(3) 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, (4) and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.
This scene reminds us of the location of the vision. This is happening in the temple of God, the house of God. No, not the physical one in Jerusalem, but the true spiritual temple today, the church (2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:21-22). The symbol of the incense, which was used in the daily service of the physical temple, is described as the prayers of the saints. This is a consistent symbol of prayer, as seem also in Revelation 5:8.
(5) 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.
This is a figure of God’s response to the prayers of his children. But what were the saints praying? I suppose they were praying the same thing that anyone else plunged into a great tribulation would be praying for; deliverance and justice. This is what the saints who had lost their lives were saying: “And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (6:10), and I assume that this “How long” plea is also the content of the prayers from the earth.
“And threw it on the earth.” This is symbolic of God’s answer to prayer. The prayers went up and God’s response is sent back to the earth coupled with fire from the altar. When God’s response reaches the earth, there were “peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.” Here is that textbook judgment language again, used throughout the Old and New Testaments (see comments on 6:12-17) God’s response to the prayers of the saints in that of judgment against the ungodly.