Who is the Angel with the Incense from the Altar of God? – Revelation 8:3-5

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.

5 thoughts on “Who is the Angel with the Incense from the Altar of God? – Revelation 8:3-5

  1. If I recall right, Origen thought it was Michael. I’m not sure why. He personally used texts like the book of Enoch, so that may have influenced that decision. But Enoch doesn’t say anything specific that would link Michael to that particular messenger (angel).

    • Thanks for this, I am looking mostly at backgrounds for Revelation in Second Temple lit, so early church is beyond my scope right now. I am fascinating with later interpretations as well, so I appreciate your reference to Origin.

      • The particular comment about Origen linking Michael to this messenger (angel) is found in Origen’s Homilies on Numbers 14. However, the googlebooks preview does not allow previewing of that specific page #83, even though it allows all pages around it. (I unfortunately don’t have a digital copy of that book, nor have current access to university library that has a hardcopy.)

  2. I really like the fact that there is three verbs here. When examining any type of literature, verbs can be used to express action that can be translated based on it’s usage. With the article explaining the language of “the angel took the censer, filled it, and threw to the earth” (Long Notes) the natural question to ask is “what exactly was thrown?”. Well first I think it’s important to identify the angel being Michael based off of the context of Revelation 8. With all the similarities between Ezekiel and Revelation that we’ve seen, I would have to agree that ” Throwing fire down to the earth may be an allusion to Ezekiel 10:2.” as the text mentions” (Long notes). I believe another confirmation is seen through having language such as the thunder, the lightning and the earthquake. Lastly, the parallels found in Exodus 19:16-18; Psalm 68:8; Isaiah 64:3 all point to trumpets and plagues that are similar to the disasters that are caused by the censer.

  3. I would agree that looking at the similarities between Ezekiel and Revelation 8 that it would make sense that the angel is Micheal, I think the one thing that should be focused on is what is thrown to earth. In Ps 68:8 what is mentioned as being poured is rain which may or may not be what is thrown to earth in the censor. It would seem the closest reference would be Ezekiel 10:2. I would think when John writes he threw it to the ground he is referring to the fire or coals he fills the censor with. I would think Ps.18:7-8 is being referenced when John is writing about not just the angel but what happens when “it” is thrown to earth.

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