In Revelation 6 John described what happened when the Lord Jesus — the Lamb who had been slain — opened the first six seals on the scroll which had been in the hand of the Lord God Almighty. And when the first four scrolls were opened, four horsemen appeared; and each one was given power and authority to bring all kinds of death and destruction on the earth, all the woes and troubles which happen in the world in these, the last days. And then, after the fifth seal was opened, John saw the souls of the martyrs, who are being kept safely under the altar of the Lord. And do you remember? They cried out:
How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?
And each of them was given a white robe and told that they must wait a little longer. And then, after the sixth seal was opened, John described the end of the world, and how the people of the world called on mountains and rocks to fall upon them, because they would rather have the mountains fall on them than face the Lord God Almighty and the wrath of the Lamb.
So, in Revelation 6 we read what happened when six of the seven seals were opened. But instead of going straight on to tell us about the seventh seal, John spent all of chapter 7 telling us about two other visions he received. One was about the church militant, or the church on earth. And the members of the church on earth were marked with the seal of God which indicated that they belonged to the Lord and were under his protection. So, this vision was about how the Lord protects his people so that our faith in him will not fail despite all the troubles and trials which we face in the world
If the first vision of chapter 7 was about the church militant on earth, the second was about the church triumphant in heaven. And so John tells us how he saw a great multitude that cannot be counted, from every nation, tribe, people and language; and they’re all standing before the throne of the Lord God Almighty and before the Lamb. And they’re praising the Lord, saying:
Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.
And I mentioned last time that this was the fulfilment of the Lord’s promise to Abraham, because the Lord promised to make Abraham into a great nation, which would be like the stars in the sky and like the sand on the seashore, too many to count. And at the end of the chapter we read how the Lamb will be their shepherd and will lead them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away ever tear from their eyes. And so, the church militant, the church on earth, which must stand firm against all the wicked schemes of the Devil, and which must endure all kinds of troubles and sorrow, has become the church triumphant in heaven, where the Lord wipes away our tears and where we’re allows to drink from the river of life and live for ever and for ever.
And so, we come to chapter 8. Now, when I was preparing this message, I began to look for something in my study which I had lost. I went through some drawers, lifting things out to see what was at the bottom of the drawers. And I went to my bookcases, and reached in behind the books to see if what I was looking for had fallen behind the books. I looked above the bookcase and below it. I searched here and there, all the time wondering:
Where did it go? Where did it go?
We might all be thinking the same as we turn to chapter 8. We’ve read what happened when the previous six seals were opened; now we come to the last seal, the seventh seal, which presumably is the most important seal, because it’s the last one. And yet there’s a sense of:
Where did it go?
When we get to the seventh seal, all John says about it is:
there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.
That’s all. When the sixth seal was opened, John described an earthquake and how the sun turned black and the moon turned blood red and the stars in the sky fell to earth and the sky receded like a scroll being rolled up and the mountains and islands were removed from their place. Lots of things happened after the sixth seal was opened; but nothing seems to happen after the seventh seal was opened. What’s going on?
There are a number of different views to explain the seventh seal’s silence. One is that it’s a kind of dramatic pause; it’s a dramatic pause which deepens the suspense before we go on to hear what happened next when the seven trumpets are sounded in the rest of chapter 8 and in to chapter 9. Another view is that the silence is to allow the Lord to listen to the prayers of his people which are mentioned in verse3 3 and 4. So, after all the praise of chapter 7, there needs to be a period of silence for the Lord to hear our prayers. And then, in the rest of chapter 8 and in to chapter 9, we see the Lord’s response to our prayers. And there are several other suggestions as well to explain the seventh seal’s silence. However, I prefer the view of those commentators who argue that the silence represents God’s judgment on the world. So, the opening of the seventh seal brings to completion what began at the opening of the sixth seal. When the sixth seal was opened, we read how there was an earthquake, the sun turned black, the mood became blood red, the stars fell from the sky, and so on; and the people called on the mountains to fall on them, because they’d rather have the mountains fall on them than face the wrath of God. So, when the sixth seal was opened, it was clear that the judgment was coming; it was about to happen. Then, when the seventh seal was opened, the judgment took place on the wicked. And the judgment on the wicked is represented by silence.
Meanwhile, going back to chapter 7 briefly, John’s vision of the church triumphant shows us that the fate of believers is very different. So, whereas the wicked face condemnation when the wrath of God falls on them, believers in heaven are led to springs of living water and the Lord God wipes the tears from their eyes. And whereas believers declare God’s praises in chapter 7; the wicked are left silent in chapter 8.
But where do we get the idea that silence represents God’s judgment? Well, in Zechariah 2 we read the following:
Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord, for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.
The prophet was describing how the Lord roused himself in order to punish the nations for the way they have mistreated his people. And in view of God’s coming judgment, all flesh, all peoples, were commanded to be silent. Then, in Zephaniah 1, we read the following:
Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is near…
On that day I will punish everyone who leaps over the threshold, and those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud. So, before the Lord comes to punish the wicked, the wicked are commanded to be silent. And there are other places in the Old Testament where the wicked are commanded to be silent before the Lord.
One commentator says it’s the silence before the storm. So, before God’s judgment falls on the wicked, they fall silent. In that case, it’s the silence of dread; the Lord’s enemies are silent, because they dread what’s about to happen to them. Or perhaps we’re to think of the silence which follows God’s judgment, when God’s enemies are finally destroyed. Think of the noise the Egyptian horses and chariots must have made as they pursued the Israelites who had fled from Egypt in the days of Moses; and imagine then the silence that followed after they waters of the Red Sea covered them and they were drowned. One moment, they were shouting threats to the Israelites; the next moment, there’s only silence. So, perhaps the silence is the silence which follows the judgment. Whether the silence is before the judgment or whether it’s after the judgment, the idea that the silence refers to God’s judgment on the wicked fits with what happens next.
Verses 2 to 5
After verse 2 — which prepares for what’s coming in the rest of chapter 8 and in to chapter 9, when seven angels will blow seven trumpets — we read in verse 3 about another angel, who had a golden censer, and who came and stood at the altar in heaven. What is this altar? Well, we read about it in verse 9 of chapter 6 and how the souls of those believers who had been martyred were under it. And this angel — who came and stood at the altar in heaven — was given much incense to offer, along with the prayers of all the saints. We’re probably meant to understand that the incense and the prayers are one and the same: in other words, the prayers of God’s people are like incense, which comes up to heaven. And in verse 4 we read that the smoke from the incense and the prayers of the saints went up before God from the angel’s hand. So, we’re to picture this angel taking the prayers we offer and presenting them to the Lord who is on his throne in heaven. And, of course, since the angel is offering to God the prayers of all God’s saints, we mustn’t ever think that we’re wasting our time when we go to the church prayer meeting or when we pray at home; we mustn’t ever think that our prayers don’t make a difference. We mustn’t think that, because here we’re encouraged to believe that this angel is taking our prayers and presenting them before the Lord in heaven.
And having presented our prayers before the Lord, this angel took a censer — which was a kind of plate where the incense was burned — and he filled it with fire from the altar and he hurled it on the earth. And there followed peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake.
What’s going on here? Well, it seems that what happens in verse 5 is the Lord’s response to the prayers of all the saints in verses 3 and 4. In other words, having heard the prayers of his people, the Lord responded by causing his angel to hurl fire on the earth. And the fire caused the thunder and rumblings and flashes of lightning and the earthquake.
How are we to interpret the thunder, lightning and earthquake? Well, if you think back to Exodus 19, you’ll recall that when the Lord descended on Mount Sinai, the mountain shook as if there was an earthquake; and there was thunder and lightning. And so, it seems that verse 5 is depicting the coming of the Lord, who was coming this time to judge the wicked. In other words, what we read in verse 1 about the silence in heaven — which represents God’s judgment on the wicked — matches what we read in verse 5 about the Lord coming to judge the wicked on the earth. So, the opening of the seventh seal leads to the Day of Judgment, when God will punish the wicked for their sins. Meanwhile, in chapter 7, the church triumphant is in heaven, enjoying that perfect peace and rest and everlasting life which he has prepared for us.
And so, the visions which were shown to John are to teach the Lord’s people on the earth that we mustn’t give up or give in, but we must persevere, despite all the sorrow and suffering of this troubled life and all the wicked schemes of the Devil. We mustn’t give in, because in the end — while the wicked will fall silent before the Lord who comes to punish them — all who believe and remain faithful will stand before the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb who was slain and we will worship him for ever and for ever in the life to come. And in the life to come, there will be no more sorrow or suffering or tears or death, but only perfect peace and rest.
But before I finish, notice this one last thing. Somehow or other — and the text doesn’t say how this happens — but somehow or other the prayers of God’s people in verses 3 and 4 lead to the coming of the Day of Judgment in verse 5. And that’s important. Just imagine God’s suffering people in John’s day; and think about God’s suffering people in every generation; think of the members of the church militant in every generation, facing all kinds of trouble and opposition and persecution; feeling very weak and powerless; wondering what can we do? What can we do for the Lord? Well, here’s what we can do: we can pray and keep praying, asking the Lord to do all that he has planned; and to work out all of his purposes to destroy the Devil and all his works; and to bring all his people to their eternal rest; and all to the glory of his name.