Revelation 8: Silence in Heaven?
Revelation chapters 6-19 describe the Tribulation period during the End Times. After the Church is taken out of the world in what might be called the first phase of Christ’s return, the Rapture, the time of God’s wrath, emerges in three waves of seven: seven seals, seven trumpets and seven bowls.
There are many titles in Scripture for this period, such as the “Day of the Lord” (Obadiah 15; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Amos 5:18, 20; Isaiah 2:12; 13:6, 9; Zephaniah 1:7, 14; Ezekiel 13:5; 30:3; Zechariah 14:1), the “Great and Terrible Day of the Lord,” (Malachi 4:5), the “Day of Wrath” (Zephaniah 1:15), the “Day of Jacob’s Trouble,” (Jeremiah 30:7), “The Day” (I Thessalonians 5:4), “Those Days” (Matthew 24:22; Mark 13:20), “The Tribulation,” (Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:24), “The Great Tribulation,” (Matthew 24:21; Revelation 2:22; 7:14).
Starting in Revelation 6-7, and the start of chapter 8, the Lamb of God, Christ, opens the seven seals of the scroll given to him, which is the title deed to the earth. These seven seals and their judgments represent the first half of seven years of what the book of Daniel calls the 70th week (Daniel 9:25-27). It is the darkest moment in human history — a time of spiritual apostasy and the rise of a mighty world figure who deceives the masses — a time of war — a time of famine — a time of death — a time of Christian martyrdom — a time of terror when the universe itself is shaken.
In Revelation 8, Christ breaks the seventh seal, and this is what happens:
“When the Lamb broke the seventh seal on the scroll, there was silence throughout heaven for about half an hour. I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and they were given seven trumpets” (Revelation 8: 1-2).
Silence in Heaven for about a half hour? What is this momentary pause that creates a solemn interval where everyone and everything within the heavenly realm is hushed?
Several speculations have been advanced. Some speculate it’s like the calm before the storm. Others contend it’s like that moment of great solemnity when everyone waits silently with bated breath for the Judge to reveal his verdict. Still, others argue it’s a deafening silence generated by the shock of what God is about to do to the prideful rebels who repudiated his grace and mercies. It’s a half-hour of tense expectation, they say.
A Frankfurt prayer from the 16th century says:
“Lord, the Bible says: ‘There is a time for silence and a time for speech.’ Savior, teach me the silence of humility, the silence of wisdom, the silence of love, the silence of perfection, the silence that speaks without words, the silence of faith.
“Lord, teach me to silence my own heart so I may listen to the gentle movement of the Holy Spirit within me and sense the depths of God.”
Surely all these virtues are rolled into that half hour of silence in Heaven. But a better interpretation of the text connects this silence with the following verses:
Then another angel with a gold incense burner came and stood at the altar. And a great amount of incense was given to him to mix with the prayers of God’s people as an offering on the gold altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, mixed with the prayers of God’s holy people, ascended up to God from the altar where the angel had poured them out. Then the angel filled the incense burner with fire from the altar and threw it down upon the earth; and thunder crashed, lightning flashed, and there was a terrible earthquake (Revelation 8:3-5).
In The Revelation of Jesus Christ, John Metcalfe offers the best explanation for the silence. He writes:
“Silence pertains to the ear. It is what is required if something is to be heard by those who listen. They are not making the noise. They are not making a sound. The noise comes from elsewhere. And all Heaven is still during this sufficient interval to catch the sound. What sound?
“Since the following verses show that the prayers of all saints are ascending into the silence of Heaven, for long enough an interval for Heaven to catch all that is breathed; to every sigh; and to listen to each one of the groanings; indeed, to detect even the near silent drop of every tear; the whisper of every lip: then the reason for the silence is confirmed.
“That is why there is silence in Heaven, because by this, in a figure, God is assuring his elect that all Heaven — in a moment, in one brief, but very distinct interval — inclines to hear the very words and sighs breathed from the saints below…
“Revelation 5:8 manifests the things in Heaven and speak of the golden vials full of odors ‘which are the prayers of the saints.’ The opening of the fifth seal revealed the souls of them, which are under the altar, slain for the Word of God and for the testimony which they held. This was their prayer: ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?’ (Rev. 6:10).
“With this prayer. Revelation 8:3 agrees. If these are the prayers of the suffering saints on earth, and if the prayers of all saints are preceded by the symbol of silence in heaven and followed by the figure of prayer ascending up as incense, the cause of silence in heaven is no longer a matter of conjecture.
“Here is metaphorical language. Truth is conveyed by figures: by pictorial imagery. Silence, therefore, answers to the quiet command in heaven to give ear to the prayers of all saints. It is all saints to whom the God of Heaven is listening. In connection with those prayers, the seal had been broken, and the seven angels with the seven trumpets appear.”
What a word from God! What comfort for all who suffer for their faith in Christ! What hope that their pleas, holy complaints, and anguish are always heard and answered. These prayers are of the utmost importance to God. They take priority. Just as the four angels were instructed to hold back the winds of God’s judgment upon the earth until the Lord’s 144,000 Jewish evangelists were sealed, God’s dreadful judgments in the seven angels who will blow their trumpets are delayed until the prayers of God’s Tribulation saints are gathered in a golden incense burner as a sacrificial offering on the altar. This golden censer filled with the prayers of God’s servants is mixed with incense, poured out on the altar, and ascends to God’s throne. This golden censer is then taken and filled with fire from the altar and thrown down on the earth. Consequently, there comes a loud rumble of thunder and lightning flashes and a terrible earthquake. In so many words, these prayers have set in motion the coming judgments in the second half of the Tribulation.
The late T.F. Torrance, a Scottish theologian and professor of Christian dogmatics at New College in the University of Edinburgh, wrote:
“What are the real master powers behind the world, and what are the deeper secrets of our destiny? Here is the astonishing answer: the prayer of the saints and the fire of God. That means that more potent, more powerful than all the dark and mighty powers let loose in the world, more powerful than anything else, is the power of prayer set ablaze by the fire of God and cast upon the earth.”
No doubt, many of these prayers offered were imprecatory. Imprecatory prayers ask God to bring judgment to those who despise his ways and his people. These are not petitions for personal vengeance.
The Psalmist David prayed imprecatory prayers. He prayed, “O God, declare them guilty. Let them be caught in their own traps. Drive them away because of their many sins, for they have rebelled against you (Psalm 5:10). He also asked God, “Don’t let them get away with their wickedness; in your anger, O God, bring them down” (Psalm 56:7). David even prayed prayers asking God to deal in judgment with those who had treated him unjustly when he had done what was godly.
Some would say these prayers are beneath the Christian today and no longer proper for a New Testament believer. Nevertheless, making ethical distinctions between Old and New Testament believers is flawed.
David Chilton, in his book, Days of Vengeance, admonishes:
“If our churches were more acquainted with the foundational hymnbook of the Church, the Psalms, instead of the sugary, syrupy, sweetness-and-light choruses that characterize modern evangelical hymnals, we would understand this much easier. But we have fallen under a pagan delusion that it is somehow ‘unchristian’ to pray for God’s wrath to be poured out upon the enemies and persecutors of the Church. Yet that is what we see God’s people doing, with God’s approval, in both Testaments of the Holy Scriptures…Much of the impotence of the churches today is directly attributable to the fact that they have become emasculated and effeminate.”
Certainly, we should lovingly and earnestly pray for the repentance of the unsaved and the enemies of God’s people. Nevertheless, it is not improper to also earnestly pray that if particular individuals or groups callously persist in their sinful ways, if they are hell-bent on spreading their evil to the harm of many others, shamelessly rejecting and ridiculing righteousness — it is righteous to call for God’s judgment on them. It is right to call on God to stop them in their tracks. Out of love and passion for God’s holy purposes, it is appropriate to petition heaven to deal with people who are hardened and arrogant against God — people who persist in defying his objectives in the world. Of course, no one should engage in imprecatory praying before also pouring out one’s heart for the salvation of the wayward.
In the end, the prayers of God’s people under severe duress are of the utmost importance to him. All of Heaven bends the ear in silence to hear them. God will respond aggressively to take vengeance on all who despise him and his saints.
Rev. Mark H. Creech is Executive Director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc. He was a pastor for twenty years before taking this position, having served five different Southern Baptist churches in North Carolina and one Independent Baptist in upstate New York.