In Revelation 8, an angel takes the censer of incense and hurls it to the earth in anticipation of the judgments about to be revealed. What is thrown to the earth, the fire from the altar or the censer? Grammatically, there are three verbs, the angel took the censer, filled it, and threw to the earth. There is no explicit object to the verb threw.
The object of the verb “throw” could be the fire which is scooped up into the censer, or the fire itself. If the fire is the object thrown to the earth, then the background is the daily sacrifice. Exodus 30:8 indicates incense was burned at the evening sacrifice and Ezra 9:5-15 associated prayer with the burning of incense at the evening sacrifice.
In the first or second century AD text 4 Baruch (Paraleipomena Jeremiou, “Things omitted from Jeremiah”), Jeremiah concludes a ten-day series of sacrifices by calling out to God with a sacrifice and the “fragrant odor of incense.” In his prayer he calls on Michael the Archangel to open the gates for the righteous. Revelation 8:4 says an angel took the incense and smoke from the hand of God. Although it is not clear from Revelation 8 who this angel is, both Jewish and Christian readers would identify Michael as the angel who stands before the Lord (Aune 2:515).
4 Baruch 9:1-4 And those who were with Jeremiah continued for nine days rejoicing and offering up sacrifices for the people. But on the tenth (day) Jeremiah alone offered up a sacrifice. And he prayed a prayer, saying, “Holy, holy, holy, incense of the living trees, true light that enlightens me until I am taken up to you; for your mercy I plead, for the sweet voice of the two seraphim I plead, for another fragrant odor of incense.
Throwing fire down to the earth may be an allusion to Ezekiel 10:2. In Ezekiel, a man dressed in linen takes coals from the altar and flings them over the city of Jerusalem as a sign of judgment. When this is done, a number of apocalyptic images appear, thunder lightning and an earthquake. All of these resonate with Revelation 8:3-5.
If it is the censer which is hurled to the earth, then the background for the image may be the daily worship in the temple. As far as I know, Massyngberde Ford was the first to suggest this (Revelation, 136), I encountered the suggestion through Jon Paulien (Decoding Revelation’s Trumpets, 314).
In the Mishnah tractate Tamid 5:4-6, when the censer was cast down, it made such a loud sound that it was a signal for three things to happen, the first two are worship, the third is that a priest go to the eastern gate to begin dealing with those who need to deal with personal uncleanliness.
Tamid 5:5-6. A. He who won [the right to the ashes with] the firepan took the silver firepan and went up to the top of the altar and cleared away the cinders in either side and scooped up [ashes with the firepan]. B. He came down and emptied them out into that [firepan] of gold. C. About a qab of cinders scattered from it, and he swept them out into the water channel. D. And on the Sabbath, he covered over them with a psykter. E. And a psykter was a large utensil, holding a letekh, and two chains were on it, one with which he pulled to lower it, and one with which it was held firm from above, so that it should not roll. F. And three purposes did it serve: (1) they turn it over on top of cinders; and (2) on a creeping thing on the Sabbath; and (3) they lower the ashes from on the altar with it. 5:6 A. [When] they reached the area between the porch and the altar, one man took the shovel and tosses it between the porch and the altar. B. No one in Jerusalem hears the voice of his fellow on account of the noise of the shovel. C. And three purposes did it serve: (1) a priest who hears its sound knows that his brethren the priests enter in to prostrate themselves, and he then runs and comes along; (2) and a son of a Levite who hears its noise knows that his brethren, the Levites, enter to say their song, and he then runs and comes along; (3) and the head of the priestly watch then had the unclean people stand at the eastern gate.
The censer caused catastrophic events to happen. These disturbances are often associated with a theophany, primarily when God reveals himself at Sinai. Richard Bauckham considers the section a conscious reference to the Exodus events, especially given the potential parallels between the plagues and the trumpets (Exod 19:16-18; Ps 68:8; Isa 64:3).
That these apocalyptic phenomenon are all associated with the theophany at Mount Sinai is perhaps a hint at the background for the seven trumpets with follow immediately after this in Revelation. The imagery used for the seven trumpets draw on the plagues on Egypt.