For the Love of God, Volume 2/June 6

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By D.A. Carson About Devotional Life
Chapter 157 of the book For the Love of God, Volume 2


Deuteronomy 10; Psalm 94; Isaiah 38; Revelation 8

ONE OF THE MOST STRIKING of the symbol-laden images in the book of Revelation is found in Revelation 8:3-5.

It has various roots. One goes back to passages like Psalm 141:2: “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.” David wants his prayers to be as pleasant to God, as acceptable to God, as the incense burned before him in the tabernacle, as the sacrifices offered to him in front of the tabernacle at the close of the day. The incense altar was ordained by the Mosaic covenant (Ex. 30:1-10). This particular kind of altar and sacrifice would have associations in the ancient world that are foreign to us. In a world before Right Guard, better homes might well burn a little incense to mask the inevitable odors, and that association would accompany the burning of incense in the tabernacle and later in the temple. Certainly this God-ordained rite was still functioning in Jesus’ day (Luke 1:8-9).

The association between prayers and incense has already been used by John in Revelation 5:8. When the Lion/Lamb, the Lord Jesus, takes the scroll from the right hand of him who sits on the throne and prepares to open the seals, the angels surrounding the throne “fell down before the Lamb.” They “were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” The point of the vision is not that incense candles are a good thing in cathedrals (that would confuse symbol and reality), but something more profound. If no one were found to bring about God’s purposes for justice and blessing, then all the prayers of God’s people are futile. Now that the Lion/Lamb has prevailed, the prayers (symbolized by the incense because of the Old Testament simile) are wafted into the presence of God. The prayers of God’s people will be heard and answered, because God’s purposes for blessing and judgment are now certain to be carried out.

Here in 8:3-5, “the prayers of all the saints” are burned on the incense altar before God. “Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake” (8:5)—all signs, in the context, of the terrifying presence and judgment of God. God’s judgment responds to the prayers of his people.

Why should this be thought strange? The souls of martyrs call for justice (Rev. 6:10). The entire church cries, “Come, Lord Jesus” (22:20), knowing that this will bring down final justice. Followers of Jesus pray, “Your kingdom come”—not a sentimental notion in the context of a broken, rebellious world.

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