Revelation 8:2-5

Sermon preached on December 9, 2012 by Laurence W. Veinott. © Copyright 2012. All rights reserved. Other sermons can be found at

Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (NIV). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.

How do you feel about the imprecatory psalms of the Old Testament? Imprecatory psalms are the ones where the psalmists cry out for vengeance on God's enemies. We saw this in our Responsive Reading from Psalm 109. Probably the most infamous of the imprecatory psalms is Psalm 137. It says, (verses 8-9)

"O Daughter of Babylon,
doomed to destruction,
happy is he who repays you
for what you have done to us—
he who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks."

Sometimes I run the 'Call to Worship' I'm thinking about using by Marg and ask her what she thinks of it. I try to get one that is somewhat related to the theme of the service. This week I actually thought about playing a joke on her by asking her what she of those verses as a 'Call to Worship'. But I didn't because I knew her reaction wouldn't have been good.

Psalm 56:6–8 records the words of David after the Philistines seized him at Gath. David said,

"They conspire, they lurk,
they watch my steps,
eager to take my life.
On no account let them escape;
in your anger,
O God, bring down the nations.
Record my lament;
list my tears on your scroll—
are they not in your record?"

David's mention of his tears and his desires for the Philistines to be destroyed is somewhat parallel to our text, as we saw that the end of chapter 7 was about God wiping away the tears of His people.

The prayer that we find in Psalm 69 is surprising. You'll remember that when they crucified Jesus, He said, (Luke 23:34)

"Father, forgive them,
for they do not know what they are doing."

Yet in Psalm 69:21–28, a great Messianic psalm, we read,

"They put gall in my food
and gave me vinegar for my thirst.
May the table set before them
become a snare;
may it become retribution and a trap.
May their eyes be darkened
so they cannot see,
and their backs be bent forever.
Pour out your wrath on them;
let your fierce anger overtake them.
May their place be deserted;
let there be no one to dwell in their tents.
For they persecute those you wound
and talk about the pain of those you hurt.
Charge them with crime upon crime;
do not let them share in your salvation.
May they be blotted out of
the book of life and not be listed
with the righteous."

Obviously in those two prayers Jesus had different people in mind. It could be that the prayer forgiveness was for the soldiers, and the imprecatory prayer for the religious leaders who hated Him and His work.

But, in any case, if you're like many Christians today you find such passages embarrassing. You might even think that they have no place in New Testament Christianity.

That's what some Christians will tell you. They will point you to numerous New Testament passages that tell us that we are not to seek revenge but that we are to love our enemies. For example in Luke 9 we read that when the time for Jesus death was approaching, Jesus 'resolutely set out for Jerusalem'. He was going through Samaria and He sent some messengers on ahead, to get things ready for him. But the people of the village did not welcome Him, because He was heading to Jerusalem. When James and John saw this, they asked Jesus, (Luke 9:54)

"Lord, do you want us to call
fire down from heaven to destroy them?"

But Jesus rebuked them and said,

"You do not know what kind
of spirit you are of,
for the Son of Man did not come
to destroy men's lives, but to save them."

That verse seems to suggest that in the gospel age, we are not to pray against people. We are told in other places not to take vengeance. In Romans 12:19–21 the apostle Paul wrote,

"Do not take revenge, my friends,
but leave room for God's wrath,
for it is written:
'It is mine to avenge;
I will repay,' says the Lord.
On the contrary:
'If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty,
give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap
burning coals on his head.'
Do not be overcome by evil,
but overcome evil with good."

1 Peter 2:21–23

"To this you were called,
because Christ suffered for you,
leaving you an example,
that you should follow in his steps.'
He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.'
When they hurled their insults at him,
he did not retaliate;
when he suffered, he made no threats.
Instead, he entrusted himself
to him who judges justly."

When Stephen was being stoned to death, he said, (Acts 7:60)

"Lord, do not hold this sin against them."

So some Christians view the imprecatory psalms as not being applicable today—they were for a different age.

But these two passages from Revelation argue against that. A few weeks ago we looked at the prayers of the martyrs under the altar in the fifth seal. They asked God, (Revelation 6:10–11)

"How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true,
until you judge the inhabitants
of the earth and avenge our blood?"

We noted that those saints have been made perfect. Their desire for God's judgment is not sinful, it's good and righteous, something we should imitate.

In the text before us we have something similar. It says, (Revelation 8:3–4)

"Another angel, who had a golden censer,
came and stood at the altar.
He was given much incense to offer,
with the prayers of all the saints,
on the golden altar before the throne.
The smoke of the incense,
together with the prayers of the saints,
went up before God
from the angel's hand."

The important thing to note about the prayers here is that

they are almost certainly imprecatory prayers.

We're not told that they're imprecatory but there are a number of things in the context that make it all but certain. For example, these prayers are mentioned in the context of silence in heaven. We saw last week that silence is often associated with God coming in judgment. The context here is also about the seven trumpets, which unleash great judgments against the inhabitants of the earth. Indeed, in the very next verse we read,

"Then the angel took the censer,
filled it with fire from the altar,
and hurled it on the earth;
and there came peals of thunder,
rumblings, flashes of lightning
and an earthquake."

The censer that the angel uses to hurl the fire on earth was the same censer that was used to offer the incense, which ascended up before God. The altar that is mentioned here is likely the same one that the martyrs were under when they asked God how long until He avenged their blood. If you put all these things together it seems that the prayers of the saints are mentioned here are exactly like the prayers of the martyrs under the throne in chapter 6. They refer to imprecatory prayers.

The big difference here is that in our text

their prayers presented to God and God judges the inhabitants of the earth with dreadful judgments in response to those prayers.

The judgments of the trumpet cycle, which follow in Revelation, are from the altar on which the incense of the saints prayers had been offered. God answers the prayers of His people. Dennis E. Johnson writes, (The Triumph of the Lamb, p. 142)

"the judgments symbolized in the trumpet cycle come from the altar on which the incense of the saints' prayers has been offered as God's answers to his people's pleas from the midst of the battle."

These prayers are approved by God. They are a sweet-smelling savor to Him. Our text presents them as being good, appropriate. Note that it is a golden altar, signifying that these prayers are holy, righteous. They are not impure, imperfect, unworthy. Quite the contrary, they are absolutely appropriate.

The golden censer, from which the incense is offered, is then filled with fire from the altar and the fire is hurled on the earth and peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake resulted.

These things show that the imprecatory prayers of the saints, are not unworthy, are not inappropriate—but are indeed righteous, and pleasing to God. They are a sweet smelling savor to God.

God uses these holy prayers in judging the inhabitants of the earth. Robert H. Mounce writes, (Revelation, NICNT, p. 175)

"The prayers of the saints play an essential part in bringing the judgment of God upon the earth and its inhabitants."

Dennis E. Johnson writes, (The Triumph of the Lamb, p. 142)

"Christian's prayers are integral to the downfall of the gospel's enemies."

The great question we need to ask here is

why did God tell us this?

How is this to change our lives? There are at least three primary lessons here.

The first one is this: In your prayers

you need to include petitions asking for God's judgment on His incorrigible and irredeemable enemies.

One of the great problems with Christians today is that we don't pray enough against God's enemies. We don't pray enough against Satan and against the world and it's opposition to God, This because we're friends with the world. Yet James 4:4 says,

"You adulterous people,
don't you know that friendship
with the world is hatred toward God?
Anyone who chooses to be a friend
of the world becomes an enemy of God."

We're comfortable with the sin of this world. What do we spend our time praying about? James E. Adams writes, (May We Pray the Imprecatory Psalms?)

"we need to challenge Christendom which has itself as the prime focus of existence. Can we not recognize the error of having our prayers revolve around our feelings, wants, and comforts? Have our prayers become so man-centered that we actually cringe to utter prayers that have God's glory as their final end? This is indeed the fearful condition of the church today. We need a Copernican revolution in our prayers! What a difference we would see if the church began to perceive that God's absolute glory is truly the center. May the centrality of God, and God alone, be the goal of our learning!"

Harry Mennega writes, (The Ethical Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms) practical instruction on the prayer life of the Christian:

"It is the peculiarly balanced prayer life that the Christian must foster. He is obligated to pray for the conversion of sinners, of those who are now identified with the kingdom of darkness; this he must do in the interest of God's glory. At the same time and in the same interest he must pray for the coming of God's kingdom which involves necessarily praying for the destruction of the kingdom of evil and those who are identified with it. It is in this tension that the Christian must live."

We see imprecatory sayings elsewhere in the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 16:22 the apostle Paul wrote,

"If anyone does not love the Lord—
a curse be on him.
Come, O Lord!"

How many times did Jesus pronounce woes on the Pharisees and the teachers of the law? He was always saying to them,

"Woe to you…"

Much of this has been lost in the church today. In some churches today they don't even preach repentance. In other churches, they preach repentance, but they don't say,

"Woe to you if you don't repent."

Martin Luther once said,

"I cannot pray without cursing."

That's shocking. Of course Luther did not mean by that that he used offensive words or phrases by which he expressed anger or annoyance. No. Listen to how he explained it.

"I cannot pray without cursing. I cannot say, hallowed by thy name, without adding, cursed be the name of the… [enemies of God], and all who blaspheme thee. If I say, thy kingdom come, I must add, cursed be the… [enemy of God], and all the kingdoms which are opposed to thine. If I say, thy will be done, I add, cursed be the designs of the… [enemies of God], and of all those—may they perish—who fight against thee."

Isn't that true? Do you pray for the overthrow of Satan's kingdom? Do you pray for the overthrow of his plans? Do you pray against his activities? James E. Adams writes, (May We Pray the Imprecatory Psalms?)

"Let this be the prayer of our hearts: 'O Christ, come in power and show forth the glory of God. Bring judgment to the wicked that they may seek you . . . and if not, O God, destroy all who won't bow to you. Let them know that only you, whose name is the Lord, are the Most High over all the earth.'"

Christians, do you regard Christ's honor with so little regard that you don't pray for judgment on His enemies who seek to destroy Him and overthrow His rule? You need to wake up.

Of course we have to be very careful here. There are many ways to go wrong. We must always be praying for the salvation of God's enemies, that God would have mercy on them, that He would bring them into His kingdom. We must not be praying against any that would be the elect. We must have the proper attitude toward this as well. In Ezekiel 33:11 we read,

"'As surely as I live,'
declares the Sovereign LORD,
'I take no pleasure
in the death of the wicked,
but rather that they turn
from their ways and live.
Turn! Turn from your evil ways!
Why will you die, O house of Israel?'"

So we must pray for the destruction of God's enemies soberly, with sadness. Some people will not repent even when God's judgments are sent against them. We read about this in Revelation 9:20–21. It says,

"The rest of mankind that
were not killed by these plagues
still did not repent
of the work of their hands;
they did not stop worshiping demons,
and idols of gold, silver,
bronze, stone and wood—
idols that cannot see or hear or walk.
Nor did they repent of their murders,
their magic arts,
their sexual immorality or their thefts."

We hate to see that. But those who refuse to repent, who refuse God's rule, who refuse to stop fighting against Him—we must pray that they do not succeed. For Jesus to be vindicated they need to be destroyed. For us to be safe—they have to be overthrown. For God's glory to shine forth and His kingdom to be established, they need to be destroyed.

The second primary reason why we are told about imprecatory prayers is

so that we will know assuredly that we do not have to take matters into our own hands because God will surely avenge His enemies.

When evil men advance and do evil, there's a temptation for Christians to take up the sword and fight against them in the same way that they fight against us. Abishai urged David to kill King Saul. Psalm 125:3 speaks about when the scepter of the wicked remains over the land,

"the righteous might
use their hands to do evil."

We have seen this in our society, with some so-called Christians bombing abortion clinics.

Christians, you must always remember we are servants of Christ and that our weapons are not the weapons of this world. As the apostle Paul said in 2 Corinthians 10:3–4

"For though we live in the world,
we do not wage war as the world does.
The weapons we fight with
are not the weapons of the world."

And in 2 Corinthians 6:3–10 Paul told us how we are to fight. He wrote,

"We put no stumbling block
in anyone's path,
so that our ministry will not be discredited.
Rather, as servants of God
we commend ourselves in every way:
in great endurance; in troubles,
hardships and distresses;
in beatings, imprisonments and riots;
in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger;
in purity, understanding,
patience and kindness;
in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love;
in truthful speech and in the power of God;
with weapons of righteousness
in the right hand and in the left;
through glory and dishonor,
bad report and good report;
genuine, yet regarded as impostors;
known, yet regarded as unknown;
dying, and yet we live on;
beaten, and yet not killed;
sorrowful, yet always rejoicing;
poor, yet making many rich;
having nothing,
and yet possessing everything."

Suffering, not striking back with the weapons of this world, prayer for the conversion of sinners—that is our calling. Even if we die, even if we are stuffed out—Jesus will be victorious and will establish His kingdom and punish those who refuse to repent. They will not, they cannot escape. Jesus will take care of them. We never have to take vengeance ourselves.

Lastly, for those of you who are not Christians. The third reason we are told this is

so that you will realize the danger you are in.

When you hear the words of 1 Corinthians 16:22,

"If anyone does not love the Lord—
a curse be on him. "

What does that tell you? Refusing to go to Jesus has the most serious consequences. This is not a game. The gospel tells that you're going to perish eternally unless you turn to Jesus.

When you hear the words of Jesus, (Luke 6:24–26)

"But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all men speak well of you,
for that is how their fathers
treated the false prophets."

Does that affect you? These woes, these curses are the most serious warnings you can get. If they don't wake you up—you're doomed.

Or what about Jesus' words in Matthew 18:6?

"But if anyone causes
one of these little ones
who believe in me to sin,
it would be better for him
to have a large millstone
hung around his neck
and to be drowned
in the depths of the sea."

Are you causing others to sin? Maybe it's your example. Or maybe it's your disregard for God's commandments and how you show and tell others that they can disrespect them with impunity. Woe to your lack of interest in Jesus. Woe to your supposed self-sufficiency and your lack of gratitude to Jesus, who has given you everything good thing you have. Woe to your unwillingness to bow the knee to Him. Woe to your bad example to others. Woe to your complacency. Putting this all together—woe to you unless you repent and go to Jesus.