I’ve rebelled against Revelation for years now. I would rather have a root canal than watch a science fiction movie, and Revelation feels a lot like the science fiction crescendo of the holiest of books. Around ten years ago, we were in a Sunday School class that studied the book. The members of the class enjoyed the study so much, they did it again. We quit Sunday School. I mean really, Revelations? Study that book twice? Yeah, no thank you.
But recently, Jesus invited me back to unfold the pages and unravel the words of that sacred vision recorded by John. And when Jesus invites, who can resist?
So quietly, tucked under my fuzzy throw, french roast coffee steaming on the table beside me, Bible and journal in hand, I pushed beyond all the books filled with honey and bread of life, and stopped at the last of God’s Words to us. There I discovered something I’d forgotten.
Maybe when I knew it, it hadn’t mattered as much.
Maybe then, I hadn’t needed it like I do now.
Maybe then, my heart was younger, more naive, and less broken and heavy.
There it was in the fifth chapter of the book.
And when he (the Lamb of God) 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. 9 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,
10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”
Did you catch that?
There are elders in heaven who hold golden bowls.
And those golden bowls are filled with incense which are the prayers of the saints.
That’s you and I–the saints. And those are our prayers.
Your prayers. My prayers.
All my prayers, poured out to Jesus.
Every single one.
He’s kept them. He kept those heart cries and he kept those pleas.
Yours too. He keeps our conversations in golden bowls.
And see this matters more to me now. More because I’ve prayed more. More because I’ve learned answers don’t always come when I want or how I want. More because the stakes have gotten high in recent years. More because I’m living life in way over my head. More because when your husband’s a pastor and you have well over a hundred kids and leaders that you love and ache and fight for daily in prayer, you just really want to know your pleas have purpose. When people text you saying they’ve lost all hope, and you tell them all you can tell them, and you listen all you can listen, and you finally promise the last resort–prayer, when that happens? You just want to know that when you go to God with those desperate needs, He’s done something with them.
And I’ve gone.
Again and again.
To my Father with requests and with pleading and with every ounce of fight in me.
Because every single life matters.
When I read those words–golden bowls filled with incense which are the prayers of the saints–I think of all the helplessness I’ve felt in the last few years. I think of all the times when I feel like everything is spiralling out of control, and there is no way I can ever keep up, or make a real difference. I think of Haiti, and hungry, hurting hearts in that dry land where there is no water. I think of how helpless I feel and how the little I do feels so microscopic in light of the magnitude of need in that place on the planet. I think of my own precious boys, now young men with hearts young and tender and vulnerable. I think of how desperately I want all that is good and true and real and honorable to fill their minds and souls and lives, and yet what control does a mother truly have over a son she’s taught to fly? What trajectory can a mother guide when their wings are nearly fully developed and whatever’s in their hearts will determine their path?
But a mother can pray. And I have prayed. I have filled bowls. And those bowls? They contain the fragrance of the throneroom of God. When I cry out to him over the matters that crush my soul with their weight, heaven carries the scent of the incense of my supplication.
Heaven carries the scent of your cries too.
I have a collection of letters from my grandmother. Faded envelopes pasted with now-vintage postage stamps and inked in her telltale cursive slant hold her thoughts recorded on UNICEF cards and stationery–the ones she shared with me when I was young. I keep them all tucked in a red purse on the top shelf of my closet because her thoughts matter to me.
And God keeps our thoughts because they matter to Him.
Jesus knew I just needed to be reminded of that–so He took me to the end of His Words to show me that in heaven our cries are collected and contained in gold.
John Piper understands these things and spoke about them too.
” . . .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.
And the flame has been growing brighter and brighter and more and more pleasing in the presence of God. And the time will come when God will command his holy angel to take his mighty censer and fill it with fire from the altar where the prayers burn before the Lord, and pour it out on the world to bring all God’s great and holy purposes to completion. Which means that the consummation of history will be owing to the supplication of the saints who cry to God day and night. Not one God-exalting prayer has ever been in vain.” (John Piper, The Prayers of the Saints)
See sometimes I grow a little faint with the facts as I see them and those bowls remind me that there is more to the story.
For our light and temporary affliction is producing for us an eternal glory that far outweighs our troubles. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Cor. 4:17,18
And I can’t help but wonder if you’re like me, and you’ve just felt a little helpless sometimes. Somehow this idea that I can go to God and fill a bowl seems to fill me with courage and will-power to do that simple thing God instructed us to do without ceasing. It gives me a burning urge to fill bowls until they are overflowing and God and all of heaven can’t help but notice the scent of Sarah’s heart poured out. And isn’t it funny that the thing that’s collected in the golden bowls is not our effort or our hard work or our determined attempts? It’s that which we’ve surrendered fully to God that gets kept.
It’s in the emptying of our hearts that we will fill heavenly spaces.
Maybe that’s why the Psalmist said it like this:
Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken. Psalm 55:22
And maybe that’s why Peter felt the same:
Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you. I Peter 5:6,7
Because Peter, he spent time with Jesus. He knew the heart of the God who dressed in flesh. He knew.
God keeps our prayers.
I can’t think of a better place to leave my burdens, than in the golden goblets in heaven.
And now, now I think I understand a little more about the much to which James referred when he said,
The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. James 5:16
In desperate times, some say there isn’t much we can do but pray.
The much of prayer is the filling of bowls . . . it’s the work of a soul who knows the Savior who saves our prayers and saves our lives and someday will return for us all.