by Daniel Harrell
John gets a peek through heaven’s door and sees an angel with a thurible. From the Greek word for sacrifice, a thurible, also known as a censer, burns incense specifically for religious purposes. These days incense is more of like nasal art; people burn it purely for the aromatic aesthetic without necessarily assigning any particular significance to it. Incense has practical advantages too. Like a scented candle or a can of Glade, incense hides offensive odors; it protects your nose from what stinks. This advantage led to the use of incense in ancient funerals since incense could smother the odor of a decaying corpse. This last practical use may have been how incense found its way into ancient worship. In Old Testament Tabernacle-Temple practice, incense provided much-appreciated nose-cover against the stench of animal sacrifice.
These practical advantages carried spiritual corollaries. Inasmuch as animal sacrifice served to atone for the sins committed by God’s people (which also explains why it stunk so bad), burning incense symbolized God’s acceptance of the sacrifice—as Leviticus puts it: “an offering by fire made pleasing to the LORD.” Some say that the incense was like prayer itself, a perfumed plea of mercy escorting the sacrificial stench into heaven, somehow lessening sin’s offensiveness. The idea was that human prayer and worship, even when offered with a sincere heart, still needs all the help it can get.
If you’re a lifelong Congregationalist, or a lifelong Protestant for that matter, you’ve unlikely encountered incense in worship. The only smoke I remember growing up was the deacons lighting up in the church yard before worship. The absence of incense has to do with its liturgical needlessness. Jesus’ sacrifice of himself supplanted both animal oblation and the accompanying fumes. His death for us was, as St. Paul described it, “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Moreover, the resurrection translated Christ’s horrific defeat on the cross into a sweet smell of victory that wafts us into eternity. As new creatures in Christ, according to Paul, we ourselves are now “the aroma of Christ to God.” Nevertheless, plenty of Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches still go for the smells and bells in worship; the rationale being that incense makes sense since it shows up here in Revelation. Why not burn it on earth as it is in heaven? John views an angelic thurifer with a golden censer loaded with incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne.” So close is this golden altar to God, that the smoldering cloud of prayer could not escape his notice.
We continue in Revelation this week, having opened six of the seven seals that had both fastened and sanctioned a scroll God holds in his right hand—presumably containing the final list of the redeemed along with details about the end of the world. The sealed scroll could only be opened by its rightful recipient, whom John rightly expected to be one of glorious countenance, a royal king or a roaring lion. But to his utter surprise, and even dismay, the worthy one was not a ferocious king of the beasts, but a bloodied and butchered lamb. Such has always been the irony of the gospel: The foreboding Lion is the slaughtered sheep. Victory is obtained through disgrace and defeat.
However for early Christians disgraced and doomed to defeat under Roman oppression, this depiction was just what they needed. Their faithfulness looked like failure and foolishness; more like suicide than anything approaching success. The butchered Lamb validated the suffering their faithfulness brought. Now triumphant and worthy to open the scroll, the butchered Lamb assured eventual victory. But eventual can sometimes take too long. In chapter 6, these same courageous Christians, martyred for their faith, huddled in heaven to complain that God had yet to do justice against their enemies! Not exactly what you would call “praying for your persecutors.” But as it turned out, their concern was not for their own vindication as much as it was for God’s reputation. The Scriptures declare the Lord as “righteous and just, giving to the proud what they deserve! … You will pay them back for their evil, and destroy them because of their wickedness.” Why is God taking so long?
The reason is because the Lord is also “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” His tardiness is not an abdication of justice, but a determination to save. Still, patience is not eternal. In chapter 6, a dreaded sixth seal does break open unleashing an inundation of familiar portents of doom that signal the pending end of time: Earthquake, eclipse, the skies rolled back like a scroll. “The great day of wrath has come,” we read, “Who can stand?” Chapter 7 answered that question with a figurative 144,000 marked with God’s proof of purchase seal. As the deadly angel in Exodus passed over those in Egypt whose doorposts were marked with the blood of the lamb, so likewise here, the saved are those sealed by the blood of Christ. “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,” they sing, “for with your blood you have purchased us from every tribe and language and nation.”
Chapter 8 breaks open the seventh and final seal, but rather than the final apocalyptic curtain (which is coming), there’s a break in the action.“When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” Not long in the scope of eternity, but long enough to get your attention.
The previous six seals had made enormous racket: Screaming angels, chanting weird-looking creatures, swelling choruses, galloping horses, rumbling earthquakes, thundering skies, howling martyrs—a ceaseless, clamorous, cosmic commotion. Silence in the midst of such pandemonium is like baby-sitting a houseful of rambunctious kids. They’re banging around their rooms upstairs when they’re supposed to be brushing their teeth and you’re sure they’re going to crash down through the ceiling when suddenly everything gets quiet. Instead of a deep sigh of relief, this silence gets you to dash up the stairs to find out what’s wrong.
The silence jerks John’s attention back to the celestial command center where seven angels receive seven trumpets with which to sound God’s ferocious and final fanfare against evil. These trumpets will blow more like cannons than horns, blasting evil to Kingdom come. But before they blow, these seven angels are joined by an eighth, a magical number that always signals new creation. God made heaven and earth in six days, and then rested on the seventh. On the eighth day he got back to work. Day eight in the Bible is the day after the Sabbath, Sunday, the first day of the week, the day Jesus rose from the dead and marked the start of new creation. This is why Christian churches worship on Sunday. The eighth day is our taste of heaven. This eighth angel represents Jesus who holds the fragrant thurible to assist all of our prayers, the Holy Spirit who intercedes with sighs too deep for words.
That the smoke covered prayers for all time means there must have been a lot of smoke. I held back on that amount of smoke this morning out of fear of setting off the fire alarm or the sprinklers. But a fire alarm would fit. The incense escorting the prayers of the saints rises before God in a fragrant appeal, scented with the smoky scent of the righteous Lamb. But as these prayers of the saints were prayers for justice, in a flash the fragrant fire transforms into the bonfire of retaliation. The incense becomes incensed, you might say. The Lamb finds his roar. The prayers of the saints finally get answered as the fiery thurible drops like a bomb from the angel’s hand, exploding on earth with divine ferocity. Eventual is without further ado. In the ensuing verses, three trumpets sound and all hell breaks loose. By the end of the chapter John looks to the sky where an eagle flies crying, “Woe to those who inhabit the earth!” And there’s still four more horns to blow. Silence serves as the ominous calm before the storm.
There is an irrefutable power to silence—what’s not said often speaks louder than what is. In anger we’ll give others the silent treatment, passing sentences, if you will, on their offenses. In the Old Testament the prophet Amos had warned, “Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘when I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD.’” Inasmuch as the word of the Lord is the source of all life and salvation, God’s silent treatment is deadly. However, unlike the silence we mete out in anger by refusing to speak, in Amos and elsewhere God’s silence is our refusal to listen. The famine in Amos is a famine of hearing, a condition the Bible typically translates as disobedience. “Hear and do” are a matched set throughout Scripture; “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and do it,” Jesus said. God’s enemies are those who persistently turn a deaf ear, the hardened of hearing and heart who obstinately refuse to heed his word. In the end they are silenced forever.
The sad reality is how so many hard of hearing consider themselves righteous. We have met the enemy and he is us. In Deuteronomy, God’s chosen people stood on the cusp of crossing the Jordan river, the last leg of a 40-year desert journey to their long Promised Land, their own taste of heaven on earth. For the Lord and his people, however, their 40 years together had been a nightmare marriage of infidelity and sin, 40 years of refusing to listen. Though chosen by grace, that took that grace for granted, presuming God’s favor to be favoritism. They treated their chosen-ness as permission to do as they pleased. The Lord piled on the commandments to show them what true faithfulness was and wasn’t, matching their trespasses with statutes, proving early on how hard it can be to legislate morality. God tried to show what a life of grace looked like, but grace with responsibility felt too confining; obedience proved too hard to take, and even harder to do.
The Scriptures declare the Lord as “righteous and just, giving to the proud what they deserve! He pays them back for their evil, and destroys them because of their wickedness.” But the Lord is also “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” The fiery bomb God drops falls in the flesh and blood of Jesus who spent 40 days in the desert as a do-over to redeem Israel’s refusal to listen. If you recall the story, Jesus went from his baptism in the Jordan River back to the desert to be tempted, back to the place his people refused to hear. Whereas God’s chosen people could never shut up, self-righteously griping and whining about their lot in life, Jesus quietly endured deprivation in preparation for the worst the devil could dish out. Notably, silence did not strengthen Jesus for the challenge; it weakened him to the point of being tempted to give in to Satan instead of trusting the Lord. The New Testament remarkably reports how even though Jesus was God’s Son, “he learned obedience through the things he suffered.”
Christ’s ultimate obedience was his sacrificial death on a cross. The foreboding Lion is the slaughtered sheep. Victory obtained through disgrace and defeat. “Led as a lamb to be butchered; as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” Jesus refused to explain, answer charges or save himself. Silence that served as the penalty for our disobedience becomes the source of our salvation. As an aromatic offering of love, Jesus rose like incense to the right hand of God from whence, we profess, he will come to mercifully judge the living and the dead. Smoke gets in our eyes. Silence gets our attention. Salvation and grace come to those who hear the word of the Lord and heed it—the word of life who is Christ our Lord. Thankfully, in the end, the last word always belongs to him.