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Enjoying God Blog

Almost every time I speak on the subject of prayer, I hear the objection that prayer is a useless waste of time. It doesn’t accomplish anything. It is little more than a psychological self-help trick to make us feel better about the future.

There is one passage in Scripture that should forever put to rest your doubts about the role that prayer plays in God’s purposes on earth and in heaven. If there are lingering questions in your mind about whether prayer is important, let Revelation 8 supply a resounding answer. Here is what we read:

“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” (Rev. 8:1-5).

We are reading here of the seventh seal judgment poured out on the earth. I don’t want us to get bogged down in the significance of the half hour of “silence in heaven.” There are a dozen or more possible interpretations that need not distract us from the primary point of the text.

The imagery of the smoke of incense (see Ps. 141:1-2) rising before God (Rev. 8:4) points to a positive answer to the martyrs’ request in Rev. 6:9-11 that God execute vengeance against his enemies. Indeed, Rev. 8:5 would constitute the actual historical execution of God’s verdict on behalf of his people.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that “the prayers of all the saints” refers exclusively to the request by the martyrs whose souls John saw beneath the altar (the fifth seal of Rev. 6:9-11). Although surely inclusive of their request, “all the saints” must be a reference to the totality of God’s people throughout the course of the present church age.

Thus, we see in Revelation 8:3-4 that our prayers are taken seriously by God, are heard by him, and undoubtedly are one of the primary means by which God brings his purposes in history (including his judgments on an unbelieving world) to fulfillment.

Are you beginning to hear what the apostle John is saying. If not, note closely what John Piper says about the prayers of the saints.

“The utterly astonishing thing about this text is that it portrays the prayers of the saints as the instrument God uses to usher in the end of the world with great divine judgments. It pictures the prayers of the saints accumulating on the altar before the throne of God until the appointed time when they are taken up like fire from the altar and thrown upon the earth to bring about the consummation of God's kingdom. In other words, what we have in this text is an explanation of what has happened to the millions upon millions of prayers over the last 2,000 years as the saints have cried out again and again, ‘Thy kingdom come . . . Thy kingdom come.’ Not one of these prayers, prayed in faith, has been ignored. Not one is lost or forgotten. Not one has been ineffectual or pointless. They have all been gathering on the altar before the throne of God” (John Piper, “The Prayers of the Saints and the End of the World,” January 9, 1994,

If at any time during the course of your Christian life, and especially in the midst of your seasons of prayer, you begin to wonder what happened to your prayers, what role do I play in God’s providential plans, the answer is found, at least in large part, in this text. Your prayers, be they long or short, simple or complex, go to the altar of God before his throne, having been mixed with “the smoke of the incense” (v. 4a).

Then something quite stunning occurs. The angel throws the censor into the earth which provokes “peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (v. 5b). These phenomena “simply represent the action of God from heaven on the world as the scroll of the end of the age begins to open and the seven trumpets and the seven bowls are poured out. The unmistakable point is that your prayers bring that about” (ibid.).

Our prayers are preserved by God and made the catalyst, in response to which God’s judgments are poured out in bringing human history to its Christ-exalting climax. So, don’t ever think your prayers don’t matter!


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