Revelation 8:1-5

Revelation

Revelation 8

1 When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, 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.

There is one very famous piano piece that I can play and I can play it just as well and as powerfully as the one who wrote it. John Cage composed the piece in 1952. It is entitled 4’33”.

Please understand that I am not exaggerating. I really can play 4’33” as well as John Cage. This piece has been performed with either just a piano or with a full orchestra and it has been performed in music halls over the years both large and small.

And I can play it. Perfectly. I mean that literally.

4’33” is 4 minutes and 33 seconds of…silence. Here is a description of the premier of the piece.

The premiere of the three-movement 4′33″ was given by David Tudor on August 29, 1952, in Maverick Concert Hall, Woodstock, New York, as part of a recital of contemporary piano music. The audience saw him sit at the piano and, to mark the beginning of the piece, close the keyboard lid. Some time later he opened it briefly, to mark the end of the first movement. This process was repeated for the second and third movements.[1]

You can see various renditions of Cage’s 4’33” on YouTube. In all of them, if they are faithful to Cage’s instructions, the pianist sits in silence before his or her instrument for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Then the piece is over.

It is an interesting idea and very much in line with the odd person that was John Cage. But there may be some truth in it. The Christian musician John Michael Talbot has argued that the space between the notes is as important as the notes in a song, that the silence is as important as the sounds. That too is likely the case.

Regardless, the fact remains that people by and large do not know what to do with silence, especially when they expect sound. To watch an entire performance of Cage’s 4’33” is to prove that point. It is a strange and uncomfortable experience and I would encourage you to do it!

It is said that 4’33” was Cage’s most controversial piece. I can imagine why! But this much is certain: it is not the most controversial example of silence ever. That might go to the first verse of Revelation 8 which depicts silence in Heaven….for around 30 minutes!

What can this mean? Why does Heaven sit silently for thirty minutes when so much (a) has happened leading up to this moment and (b) is about to happen after it?

A Pause Pregnant with Hope

Let us get our bearings. Six seals have been opened. There is great activity and sound and spectacle in the throne room of God. The elders and the creatures and the angels and the redeemed constantly sing praise and glory to God. There is lightning and fire and thunder. And on the earth, great calamity of war and violence and pestilence and despair. Again, there is a LOT of noise in Heaven and on earth at this point! Then we have the interlude of chapter 7, the pause in which the angels restrain the four destructive winds, possibly the four horsemen, and in which the Lord marks and seals His own so that judgment does not befall them in tribulation.

Then, beginning in Revelation 8, with all of this going on…silence! Watch:

1 When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.

Note the sequence of events:

  • The Lamb opens the seventh seal.
  • There is “about half an hour” of silence.
  • Seven angels stand before God.
  • They are given seven trumpets.

Something is about to happen. But for thirty-ish minutes, nothing does.

I like what George Eldon Ladd said when he wrote that “[t]he best suggestion is that the silence represents an attitude of trembling suspense on the part of the heavenly hosts in view of the judgements of God which are about to fall upon the world. It is the silence of dreadful anticipation of the events that are about to ensue, now that the time of the end has come.”[2]

What on earth is happening here? On the one hand, the silence, this thirty-minute pause, represents a pregnant pause, a moment of silence that is pregnant with hope. It is, we might say, the calm before the storm. What do I mean? I mean that God is about to do something. It is about to be, as we might say, on!

Do you remember the scene of the martyrs from Revelation 6?

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

“Rest a little longer,” they are told! I do hear you! I will vindicate you!

Matthew Henry said that this silence might be “a silence of expectation” since “great things were upon the wheel of Providence, and the church of God, both in heaven and earth, stood silent, as became them, to see what God was doing.”[3]

The silence of Revelation 8 is also there to challenge us, to challenge our naïve assumption that noise equal constructive activity. Noise no more necessarily represents constructive activity than silence necessarily represents careless inactivity or laziness. No, as we are about to see, God is moving in the silence.

I love how Charles Erdman put it in 1936 when he wrote of Revelation 8:1:

The pause is startling…The impression of this surprise is tremendous…The heavens often seem silent and there is often apparent delay when God is preparing some greater deliverance, some triumph more complete.[4]

Take heart, church: in the midst of all of the activity of Revelation—the judgment and the woes and the salvation and the deliverance—God puts silence.

Silence is not a divine mistake.

Silence is not God taking a vacation.

Silence is not divine failure.

When God seems silent He is actually neither completely silent nor is He inactive. It is a pregnant pause, a pause pregnant with hope!

An Offering Overflowing with Power

What happens next heightens the drama and sheds further light on this whole wonderfully strange scene.

And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.

And angel approaches the altar in heaven. He is holding a golden censer. The Anchor Bible Dictionary informs us that “censers” were “[h]and-held devices in which incense was placed along with burning coals; the burning spices would provide a pleasing odor. These devices could be either cup-shaped vessels at the end of a long handle, or bowls set onto an upright pedestal.”[5]

So the angel takes the censer and stands at the altar. What is in the censer? We are informed that “he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints.”

Ah! Think again of the martyrs of Revelation 6 beneath the altar crying out. Think of the prayers of the church throughout the ages. Think of your prayers. Think of the prayers of your parents and grandparents and children and friends. Think of the prayers of the church throughout time. Think of the prayers of all of God’s people all over the world for as long as God’s children have called out to Him! I am talking about every prayer to God from His people as far back as the time of Enosh in Genesis 4.

26 To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.

All of those prayers.

Prayers for help.

Prayers for vindication.

Prayers for justice.

Prayers for assistance.

Prayers for deliverance.

Prayers for life.

Prayers for healing.

Prayers for hope!

All of these prayers are placed in the censer held by the angel. Then watch what happens:

And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.

“[T]he prayers of all the saints” are offered on the altar before God and rise with the smoke of the incense before God. In other words, the prayers of God’s people are an offering, the aroma of which reaches the nostrils of God!

Next week we will see the result of the prayers of God’s people rising up before God, but we are given a glimpse in verse 5:

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.

But for now let us acknowledge a central fact of our text: the offering of prayer is a powerful offering. God hears the cries of His children and moves. He moves to protect His children and He moves to judge all those who war against the Lamb and His church!

This scene of silence preceding judgment is reminiscent of Zephaniah 1.

Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is near; the Lord has prepared a sacrifice and consecrated his guests. And on the day of the Lord’s sacrifice—“I will punish the officials and the king’s sons and all who array themselves in foreign attire. On that day I will punish everyone who leaps over the threshold, and those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud. 10 “On that day,” declares the Lord, “a cry will be heard from the Fish Gate, a wail from the Second Quarter, a loud crash from the hills.

So now we see. God is not inactive in the silence. He is (a) listening to the prayers of His people and (b) preparing for the perfect moment to vindicate them. The seven angels have lifted their trumpets to their lips. They are about to sound forth. Both judgment and deliverance are coming. The silence is about to be broken.

Let us return to John Cage’s silent piano song, 4’33”. The first time the song was “performed,” people grew restless. Some grew angry. Some walked out. The silence became unbearable. The silence became offensive. When he was asked about this, Cage said the following:

They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.

Cage is making an interesting point: the silence should not offend us because, seen from a certain perspective, the silence is not even really silence!

And, in a sense, that is true of Revelation 8 too. For there has never been a time when the people of God the world over have not cried out to God for His presence, for His mercy, for His comfort, for His deliverance! In Psalm 141, we read:

2 Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!

The noise of the crowd is its own kind of music. The offering of the prayers of God’s people is ever being placed on the altar and it is ever rising before God…and He is ever and always listening and responding!

Yes, the offering and incense of prayer have been rising up to God for as long as His children have called on His name. So when we are offended by the silence, let us remember: God is hearing the prayers of His people. God is moving. God has perfect timing. The angels are standing at the ready, the trumpets to the lips.

And the Lamb is there. And the Lamb sees. And the Lamb is not asleep.

The Lamb will save His people!

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/4′33″

[2] George Eldson Ladd. A Commentary on the Revelation of John. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972), p.122-123.

[3] Matthew Henry, A Commentary on the Holy Bible with Practical Remarks and Observations. Vol.VI (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, ____), p.1395.

[4] Charles R. Erdman. The Revelation of John. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1936), p.81.

[5] David Noel Freedman, ed.-in-chf. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol.1, A-C (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p.882

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