The Sound of Silence (Rev. 8:1-5)
I have loved Simon & Garfunkel ever since my mom chose “Bridge Over Troubled Water” for her brother’s funeral back in 1990. Since then, they have been one of my favorite musical artists. Hands down, their best song is “The Sound of Silence”. Paul Simon wrote the song at the age of 21 in 1963. It was recorded in March 1964 and included on their debut album. The song was a flop until a late night DJ in Boston began playing it in 1965. College students loved it. In January of 1966, the song was #1 on the Billboard charts competing with the Beatles “We Can Work It Out”.
The opening line sets the mood, “Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.” The lyrics describe people talking without speaking and hearing without listening. It reflects the absence of genuine communication. Beyond that, the song predicts the death of music. People are writing songs that voices never shared (no one dared disturb the sound of silence). Then the narrator says, “Fools, you do not know. Silence like a cancer grows.” But his words only echoed in the silence. No one was willing to heed his warning.
Ultimately, the silence leaves us empty, without answers. Silence is a metaphor for hopelessness. I only wish Paul Simon had read and understood his Bible. As this morning’s passage shows, silence packs a lot of significance, and it doesn’t have to evoke a sense of despair.
Back in Chapter 6 John recorded the opening of the first six seals. The judgment of earth’s inhabitants is followed by the praise of the church in heaven in chapter 7. Two visions of the Church are portrayed. The first pictured the Church militant, sealed by God and set apart for protection. The second illustrated the Church triumphant celebrating the victory of the Lamb.
Remember the comment from Resseguie, “As the seals are unsealed, the saints are sealed.” While the judgment of God is carried out throughout this present age, so is the salvation and preservation of the Church. As we come to the seventh and final seal, we expect a climactic conclusion. The anticipation has been building for the crescendo of redemptive history.
Revelation 8:1-5 When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. 2 Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. 3 And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, 4 and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. 5 Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.
THE SOUND OF SILENCE (1)
Imagine John’s experience. He has heard the loud galloping of the four horsemen of the apocalypse bringing devastating judgments upon the earth. He has heard the souls of saints crying out “with a loud voice” (6:10). Later, he hears people calling to mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hides us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb…” John heard a lot of noise and saw a lot of chaos in chapter 6.
Then in chapter 7, he hears the constant sound of worship in heaven. “Day and night” the four living creatures “never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,’” (4:8). At the same time, the twenty-four elders declare God and the Lamb’s worthiness to receive “glory and honor and power” (4:11; 5:9-11). The saints “coming out of the great tribulation” join in the worship. “They are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple” (7:15).
Now the time has come to open the seventh seal. And after it is opened…(silence)…Before we attempt to understand what this silence represents, put yourself in John’s shoes. Thirty minutes of dramatic pause is a long time for him to meditate upon all that he has seen up to this point and to prepare for what is about to be revealed.
Silence warns. Silence is eerie, uncomfortable, and ominous. Horror films use silence to raise the tension. When a woe was declared upon the idolatrous Chaldeans, Habakkuk said, “But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Hab. 2:20). Similarly, in Zechariah 2:13, the Lord has been aroused for judgment and the prophet declares, “Be silent, all flesh, before the LORD…” And when Zephaniah warns that the day of judgment is near he commands, “Be silent before the Lord God!” (Zeph. 1:7). Silence calls unbelievers to shut their mouths before the living God.
But, this silence is temporary. God’s willingness to wait for repentance has an expiration date. Silence, in this case, represents the arrival of the Day of the Lord. It warns earth’s inhabitants to flee from the wrath that has arrived. But this is not a hopeless sound, at least not for everyone.
Before the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, Moses told them to “be silent” as the Lord fought for them (Exod. 14:14). For the souls of believers in heaven along with the four living creatures, the twenty-four elders, and the myriads of angels—silence allows reverence. It is an opportunity to “be still and know” that God is God (Psalm 46:10). The heavenly hosts do nothing but reflect upon God’s glory, acknowledge his beauty, and enjoyhis presence!
In a world that is filled with so much distraction—with the incessant buzz of technology and entertainment—silence may seem boring. You may think that standing in silence for thirty minutes sounds like torture. “You mean, I can’t have my iPhone with me?”
Or, maybe like me, you find silence to be a precious commoditythat is almost impossible to find. The moment you get some time to yourself, you are bombarded by noise. You crave those moments of peace and quiet where you can meditate in solitude.
I’m not suggesting that an indefinite period of silence and solitude is our ultimate goal. This particular silence was preceded in John’s revelation by joyful and thunderous praise (7:10, 12). Judgment is followed by the celebration of victory. I don’t want to minimize the hope of festive times by suggesting that silence is superior to all noise.
But, in this present age, reverence does not come naturally. It requires discipline to take advantage of the fleeting moments. In summary, silence in heaven represents a brief opportunity for sinners to repent and saints to revere.
In the midst of the quiet, something else is taking place involving…
THE SMOKE OF INCENSE (2-4)
It seems likely that the silence described in verse one is related to the activity that takes place in the rest of the passage (vv.2-5). It is as if God the Father has quieted heaven in order to hear the prayers of all his children.
The seven angels are given their trumpets in preparation for the further unfolding of God’s end-time judgment. Although John saw these trumpets after the seals were opened in his vision, the judgments they depict are happening at the same time. The seals, trumpets, and bowls all depict the judgment of God culminating in the final judgment at the return of Christ.
Another angel takes a censer used for burning incense. The twenty-four elders hold bowls of incense “which are the prayers of the saints” (5:8). In Psalm 141:2, David asked that his prayer “be counted as incense” before God. Here, the incense is offered “with the prayers of the saints.” Our prayers are sweetened with the assistance of heavenly beings before they ascend to the throne.
The angel is standing by the altar beneath which the souls of the martyrs were crying out for God to take vengeance (6:9-11). Now the angel offers up “the prayers of all the saints”. These prayers are not limited to the prayers of the martyrs, but they certainly include them. The angel is combining the prayers of the souls in heaven with the prayers of the saints on earth. The Universal Church is united in her desire to see the execution of God’s judgment. Their prayers are offered as a pleasing aroma to God.
There is an allusion here to the priest’s duties on the Day of Atonement. In order to enter the Holy of Holies without dying, he was to fill his censer with incense and coals of fire from the altar, and allow the cloud of smoke to cover the mercy seat (Lev. 16:12-13). In the midst of the heavenly silence, this angel is performing the duties of the priest in order that the prayers of God’s people might be heard.
Likewise, under the Old Covenant, the altar of incense was to be anointed with the blood of the sin offering on the Day of Atonement (Exod. 30:8-10). Under the New Covenant, it is the blood of Christ that not only cleanses his people from their sin, but sanctifies their prayers. It is the sacrificial death of the unblemished Lamb, Jesus Christ, that makes us andour prayers acceptable before God. He is our Great High Priest who “always lives to make intercession” for those who draw near to God through him (Heb. 7:25). “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).
This is a picture of the marvelous communion we enjoy every time we bow our heads in prayer. The execution of God’s sovereign decrees include the involvement of our prayers. In prayer, our will is aligned with God’s will. The ongoing posture of the saints in prayer is a heart that is, cleansed by the blood of the Lamb, and filled by the Spirit with repentance and reverence. Only then will we seek the vindication of God’s name through his righteous judgment.
God answers the prayers of his people with…
THE NOISE OF VENGEANCE (5)
These same sounds and scenes were recorded as coming from the throne of God (4:5). Then, with increasing detail, they accompany the sounding of the seventh trumpet (11:19) and the pouring out of the seventh bowl (16:18-21). It consistently depicts the noise of judgment. That does not mean God is repeatedly pouring out his wrath, but that John is seeing the same event portrayed from different angles and providing further description. In this case, the wrath of God’s final judgment is related to the opening of the seventh seal.
There is another allusion to an episode in Ezekiel. An angel in the temple is instructed to take coals of fire and “scatter them over the city” (Ezek. 10:2). The idolatrous inhabitants of Jerusalem were about to be judged as the glory of the Lord departed from the temple. Only a remnant would be preserved. That remnant was sealed with a protective mark because they “sigh and grown over all the abominations that are committed” in Jerusalem (Ezek. 9:4). In other words, the distinguishing characteristic of God’s people before the exile, was their prayers of repentance. That is just as true for God’s people today.
Those who truly repent and believe are promised the seal of God’s protection.
Your only hope of surviving God’s vengeance is to receive His seal of salvation. You must heed the warning of the sound of silence. You must bow and pray to the only God who made you and is capable of protecting you. You must personally join the remnant of saints who have repented of their sin and placed their faith in the Lamb who was slain. Only then will the presence of God become a place of reverence.