The Presentation Of The Prayers Of The Saints - Rev. Herman Hoeksema
1 And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.
2 And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets.
3 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.
4 And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand.
5 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.
6 And the -seven angels which had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound.
The Place Of This Vision In The Plan Of The
What we have in the words of the text quoted above is indeed a most beautiful and also a most significant passage of the Book of Revelation. At the same time it is a portion which is not so easy to understand and which will require our closest and most prayerful attention.
It is necessary, first of all, that we understand the connection of this part with the preceding. If you will refer to the preceding part of our exposition, you will find that we explained the former chapter in general as an interlude, as something which is inserted. From the end of the sixth chapter the book does not merely continue its course of thought, but, before continuing it, presents a separate vision. This was Chapter 7. In that chapter we had the vision which showed us the safety of the people of God in the midst of trouble and tribulation and judgment, as these are to come into the world, in the sealing of the one hundred forty-four thousand. In the second part of that chapter we were shown the glory of those who had been faithful even in the midst of the great tribulation and who had their garments washed in the blood of the Lamb. Because, however, this seventh chapter is an interlude, we must now again interpret as if that chapter had not been written; and we must connect the eighth chapter with the last part of Chapter 6. The opening of the seals was interrupted for a moment, but now it is continued. You will remember that we explained the first six seals as already reaching the very end of time. These seals showed us, first of all, the four horses, or horsemen, which were let loose upon the earth for the completion of the kingdom of God. The first horse presents the progress of the kingdom as it is completely victorious over all things. The second horse presents the discord and war of nations. The third horse represents disharmony in the social world because of the tremendous contrast between rich and poor. And the fourth horse portrays the terrible effect of death. The fifth seal revealed to us the cry of the saints who have been slain for the Word of God as they cry and long for the day of judgment. And the sixth seal, finally, showed us the tremendous upheaval in the entire physical universe. With this last seal the seventh now connects itself immediately.
It may be observed that those interpreters who take the seals as being strictly successive, so that the one is not opened before the preceding one has been finished, must run into serious difficulty as soon as they come to the interpretation of the seventh seal. It cannot be denied that the sixth seal already took us to the very eve of the final judgment, to the end of time. For it is evident that it meant nothing less than that the entire physical universe was subjected to tremendous changes which immediately precede the coming of the Lord. Now for those who interpret the seals as strictly successive this sixth seal in its fullest realization places us before the very day of judgment. But how then can the seventh seal picture events which merely follow the things revealed in the sixth? In the latter seal heaven and earth have already been shaken, the sun has been darkened, and the moon has been changed to blood. How can that which is revealed in connection with the seventh seal still take place if it is supposed to follow in time upon the sixth seal? As we know, this seventh seal is revealed as seven trumpets. And again, the last of these trumpets is dissolved into seven vials, or bowls, of wrath. But the first six of these seven trumpets speak of things which take place on earth, in the physical universe as well as in the world of men. Therefore the seventh seal does
not and cannot presuppose that all that has been revealed in connection with the sixth seal has been finished. There is but one possible explanation. The seals do not present a successive order of events merely, but they overlap. They are at the same time contemporaneous and successive. All the seals are upon the earth from the very beginning of this dispensation. But there is this difference, that as time advances, the trumpets and the vials shall force themselves more and more to the foreground and draw the attention of men. The seven trumpets, therefore, do not begin where the sixth seal ended, but rather have begun already with the first seal, only revealing to us different forces at work more in detail, and that too, according to the symbolism of the trumpets. The blast of the trumpet forces our attention especially upon the fact that judgment is coming.
However, this seventh seal does not only reveal to us the seven trumpets, but also something else. And to this we must call your attention first of all.
The Attending Circumstances
First of all, let us take a close look at the passage under discussion, so that we may have a clear idea of the symbolism involved. For that we have symbolism in this passage is very plain; it needs no proof. The passage speaks of the opening of the seventh seal. It calls us, in the first place, to heaven, to see what takes place there. In heaven we find an altar, and trumpets given to angels, and incense, and smoke, and a golden censer, and fire. When the fire is thrown upon the earth, it creates voices and thunders and lightnings and an earthquake. Hence, the presentation of the matter is pictured in such a way that we need not guess whether the language is symbolical or real. And this is always the case in the Book of Revelation.
The text, then, sneaks, in the first place, of a silence in heaven for the space of about half an hour. That is the first thing which strikes John's attention. In the second place, he sees that there are seven angels standing before the throne of God and that they receive seven trumpets. But they do not blow these trumpets immediately; on the contrary, they reverently keep silence until something else has been finished. Another angel comes and approaches the golden altar which stands before the throne of God. He bends over it, as it were for the purpose of serving. He carries a golden censer in his hand, but as yet the censer is without contents. Presently, however, he receives much incense in that censer; and the commission is given him that he add the incense to the prayers of all the saints, and, kindling the incense with the fire from the altar, to cause it to ascend with the prayers of the saints to Him Who sitteth upon the throne. The angel obeys. And having caused the perfume of the incense to rise to Him Who sitteth upon the throne, he takes fire from the same altar and casts it upon the earth. The result is voices and thunderings and lightnings and an earthquake, while at the same time the seven angels prepare themselves to blow the trumpets. Such is the scene portrayed in the text under discussion.
It is evident on the very face of it that the main theme of this passage is the presentation of the prayers of all the saints. All the rest belongs to the attending circumstances as far as this present scene is concerned.
To the prayers of all the saints belongs, in the first place, the half hour of silence in heaven. About this half hour of silence all kinds of different interpretations have been offered, some even going the length of explaining that this silence exhausts the contents of the entire seventh seal and that it simply teaches us that the seventh seal must remain a mystery to us until the day of judgment. But we will not tire your attention by all these different interpretations. To us it seems that if we merely allow the scene to impress our minds, the silence is very easily explained. It is connected with the main theme, namely, with the fact that the prayers of the saints are offered with the incense from the altar to God. If we take this into consideration, it seems to us that the explanation of this silence must not be sought in the importance of the events which are now to follow, so that the angels and all who are in heaven stand spell-bound and, as it were, dumbfounded and holding their breath because of what will happen. If that were the case, we can see no reason why they have not been spell-bound and why they did not hold their breath before. For the events pictured in all the seals and all the trumpets are. of sufficient importance and significance for all the inhabitants of heaven to stand amazed. Instead, therefore, we explain this silence as standing in immediate connection with the specific nature of the scene here pictured to us. It simply means that it is the silence of reverence, occasioned by the solemnity of the scene. It is an hour of prayer in heaven. The prayers of the saints are to be offered to Him Who sitteth upon the throne. And the solemnity of the occasion so impresses all who stand by that they are silent for half an hour. Hence, the half hour of silence has no further symbolical significance than that it befits the scene of the offering up of the prayers of all the saints and all that is connected with it. The transactions here pictured, the commission to the seven angels and to the one angel who offers the prayers of the saints and who casts fire to the earth would take about the space of half an hour. And during this entire transaction there was profound and reverent silence.
In the second place, we must pay attention for a moment to the seven angels with their seven trumpets. We shall, of course, have occasion to refer to these again. But since these angels stand by reverently while the prayers of the saints are being offered and wait with the execution of the commission given unto them till this heavenly hour of worship is finished, we must also now take a look at them. They are described to us as the seven angels that stand before God. Mark you well, they are not merely seven angels who now came before God; but they are evidently the seven angels who always stand before the throne of God, the well-known seven angels whose special place is before God. We know, of course, that also in the angel world there is order and gradation, so that there are different classes of angels. Scripture speaks of archangels as well as common angels; and Paul speaks concerning the angel world of dominions, principalities, and powers. So, evidently, there is a special class of angels who always stand before God. We know that Gabriel is one of them. For, according to Luke 1:19, he says to Zacharias: "I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings." It is not impossible that Michael is another of these angels, but this is not specifically stated in Scripture. Moreover, that they are seven in number shows that they have to do with the covenant and kingdom of God, of which Christ is the head. That they stand before the throne indicates that they are called and always are ready for special service with a view to the completion of the kingdom of God.
To these seven angels, then, there are given seven trumpets. The trumpet occurs frequently in the Word of God. The people of Israel were instructed to use the trumpet in time of war. Before they went to war against the enemy that oppressed them in their land, they had to blow the trumpet. It seems, therefore, that the trumpet is a symbol of war for the kingdom of God. In the second place, it also indicates the downfall and the destruction of the enemy of the kingdom, as is evident from the downfall of Jericho. For thus we read in Joshua 6:2-5: "And the Lord said unto Joshua, See, I have given into thine hand Jericho, and the king thereof, and the mighty men of valor. And ye shall compass the city, all ye men of war, and go round about the city once. Thus shalt thou do six days. And seven priests shall bear before the ark seven trumpets of rams' horns: and the seventh day ye shall compass the city seven times, and the priests shall blow with the trumpets. And it shall come to pass, that when they make a long blast with the ram's horn, and when ye hear the sound of the trumpet, all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city shall fall down flat, and the people shall ascend up every man straight before him." It also indicates evidently judgment and authority, as is plain from God's appearing with the law under the sound of a trumpet on Sinai. For thus we read in Exodus 20:18: "And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed and stood afar off." Further, the trumpet was used with the people of Israel for the convocation of the assembly in connection with their sacrifices and festivals and for the crowning of the theocratic king, as, for instance, in the case of Jehu and of Solomon. And therefore it also denotes, in general, any activity in the kingdom of God proclaiming God's gracious presence over His people, but at the same time destruction and judgment over the enemy.
In connection with the seven trumpets mentioned in our passage it is especially the latter element that is on the foreground, as we shall observe later. The trumpets signify especially that God through Christ Jesus is coming to inflict judgment and destruction upon the enemy of the kingdom of God. When our text informs us, therefore, that the angels who stand before the throne receive the seven trumpets, it thereby indicates that these servants of the Most High receive power to execute judgment over the world of evil.
The Prayers Of The Saints
However, before these angels sound their trumpets or even prepare to sound, they stand in silence, watching what takes place in heaven, namely, the presentation of the prayers of the saints. For we read in our passage: "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."
It is very evident that the all-important element here is the prayers of the saints.
To understand the entire scene it is undoubtedly necessary to understand and to emphasize that these prayers which are here presented with the incense to God are the prayers of saints. They are not presented as mere men, nor even as believers; but they are pictured from the point of view of their being saints.
Who are these saints? They are not merely people who are already in heaven, as is the view of those who make the church of God go to heaven at the time that is mentioned in the first verse of the fourth chapter. They claim that the people of Christ have gone to heaven before the seals are opened, and that henceforth the Book of Revelation speaks no more of a church on earth. Hence, when our text nevertheless speaks of saints, they claim that naturally they are people who are already in heaven, and that the prayers of these people are also actually made from heaven. However, we cannot agree with this. Saints are not only those who are already in glory, but just as well the people of God on earth. Scripture calls believers saints time and again. Only think of the manner in which the apostle Paul is accustomed to address the church in his epistles. All the people of God are saints because they are members of the body of Christ. They are of Christ, and they are in Him. They are in Him as their head, first of all in a juridical sense of the word, so that all their sins are forgiven them and they are justified. And therefore, from this viewpoint they are saints in the most perfect sense of the word. They have in Christ Jesus no sin whatsoever. But they are also in Christ Jesus in the organic sense, that is, they are ingrafted into Him. They are living members of His body. The life that is in Him is also in them. There is one body, with one head, and with one and the same Spirit of life. That one body is the body of the church. All believers are members of that body. Or, if you please, in the strictest sense of the word, all that are regenerated by the Spirit of God are members of the body of our Lord Jesus Christ. Of that body Christ is the head, and the Spirit given to Him is the life of that body. That Spirit dwells in Christ as the head, and in the saints as members of His body, and causes their faith and hope and love,-in fact, causes all their life to be one, one in Christ. By that Spirit of Christ they are controlled. By that Spirit of Christ they are sanctified and walk in newness of life. When our text, therefore, speaks of saints, it refers to that entire body of Christ and to all its members.
We must remember, in the second place, that they pray exactly in their capacity of saints. Not every prayer which rises from the lips of believers is here referred to, but merely the prayer which rises from their hearts as saints of Christ. Here upon earth our prayers, or so-called prayers, are often very imperfect. We do not always pray as members of Christ's body. Our requests are often sinful. We often send petitions to the throne of grace which are never heard because our prayers are often controlled by the lust of the flesh. But of those prayers our text does not speak whatsoever. They pray only in the capacity of saints. It speaks of prayers which actually rise to the throne of God in Christ Jesus our Lord and which are surely heard. Perhaps they arise to the throne of grace only in the form of the groanings of the Spirit which are mentioned in Romans 8:26, 27. When we do not pray, or cannot pray, as we ought to, the Spirit of Christ Who dwells within the body of Christ and in the hearts of all the saints prays for them with groanings that cannot be uttered. The Spirit knows the needs of the saints. That Spirit also knows their deepest longings as members of the body of Christ. And that Spirit presents these longings now through their own consciousness, teaching them how to pray, and now praying within them, outside of their consciousness, with groanings which cannot be uttered. And it is of these prayers of the saints, as they rise from their hearts, controlled by the Spirit of Christ Who is in them, that our text speaks.
Thus conceived, it is not difficult to guess what these saints pray for. What is their highest purpose? And what is the deepest longing of the saints in Christ? It is the perfect fellowship with the God of their salvation, the Sovereign of heaven and earth; and it is their desire that He may be glorified. And as they know that this God of their life shall never reach His glory except through the completion and perfecting of the kingdom of Christ, the prayer of the saints is that the kingdom may come and quickly be completed. Moreover, since they also know that the glory of God and the kingdom of Christ cannot come otherwise than through the judgments that must come upon the wicked world, their prayers include also these judgments. Not only the saints whose blood has been shed for the Word of God and the testimony which they had, but all the saints, the entire body of Christ, pray for judgment upon the world. The saints whose blood was shed pray for that particular form of judgment that is connected so closely with the shedding of their own blood. But all the saints nevertheless through the Spirit of Christ Who is in them, waiting and longing for the glory of God and the perfect fellowship of His covenant through the coming and completion of the kingdom of Christ, pray for judgment, that God may be vindicated and that the everlasting economy of glory may be established.
That this is actually the correct view of the matter is also clear from the fact that the text speaks of the prayers of all the saints: not of the prayers of a few, but of the prayers of all. This implies all the saints in the strict sense of the word. It implies, in the first place, the saints of all ages, the saints that have ever appeared in the history of the world. This prayer of the saints is heard at any one time. We must not make the mistake of imagining that there is one definite period in history in which these prayers of the saints rise. For then they could not be the prayers of all the saints. And yet this is emphatically stated. Hence, also this scene of the seventh seal, as all the other seals, evidently covers the entire period of this dispensation. It refers to all the saints of all lands and from among all nations of the earth. It implies the saints who have already entered into glory everlasting. But, in the second place, this word "all" indicates that we may not think here of the particular prayer of the individual saints, but exactly of those prayers which they all have in common. As saints they have common needs and common desires. As saints, under the control of the Spirit of Christ, they utter but one great prayer, to which all the rest of their life and their prayer is subservient: "Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." All the saints, as members of the body of Christ, pray for the coming and the perfecting of that kingdom of Christ. And it is that prayer that is here presented to the Almighty. That prayer is always heard from the lips of the saints. But that prayer, under the influence of the Spirit of Christ, will grow more fervent and more powerful as the time draws near when the Lord shall come, until it really becomes the prayer of the longing quoted at the close of the Book of Revelation: "Come, Lord Jesus; yea, come quickly."
The Presentation Of The Prayers
It is those prayers of the saints which are here presented as being offered to the throne of God. As the seven angels who stand before God are still reverently waiting, another angel comes with a golden censer and stoops over the altar that is before the throne of God, in order to offer the incense which he receives with the prayers of the saints to the Most High. As he does so, the sweet vapor rises to Him Who sitteth upon the throne and evidently is well-pleasing and acceptable to Him. Such is the presentation of the text.
The question is often asked whether the altar which is mentioned in the text is the altar of incense, which stood in the holy place, or the altar of burnt offering as it stood in the outer court. According to some, it is even interpreted as being the ark of the covenant, which stood before Jehovah in the most holy place. Moreover, the suggestion is even made that the angel who comes with the incense is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, since He alone makes our prayers well-pleasing in the sight of God Almighty. It is our opinion, however, that all these detailed explanations are unnecessary and that they raise questions which cannot possibly be answered. It really makes no difference whether the altar here is the altar of incense or of burnt offering. As far as the fire mentioned in the text is concerned, it seems to have been the altar of burnt offering. And as far as the incense is mentioned, it seems to refer to the altar of incense. And as far as it stood in the presence of God, it may have been the ark of the covenant. But all these questions are immaterial to the explanation of the passage. The essential idea is that prayers are upon the altar before God, and that incense is added to the prayers, thus symbolizing that the prayers now rise to God Almighty. The same applies to the question concerning the angel that is mentioned in the text. The question as to the identity of this angel is altogether irrelevant to the essential idea. That it was not Christ Himself would seem to be implied in the fact that he receives the incense: it is given to him. At any rate, what is revealed here is simply this: in heaven the prayers of all the saints are made acceptable unto God, so that they rise before Him and are well-pleasing in His sight, even as the vapor of the incense is sweet and well-pleasing in His nostrils. This is the symbolism. What is the reality corresponding to this?
We must remember that the Lamb has received the book with the seven seals. And the Lamb opens that book: seal after seal is broken by Him. This book with its seals represents, as we have seen, the decree of God Almighty as a living force, completing the kingdom which He has given to Christ. And therefore, as Christ opens seal after seal, He thereby completes and perfects the kingdom of heaven. Thus ii was with the other seals, as we have seen before. All these seals became forces, living forces in the history of the world which would ultimately lead to the perfecting of the kingdom of Christ. Thus Christ uses the gospel. Thus He employs war.
Thus He uses the social contrast in the world. Thus He employs the very power of death. Thus He energizes the outcry of the souls under the altar. And thus He causes the shake-up of the physical universe. To that end He also sends forth the angels with the seven trumpets presently, who constitute the second part of this seventh seal. But thus it is also with the prayers of the saints. These prayers are, in the first place, included in the book of God's decree. God Himself has from eternity decreed that the saints should pray. Before the kingdom can come, their prayers must be full according to the measure of that decree. Hence, Christ Himself, as the head of His body, employs these prayers of the saints as forces to bring the kingdom of heaven unto perfection. Of these prayers He is the author: for we do not pray of ourselves, but through the Spirit of Christ Who dwells in us. Christ therefore prays within us through His Spirit. He teaches us; He causes us to pray for the coming of the kingdom. And thus the prayers of these saints rise to God Almighty, crying for the perfection of the kingdom of heaven. He adds to them the sweet incense of His atoning blood. And on the basis of that atoning blood He presents them to the Father, and says: "Father, I will that these prayers be heard." When these prayers are full, according to the measure of the decree of God, they will be one great outcry of longing, rising from the body of the Savior: "Thy kingdom come, O Lord."
The Answer To Their Prayer
Is that prayer answered? It certainly is!
It is sad enough that we so often fail to see the answer of the Almighty to His praying people. But the answer is there.
This answer is indicated in the last part of our text. For 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."
The idea evidently is this, that the saints, praying for the kingdom of God, receive a preliminary answer even before the kingdom cometh. That is the entire purpose of this passage, to show us that our prayers are not lost in space, but that we can see their answer already here upon earth. O, we do not see this if we are blind for these effects of our prayers. We certainly cannot see this if we have never learned to pray as the saints of Christ pray. We do not see this if our prayers still concentrate around ourselves and around our earthly and carnal needs, and if we have identified ourselves with the present world. Then indeed we pray wrongly, and we understand wrongly, and we judge the present history of the world in a wrong light, and we cannot see the fulfillment of our prayers. Of course not! If Israel had identified itself with Egypt, do you think that it would have seen an answer to its prayer in the plagues which were sent upon the land? I tell you: Nay, but it would have prayed the Lord that these judgments might be taken away. It would not have understood that the fire had been taken from the altar in heaven and cast upon the land because their prayers for deliverance had risen to the Lord Sabaoth. And the same is still true. It is because we identify ourselves with the world that we do not recognize the answer to the prayers of all the saints and do not see that God is bringing the kingdom according to His promise.
Yet, so it is. The saints pray for the coming of the kingdom. And these prayers are presented as forces with sweet-smelling incense to God Who sitteth upon the throne. And the answer which is sent to the earth is the fire of God's wrath, taken from the same altar before His throne. That fire cast upon earth reveals itself in omens of judgment and destruction. It reveals the presence of the Judge. Voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and earthquakes are symbols of judgment. And therefore, the passage means to teach us that in answer to the prayers of all the saints for the perfecting of the kingdom the judgments of the King are sent to the earth. It is through these judgments, it is through great upheavals,-through war and bloodshed and changes in the physical world,-that the everlasting kingdom will surely come. And for that very reason these judgments are an answer to the prayers of the saints, assuring them: "My kingdom will surely come. It is coming now. It will come till all shall be completed. And My name shall receive the honor and the power and the glory and the wisdom forevermore."
The same answer the saints who prayed in heaven receive. For we read in the closing sentence of our passage: "And the seven angels which had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound." In what this preparation consists the text does not tell us; and this is of minor importance. Sufficient it is to notice that they prepare themselves visibly, so that John in the vision, and therefore also the saints in heaven, can see their preparation.
Again, this preparation is an answer to their prayer. When these angels sound the trumpets, they know that judgments will come. And along the
way of judgments the kingdom of God will be perfected. And therefore their preparation immediately after the prayers of the saints assures them that their prayers are heard and accepted by the Most High, and that presently their inmost desires shall be granted. Such is the picture.
This, therefore, is the practical lesson of our passage. In the first place, it teaches us that we shall not be disturbed about the judgments of Christ which come upon the world. These judgments are upon the earth now; and they shall increase. They must increase. For in no other way can the kingdom of God come. Sin and unrighteousness will develop, and must develop. And this sin and unrighteousness must be destroyed. And the glory of Christ must be revealed and vindicated, and can be vindicated only by the judgments upon the world. Be not disturbed, therefore, and by no means implore God that He may stop bringing His kingdom in the way of judgments. And if you should feel that your prayers are not answered, then know that there is something wrong with your conscious life. The prayers of all the saints are certainly answered. And the beginning of their fulfillment you may see in the judgments of Christ upon earth. Bring your prayers, therefore, into harmony with the revealed will of your God. And, spiritually separating yourselves from the world, let your prayers be in the true sense of the word: "Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."