By Whitney Hopler, Crosswalk.com
The Bible describes the prayers of the saints in two visions of heaven that are full of powerful symbolism. Both Revelation 5 and Revelation 8 feature verses about the prayers of the saints. Learning the meaning of those passages can inspire us with awe and strengthen our faith. Our prayers matter!
Where in Revelation Do We Find the Prayers of the Saints?
The entire chapter of Revelation 5 describes a scene in heaven where Jesus, who appears as a lamb who was slain for the sins of the world, takes a scroll in God’s throne room while souls and angels in heaven worship him. Revelation 5:7-10 set the context for the prayers of the saints, which are mentioned in verse 8. The English Standard Version of those verses reads: “And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.’” Some other translations, such as the New International Version, call the prayers of the saints “the prayers of God’s people.” The meaning is the same, since saints are simply people who have relationships with God.
In Revelation 8, Jesus opens the seventh (final) seal from the scroll, and Revelation 8:2-5 mentions the prayers of the saints (also called “the prayers of God’s people” in some translations): “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.”
What Are the Prayers of the Saints?
The symbolism in these Bible passages can seem mysterious at first. But the key to deciphering their meaning is incense. In Revelation 5, golden bowls full of incense represent the prayers of the saints. Revelation 8 describes incense offer with the prayers of the saints. Incense refers to any type of plant material (such as spices or herbs) that is burned to produce a sweet aroma through its smoke. In Exodus 30, God instructs Moses to prepare an altar of incense in the tabernacle, where priests would burn incense regularly. God says in Exodus 30:8 that these plans are “so incense will burn regularly before the Lord for the generations to come.” Throughout biblical times, priests faithfully burned incense in the temples. Luke 1 records that a priest named Zechariah was burning incense in a temple with worshipers praying outside when an angel showed up “standing at the right side of the altar of incense” to tell him that he and his wife Sarah would become parents of the baby who would grow up to become John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25). Private prayers as well as public prayers are associated with incense in the Bible. King David prays in Psalm 141:2: “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.”
So, incense is a symbol of how people’s prayers are like a sweet fragrance rising up to God. The prayers of the saints in Revelation are connected with incense, showing how those prayers reach God in heaven in ways that God treasures.
What Do Prayers of the Saints Teach Us?
When we reflect on the prayers of the saints in Revelation, we see an awe-inspiring description of the value and power of our prayers in heaven and earth. Key lessons we can learn from the prayers of the saints are:
God treasures our prayers. These passages in Revelation reveal how much God values our prayers when they reach heaven. Gold symbolizes something that is treasured, and in both passages, the prayers of the saints (God’s people) appear in heaven along with gold – as golden bowls, with a golden censer, and on a golden altar. In heaven, God cherishes these messages from his people. This shows us that God is eager for us to communicate with him. We can pray with confidence because God cares about our prayers. Prayer works because God pays attention to what we pray, and answers with perfect love and wisdom. Hebrews 4:16 encourages us: “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
Our prayers are powerful. The prayers of the saints in these passages show the great power of people’s prayers at work. The prayers are part of joyful worship in heaven, and bring about significant change on earth. Research on prayer that I explain in my book Wake Up to Wonder shows the power of prayer. For example, one study shows that when small groups of people pray with positive, focused intentions together, awe-inspiring events such as healing can happen. James 5:16 declares: “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
We should keep praying often. We can also learn from the prayers of the saints in Revelation that it’s worthwhile to pray often. Our prayers matter to God, and they have the power to impact life on earth significantly, so it makes sense for us respond to God’s call to pray as often as possible. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 urges us to “pray continually,” and Philippians 4:6 encourages us to “pray about everything.” In Luke 18, Jesus tells his disciples the parable of the persistent widow “to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (verse 1) and concludes by assuring them that God will answer prayers justly, so people should pray with faith: “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (verses 7-8).
Every one of us who has a relationship with God is a saint, and our prayers matter. The Revelation passages about the prayers of the saints give us wonderful descriptions of how much our prayers matter. They provide glimpses of what happens to our prayers once they reach heaven. When we communicate with God, he treasures our prayers and responds to them in powerful ways, so we should keep praying often. That’s all worth celebrating!
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Whitney Hopler is the author of the Wake Up to Wonder book and the Wake Up to Wonder blog, which help people thrive through experiencing awe. She leads the communications work at George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. Whitney has served as a writer, editor, and website developer for leading media organizations, including Crosswalk.com, The Salvation Army USA’s national publications, and Dotdash.com (where she produced a popular channel on angels and miracles). She has also written the young adult novel Dream Factory. Connect with Whitney on Twitter and Facebook.