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.

Who Are the Seven Angels in Revelation 8:2?

Revelation 8 introduce seven angels who will sound their trumpets in Revelation 8-9. After the seventh seal is opened, John sees these seven angels who stand before God. “Standing before” someone is an idiomatic expression for serving, so this could be translated as “served” the Lord. According to Jewish tradition the angels must be standing because they did not have knees. This is based on Ezekiel 1:7 (cherubim with straight legs).

The Seven Angels

Revelation 8:2 does not identify them. Are these the “seven archangels who occupy a very particular role in the angelic hierarchy,” as David Aune suggests? (2:509). On the other hand, Beale finds it “tempting to identify them with the seven guardian angels of the seven churches” (Beale 454). John may have intended these seven angels standing before God to be the seven spirits which were before the throne of God in Revelation 1:4 and 4:5.

Other Second Temple Period literature refer to seven archangels, Michael and Gabriel being among them. For example, in Tobit 12:15, the angel Raphael says, “I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels who present the prayers of the saints and enter into the presence of the glory of the Holy One” (RSV). The tradition of seven archangels is present in the apocryphal book of Tobit. In Testament of Levi 8, Levi sees seven men clothed in white who prepare him to be a priest.

In 1 Enoch 20, the Greek text has seven angels: Uriel, Raphael, Raguel, Michael, Sariel, Gabriel, and Remeiel (missing in the Ethiopic text, see OTP 1:23–24).

  • Suruʾel, one of the holy angels—for (he is) of eternity and of trembling.
  • Raphael, one of the holy angels, for (he is) of the spirits of man.
  • Raguel, one of the holy angels who take vengeance for the world and for the luminaries.
  • Michael, one of the holy angels, for (he is) obedient in his benevolence over the people and the nations.
  • Saraqaʾel, one of the holy angels who are (set) over the spirits of mankind who sin in the spirit. 7
  • Gabriel, one of the holy angels who oversee the garden of Eden, and the serpents, and the cherubim.

3 Enoch 17 says “There are seven great, beautiful, wonderful, and honored princes who are in charge of the seven heavens. They are, Michael, Gabriel, Šatqiʾel, Šaḥaqiʾel, Baradiʾel, Baraqiʾel, and Sidriʾel.:

However, in Revelation 8:2 the angels are not named nor are them described as special in any way except they are given the honor of announcing the judgements by blowing on trumpets. There is another series of angels in Revelation 15-16 as the final seven bowl judgements are poured out on the earth.

Enoch’s Heavenly Journey – 1 Enoch 17-36

After the pleading on behalf of the Watchers, 1 Enoch 17-19 describes Enoch’s first journey through the heavens. In this first vision there are a number of scenes which depict an ancient world view which graphically imagines how the orderly universe is maintained.  He sees the “high places” and storehouses of the earth where the rains and snows are kept. In Chapter 18 he sees the storehouse of the wind, the cornerstone of the earth, and the pillars of heaven. He also sees a “dark pit” with heavenly fire, Uriel Archangeldescribed as a “desolate and terrible place.” The angel who accompanies Enoch explains the dark pit as the place where the “stars and powers of heaven” are imprisoned because they failed to arrive punctually. They are imprisoned until the “year of mystery” (OTP 1:23, note y, one manuscript has “myriad of years,” Charles has “ten thousand years”). In chapter 19 the angel (now identified as Uriel) explains the dark pit as the place where the angels who defiled themselves with women will be placed. The fallen angels are said to have led humans to sacrifice to demons, the first time this particular sin has been mentioned. The first vision concludes in 19:3 with a notice that Enoch alone among humans was allowed to see the vision.

Chapter 20 is a list of the names of the archangels and their functions:

  • Uriel (Suru’el), who is in charge of the world and over Tartarus
  • Raphael, who is over the spirits of men.
  • Reuel (Raguel), who takes vengeance on the world for the luminaries.
  • Michael, who is obedient in his benevolence over the people.
  • Sariel (Saraqa’el), who is set over the spirits of mankind who sin in the spirit.
  • Gabriel, who is over the paradise, the serpents and the cherubim.
  • Remiel, whom God set over those who rise (Remiel is only found in manuscript Ga2 as is therefore relegated to a footnote in OTP. Without Remiel, there are only six angels, explaining the addition of a seventh in some manuscripts).

1 Enoch 20:7-10 briefly describes the terrible prison of the fallen angels. The place is a narrow cleft filled with a great fire. Enoch cannot estimate the size of the place, but he is terrified because of the sight. Uriel tells him the fallen angels will be confined forever.

Chapters 21-27 record Enoch’s second journey. In this vision Enoch travels to the place of punishment of the fallen stars, which are the fallen angels. He sees a chaotic and terrible place in which seven stars as large as mountains are bound. When Enoch asks who the stars are Uriel chastises him for his eagerness. The angel explains the place as a prison-house for the angels who are detained there forever. On the west side of a great mountain Enoch sees a place where the dead assemble until the Day of Judgment (Chapter 22). Enoch sees the spirit which left Abel crying out for the descendants of Cain to be exterminated. From there he continues to the west where he sees the tracks of the sun, the “fire burning in the west” (Chapter 23).

In 1 Enoch 24-25 Enoch goes to another place of the earth and was shown a huge mountain of fire. From there he could see seven other mountains made of precious stone and each more glorious than the next. The greatest of these summits is the throne on which God will sit “when he visits the earth with goodness” (25:3). On this mountain is a fragrant tree which no human has the authority to touch until the time of judgment. This is probably the Tree of Life from Paradise, similar to Revelation 22:2, 14 (4 Ezra 8:52). The fragrance of this tree will “penetrate their bones” and they will live a long life on the earth, “as you fathers lived in their days” (Some copies of 1 Enoch expand this to include “no sorrow, pain, torment, and plague shall not touch them”, Isaac 26, note l). This is a significant passage in the first section of Enoch since it looks forward to a time when God will visit the earth and begin a period of peace. This “kingdom” motif is more obvious later in Enoch and will be expanded greatly in later apocalyptic texts.

Enoch is taken to the “center of the earth” in Chapter 26, the city of Jerusalem (cf. Ezek. 5:5). A stream of water flows out of the holy mountain in several directions, similar to the description of the Temple in Ezekiel 47 and Revelation 22:1-5. From this vantage point he sees a desolate land with deep valleys and no trees growing in them. He asks the angel Uriel about this desolate land in Chapter 27. This is the place, the angel explains, where those who cursed the Lord and “utter hard words concerning the glory.” Isaac gives a marginal reference to Matthew 5:29-30, although the only connection is the use of the term gehenna for hell.

Chapters 28-36 are a number of brief “directional” journeys in which Enoch moves to the east, then the north, west and south, visiting various mountains with fragrant trees. In these places we read a description of the tree, the scent and flavor of the fruit, etc. In the north, west, and south he sees the gates of the rain and snow, etc. In 33:3-4 Enoch sees the gates of heaven opened and the stars of heaven coming out. Enoch records the names, ranks, seats, periods, and months of their coming and going. All this is explained to him by the angel Uriel along with the names, laws and companies of these stars. All of this information is not included in the book but forms something of a basis for the later astronomical texts written in Enoch’s name.

Although biblical apocalypses occasionally bring the seer into a heavenly throne room, there is nothing quite like Enoch’s heavenly travels. John sees heaven on several occasions (Rev 4-5; 11:19), but there is no journey through layers of heaven or hell.

The Archangels Render Justice -1 Enoch 9-11

In 1 Enoch  9 we learn the rest of the angels are watching the progress of the events on earth. Michael, Sariel (Isaac follows the Ethiopic, Surafel; manuscripts have Uryan of Ur’el Raphael (Rufa’el) and Gabriel. They hear the cries of the humans and respond in a prayer to God himself. After praising God they point out to him the activities of Azazel Rafael-archangelon earth. They blame him for teaching humans the “eternal secrets” and Shemihazah for allowing the other angels to sleep with the humans and produce the hybrid giants.

The Lord responds to this prayer in chapter 10 by sending out a number of angels with specific tasks. An angel named Sariel (Ethiopic, Asuryal) is sent to the “son of Lamech” (Noah) to warn him of the coming flood. This angel is to instruct the son of Lamech on how to flee from the flood and “preserve his seed for all generations.”

In verses 5-8 the angel Raphael is sent to bind Azazel hand and foot and to throw him into the darkness. Both Jude 6 and 2 Peter 2:4-5 refer to angels who fell as “bound in chains in darkness.” Compare this also to Matthew 22:13 where the unprepared guest is ousted from the wedding banquet and is bound and thrown to “the place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Michael-archangelIn 9: 9-10 Gabriel is sent to destroy the children of the angels (now called “Watchers”). These giants are described as “bastards and children of adultery.” Verse 10 says these giants hoped to live for five hundred years, which may be taken as how long they hoped to live before judgment came upon them, although it may simply refer to the length of their lives. There is no reference to the long lives of humans in 1 Enoch before the flood, so the five hundred-year life-span may be what is in mind. In verse 11 Michael is sent to warn Semyaz he is about to be judged and bound for seventy generations under the mountains, until the day of judgment, in a pit of fire. Again, a similar theme is found in Jude 6 and Revelation 20:10-15.

After the time of judgment the world will be cleansed and the righteous will flourish: 10:18-19 mentions agricultural blessings; 10:21 describes the earth as cleansed from all pollution. God’s speech concludes in Chapter 11 with a brief description of the “storehouse of blessing” which will be opened after the time of judgment, a time when “peace and truth shall become partners again in all the days of the world and in all the generations of the earth.”

Looking back to the inspiration for this story in Genesis, the evil world is destroyed by the Flood, but this does not eradicate sin (Gen 9:20-29). 1 Enoch describes the world after the Watchers are destroyed as a time of peace and truth “for all eternity.” A similar apocalyptic pattern of coming judgment followed by a time of ultimate peace is certainly found in Revelation 20-22.