When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. 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, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. 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. (Revelation 8:1-5)
(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.59-61.)
In the series of visions that precede these two chapters we have looked deeply into the dark impetuous career of the world…In the first six seals we see the dark hinterground of human history, the principalities and powers and spiritual wickedness that master the events of history and bring in their anti-Christian career such terrible calamities upon the earth. There we see the dark powers of the world apparently triumphant over the cause of God. But now we see further and deeper into the secrets of God. As the seventh seal is opened we read the profounder mysteries of world events.
What is it that we see? What are the real master-powers behind the world and what are the deeper secrets of our destiny? Here is the astonishing answer: the prayers of the saints and the fire of God. That means that more potent, more powerful than all the dark and mighty powers let loose in the world, more powerful than anything else, is the power of prayer set ablaze by the fire of God and cast upon the earth. And so St. John tells us he saw the angel take the censer which was filled with the prayers of the saints, kindle it with fire from God’s altar, and then cast it upon the earth. With that were voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake. And the seven angels began to sound their trumpets one after the other and to let loose seven plagues upon the earth. The real cause of the world-disturbance is the prayer of the Church and the fire of God!…
The real aggressor is the man or the woman who prays in the name of the God. The prayers of the saints and the fire of God move the whole course of the world. They are the most potent, the most disturbing, the most revolutionary, the most terrifying powers that the world knows. Would to God we in Christ’s Church really understood the power of prayer like that! It is through prayer that the Spirit of God comes upon the Church in tongues of fire. It is through prayer that Satan falls like lightning to the ground. It is through prayer that the Voice of the Gospel thunders through the clouds of darkness. It is prayer that causes earthquakes and shakes history to its very foundations.
That is the deeper secret of Heaven and of God’s Book in Heaven, and the first fact revealed by the opening of the seventh seal. Jesus Christ came not only to bring peace, but a sword. He came to cast fire upon the earth. All history is tortured by that fire burning at its heart. All history moves at the impulse of prayer. The real initiative is not held by the riders of the white, red, black, and pale horses, but by the saints under the altar, by the prayers of the saints and the fire of God.