By Jeffrey E. Brickle
The Book of Revelation serves as the capstone of the biblical canon. This profound epic, where time and human history culminate, features three prayers that highlight the power and magnitude of prayer in the overarching plan of God. We will discuss the major points, functions, and present-day applications of each of the featured prayers.
Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse (literally, an “unveiling”), was likely written during the A.D. 90s and sent to seven churches in Asia Minor, or what is now western Turkey. Revelation has been viewed in various ways since the time John penned it. These approaches range from understanding the book as a document only relevant to its first-century context, to a literalistic blueprint of human history, to a tapestry of principles irrespective of time con ditioning.1 Rich in symbolism, the awe-inspiring vision that John
received on Patmos and subsequently recorded for posterity has often baffled would-be interpreters. Even its genre, or literary type, as Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart point out,2 cannot be limited to one kind, for the book contains elements of apocalyptic (a document that features an “unveiling”), epistolary (relating to an epistle or letter), and prophetic literature. We will focus on the prayers in Revelation especially as they refer to the eschatological, or end-time, function of the book.
The first mention of prayer occurs in 5:8, when the righteous Lamb appears and takes the scroll which before that time no one in heaven or earth was able to unseal and open. These prayers are primarily worship or adoration prayers. This may be seen by the songs of praise to the Lamb that follow (9-10, 12, 13), after which the “elders fell down and worshiped him that liveth forever and ever” (14). The prayers are also covenantal prayers, demonstrated in the songs which follow by the reminders of what God did through Christ at Calvary (9, 12).
The prayers feature the following major points. At a time of heightened suspense when the Lamb of God is found worthy to open the scroll, “the four beasts and the four and twenty elders” prostrate themselves before the Lamb (8). They have all been equipped with a musical instrument (a harp) and golden bowls containing incense (8). Verse 8 identifies the incense as “the prayers of saints.” This heavenly “choir” then breaks out in glorious praise, singing a song to the Lamb (9-10), extolling His worthiness. The Lamb had been slain, they declare, and with His blood had purchased for God people from every racial, ethnic, and national background (9). These people had been transformed into priests who would serve God in His new kingdom on earth (10). The creatures and elders are then joined by a company of angels, who likewise extol in song the virtues of the Lamb (11-12). Finally, all the inhabitants of God’s creation join together in a
marvelous song of praise to the Lamb and “to him that sitteth upon the throne” (13).
The prayers themselves, symbolically captured by the metaphor of incense, are powerful, mysterious, and majestic. They are confident prayers, because in the Lamb’s “triumph they have been made confident of God’s mercy.”3 As a word picture, the depiction of prayer as incense typifies them as fragrant. Incense burns continually, providing a sweet-smelling aroma, as opposed to gunpowder, which explodes with a
caustic odor and destructive force.
The prayers in 5:8 show to the persecuted readers of the Book of Revelation that their prayers to God are not soon forgotten but ascend to God continually and mingle with the praises of God’s heavenly host as they worship the Lamb. The prayers remind us of the Old Testament altar of incense, where priests offered incense continually to God (Exodus 30:1-10; 40:5, 27). All of God’s wonderful promises are now being fulfilled at the conclusion of time, when God will restore His creation in “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1) and where only “they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (27) may dwell. They will serve as God’s priests (5:10), offering up incense and sacrifices of praise (Hebrews 13:15) in God’s direct shekinah presence, where a temple is no longer needed (Revelation 21:22).
The prayers of 5:8 demonstrate several qualities of those who pray them. They represent the perseverance, faithfulness, humility, and piety of the saints. Through these prayers, we sense the suffering they endured and their great reverence- for God, who delivered them.
We may apply these prayers to our ministries by realizing that God not only hears but enjoys the savor of our prayers. Although at times it seems as if our prayers simply fall to the ground, God honors them and has a purpose for them in His endtime plan. Our prayers, along with those from all of God’s saints, past and present, will be presented to God as He sits on His throne at the consummation of time. Prayer is as powerful in our day as it was in John’s, and all prayer throughout history will make its impact on the end of time.
The second instance of prayer in Revelation occurs in 6:10. This moving prayer is a prayer of petition. It is a request for vengeance upon God’s enemies for past persecution. It thus constitutes an imprecatory prayer or plea for judgment. In addition, the prayer is a covenantal prayer in that it reminds God of who He is.
This prayer features the following salient points. After the opening of each of the first four (of seven) seals, God’s judgment, marked by conquest and war (2-4), famine (5-6), and death (7-8), is poured out on the earth. During the breaking of the fifth seal, John beholds beneath the altar martyrs who had been executed for God’s Word and their own testimony (9). These martyrs plead with God in “a loud voice” for Him to avenge their deaths quickly, imploring, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, cost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” (10). They, therefore, inquire of God when judgment will occur and truth triumph, and remind God of His providence, omnipotence, holiness, and integrity. In response, the martyrs receive white robes, symbolizing holiness, and are admonished to wait patiently until the predetermined number of righteous slain is fulfilled (11).
This prayer is a simple, poignant prayer of inquiry. The prayer is touching, as the reader envisions the slain dead under the altar crying out to God for righteous retribution. With respect and humility, the martyrs ask God a stirring question: When will You take vengeance upon those who have slain Your people?
The prayer demonstrates that God’s people must wait patiently for Him to act in judgment. God sees all the persecution that His saints endure and, in due time, will mightily avenge His elect and visit His enemies with retribution. The end has not occurred yet, but when it does, those who have killed God’s people will experience the full cup of God’s wrath, a vessel overflowing with fury and indignation (14:10; 16:19). The prayer emphasizes that a reversal of positions will take place in the end time. Although downcast now, God’s people will eventually reign in peace and victory (21:3-4), and His enemies will be judged and sentenced to eternal torment in a lake of fire (20:10-15).
The prayer in 6:10 identifies the truthfulness and zeal of the slain martyrs. They passionately desire for God to act on their behalf. They wait under the altar for God to avenge their enemies quickly and carry out His righteous sentence (6:9-10). They have been made pure in the blood of the Lamb and wear white robes signifying their holiness before God (11). This holiness is not their own, but has been purchased by the triumphant Lamb of God (5:4 ff.).
This prayer has direct relevance to our ministries today. Like the martyrs, we must not despair of God’s judgment nor attempt to take vengeance into our own hands. God alone is the righteous a” perfect judge. Although we may suffer persecution, we must continually seek God’s assistance on our behalf we may pay the ultimate price for our faith, God remains faithful. God sees all that we endure and will set things right in the end.
The third prayer of the Apocalypse occurs in 8:3-4. Here we find another example of a petitionary and imprecatory prayer. From the context, it appears that the prayers here refer to the saints’ pleading for God to act in righteous vengeance on His enemies.
The prayers feature the following key points. The prayers are offered after a half-hour of silence in heaven when the final scroll seal is opened (8:1). Seven angels are presented with trumpets (2), which, like the loosened scroll seals (6:1-8:1), will unleash another cycle of God’s wrath (8:6-11:15). Meanwhile, another angel, equipped with a golden censer, stands before the altar (3). This angel is presented with a large quantity of incense to offer on the golden altar before the throne. The incense is mingled with “the prayers of all saints” (3-4), coinciding with the metaphor of prayer as incense that we saw previously (5:8). The contents of the censor are ignited with fire from the altar and then tossed to the earth. Terrible signs,
reminiscent of the Sinai epiphany, transpire, including “voices, and thunderings, and lightenings, and an earthquake” (5).
These prayers, which are not vocalized, apparently signify petitions for vengeance, as in the prayer of 6:10. These prayers are thus moving, pithy and intense. They stem from a deep longing for God to avenge the harm done to God’s people. These prayers are powerful, passionate, desperate, and full of faith that God will answer.
The prayers of 8:3-4 demonstrates the faithfulness of God. Throughout the ages, God has stored the prayers of His people. In God’s providence, at the conclusion of human history, the “flammable” prayers
of the saints are taken out of storage and mixed with God’s fiery wrath. Prayer is thus utilized in the plan of God to enact vengeance on the ungodly. In the hand of the angel, the saints’ prayers become potent, combustible material that explodes into the fury of Judgment Day.
From the prayers in 8:3-4 we may characterize the saints as faithful. Despite difficulties and hardships, they have continued to send their prayers upward to God. These prayers signify the passion and fervent desire of the saints to see God’s righteousness and truth carried out speedily against His enemies. The saints remain strong in the midst of persecution and suffering. Although they have experienced affliction and faced slander, they remain faithful (2:10) and endure their trials patiently (3:10). Despite being plagued by incessant temptations to apostatize and be immoral (2:14-15; 2025), those who send up prayers remain trustworthy and unwavering in their faith.
The prayers of 8:3-4 are certainly relevant to our ministries today. While Jesus taught us to pray for our enemies and not to retaliate, we must not refrain from sending petitions to God requesting deliverance from and righteous judgment upon our enemies during persecutions. Since “vindication is very close to revenge . . . only God should undertake revenge.”4 Just as He responded to the imprecatory prayers in the Old Testament, God willingly lends His ears to the distressed cries of His New Testament church. God hears “the prayers of all saints” (8:3; emphasis mine) and will refuse no prayers offered up from His children.
In summary, the prayers of the Book of Revelation place prayer in its eschatological perspective. Earlier in the Bible, the ultimate role of prayer is yet to be played out; final answers remain pending, for human history continues in the “not yet completed” stage. In Revelation, however, the consummate answer to all prayers reaches its final destination and fulfillment in the eschaton (the end), where God metes out judgment. Despite an earthly appearance of weakness, prayer in its final manifestation is powerful. While it may appear at times that God does not act immediately upon prayer, in the final analysis prayer plays a critical role in the overarching plan and purpose of God.
In conclusion, we need to take heart during times of distress and persecutions. No matter what we may go through, our prayers are potent. God not only hears but records our requests. He is the perfect record
keeper. Although we may not observe an immediate answer, God will respond ultimately to our prayers in a dramatic way on the final Day of Judgment, when all things will be set right by “him that sitteth upon
the throne” (5:13). We must remain persistent in prayer.
I See Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 760-61.
2 Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 2 d ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993), 232-35.
3 Robert Wall, Revelation, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991),18:103.
4 William David Spencer and Aida Besancon Spencer, The Prayer Life of Jesus (Lantham, MD: University Press of America, 1990), 57.
Jeff Brickle is a United Pentecostal minister in Middleton, Massachusetts, who recently received his masters degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED BY FORWARD, WINTER 1999, PAGES 2-4. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.