The Seventh Seal Opened (v. 1)
Spiral of Judgment: Seals, Trumpets, Bowls
The seven-sealed scroll is almost unsealed. This scroll is most likely a symbol of our Lord’s authority and sovereignty, for he received universal dominion when he ascended to the right hand of his Father (Dan. 7:13-14; Acts 2:30-36). More specifically, it seems to be God’s declaration of judgment against Israel for breaking covenant with him and calling down his judgment upon themselves by crucifying Jesus Christ (Matt. 27:25). The opening of the seventh seal will assumedly result in the unrolling and reading of the scroll, although this is never seen. Instead, another series of seven begins. This time, it is a series of seven trumpets. We learn from this something important about the organization of Revelation. Christ’s word concerns one historical judgment, revealed in a spiral of seals, trumpets, and bowls. This is sometimes called recapitulation, going over the same themes for emphasis and with increasing detail and finality. Our Lord said in his “little apocalypse” that the wars, famines, diseases, and death, which are parallel to John’s first six seals, are only the “beginning of sorrows” (Matt. 24:8). Now, in the seven trumpets, the Lord shows a little more of his wrath about to fall upon his enemies, who have rejected his Son. “As for these men who would not have me to rule over them, bring them here and slay them before me” (Luke 19:27). The destruction of the temple, the forced end of the now useless Levitical economy, and the deaths of so many of Christ’s enemies were his coming on the clouds to judge his enemies and remove the kingdom of God from them (Matt. 21:38).
Heaven’s Awed, Expectant Silence
And thus, the sign that the Son of Man is in heaven, enthroned in glory and majesty, reigning and protecting his church, is about to unfold (Matt. 24:30). The righteous blood of the saints has been crying for millennia, all the way back to Abel (Matt. 23:35). The Lord Jesus prepared to open the seventh seal. No one knows what is inside the scroll or what comes next. Suddenly, there is silence. It lasts for a half-hour. The meaning of this silence has created much speculation, but I take it to be expectant wonder. What will the Lamb of God do to protect his crying church? To judge his murdering enemies? What will happen next? “Be still and know that I am God.” The Lord is King. Heaven waits with rapt attention, respectful awe of his might, his loveliness, and his faithfulness. It is the same posture we should have, as we wait upon him to hear our prayers for help, forgive our sins, save his sheep from the wolves, and build his kingdom against the ungodly schemes of his enemies. We must be quiet before him, not telling him his business but trusting that he knows each of us by name, loves us, and is ruling over all things for our sake (Eph. 1:20-22).
The Prayers of the Saints (vv. 2-5)
I Cried to the Lord (Ps. 18:6-15)
The vision focuses again on the saints’ prayers, their cries for deliverance and vindication. Since Cain murdered Abel, the seed of the serpent has been attacking the seed of the woman. The seed of the serpent is the portion of the human race that the Bible describes variously as the children of the world (Luke 16:8), the children of the devil (Matt. 13:38; 1 John 3:10), the goats (Matt. 25:32-33), and the children of disobedience (Eph. 2:2). They hate the light and persecute the seed of the woman that believe in Jesus Christ (John 3:20; Gal. 4:29). This division came to a historical showdown in the first century A.D., when the Light of the world, Jesus Christ, came into the world. He faced and judged the devil (John 16:11). The majority of the Jewish nation rejected him (John 1:11-12). The war intensified between light and darkness, for now the darkness had no covering and no excuse. In the forty years between Christ’s ascension and coming in judgment upon Israel, most continued to reject Jesus Christ and persecute his church (1 Thess. 2:16). Throughout the Roman world, as the gospel went to the Gentiles, the unbelieving Jews stirred up trouble for the church. What is to be done? Seven throne-room angels appear with seven trumpets, announcing the approaching armies to judge Jerusalem. Another angel appears, having a golden censer with incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They are crying to the Lord. Deliver us from evil. Fulfill your promises. Hallowed be your name.
And He Heard My Voice
And the Lord heard their voice – as he heard the voices of Jacob, Joseph, Hannah, David, Daniel, and all the saints. In the most vivid manner, the Lord revealed to John and to us that he hears our prayers. He is a merciful Father. He may withhold an answer for many days, years, and centuries. He may leave us languishing for a time to chasten or test. But the Lord hears our voice. The angel took the prayers, for the Lord collects them all and our tears, and filled the censer with fire from off the altar. The fire is likely a symbol of God’s active workings of judgment and deliverance in history, but the scene is clear enough without pressing every detail. It is now time to answer the prayers of the saints and to judge the unbelieving Jewish nation finally, as the Lord repeatedly did, from the days of Egypt to the Judges, from the Babylonian captivity to the Roman occupation. God’s faithful people were crying the entire time. The Lord was hearing. Let us learn great patience when it comes to praying. Let us give him no rest and give ourselves no rest as we pray for one another, for the kingdom his Son to grow and fill the earth, for his church to be sanctified and unified, for us to be with the Lord forever in his eternal city.
Deliverance and Judgment His Answer
There is something very powerful in this picture of the saints’ prayers rising as incense before the Father. Remember that our Lord Jesus is the one presenting our prayers to the Father, for he is the one opening the seventh seal. The angel is present to comfort us and show the majesty of God, not to function as an intercessor. This, however, is not the lesson. Men think in terms of power, armies, mass movements, and individuals as fodder. We see this in most politicians, think tanks, and even mega churches. Give us a movement, enough sheep to pay the bills and to justify our behemoth existence. The old Roman Empire thought of individuals in this way – numbers (Luke 2:1-2) to be counted and taxed and, unfortunately, fed. The Holy Roman Empire treated men and women in the same way – if they do not agree with us, burn them. Nebuchadnezzar did not care a snoot for the men who were burned alive as they heated his furnace seven times hotter than usual.
The Lord Jesus Christ and his true kingdom are very different. He rules history from the altar of incense, for he is an interceding Lord, the King-Priest. And the incense is the prayers of all the saints, unknown and often oppressed, who had been crying to him for millennia: for relief, for help, and for hope. He knows his sheep by name. He rules for those who have sought him on bended knee and with humble heart. He is a tender Savior, not a cold colossus who views men as mere fodder to serve his purposes and mindlessly do his bidding. He is not a top-down, crush them quickly King. He hears our cries. He tests our faith. He presses upon each of us exactly where we need to be pressed – so that we keep crying, calling upon him, hoping in him. It is the only safe way to live. And if you feel that he is keeping you in some particular distress or pain, it is likely that this is the way he has determined best to keep you from straying, to prevent you from falling into a prayerless and therefore a powerless pride and self-sufficiency. If he is keeping his church persecuted or hurting, it is so that we keep crying. He has determined to judge his enemies and deliver his Beloved through our cries, which prayers are the clearest evidence that we know the Lord and trust in him for deliverance, not ourselves.
The First Four Trumpets (vv. 6-13)
Egypt’s Plagues Fall upon Israel (Deut. 28:58-60)
When the Lord delivered his people from Egypt, he entered into a national covenant with them at Sinai to be his holy nation. After spending forty years in the wilderness for their rebellion, the Lord renewed that covenant. Among its many warnings to the nation, we read these sobering words: “If you will not observe to do all the words of this book, that you may fear this glorious and fearful name, the Lord your God, then the Lord will make your plagues wonderful, and the plagues of your seed, even great plagues, and of long continuance, and sore sicknesses, and of long continuance. Moreover, he will bring upon you all the diseases of Egypt, which you were afraid of, and they shall cling unto you” (Deut. 28:58-60). In sobering fulfillment of this warning, we now read in the first four trumpets the fulfillment of this warning upon the nation of Israel. After 1,500 years, countless prophets, strong warnings, long exiles and misery, the Lord sent his Son to redeem his people and fulfill his covenant. The nation of Israel rejected him. Raised to his Father’s right hand, the Lord Jesus will now bring Egypt’s plagues upon them – not upon his true Israel, for they are sealed and will be delivered.
The First Four Trumpets…and a Warning of Three More
The first angel sounded his trumpet, and fiery hail fell from heaven. One-third of the trees and all the green grass were burned up (Ex. 9:23-24). It is not the purpose of prophetic warnings of judgment to find exact correspondence in historical events, but if one reads Josephus’ account of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem, he will find sufficient correspondence to break his heart at the catastrophe that fell upon the Jews and to stand in awe at the fulfillment of God’s word. The second angel sounded, a great burning mountain fell into the sea, and the waters were turned to blood – like the Nile (Ex. 7:17) – the death of sea life and marine activity was severe. The third angel sounded and a great star fell from heaven, which turned the waters bitter; many died because of drinking the waters (Ex. 7:21). The fourth trumpet sounded and the sun was struck so that it no longer gave light – darkness fell upon a third of the earth, as it fell upon Egypt (Ex. 10:21-22). The repetition of “a third” is probably intended to signal that the full judgment waits the seven bowls. After this fourth trumpet blew and its judgments were revealed, a strong angel with a great voice flew through the air and warned men of the coming three trumpets and three angels. More woe is coming! These are but the beginnings of sorrows!
A Call to Patient, Fervent Prayer
God’s Throne a Place of Refuge for the Saints
Where are God’s saints in all this woe? Those in heaven are pictured as beneath the throne of incense, crying for vindication. Those on earth are sealed, also praying, with their prayers rising up to heaven. What is this intended to teach us? For a few generations now, the main point of this chapter is passed over quickly in favor of more dramatic inquiries – Wormwood – what is that? It is simply a symbol of bitter waters. Grass drying up – must be global warming – no, it was the wrath of the Lamb. Darkness – must be an alien visitation. Satan has deluded many from the main truth taught here – that God’s throne is glory and is our place of refuge – past and present, in the midst of the most grievous torments and persecutions. We are sealed and safe only if we are praying (Isa. 66:2; Ezek. 9:4).
It is primarily by living on our faces before the Lord that our faith is revealed, love for him and dependence upon him are expressed, his fellowship enjoyed, and his help and strength obtained. Without him, we can do nothing, and we can do all things in him only as we ask the Father in his name. Thus, the only secure people in this entire visionary sequence are the praying people, the before the altar of incense people, the people of Christ who are calling upon him for help. Never, never underestimate our corporate need for prayer, your family and individual need for prayer, and the workings of God in history when you pray. Prayer is not for sissies and old people. We will never be strong and protected unless our prayers, too, through Jesus Christ, are present before God’s throne. Are ours? To survive the wrath of the Lamb and the judgments of history, we must live before the throne of God, coming boldly in Jesus’ name, looking to his worthiness, crying for his help, loving and worshipping him and desiring that God be glorified in time and eternity by vindicating his word.
History Directed from the Heavenly Altar of Incense
The related truth we must not neglect is the very clear presentation that the Lord’s historical judgments of his enemies and deliverances of his people, while completely in his hand and worked out according to his sovereign will and timing, are related to the persistent, believing, fervent prayers of his people. It is our prayers that he throws on the earth (v. 5). Then, the “voices, thundering, lightning, and earthquakes” of God’s throne of judgment (4:5) are expressed in his great works of history. Our prayers are far more than for “sister Betsy,” although we must pray for her. Our prayers do much more than give us comfort and a pressure release point as we cast our cares upon the Lord – although we must never underestimate the relief that the Lord gives when we take him at his word and obey him – by ceasing the worthless strife of anxiety, fretting, and discouragement of bearing our own burdens. We cannot bear them, for we are too weak. And all the righteous desires for the Lord to work in our particular circumstances, the healed relationships we seek, and the deliverance his people need in this world from persecution, oppression, and hunger, these are his works from his throne in heaven.
He works through our prayers and as we pray. He is working now. Do you not see it in the present war the Lamb is fighting against the statists and secularists in our land? Do you not see it in his driving his enemies insane by loosening their leash so that they run recklessly into more and grosser sin? Yes, the Lord of glory is answering our prayers. The incense is rising. The wheels of his providence are moving, rolling inexorably over his enemies, protecting and humbling and sanctifying his people. Keep praying, small groups, corporate church meetings, men and women, husbands and wives, parents and children – keep praying! It is the main way we rule with Christ, for it is one of the main ways he rules – by interceding against his enemies and for his bride. The Father always answers his prayers (John 11:42).
What Shall We Pray? (LCQ #191)
Since our prayers are so vital to the purposes of God, since he has exalted us with his Son to be a kingdom of priests, our prayers must be more in line with his purposes, his majesty, and his omnipotence. I can think of no better summary of kingdom oriented prayers than the beautiful answer to our Larger Catechism’s 191st question – What do we pray for in the second petition? Answer: “…acknowledging ourselves and all mankind to be by nature under the dominion of sin and Satan, we pray, that the kingdom of sin and Satan may be destroyed, the gospel propagated throughout the world, the Jews called, the fullness of the Gentiles brought in; the church furnished with all gospel-officers and ordinances, purged from corruption, countenanced and maintained by the civil magistrate; that the ordinances of Christ may be purely dispensed, and made effectual to the converting of those that are yet in their sins, and the confirming, comforting, and building up of those that are already converted: that Christ would rule in our hearts here, and hasten the time of his second coming, and our reigning with him forever: and that he would be pleased so to exercise the kingdom of his power in all the world, as may be conduce to these ends.”
Endeavor to understand each one of these Bible truths and petitions. Bring them into your prayers and apply them to our own times – that Satan’s kingdom of sodomy and statism may be destroyed, that his deceptions and killing in abortion may be exposed and forsaken; that the gospel of Jesus Christ would make great progress in the world, that the Lauer, Linton, Johnson, and Temple families, to name only a few, may be blessed to spread the gospel – that you and your family would spread it here, and Jesus Christ would open the womb of regeneration and convert millions in our day; that the Jewish people would forsake the rabbis and turn to Jesus Christ, and the Gentiles would forsake the Super Bowl and worship Jesus Christ. So much for which to pray! Our Lord is coming – are you praying for his return, looking forward to reigning with him, and expecting him to come on the clouds in answer to your prayer. He will. He is, All his enemies must be defeated. The Father has promised this to his Son for our sake, because he humbled himself to die on the cross for us. Worship him! Pray!