’t have anything to do with us today. The spirit of Antichrist exists as a present reality. And the question is, in light of the sure and final defeat of all evil, will you stand fast against it, or will you give in to it?

And this is where we come to the verses we want to consider this morning, Rev. 8:1-5. Surely one of the ways we maintain a steadfast witness for Christ as lights in a world of darkness is through a life of prayer. And what we will see in these verses is a preeminent focus on the importance and value and efficacy of prayer. I think that one of the reasons this was revealed to John is to encourage all of us to have an ongoing and meaningful life of prayer.

The place and power of prayer

Now we have already seen prayer and its importance and place in the unfolding narrative of Revelation. In 5:8, as we are given access with John into the very throne room of God, we are told that the elders around God’s throne have “golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints.” We are not yet told the significance of this, but the fact that the prayers of the saints are pictured as incense before God is surely encouraging. Then in 6:10 the martyrs cry out in prayer to God, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” This prayer is answered in the judgments depicted throughout the book of Revelation, culminating in the lake of fire where the beast and the false prophet are thrown to endure God’s wrath forever.

But in the verses before us (8:1-5), the power and place of prayer in the purpose of God is on full display. It begins in 8:1, with the breaking of the seventh seal: “And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.” There is a lot of speculation about the significance of the silence in heaven here. I’ve mentioned several times that Revelation is a “loud” book. When someone speaks, it always seems to be in a very loud voice. The worship of chapters 4 and 5 is tumultuous to say the least. In fact, in 8:5, we read, “And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast it into the earth: and there were voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake.” This is the way it is throughout most of this book. And yet as chapter 8 opens and the seventh seal is broken, when you would expect a cataclysm, you get silence.

Some say that the seventh seal has no content, but this is not quite right. The silence in heaven is the seventh seal. Also, each of the cycles of judgment end with the cacophony of a thunderstorm, as we see here in 8:5 (cf. 11:19; 16:18). The silence of heaven is therefore significant.

But why is there silence? Well, some have pointed to several OT Scriptures in which silence precedes God’s judgments. So, for example, in Habakkuk 2:20, we read, “But the Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.” Then in Zechariah 2:13, “Be silent, O all flesh, before the Lord: for he is raised up out of his holy habitation.” NT scholar Thomas Schreiner suggests that this “is the kind of eerie silence we feel in the natural world before a tornado suddenly strikes.”1

This is surely part of the reason for the silence. But I think Beasley-Murray is also right when he suggests that the reason for the silence is to let the prayers of the saints be heard.2 That they are heard is denoted in a number of ways in the vision that John sees here. Though the seven angels who will blow the seven trumpets that herald the corresponding judgments receive their trumpets in verse 2, they do not begin to blow until after the prayers of the saints have been presented before God. The prayers must first ascend before the throne of God.

The point here is the role that the prayers of God’s people play in the outworking of God’s plan. The breaking of the seals of the scroll is bookended by the prayers of God’s people (5:8; 8:1-5). This is meant to show us that God’s purpose to bring about the final destruction of his enemies and the final salvation of his people is accomplished through the prayers of his people. Of course God is sovereign, and the book of Revelation affords ample evidence of this fact, but it also shows us that this Sovereign God has chosen the prayers of the saints as one of the means by which he accomplishes his purposes. The contents of the scroll are acted upon by the Sovereign God who sits upon his throne and the Lamb of God who has redeemed men and women from every kindred, nation, and language. But one of the ways they do this is through the prayers of the saints.

That in itself ought to be a great encouragement to all of us. But more is going on here than a simple declaration of the power of prayer. This is full of reasons for us to devote ourselves to prayer. In particular, I see in these verses three things that should encourage us to see the necessity, as our Lord himself put it, that “men ought always to pray, and not to faint” (Lk. 18:1). They are three facts, which are that (1) God delights in our prayers, (2) God sees (and hears) our prayers, and (3) God responds to our prayers.

God delights in our prayers.

In the text, the prayers of the saints are offered to God with incense. You see that in verses 3-4: “And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand.” There is some question as to whether or not these prayers are to be identified with the incense or whether they are distinguished from the incense. In 5:8, we see “golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of the saints.” There the prayers are the incense, but in our text they seem to be distinguished. Of course, this points us again to the nature of apocalyptic literature. We are not meant to make too much of these details; the point is the bigger picture. To focus too much on a particular detail would be like focusing on a single brush stroke in a painting. I think the point here is that prayer is like incense that ascends before God.

In fact, the connection between incense and prayer was made already in the Psalms. David writes in Psalm 141, “Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (2). Incense is sweet smelling and aromatic in a good way; in the same way prayer is pictured as a sweet smell before the Lord. The point is that God delights in prayer much as sweet aromas are pleasing to the senses.

Now why is it that you think God delights in the prayers of the saints? Is it because they are saints? No. I don’t think it is for no reason that the first mention of the prayers of God’s people in Revelation is in the context of the Lamb taking the scroll in chapter 5. The prayers are like incense from the altar, but just as the altar of incense would have been meaningless apart from the altar of sacrifice, even so our prayers can only be pleasing to God through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. God delights in our prayers, not because we are better than other people. God delights in our prayers because he delights in his Son – “in whom I am well-pleased” (Mt. 3:17) – and if we belong to him, then the Father delights in us as well. In other words, we must not look inward to understand why God delights in the prayers of his people. Nor must we look necessarily at how good we are at praying. We have the Father’s good will because of what Jesus has done for us, received by faith. It is a matter of grace in Christ, not good works apart from Christ, that makes our prayers acceptable to God.

That God delights in prayer means that we shouldn’t imagine him swatting our prayers away. He is not difficult with us. We shouldn’t ask, “Does God want to hear us?” The answer to that question is now and has always been, “Yes!” for those who belong to Jesus Christ. It is important for us to grasp this. One of the reasons we do not pray is that we don’t think God is interested in our prayers. But he is not only interested in them, but he also delights in them. In another Psalm, we read, “I love the LORD, because he hath heard my voice and my supplication. Because he hath inclined his ear unto me, therefore I will call upon him as long as I live” (Ps. 116:1-2). Our Father inclines his ear to us.

This is the point of our Lord’s words in the Sermon on the Mount. Good fathers love their children and listen to their requests. But even the best of earthly fathers is still evil on some level. God, however, is perfectly good. And so our Lord reasons with us: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” (Mt. 7:7-11). Hear the how much more as it ought to be heard!

Now that doesn’t mean, of course, that God says yes to every prayer. That would not make him good or wise. We wouldn’t think that a good and wise father says yes to all the requests of his children, for the reason that we know that many of their requests are made from a lack of wisdom. Many times it is in the best interests of the child is to say no to their request. In the same way, God sometimes says no to our prayers. It is not a proof that he neither hears us or cannot answer us. Rather it means that he has something better for us. In other words, his delight in his children is the reason why he says no to them sometimes. The apostle Paul found this out when he prayed for the removal of the thorn in the flesh and God said no. Paul found that it was necessary for his humility to have this thorn. But more than that, he found that, as God assured him, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9).

God sees (and hears) our prayers.

Not only does God delight in our prayers, but he sees them. In Rev. 8:1-5, there is this emphasis upon the place where the prayers are offered. Like the incense in the tabernacle, the prayers of the saints are offered as and with the incense in the very presence of God. Where is the incense taken from? It is “before the throne” which is of course the throne of God (3). Then we are told explicitly in verse 4 that the prayers “ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.” The prayers are not some distant echo faintly reverberating in the halls of heaven. Rather they are right there before God. God sees them and hears them. In fact, all of heaven is silenced so that the prayers of the saints can be heard.

Just as it is important for us to know that in Christ God delights to hear our prayers, we need to know that he actually hears them. A father who loves his children and delights in their presence will listen to what they have to say. Since God is the best Father we can be sure he hears our prayers.

I want you to take notice also of that word “all” in verse 3: “the prayers of all the saints.” It is not a subset of special saints who get their prayers heard, but all of them. And, by the way, we shouldn’t take “saint” to mean a super Christian. In the NT saint is the name for anyone who belongs to the Lord. They have been sanctified and set apart through the work of Christ for them and the work of the Holy Spirit in them. If you belong to God through Christ, that means that you are a saint. And that means that your prayers are being heard.

It can sometimes seem like our prayers are just hitting the ceiling. And it is true that God does not respect every prayer. He finds the prayer of the wicked to be an abomination to him. However, if you have received Christ as your Lord and Savior, the reality is that God’s throne is no longer a throne of judgment but a throne of grace. We have access to God the Father by Christ through the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:18).

God speaks to us in his word, in the Holy Scriptures. But we are also meant to speak to God in prayer. And the encouragement is this: you are not just praying to yourself. God hears you. How many times in the Bible do we hear this refrain? Of the children of Israel in Egypt who were praying in their time of bondage, we read, “And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows” (Exod. 3:7). When they were by the Red Sea, God heard their cry there as well (Neh. 9:9). When they were led into captivity for their sins and prayed for deliverance, God heard their cry (Ps. 106:44). In fact, the 107th Psalm is mainly about this reality: “Then they cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them out of their distresses” (6, 13, 19, 28). Brother and sister, bring your requests before God. They are not in vain for your Father hears you.

God responds to our prayers.

This is the point, I think, of verse 5. The point of these prayers is that they do something. The “voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake” which culminate each cycle of judgment and are to be seen in connection with them, are very clearly here tied to the prayers themselves. It is because “the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar” – which is where the prayers of the saints are (ver. 3-4) – and then “cast it into the earth” that this happens. God is seen here responding to the prayers of the saints.

Now, we must repeat a necessary caveat here: God does not always say yes to every prayer. And the Bible tells us that. It tells us that there is a type of prayer that will not be answered. It also tells us that there is a type of prayer that will be answered. So for example, we read in James, “Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts” (Jam. 4:2-3). God very clearly tells us here through the apostle that if we ask him something for selfish purposes, we can expect him to say no to that. And thank God for that! It is a judgment from heaven when God says yes to lust-based prayers. Speaking of the time when God rained quail for the Israelites who had been complaining about the mana God has so graciously provided, we read: “So they did eat, and were well filled: for he gave them their own desire; they were not estranged from their lust. But while their meat was yet in their mouths, the wrath of God came upon them, and slew the fattest of them, and smote down the chosen men of Israel” (Ps. 78:29-31). So we should be thankful that God does not simply say yes to sinful prayers.

On the other hand, we are told that it is the prayers of those who abide in the Son and his word that have their prayers answered: “If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you” (Jn. 15:7). The “what ye will” must be connected to abiding in Christ and his words abiding in us. That is not a blank check for those who want to use prayer as a way to pad their lives with earthly comforts. Rather, this is a description of people who are completely on board with the priorities of heaven: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.”

You see this also in John’s epistle: “And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight” (1 Jn. 3:22). I think these two verses are saying the same thing. If we keep God’s commandments, are living in obedience to God, and do that which is pleasing in his sight, then we can expect our prayers to be answered. The reason is simple: those who keep God’s commandments live in light of God’s will and word and their prayers are shaped by those realities. You see this underlined in a different way later in his epistle: “And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us” (1 Jn. 5:14). Do you want to have confidence in prayer? Then ask according to God’s will, not according to your lusts!

Now someone might say at this point, “Then what’s the use? I mean, if God only answers prayers when they’re according to his will, then why pray? Because isn’t it true that God’s will is always done? Isn’t God going to do what he wants to do whether I pray for it or not?” To answer this question, we must first observe that there are two senses in which God’s will is spoken of in Scripture. One is his will of command, which is not always done. It is true, for example, that it is God’s will that no one commits murder. Yet this is clearly violated again and again. God’s will of command is not always done. When we pray according to God’s will, we really are praying that his will of command be accomplished – isn’t this the point of the words in the Lord’s Prayer, “in earth as it is in heaven”? So we see that there is a point to praying according to God’s will. It isn’t always done in this sense, which is why we pray for it.

But there is another sense in which God’s will is spoken of in Scripture. This is his will of decree or purpose. It is true that God’s eternal purpose is always done. This seems to be what James is talking about when he says, “For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that” (Jam. 4:15). Here God’s will doesn’t depend upon our action, but our action depends upon God’s will. There is an eternal hidden purpose of God that stands ultimately behind all reality (Ps. 115:3; Isa. 46:8-11). This is I think what folks are thinking about when they object to the fact that only prayers according to God’s will are answered.

However, the reality is that even God’s will of decree is effected through the prayers of his people. We must not think about even God’s eternal plan apart from the prayers of his people. For Scripture reveals, and Rev. 8:1-5 shows, that God’s purpose is tied – by God himself! – to the prayers of the saints. In other words, it is right to say that God’s eternal purpose will be surely accomplished. But it is equally right to say that it will not be accomplished apart from the prayers of the saints. The point of the prayers here in Revelation have to do with God’s purpose for history, and that God’s purpose is being effected through them.

So, brother and sister, pray! I firmly believe that God puts it on the hearts of people to pray for things that he has purposed in eternity to accomplish through those prayers. God births the prayers of our hearts through the Holy Spirit who knows God’s will and intercedes for us according to his will (Rom. 8:26-27). Your prayers are not wasted breath or time. He hears our prayers and responds to them.

Let me close with a very specific sort of prayer that God has promised always to answer. It is the prayer of Romans 10:13 – “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” The Lord here is Jesus who in the context is the one by whom we receive salvation and righteousness (see esp. ver. 9-12). Those who come to him and ask for mercy through him have the guarantee of God’s word that they will be saved. Note the word whosoever and the word shall. There are no exceptions! We don’t look inside ourselves for evidence that God will save us through Christ, for we have his word. Where are you this morning? Do you feel your need for God’s forgiveness? Then come and pray to him, call upon the name of Jesus, and the sure and certain promise from God himself is that you will be saved!

1 ESV Expository Commentary, Revelation

2 G. R. Beasley-Murray, The Book of Revelation (Wipf & Stock: Eugene, 1981), p. 150.


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