[Editor’s Note: This is a guest article by Caleb Hines]
One of many things to appreciate about the prewrath position is that it explains the symbolism of the seven seals by viewing them as prerequisite events to the Day of the Lord. While the first six seals and subsequent interlude have garnered much attention among prophecy students, the seventh seal has received less scrutiny. It is sometimes treated as little more than a prelude to the trumpets that immediately follow it or even as a “container” for them. More developed views include (1) acknowledging that the incense represents the prayers of the saints, as is explicitly stated in Rev. 5:8, (2) pointing these prayers back to the fifth-seal martyrs’ pleas for vengeance, and (3) drawing a parallel between the half hour of silence in heaven as an allusion to Zephaniah 1:7 (“Be silent before the Lord God, for the Lord’s day of judgment is almost here . . .”). But I have yet to see a prewrath treatment of the symbolism of the golden censer itself, and its being thrown to earth. I would like to thank Dr. Kurschner for permitting me the opportunity to explore this topic here.
Another angel holding a golden censer came and was stationed at the altar. A large amount of incense was given to him to offer up, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar that is before the throne. The smoke coming from the incense, along with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and threw it on the earth, and there were crashes of thunder, roaring, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake. (Rev. 8:3-5)
The progression of seals, trumpets, and bowls in Revelation is accompanied by imagery of the heavenly Temple. Before the seals are presented we are shown a sea of glass (Rev. 4:6), reminiscent of the molten sea in Solomon’s Temple, as well as a slain Lamb and bowls of incense (5:6, 8). During the fifth seal the souls of the martyrs are seen under the altar of burnt offering (6:9), while the seventh seal mentions the golden altar of incense and a golden censer that is filled with fire from the altar (8:3-5). Finally after the seventh trumpet sounds, the Temple is opened revealing the ark of the covenant (11:19), though none can enter until the bowls have been poured out (15:8).
A censer was a vessel used to transport hot coals from under the sacrificial altar to the altar of incense. This was done morning and evening on a daily basis as a perpetual incense offering (Ex. 30). Incense could also be burned directly in the censer as occurred on the annual day of atonement (Lev. 16). After sacrificing a bull as a sin offering for himself the high priest was to:
. . . take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the LORD and a full double handful of finely ground fragrant incense, and bring them inside the veil-canopy. He must then put the incense on the fire before the LORD, and the cloud of incense will cover the atonement plate which is above the ark of the testimony, so that he will not die. (Lev. 16:12-13)
In this scenario, the censer conveyed coals from the altar into the Holy of Holies and the resulting cloud of incense provided a covering for the ark. Without this covering the high priest would have died from exposure to the presence of the Lord in the Holy of Holies.
Interestingly, censers are often depicted being used incorrectly resulting in divine punishment. In Leviticus 10:1-2 Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu present strange (i.e. unauthorized) fire in their censers which God had not commanded. “So fire went out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them so that they died before the Lord.” In 2 Chronicles 26:16-20 King Uzziah steps beyond his royal role to offer incense on the altar of incense. He is still holding a censer when the priests confront him and he is afflicted with a skin disease. The prophet Ezekiel receives a vision of seventy elders of Israel covertly worshiping detestable abominations, “. . . each with a censer in his hand, and fragrant vapors from a cloud of incense were swirling upward” (Ezek. 8:11).
Perhaps the incident in which censers play the greatest role is the rebellion of Korah recorded in Numbers 16. After Korah leads a group of Reubenites to question Moses and Aaron’s authority, Moses commands an incense-burning contest between Korah and his followers on the one hand, and Aaron on the other. “And each of you take his censer, put incense in it, and then each of you present his censer before the Lord: 250 censers, along with you, and Aaron – each of you with his censer” (v. 17). God caused the earth to swallow Korah and his men while “a fire went out from the Lord and devoured the 250 men who offered incense” (v. 35). Notably, as with Nadab and Abihu, the judgment for incorrectly worshiping with a censer was being consumed by fire. Of course, many of the trumpet judgments will also be accompanied by fire.
Even more intriguing, however, is Aaron’s use of the censer the following day. The Israelites complain that Moses and Aaron had “killed the Lord’s people,” implying they believed Korah’s rebellion had been legitimate. In anger, God begins to send a deadly plague among the people, but Moses commands Aaron to use the censer to make atonement for the people to stop the plague.
The Lord spoke to Moses: “Get away from this community, so that I can consume them in an instant!” But they threw themselves down with their faces to the ground. Then Moses said to Aaron, “Take the censer, put burning coals from the altar in it, place incense on it, and go quickly into the assembly and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone out from the Lord—the plague has begun!” So Aaron did as Moses commanded and ran into the middle of the assembly, where the plague was just beginning among the people. So he placed incense on the coals and made atonement for the people. He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped. (Numbers 16:44-48)
As on the day of atonement the censer holds coals from the altar and incense is burned directly on it. This creates a cloud that provides a covering (or atonement) for the unrepentant Israelites which shields them from God’s wrath. Aaron, using the incense burning in the censer, acts as a sort of intercessory “barrier” to halt the progression of the plague.
From these passages we understand that the censer functions as an intercession to hold back God’s wrath. Applying this to the heavenly Temple we know that mankind, like the Israelites, is rebellious and deserving of judgment. Yet the world is generally spared the full force of God’s wrath. This deferral of judgment is due to God’s mercy and patience—a truth that is recognized throughout Scripture. In fact, not only does He delay His wrath upon the wicked but He even sends them temporal blessings.
The LORD is compassionate and merciful;
He is patient and demonstrates great loyal love.
He does not always accuse,
And does not stay angry.
He does not deal with us as our sins deserve;
He does not repay us as our misdeeds deserve.
But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matt. 5:44-45)
The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some regard slowness, but is being patient toward you, because he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
It is these attributes of God, then, which may be represented by the image of the censer. As Peter makes clear this patience is a temporary state of affairs to allow time for salvation. This salvation is provided through the intercession of our eternal High Priest, Jesus Christ (Heb 7:25). However, in order for the Day of the Lord to arrive God’s mercy must eventually be withdrawn, at least in part, so that justice might be executed. If the heavenly censer symbolizes the merciful longsuffering that currently shields the world from divine judgment, then its sudden casting down to the earth without incense must represent the removal of that covering. This is the final prerequisite—the final seal—before God’s wrath begins.
If this interpretation of the censer is correct, then this mercy must be withdrawn in the short window of time after the fullness of the Gentiles has come in (the rapture) but before the Day of the Lord begins—which is precisely where the prewrath timeline places it. That the heavenly censer is removed at the seventh seal thus provides additional verification that God’s wrath does not begin until the seven trumpets.
There may be a secondary meaning to the censer. Note that before it is thrown down it is filled with coals from the altar. These coals would have come from under the sacrificial altar: the same location as the souls of fifth seal martyrs. The nephesh (life, soul) resides in the blood (Lev. 17:11, 14), and in some types of offerings a remainder of blood was poured around the base of the altar (Ex. 29:12; Lev. 4:7, 18, 25; 5:9; 8:15). This suggests that the reason the souls of the martyrs are pictured under the altar is because they were slain by the world as a form of sacrifice to God.
It may seem odd to think of the martyrs in this way, but Jesus warned His disciples that “. . . a time is coming when the one who kills you will think he is offering service to God,” (John 6:2). While this had a near-term fulfillment in the martyrs of the early church, it is not unreasonable to assume that it will be true during the great tribulation as well. In attempting to prove their own righteousness the wicked will reject the true Lamb of God and kill His servants. This illicit and self-righteous offering will be as unpleasing to God as Cain’s was. Might the fiery coals then represent the trials and persecutions that the martyrs were subjected to, and might the throwing down of the censer represent God’s rejection of this unsanctioned sacrifice? As with Nadab, Abihu, and Korah’s men, such a breach of God’s law would require a fiery judgment.