Revelation 8:1-4: Purifying Our Prayers
8 1When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.
2 And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.
3 Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. 4 The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.
Prayers of the Saints
I’ve been in a lot of prayer meetings at different churches and in different traditions. A common theme is this reference to Revelation where the prayers of the people are referred to as incense. In this passage, it says incense is the with the prayers, but in Revelation 5 it says that the incense is the prayers.
When these passages are mentioned at prayer meetings, it usually goes like this. Keep praying. Your prayers are incense. When you pray, God likes the way your prayers smell. He’ll smell your beautiful, aromatic prayers and go do something awesome.
What Does Incense Do?
That’s pretty motivating to keep praying, but I recently heard an episode of the Holy Post podcast where Kaitlyn Schiess gave an alternate explanation that’s more in line with the full context of the passages. I did some digging and found others that agree with her, including famed Chinese pastor Watchman Nee. Here goes.
The incense needed to be burned in order to offer the good smell. Burning incense in the temple was a purification ritual. Between Revelation 5 and Revelation 8, the incense catches fire. Also, between Revelation 5 and Revelation 8, Jesus shows up to change the spiritual realm. In other words, Jesus set our prayers on fire with his death and resurrection, purifying them and making them effective.
Purifying Our Prayers
This is the most revolutionary part of the interpretation. By Jesus’ blood and the power of his resurrection, our prayers are purified. That’s amazing because I’ve prayed some dumb prayers. I prayed for a lot of girlfriends in middle school. I’ve prayed for the outcome of many football games. I’ve prayed for money and cars and for my kid to just go to sleep. I’m sure I’ve prayed against my enemies like David does in the Psalms.
So the idea that God will take my less than noble prayers and use them for his kingdom is a big comfort and really lowers the stakes for wanting to pray. I can approach God, with good motives or not so good motives and the God will use my prayers to change me and change the world. No more pressure to be perfect before I start praying.
This lines up well with some the ideas in Romans 8:26-27 if you’re still not convinced.
So to be clear, I now interpret the prayers of the saints as burning incense to be the effect of Jesus on our spiritual life. When we pray, regardless of how well, God will change us. And if he doesn’t like our prayers, he’ll do something better than what we asked for in the world.
So yes, we should keep praying because our prayers smell good (relax, it’s a metaphor), but also, we should keep praying to change our hearts and world.