What happens to your prayers? Are they ever remembered? Or do they lie forgotten, wasted, just so many words heaped up in the ether somewhere, affecting nothing? Does God do anything with our prayers? And do the prayers of God’s people down the ages affect us today? Or tomorrow?
In Revelation 8:1-5, the utterly astonishing thing is that it portrays the prayers of God’s people as being the instrument God uses to usher in the end of the world.
No other passage I know of strengthens the soul of prayer like this. We are co-ordinators with eternity, and here we are, and our prayers achieve more than many realise. We may appear insignificant to the leaders of the world. But in the sight of God, weak as we are, stammering as our efforts feel at prayer, we matter – for by our prayers great cosmic events are set in place. When we pray we move from the outskirts, the margins of public affairs right into the centre, right into the very place where outcomes are decided. Thus, however politically anonymous we may be, or numerically tiny, however sociologically insignificant we are, however irrelevant we are to the movers and shakers of today’s world, in actual fact we are in the thick of action. Indeed – get this – Christians are the ones who initiate the action by their prayers, for we are the world’s aggressors who set God’s blazing purposes going by our prayers. Too often we have seen our prayers as being the equivalent of a fire hose played upon some trouble spot set ablaze by the malice of hell. But I tell you – we are the arsonists, we are the fire-raisers – God’s dearly beloved who, through our prayers, start God’s conflagrations across the world. Look out, world! Christians are praying! And you have not the remotest idea of how dreadful, how powerful and how awesomely powerful our prayers can be.
Let’s see what John means.
The prayers of the saints (God’s people) are accumulating upon the altar before the throne until the appointed time when mixed with fire they are hurled to the earth – and the result is “peals of thunder, voices, flashes of lightning and an earthquake.” (5) When the fire has become hotter and hotter and the flames from it rise higher and higher God will command his angel to the censer, fill it with fire, and cast it out on the earth, so that God’s great and holy purposes on earth may come about. Immediately, 7 trumpets are blown. In other words, there is cause and effect here. God shows both John and the watching angels something of the role of God’s people – we are not leaves floating on a wide sea of divine sovereignty. Our prayers are so important - they help unfold God’s plan and his judgements that bring in the end of the world.
The chapter begins with silence. Why silence in heaven? The hosts of heaven are dumbstruck at the opening of the scroll – which is like the title deeds to planet earth. The angels are in awe of two things: one, that these seals once broken will release God’s judgement on the earth; and two, that the prayers of the saints bring these actions of God about. Incense is mingled with them, and here we see that earth and heaven are one in this offering. Perhaps the incense is symbolic of how even the saints’ prayers need to be purified from all self-interest. But the incense smell lingers – and so does the effect of the righteous ones’ prayers.
More than once, I have been somewhere and I have felt the power of prayers prayed in the past: I think of the little Columba’s chapel on Iona – I can’t even step inside that tiny chapel without being overwhelmed by the power of sanctity – prayers prayed through the years. I firmly believe our prayers count for centuries afterwards – and I am sure I have been, as has my family, the recipients of prayers prayed many years before. As someone once remarked: “more potent, more powerful than all the dark and mighty forces let loose on the world, more powerful than anything else, is the power of prayer, set ablaze by the fire of God and cast upon the earth.” (Torrance)