Heaven's Glowing Coal
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36. Heaven's Glowing Coal
Revelation 8.1-4

"When he opened 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." Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God's people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God's people, went up before God from the angel's hand." (Revelation 8.1-4)✞

Silence in Heaven

Burning SunThis passage begins with an intensely dramatic "silence in heaven" for about half an hour before the woes that are to follow. This time of suspense must have been a shattering silence for John of Patmos after the trumpets, the singing, and the earthquakes of the previous minutes. Then follows the first of four trumpet blasts, each of which heralds a new catastrophe.

Golden Censer

Glowing CoalsAnother angel brings a golden censer. This container for burning incense could be a floor model with fragrance burned on the horned top like those used in Jesus' day. Today, we might think of a Catholic "thurible" or chain censer designed for swinging. The ancient Romans burned incense on stone incense altars at the entrance of sacred buildings. Burning incense has the connotation of prayer rising to the heavens. As used in the Temple worship in Heaven, the censer comes to the altar filled with glowing coals. Incense is an aromatic material which releases fragrant smoke when burned. Incense as a liquid or as granules like pebbly grains or sand burns on the glowing coals and the smoke drifts upwards. There are many formulations of incense, with frankincense (from the resin of the Boswellia tree), benzoin (a balsamic resin obtained from the bark of several species of trees in the genus Styrax), myrrh (a fragrant gum resin obtained from particular trees), styrax (a genus of about 130 species of large Styrax shrubs or small trees), copal (a tree resin), or other aromatics substances. As this ascends, so do worshippers' prayers. We note that the incense is entirely separate from the prayers, and the one is not representative of the other. The word "incense" comes from the Latin "incendere," meaning "to burn." The Bible speaks of the incense smoke and the prayers of the saints together. Psalm 141.2 says, "Let my prayer be directed as incense in thy sight: the lifting up of my hands, as evening sacrifice." A purification ritual may use incense. "The incense" may be a reminder of the faithfulness of the Lord God Almighty, who alone is worthy to receive worship, praise, and supplications!

Saints' Heavenly Prayer

Mother Teresa in PrayerThe saints' heavenly prayer in Revelation is poured out from the angel's hand and rises to God with the incense on the altar. There is a breathtaking stillness in Heaven, which is even more memorable than the thunder and the lightning. This silence may mean two things. It may be a kind of breathing space in the narrative, a moment of preparation before another shattering revelation comes. There is also something much more beautiful in it. The saints' prayers in Heaven are about to ascend to God, and it may be that everything in heaven halts so that God may hear the saints' prayer. R. H. Charles (1855-1931), the Irish Biblical scholar, suggests, "The needs of the saints are more important to God than all the psalmody of heaven." Even the music of heaven and the thunder are stilled so that God's ear may catch the whispered prayer of the humblest of God's people. Quite a touching moment!✞

Temple Incense Altar

The Golden Incense AltarA censer with burning coals from the Temple incense altar in Heaven accompanies the prayers of the saints like smoke from a fire. An angel in Revelation stands at the Temple incense altar. An "altar" is "a place of slaughter or sacrifice" in the Hebrew Bible, but here it burns coals of incense representing the prayers of the people. In Revelation, the word "altar" frequently appears in the picture of heaven. For example, we read in Revelation 6.9, "When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and testimony they had maintained." The incense altar stood before the Holy Place in the Temple of Solomon. It is made of gold, is eighteen inches square and three feet tall, and has a protruding horn at each corner. Around the top of it is a little railing, like a miniature balustrade, to keep the burning coals from rolling off. The altar in Revelation cannot be the altar of burnt-offering, for there can be no animal sacrifice in Heaven; it must be "the incense altar." According to Leviticus 16.12, "He (Aaron) is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the Lord and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain." Numbers 16.46 adds, "Then Moses said to Aaron, 'Take your censer and put incense in it, along with burning coals from the altar, and hurry to the assembly to make atonement for them. Wrath has come out from the Lord; the plague has started.'"

Before and After

Priest and Incense AltarIn Solomon's Temple, incense burns before the first and after the last daily sacrifices. It is as if the people's offerings rise to God wrapped in an envelope of aromatic fragrance. Here we have the idea that prayer is a sacrifice to God. The aroma of the incense envelopes "the prayers of the saints" as they rise to God. A person may have no other sacrifice to offer to God, but at all times, they can submit their prayers, and there are always angelic hands waiting to bring them to God.✞

"Heaven's Glowing Coal"
by Ron Meacock © 2020

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