These five verses describe the opening of the seventh, and final, seal upon the scroll. As such, it mark the final portion of the eschatology represented by the seven seals. Though somewhat obscured by the amount of material remaining in the book, we must keep this idea of finality and completion in mind. It may be said that the seventh seal provides the context and setting for all that follows, from 8:6 to the end of chapter 20, including two more seven-part vision-cycles. This naturally means that the opening of the seventh seal is a matter of great importance, requiring a solemn and ceremonial treatment. There are three elements of the section which need to be studied:
- The silence in heaven when the seal is opened
- The introduction of the seven trumpets, and
- The motif of the golden censer and smoking incense
Each of these will be examined in turn.
Rev 8:1—Silence in Heaven
“And when he opened up the seventh seal, there came to be silence [sigh/] in heaven as (of) [i.e. for] a half-hour.”
The silence accompanying the opening of the final seal marks the awesomeness of the moment. The word sigh/ (“silence”) is rare in the New Testament (elsewhere only in Acts 21:4), though the related verb siga/w is a bit more frequent. Silence is an appropriate response for created beings in the presence of God (Deut 27:9; Job 4:16; Hab 2:20; Zech 2:13), or in expectation of His manifestation (Psalm 62:1; Isa 41:1). The eschatological context of Zeph 1:7 is perhaps close to the idea here in v. 1:
“Be silent from the face of [i.e. before] the Lord YHWH, for the day of YHWH is near…”
There may also be an allusion to the motif of silence at the beginning of creation (i.e. before God speaks), which can also be applied in terms of a new creation which follows the end of the current Age (cf. 2 Baruch 3:7; 2/4 Esdras 6:39; 7:30). A “half hour” here indicates a very short period of time.
Rev 8:2—Introduction of the Seven Trumpets
“And I saw the seven Messengers th(at) have stood in the sight of God, and seven trumpets were given to them.”
Previously in the book, these seven beings were called “Spirits” (1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6), but it was clear that they were to be understood as heavenly beings or Angels (rather that God’s Spirit as such), and this is made explicit here. The seven trumpets given to these Messengers serve as the framework for the next vision-cycle, unfolding out of the first. The trumpet was used for ceremonial and military occasions, and both of these aspects are relevant here: (1) announcing the appearance of God, and (2) the Judgment expressed in traditional military terms. There is a long tradition related to the trumpet-image in the Old Testament (Exod 19:13-19; 20:18; Lev 23:24; Num 10:8-10; Josh 6:4ff; Psalm 47:5, etc); but it is in the Prophets where it begins to take on an (eschatological) association with the day of Judgment—cf. Isa 18:3; 27:13; Jer 4:5ff; 6:1ff; 51:27; Hos 8:1; Joel 2:1ff; Zech 9:14. Again, it is Zephaniah (1:14-18) which perhaps provides the closest parallel to the context of Rev 8-11 (cf. above on v. 1 and Zeph 1:7). The eschatological significance of the trumpet-sounding is clear from other passages in the New Testament (Matt 24:31; 1 Cor 15:52; 1 Thess 4:16).
Rev 8:3-5—The Golden Censer and Smoking Incense
“And another Messenger came and stood upon the place of slaughter [i.e. altar] holding a golden vessel for (burning) incense, and much fragrant powder was given to him (so) that he will give it, (along) with all the holy ones’ speaking out toward (God) [i.e. prayers], upon the golden place of slaughter [i.e. altar] in the sight of the ruling-seat.” (v. 3)
I have translated the noun qusiasth/rion literally as “place of (ritual) slaughter”, though it can be used in the more general sense of an “altar” even when no animal sacrifice takes place (such as the altar for burning incense). Clearly, in this heavenly vision, the altar does not involve animal sacrifice, but is limited to the burning of incense which symbolizes prayer (also in 5:8). Only in the reference to the blood of the Lamb, and the blood of the believers put to death for their faith (6:9-11), is there an allusion to animal sacrifice. However, retaining the fundamental meaning of the word (qusiasth/rion) here is, I think, important, as it may allude to the ‘slaughter’ which accompanies the Judgment (cf. Isa 30:25; Jer 7:32; Joel 3:1-2ff, etc). The association of prayer with incense is traditional (Psalm 141:1-2; cf. Luke 1:9-11), and reflects the idea of a purified form of religion (Isa 1:13; Mal 1:11). In the Temple-action by Jesus, as recorded in the Synoptic tradition, the citation of Isa 56:7 (Mark 11:17 par) would seem to give priority to prayer over and against animal sacrifice, suggesting a new role and purpose for the Temple (in this regard, cf. Luke 18:10; 24:53; Acts 3:1; 22:17).
It is interesting to see how the imagery progresses. First we have the incense itself, which is burned upon the altar. Then is emphasized the smoke from the offering:
“And the smoke [kapno/$] of the fragrant powder stepped [i.e. went] up, (along) with the holy ones’ speaking out toward (God) [i.e. prayers], out of the hand of the Messenger in the sight of God.” (v. 4)
Smoke is an ambivalent image—it can indicate the warmth and protection of fire (here also the soothing fragrance of the burning incense), but also the destructive effects of fire (war, natural disaster, etc). Thus the rising of the smoke serves as an effective transition to the motif of the fire of Judgment, which is the third step in the progression:
“And the Messenger took the vessel for (burning) incense and filled it out of the fire of the place of slaughter [i.e. altar], and (then) threw it into/unto the earth—and there came to be thunderings and voices and flashings and shaking.” (v. 5)
In this regard, just as the seven trumpets serve as the basis for the second vision-cycle (chaps. 8-11), the golden censer filled with fire prefigures the third vision-cycle (in chapter 16). It is useful here to keep in mind the structure of the seven seal vision-cycle. The visions from the first six seals involve: (a) warfare among the nations, (b) persecution/death of believers, and (c) disruption of the cosmic/natural order—all of which is preliminary to the day of Judgment itself. With the terrifying natural phenomena which strike when the sixth seal is opened, humankind is aware that God is present and about to bring Judgment. Now, with the opening of the seventh, final seal, the Judgment begins. This, I think, helps us to understand the framework of chapters 8-20—various ways of describing the nature and character of the coming Judgment. We will begin exploring this as we proceed through the remainder of the book, starting with the trumpet vision-cycle; the first four visions (8:6-13) will be examined in the next daily note.