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Then another angel came

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and stood at the altar

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with a golden censer for incense. He was given much incense so he could offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden

altar before the throne.

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Then another angel came and stood at the place where people connect with God, holding a pure censer for burning frankincense. He was given

much incense so he could offer it with the prayers of all the holy ones at the pure place where people meet with God, while acknowledging His sovereign authority.


1: "came"

This angel seems to come as an intermediary between God and man, one who is reminding God of the prayers of His faithful ones (not that God needs to be reminded, rather this is for John to know that God does indeed remember our prayers).


Which altar is this? In Revelation the word “altar” always refers to the altar of incense, not the altar of sacrifice. Jesus has already offered Himself as THE ONLY EFFICACIOUS SACRIFICE, and we are reminded of that every time He is referred to as the Lamb; therefore, there is no need for any additional blood sacrifices, hence the altar of incense is the only altar left. I learned this from John Yeatts, author of The Believer’s Commentary on Revelation.

3: "before the throne"

Why the change in the altar’s location? Up to this point the reader would be envisioning the altar of incense in front of the curtain that separated the holy place from the Holy of Holies. But now the image is changed to an altar before the throne. This was not normal, rather it was intended to convey a specific meaning—that submission and obedience are a key part of meeting with God.


In the Former Covenant there were two “smells” that were called a sweet smelling aroma to God, one was the sacrifice of an animal on the large altar of sacrifice (some but not all the animal sacrifices were called a sweet smelling aroma to God), and the other was the smell of incense from the altar of incense placed just in front of the curtain of the Holy of Holies. Although they were both pleasing to God, these two smells were very different. The smell of burning incense would have been noticeable inside the tabernacle, but probably not beyond its heavy curtains. The primary smell that surrounded the tabernacle was not similar to a Barbeque, rather it was the acrid smell of animal flesh being burned, and burned and burned some more. So why does God call the smell of burnt flesh a “sweet smelling aroma?” On that blood-covered altar the smell that pleased God was self-sacrifice. To this day when we sacrifice our self-interests in order to seek God’s glory, God accepts it as a sweet-smelling sacrifice.

However, the sweet smell from the altar of incense is different. When people speak of the altar of incense they usually say that the smell of the incense is our prayers, in fact I used to think that too. There are three verses in the Bible that address this issue; two are in Revelation, and one is in the Psalms. Psalm 141:2 says “May my prayer be set before You as incense.”

Revelation 5:8 says that the incense is our prayers. However, you will notice, that Rev 8:3-4 presents a different picture. Rev 8:3-4 says that the incense is offered with our prayers. 5:8 says that incense is our prayers, 8:3 says the incense is offered with our prayers. What gives?

First of all, the use of incense in 5:8 is explained because it is a slight deviation from the normal use of this word-picture. A word-picture was to be felt, not analyzed, so it was not explained unless there was something unique about it, a different usage, or if it was not commonly used as a word-picture. Therefore, while most of us have thought that Revelation 5:8 defines the word picture of incense, it actually points to an exception rather than the normal interpretation of it. This is the only way to reconcile Rev 5:8 and 8:3-4.

How was the anointing oil made? It was a combination of the following ingredients:

  1. Sweet spices which stood for acts that refresh and bless others;
  2. Onycha was the shell of a perfumed mollusk which yielded a musky odor when burned;
  3. Galbanum is a gum obtained by making incisions in the bark of a shrub found in that part of the world;
  4. Pure frankincense, which has healing properties, and is strong enough to mask the odors of a decaying body, thus it was commonly used in ancient times for burials. For these reasons frankincense could represent life and death, or all of life from beginning to end.

Because the incense offering was a mixture of several things, I believe the offering of incense represented all of life, it was the pleasing smell of a pure and godly life. You will notice from the ingredients listed above that it includes a variety of odors, not just sweet and pleasant fragrances. Also you will notice that they come from a variety of sources—from inside the plant, from the outside of the plant, and from something that is not a plant.

Prayer is required for a godly life. We could say incense represents the godly life and the prayer which is necessary for it; or we could say incense represents prayer and the godly life it helps produce. Does it matter which one we put first? To the Jewish mind it did not matter because they go together and that is what counts. To summarize, incense represents much more than our prayers; it represents our entire life.

You will also notice that the angel pours the contents of the censer of incense on the earth as punishment on the wicked. Therefore, we must conclude that the holy life of the just is a part of that punishment, and the saints’ prayers for justice also have a direct role in the punishment of the rebellious. How do our lives and testimonies relate to the punishment of the wicked? They help show the difference between one lifestyle and the other, and they show that following God is indeed possible. The prayers of the saints enter as a way of assuring the faithful believers that God does not forget our suffering and the need for justice to prevail in the end.