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

Dramatic Silence

Burning SunThis passage begins with an intensely dramatic "silence in heaven" for about half an hour before the woes that are to follow. This suspense time 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.

What kinds of incense are there?

Glowing CoalsAnother angel brings a golden censer. This burning incense container could be a floor model with fragrance burned on the top like those used in Jesus' day. On a trip to Port Sunlight near Liverpool, I was impressed to discover a collection of such Roman incense altars at the "Lady Leverhulme Art Gallery." Many had Latin inscriptions like modern gravestones. The ancient Romans burned perfume on stone altars at sacred building entrances. Today, we think of a swinging chain censer for incense or a Catholic "thurible." Incense is an aromatic material that releases fragrant smoke when burned. It comes as a liquid or as granules like pebbly grains or sand to burn, and the smoke drifts upwards. There are many fragrance formulations, using frankincense (Boswellia tree resin), benzoin (balsamic Styrax tree resin), myrrh (fragrant gum resin), Styrax (from large shrubs), copal (tree resin), and other aromatic substances. Burning incense has the connotation of prayer rising. In heaven's Temple worship, the censer carries glowing coals.✞

Incense and Prayer

The fragrance is entirely separate from prayer, and one is not representative of the other. The word "incense" comes from the Latin "incendere," meaning "to burn." The Bible speaks of incense smoke and the saints' prayers together. Psalm 141.2 says, "Let my prayer rise like incense in thy sight: the lifting up of my hands, as an evening sacrifice." "The incense" reminds us of the Lord God Almighty's faithfulness, for God alone is worthy to receive worship, praise, and supplications!

Breathtaking Stillness

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

What is an Incense Altar?

The Golden Incense AltarAn angel stands at the Temple incense altar. An "altar" is "a place of slaughter or sacrifice" in the Hebrew Bible, but here it burns incense representing the people's prayers. The word "altar" frequently appears in Revelation's 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 the slain because of God's word and the testimony they had maintained." In Solomon's Temple, the incense altar stood before the Holy Place. It was made of gold, eighteen inches square and three feet tall, and had a protruding horn at each corner. A small railing, like a fence, kept the burning coals from rolling off. Revelation's altar cannot be the burnt-offering altar, for there can be no animal sacrifice in heaven; it must be "the incense altar." According to Leviticus 16.12, "Aaron is to take a censer full of burning altar coals from 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 place incense in it, along with the burning coals, 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, the priests burned incense before the first and after the last daily sacrifice. The people's offerings rise to God wrapped in an envelope of aromatic fragrance. Prayer is a sacrifice to God. The incense aroma envelopes "the saints' prayers" as they rise to God. A person may have no other gift to offer, but they can submit their prayers to God, and there are always angels waiting to receive them.✞

"Heaven's Glowing Coal"
by Ron Meacock © 2021

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