The Seventh Seal And The Golden Censer
"And when he opened the seventh seal, there followed a
silence in the heaven, as it were half an hour.
"And I saw the seven angels who stand in the presence of God; and to them were given seven trumpets.
"And another angel came and stood over the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given to him many incenses, that he might offer [them] for [or with] the prayers of all the saints on the altar of gold before the throne. And the smoke of the incenses went up for [or with] the prayers of the saints, out of the hand of the angel, in the presence of God. And the angel took the censer and filled it out of the fire of the altar cast into the earth; and there followed thunderings, and lightnings, and voices, and an earthquake" (Revised Text).
"As it were half an hour," this solemn stillness lasted. A half-hour is not long in itself, but time is longer or shorter according to what is transpiring or what the circumstances are. Moments of agonising suspense stretch out into hours and days in comparison with moments of ordinary life. Two minutes of delay, when a man is drowning, is an awful period to have to wait. A stoppage of ten minutes between the words I am speaking would be an intolerable interval. When on the margin of the realisation of great expectations, or interrupted in the midst of what has been absorbing the intense interest of the soul, every instant of delay expands into hours and even ages.
When we consider the circumstances of this case - the world in which this pause occurs - the sort of occupations which it interrupts - the kind and number of beings it affects - the nature of the feelings, interests, and expectations which it holds in suspense - and the awfulness of the stillness itself - there is everything to make this half-hour a thing so tremendous that we may be sure there never was the like before, and never will be again thereafter. Nor is the length of it the least remarkable of its features.
The Seven Angels
After this awful pause, the action of the throne is resumed. A company of angels make their appearance on the heavenly arena. They are seven in number. They are of particular rank and distinction, for not all angels are of the same dignity and office. Paul enumerates "dominions, principalities, and powers" among the celestial orders. Daniel speaks of some chief princes. Paul and Jude refer to archangels. Angelic beings are not, therefore, of one and the same grade. The sons of God, in general, come before Him only at appointed times (Job 1:6), but the Saviour speaks of some angels who "do always behold the face of the Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 18:10). The sublime agents that John beheld after the opening of the seventh seal are described as "the seven angels who stand in the presence of God."
The Jews were familiar with seven angels of this particular class. Gabriel is one of them, as he himself said to Zacharias: "I am Gabriel, that stands in the presence of God" (Luke 1:19). Michael is another, as he is ranked with Gabriel in the book of Daniel, and there pronounced one of the princes, even "the great prince" of the prophets people (12:1). In the Apocryphal book of Tobit, Raphael is named as still another, where he announces himself and says, "I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels which present the prayers of the saints and which go in and out before the glory of the Holy One." Whether we take this book as inspired, as the Romanists do, or as not inspired, as the Protestants generally regard it, there is no matter touching this point. The passage referred to (Tobit 12:15) shows what the ancient people of God held as truth, and the representation harmonises with the text and with the accepted books of Holy Scripture. The ancients believed that there are seven presence angels, and the Apocalypse ratifies that belief.
(The book of Enoch [chapter 20] has the following: "These are the names of the angels who watch. Uriel, one of the holy angels, who presides over clamour and terror; Raphael, one of the holy angels, who presides over the spirits of men; Raguel, one of the holy angels, who inflicts punishment on the world and the luminaries; Michael, one of the holy angels, who, presiding over human virtue, commands the nations; Sarakiel, one of the holy angels, who presides over the spirits of the children of men that transgress; Gabriel, one of the holy angels, who presides over Ikesat, over paradise, and over the cherubim.")
These presence-angels are the highest and mightiest of created beings. It is their privilege to "stand in the presence of God." They stand. This is the posture of service, but standing in the presence of God is to be above all other servants. The seven Persian princes who "saw the kings face" were the highest officers of the realm and next to the monarch in rank and power (Esther 1:14). What these princes were to the Persian kings, these presence-angels are to God.
We thus get a glance into the economy of heaven. A democratic chaos for the state, and a Laodicean herd for the Church, constitute the worlds ideal of perfection in these days. But the heavenly state is very different. It is not a monotonous and lawless commonalty, but a complete organism in which each has his prescribed sphere and office, in orders towering above orders, and princedoms over princedoms, till we reach the seven archangels standing in the immediate presence of God and holding place next to the eternal throne itself.
These sublime ministers of God appear here as the prime executors of the oncoming administrations. The Saviour himself said, "In the end of this world, the Son of man shall send forth His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity, and shall cast them into a furnace of fire" (Matt. 13:40-42). And here John beholds those angels - the glorious septemvirate of celestial archregents - the mightiest and the highest creatures in the universe - presenting themselves for the momentous work.
The Symbolism Of The Trumpets
"And to them were given seven trumpets." Trumpets are expressive instruments. The voice of the trumpet is the most significant voice known to the Holy Scriptures. God himself gave His ancient people very special directions with regard to the use of the trumpet. It is itself described as a cry - a loud and mighty cry - that related only to important occasions. The time for the blowing of trumpets was always a time of moment - a time of solemnity - a time for men to bestir themselves greatly in one way or another.
Trumpets connect with war. The command was: "If you go to war in your land against the enemy that oppresses you, then you shall blow an alarm with the trumpets" (Numbers 10:9). Jeremiah cries: "O my soul, the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war!" (4:19).
Trumpets were for the convocation of the people and the moving of the camps of Israel. This is minutely described in Numbers 8.
Trumpets proclaimed the great festivals. "You shall blow with the trumpets over burnt-offerings and over the sacrifice of your peace-offerings" (Numbers 10:10). "You shall have a Sabbath, a memorial of blowing of trumpets, an holy convocation" (Leviticus 23:24). "You shall cause the trumpet of the Jubilee to sound, in the day of atonement you shall make the trumpet sound throughout the land" (Leviticus 25:9). So "when the burnt-offering began, the song of the Lord began also with the trumpets" (2 Chronicles 29:27.)
Trumpets also related to the announcements of royalty. Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet were directed to anoint Solomon king over Israel, and blow with the trumpet, and say, "God save King Solomon" (1 Kings 1:34,39). It is also written: "They hurried ... and blew with trumpets, saying, Jehu is king!" (2 Kings 9:13).
Trumpets are also associated with the manifestation of the terrible majesty and power of God. When the Almighty appeared on Mount Sinai, there was "the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that were in the camp trembled" (Exodus 19:16). Amos says: "Shall a trumpet be blown in the city and the people not be afraid?" (3:6).
Trumpets connect with the overthrow of the ungodly. It was at the blowing of the trumpets that the walls of Jericho fell down, and the city was given into the hands of Joshua (Joshua 6:13-16). Trumpets also proclaimed the laying of the foundations of Gods temple (Esdras 3:10).
With these facts before us, we are already in a degree prepared to anticipate what these seven trumpets are to bring forth. Their number is the complete number, and we may expect from them everything to which trumpets stand related in the Scriptures.
Are they related to war? Then war is coming; yes, "the battle of that great day of God Almighty." Are they for the calling of convocations and signals for motion? Then we may look for great gatherings and mighty changes. Do they herald great solemnities and blessed feasts and sacrifices? Then we may anticipate the most sublime festivals, and victories, and jubilee, and burning up of the victims of sin, that the world has ever yet seen. Do they declare investiture with dominion and the commencement of a new reign? Then may we look for the setting up of a new administration and the opening of the reign of the true David, the greater than Solomon. Do they declare the presence of God in His awful majesty? Then we may expect a revelation of Divine power and Godhead that shall fill heaven and earth with trembling. Do they bring the fall of the cities of the wicked and the destruction of their inhabitants? Then we may look for the end of great Babylon and the sweeping of the dominion of Antichrist and all his confederates from the earth. Do they tell of the founding and building of the permanent temple of the Lord? Then we may look for the incoming of that true tabernacle which the Lord pitched and not man, and of that firmly founded city whose maker and builder is God. All this accords entirely with what John subsequently describes as resultant from the sounding of these seven trumpets.
We thus come upon an important fact that is, for the most part, very strangely perverted. Writers on the Apocalypse generally treat it as if it depended for its imagery and materials upon the ancient Jewish regulations. They thus put the copy for the original and deal with the original as if it were the copy. All the ancient regulations were nothing but copies and types. They were commanded to be patterned after some heavenly model, of which they were to be the reminders and prophecies. They were not the true - the real - but only earthly imitations of it. The true ideal is what John beholds in this book. These seven presence-angels, with their seven trumpets, are the true heavenly realities, with reference to which all the ancient laws relating to trumpets were ordained.
What we have here is not the work of John elaborating a dramatic poem out of the elements of the ancient ritual, but an Apocalypse of the great realities themselves, with reference to which those old appointments were constructed as earthly pictures and mimic predictions. We go back to the ancient laws, and we there see reflected in earthly forms what John beholds in heavenly reality, and we reverse the whole order and involve ourselves in inextricable confusion when we take the images in his visions as mere earthly and Jewish drapery and not rather as the very things from which those Jewish ceremonies took their existence and peculiarities. The Apocalypse is not a poem in Jewish dress, but the Jewish ceremonies were an earthly poem of the Apocalypse. Let this be understood, and much of the darkness hanging over the meaning of this book will at once disappear.
The Other Angel
Before these presence-angels sound their trumpets, "another angel" appears, and another scene intervenes, to which our attention must be given.
Many understand by this angel, the Lord Jesus himself - the Jehovah-Angel of the Old Testament, and the same referred to in the preceding chapter as the Sealer of the 144,000. In both instances, the officer is called "another angel" which, while it associates him with angels as to ministry, seems to imply some Being very different from angels as to nature.
This angel has a censer of gold, an implement belonging to the Holy of holies and used only by the high priest, which would seem to indicate our great High Priest that has passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God. This angel casts fire into the earth, and Jesus says of himself: "I came to cast fire into the earth; and what could I wish if it were already kindled? Do you suppose that I came to give peace in the earth? I tell you no, but rather division" (Luke 12:49-52). This is in some sense realised in the course of the history and doings of the Church, but we know that it is to be much more literally and terribly fulfilled in the day of judgment, and here would seem to be its exact accomplishment. This angel offers the prayers of all the saints and renders them savoury before God. Such an office is nowhere in the Scriptures assigned to angels proper but is everywhere assigned to the Lord Jesus Christ.
There would seem to be strong reason, therefore, for supposing that this Angel is really the Jehovah-Angel, and none other than the Lord Jesus Christ in His capacity of our great High Priest. Primasius says: "The Angel here is our Lord, by whom all our prayers have access to God (Ephesians 2 18; 3:12), and therefore the Apostle says, through Him we offer sacrifices of praise to God continually (Hebrews 13:15; 1 Peter 2:5); and John says He is our Advocate with the Father (1 John 2:1)." Wordsworth affirms that "this interpretation is sanctioned by other ancient interpreters, such as Augustine and Bede," and that "Christ, in His human character and priestly office, may be called another Angel," as the high priest on the day of atonement is called an angel with reference to his ministrations, and as he believes Christ is called in chapters 10:1; 14:17; 18:1; 20:1.
Neither does it overthrow this view, that the incenses offered up by this angel are represented as "given to Him." If the incenses here are to be taken as explained in chapter 5:8, that is, as the prayers themselves, of course they are given to Him, for He offers no prayers of saints which have not been put into His hands. And if it is the virtue of His Mediatorship that is to be understood by the incenses, there is still an important sense in which that is given to Him. It is given to Him in the sense of award both by saints themselves, who credit and trust in Him as able to do for them, and by Sovereign Majesty who adjudges Him entitled to exercise such offices and powers. Even all the glories of His Apocalypse are represented (chapter 1:1) as given to Him, though they are equally His own right and the result of His personal obedience unto death, with His merits as our Advocate and Intercessor.
It was no evidence that a champion in the ancient games had not lawfully and in his own person entitled himself to the honours of the victory when the rightful judges and all Greece gave him those honours. It was rather a demonstration that he had justly merited and won them. And so, in the sense of judicial award and general credit, confidence, and acknowledgment, the intercessorial prerogatives and mediatorial earnings of Christ may be spoken of as given to Him. He did not glorify himself to be made a high priest, and the more excellent ministry of his mediatorship of the better covenant is everywhere spoken of as having been "obtained" by Him (Hebrews 5:5; 8:6). All has really been given to Him - given to Him as the just due of His own perfect fulfilment of all righteousness - given to Him by eternal Deity and all saints. Such a giving to this Angel-Priest no more necessarily excludes Him from being rightfully taken as the Christ, than the giving of the Spirit, or the giving of the kingdom, or the giving of the possession of the nations to the Saviour proves that He is not the only begotten Son of God.
The object of the giving of these incenses was, "that He might offer [them] for the prayers of all the saints." Not for those prayers in the sense of in their stead, but in the sense of furthering them, benefiting them, and prospering them; for the prayers themselves are included in the offering. Strictly rendered, He was to offer them to the prayers; but the Greek language rather gives the sense of in behalf of - with - as a helper of their success. The idea is complex. There is an offering of incenses; those incenses come to the prayers to enrich and forward them, and the incenses imparted to the prayers are offered as the prayers. They are given to the prayers, and with the prayers, and for the prayers.
But why this offering just here, as the trumpets are about to be sounded? Many have taken it as denoting a state of much prayerfulness in the earthly Church about this time. But there is not a word said about an earthly church. Indeed, the Church proper is no longer on earth at the time to which these trumpets belong. There are still true worshipers of God on earth - the two olive trees - and those who refuse to adore the Beast, but their prayers cannot be taken for "the prayers of all the saints." The words are very comprehensive and take in all the holy prayers ever offered.
We had an allusion to these precious treasures in chapter 5 where the account is given of the Living ones and Elders falling down before the Lamb and holding up golden bowls full of incense. Those incenses, like these of the text, were the prayers of the saints. There the saints themselves hold them up before the Lamb, as an adoring act of confidence that He was now about to enter upon their complete fulfilment, and as yet standing back and waiting for an answer.
Here Christ offers them, as the Great High Priest. He bears them in the golden censer and perfumes them with the precious fragrance of His own meritorious favour and righteousness, and sanctifies them with the sacred fire, and presents them upon the golden altar before the throne of infinite Godhead.
Not one of them is forgotten or lost. Those that came up when time was young and those offered but yesterday are all present and in hand. Jesus himself is not ashamed of them and handles them with holy care. He bears them in a heavenly vessel of gold and presents them on the highest altar in the universe. He offers them as approved and endorsed by himself and for such acceptance that their fulfilment may no longer be delayed. He presents them now because the fulness of the time has come for them to be brought into remembrance, seeing that all things are in final readiness to execute what is to satisfy them forever.
I would here remind you of the great burden of all holy prayer. As put by Christ himself into the lips and hearts of His people, it is YOUR KINGDOM COME! YOUR WILL BE DONE ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN! This is truly the sum and substance of all saintly supplication, the very crown and goal of all holy prayer.
Now for what purpose are those trumpets in the hands of the seven angels? To what intent is this calling forward of such mighty ones to pour out blasts over the earth? What is to be achieved by the sublime activities in which they stand ready to move? What, but the revelation of the power and the glory of that very Kingdom, for the coming of which the saints have never ceased to pray? What but the enforcement of the reign of God where iniquity and usurpation now hold jubilee? What, but the dethronement of sin and death and hell and the setting up in their place of a heavenly order in which Gods will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven?
Need any one ask, then, why this sublime offering of the prayers of all the saints is made just here, as the presence-angels are about to put their awful trumpets to their lips? When prayers are to be answered, then is the time for them to be brought into remembrance. That which results from the sounding of those trumpets is to fulfil what has been the great burden of the Churchs prayers in all ages. Those prayers, therefore, have a most profound connection with the sounding of these mighty trumpets. It is for this reason that they here come into view and appear upon the golden altar of God.
Nor are they offered in vain. The ascension of their sweet vapour into the presence of God is equivalent to an announcement that they are heard. The coming up before God of the prayers and alms of Cornelius was the good pleasure of God toward what thus ascended; and the like ascent of the sweet vapour of these perfumed prayers is the token of a like approval and a like speedy answer. It is the effectual going up of the voices of them that cry day and night unto God. It is the signal that the time has come to avenge His own elect. And at once the mighty action begins.
The Divine Response To The Prayers
"And the angel took the censer, and filled it out of the fire of the altar, and cast it into the earth." The Saviour himself thus initiates the oncoming climax of the day of wrath. The people under the sixth seal thought the last and worst had come (Revelation 6:12-17), but it was only the herald of still greater things that now begin.
Nor is it to be overlooked that all this occurs in answer to the prayers of the saints. There are those who think meanly of prayer and are always asking, "What profit should we have if we pray unto the Almighty?" (Job 21:15). The true answer is "much in every way."
There is an eye that never sleeps
Beneath the wing of night;
There is an ear that never shuts
When sink the beams of light.
There is an arm that never tires
When human strength gives way;
There is a love that never fails
When earthly loves decay.
That eye is fixed on seraph throngs;
That arm upholds the sky;
That ear is filled with angel songs;
That love is throned on high
But theres a power which man can wield,
When mortal aid is vain,
That eye, that ear, that love to reach,
That listening ear to gain.
That power is PRAYER, which soars on high,
Through Jesus, to the throne;
And moves the hand that moves the world,
To bring salvation down!
Here prayer moves the Son of God - moves eternal Majesty upon His everlasting seat - sets the highest angels in motion - brings on the awful scenes of the day of judgment - influences the administrations in the heavens and induces wonders upon the earth.
As these climaxes of judgment come in answer to "the prayers of all the saints," the implication also is that where there is no prayer there is no piety, no holiness, no salvation, and that people who do not wait, and long, and pray for the coming again of the Lord Jesus and this consummation are not saints but belong to the population against whom these fiery revelations occur.
Fire is the great consumer. It always speaks of wrath, torture, and destruction to the wicked. It tells of burning fury and the most dismal effects - even "vengeance upon them that know not God and that obey not the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ." It is the common figure of divine terribleness toward the guilty - one of the great agents in the administrations of the great day - the chief torment of the lost. And when the sublime Priest-Angel of heaven turns His fire-filled censer on the earth, we have come to the day that shall burn as an oven, in which all the proud and ungodly shall be as stubble to the devouring flames (Malachi 4:1).
This fire is taken from the altar. It is one of the fearful characteristics of Gods gracious operations, that they breed and heighten the damnation of the disobedient and the unbelieving. It is not Adams guilt, for there is full remedy in Christ against that. It is not the condemnation in which the Gospel finds them, for it comes with a full and everlasting reprieve.
Here is the mischief - that when the great and costly salvation of God is carried to them, they despise it, and make light of it, and go their way as if it were nonsense or nothing. It is not that their sins are too great for them to be saved, but because they tread under foot the Son of God, and count His sanctifying blood an unholy thing, and render insult to the Spirit of grace.
Out of the very altar of sacrifice, therefore, comes their damnation. It is the saving word refused, which is a savour of death unto death in them that perish. The same fire which wafts the devotions of the obedient into the presence of God kindles the hell of the unbelieving and the neglectful. Perdition is simply abused or perverted grace. It is the same censer, filled with the same ingredients, only turned downward in the case of those who believe not.
The Heavenly Persective
And when the glorious Angel of intercession emptied the fiery contents of his censer toward the earth, "there followed thunderings, and lightnings, and voices, and an earthquake." These are the signs and instruments of Gods judgments upon His foes. No age has ever been entirely without them, as no age has ever been without earnests and foretokens of the great day. But those who think they find the description fulfilled in events of the past, or in anything but the scenes that are to terminate the history of this present world, are sorely mistaken. Indeed, it is the very climax of the day of judgment which is here set forth.
John perceives the awful effects before they have passed into actual fact on earth. We read and know things only from their outward symptoms, in or after their accomplishment. In heaven they read and know things from their inward principles, even before they have been wrought into historic fact. It is under the action of the trumpets that these thunderings, lightnings, voices, and convulsions are worked into the experiences of the earth and its inhabitants. It is only according to the interior view of them, from the heavenly standpoint, that the events to be achieved are thus summarily described. As the trumpets are sounded, and we come to consider the scenes they develop, we will see these thunderings, and lightnings, and voices, and convulsions, as they manifest themselves on the earthly theatre.
Meanwhile, I suggest just one thought more. It is in reference to the interest that holy beings take in these subjects of sacred prophecy. There is a very sublime picture, presented by the Apostle Peter in his first epistle, where he represents the ancient prophets as "inquiring and searching diligently" to understand "what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ, which was in them, did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glory that should follow" (1:10-11). We also are told that the angels of heaven are bending from their lofty thrones, desiring to look into these things (1:12).
It is a masterly touch, to set forth the greatness, majesty, and glory of the Gospel, which makes us feel as we read that here is a theme at once the wonder of the universe and challenging the profoundest attention and study of man. It is an overwhelming vindication of any amount of absorbing captivation by the topics referred to. All agree to this. But what shall we say, then, for the themes with which the text stands connected?
Here is a subject that has engaged the devotions of "all the saints" and been the grand goal of all their holy desires since time began. Here are transactions that fill heaven with awe and turn the songs of eternity into silence! Here are administrations which call the seven archangels into action, to look after the results of which, the universe is spellbound and mute with solemn expectation! Here are things, the mere prayers for which the Son of God holds in the golden censer, and offers on the golden altar, and sends up with awful solemnity into the presence of eternal Majesty.
Is not this, then, a subject to command and justify the holiest and profoundest interest, study, and attention of rational beings! And yet there are people - men claiming to be Christians - leaders of religious thought - ministers ordained to teach the way of God truly - who have not hesitated to sneer at it as the theme of fools, the hobby of enthusiasts, or the plaything of religious idiots!
You may agree with them if you like. But, while I find these things treated with all soberness in the Scriptures, and blessing spoken from heaven upon those who give them devout and studious attention, and the Holy Ghost interpreting them as involving the highest hopes and prayers of "all the saints," and the whole celestial world becoming mute and motionless in the intensity of its interest as they unfold into fact, and prophets of God, and angels of glory, and Archangels of the Almightys presence, and the blessed Christ at the heavenly altar, and the universe of holy beings, occupied with heart and soul with reference to them, I must persist in a different judgment and ask to be excused for believing that we have here not only a legitimate and fitting theme for our most devout study but also one as high and momentous as ever was presented to the contemplation of man. It is a theme that grasps deep into everything dear to us for time or eternity.
The import of the message is such that he who wilfully ignores it has reason to fear for his safety against the terrific plagues written in this book and for the security of his part in the holy city.
May God, in mercy, save us from a state of such dangerous carelessness. Amen.
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