TO CHEW ON: “Then another angel having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with 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, ascended before God from the angel’s hand.” Revelation 8:3-4
In John’s vision, events in heaven continue to play out. He (the Lamb) opens the seventh seal to reveal an expanding vista of seven trumpets. The seven judgments they announce (8:2-11:18) are cataclysmic. The first four (found in our reading today) affect the natural world and remind us of the Egyptian plagues (hail, blood, polluted water, death to living creatures, darkness).
What I find fascinating are the two verses about the saints’ prayers that precede the fateful trumpet blasts. They seem almost out of place. Here, as earlier, an angel presents these prayers to God as incense.
Incense has been associated with deity and worship since ancient times. Divination by interpreting the shapes that rose from incense smoke was an inexpensive way for poor people to determine the will of the gods. The Egyptians and other Gentile nations used it in their worship. Still today it is part of the practice of Buddhism, Christian Orthodoxy and other religions.
In Old Testament religious practice, only the priests were allowed to offer incense. Moses’ instructions to Aaron included strict regulations concerning its makeup and use. God specifically forbade the personal mixing and use of the incense designed for worship. David first likened prayers to incense. God warned the Israelites through Isaiah that offerings, including the burning of incense, done while clinging to known sin were offensive to Him. In Malachi its use symbolized the universal worship of God: “In every place incense shall be offered to My name…” Malachi 1:11
That the prayers of the saints (us!) should be equated with something as integral to worship as incense tells us how important they are to God. Here they are directly connected to the judgments that follow. For after presenting the incense prayers to God, the angel takes the golden censer that held them, fills it with fire from the altar, throws it to earth, and the action begins.
This focus on prayer makes me want to spend more time on this aspect of my relationship with God. As Barbara Billet expresses it:
“I ask You, Lord, that You would fill me with Your consuming fire today. I desire to be used as a house of prayer so that I can pray heartfelt, fervent, effectual prayers that will cause my prayer life to have much power, available, dynamic in its working.” Barbara Billet, Praying With Fire, p. 19
PRAYER: Dear God, please teach me to pray. Amen
MORE: “The Prayers of the Saints Are Like Sweet-smelling Incense" by Matt Redman
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