“And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel” (Rev. 8:4). God loves to hear His children speak to Him. As the architect of the tabernacle and temple, He designed the altar of incense as an integral part of worship. The burning of incense produced a fragrant aroma that was symbolic of the prayers of His people: “And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (5:8).
There was a set time of day when the priest would ignite the incense on the altar; it was when the worshipers gathered to pray (Luke 1:10). Through this ritual God’s message is clear: “Your prayers are like a sweet bouquet to Me.”
I am the father of three married children who now live some distance away. When I see one of their phone numbers appear on my caller identification, a joy spontaneously erupts. I love to hear their voices. I am eager to hear their words. My Father is like that with my prayers, with my words to Him. I am saddened that my sinful heart is sometimes not so fervent to speak with Him. Dear Father, move upon my soul and make me as eager to speak to You as You are to hear me.
True prayer positions us in a holy place. The prayers of Revelation 8:1–5 are before God on His throne. These prayers are in the real Holy of Holies. The great angels are there. His court, in its glory and majesty, is the site of our prayers. Prayer is not a casual conversation between peers. Prayer is daring to converse with the Almighty, the Creator of the galaxies, the Lord and Ruler of all that is or ever will be. There is a dearth of reverence in modern evangelical worship. I fear that same drought of holy fear is absent from our times of prayer. The apostle John noted in his vision: “There was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (v. 1). The silence was a holy hush as entreaties ascended to Jehovah.
True faith teaches us to wait on the Lord in our prayers. The prayers in these verses were offered on previous occasions by the martyrs (6:10). God instructed them to rest for a time in the certainty that their requests would be addressed in the future. My father prayed early in the morning every day. A few years before he died, I expressed my concern that after he went home I would no longer be covered by his daily prayers. He corrected my faulty theology, saying “John, all the prayers I have prayed for you since you were a baby are still before the Lord — and will be long after I am gone.”
God takes the prayers of His children and shakes the earth: “And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (8:4–5). God takes the prayers of His people and throws them to the earth effecting a storm of thunder and lightning and even a fearsome earthquake. Eugene Peterson in his book Reversed Thunder gives a summary picture of the scene: “The prayers which had ascended, unremarked by the journalists of the day, returned with immense force in George Herbert’s phrase, as ‘reversed thunder.’ Prayer reenters history with incalculable effects. Our earth is shaken daily by it.”
There is a picture of this “reversed thunder” in Acts 4. Peter and John were arrested in the very early days of the church after Pentecost. They were taken before the Sanhedrin and faced the same men who plotted the crucifixion of Jesus. Their courage was impressive, but the court strongly threatened them against any further mention of Jesus. When they safely returned to their fellow Christians, the prayer of the congregation was for boldness in response to the world’s power: “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29). How did God answer their prayer? “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (v. 31). God replied with an earthquake. He wanted them to know that their prayers could shake the earth. It is as if the incense is changed and thrown back to the world as dynamite.
When I read passages like this I do think we play at praying. We know of John Knox as a preacher. However, it was not his preaching that Mary, Queen of Scotland, feared. She confessed, “I fear the prayers of John Knox more than all the assembled armies of Europe.” She may not have known the theological foundations of prayer, but she did know the effects of his prayers.
God revealed to a persecuted and suffering church in Revelation: “There is power in prayer — power that can shape history and shake the earth.” Does the world fear our prayers?