Revelation 5:8 and the Harps and Censors

(8)  And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints.

    Worship begins as the lamb takes the book out of the Father’s hand. There will be others joining the worship soon, but here we have only the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders. They all fall before the lamb, each having a harp in hand. There is significance to the harp, with respect to the symbolic nature of the text. I have heard some mistakenly understand this to be physical harps in heaven, but recall from chapter four that this scene in the Holy of Holies transcends heaven and pictures saints on earth too (remember that these twenty-four elders are New Testament priests whether in heaven or on earth, see comments of 4:4). The harps should mean something to us, certainly when paired with the golden censors. This is an image of service in the temple of God. In the temple there were twenty-four orders of priests (1 Chronicles 24) and their were 24 orders of singers (1 Chronicles 25). Harps were employed in the service of the temple, and they are paired with the speaking of prophecy: “Moreover David and the captains of the host separated to the service of the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who should prophesy with harps, with psalteries, and with cymbals” (1 Chronicles 25:1). In the temple, the twenty-four orders of singers would “prophecy with harps.” What a perfect symbol for the book of Revelation! Each time that harps are referenced (5:8, 14:2, 15:2) the singers are about to sing “prophesy with harps.” So, the harp is a figure for prophecy through praise. Because the harp is not to be taken literally, these references in Revelation do not authorize the New Testament church in the use of instrumental music in our worship. David used them in worship and so did the twenty-four orders of singers in the temple, but harps were never used because man desired to use them, but because God commanded them (2 Chronicles 29:25). David was only respecting the authority of God. In the New Testament church, we are under a new covenant, the physical temple has become a spiritual one; the physical objects in the temple (like the golden censors) have become spiritual realities (golden censors = prayers of the saints); and, as logic follows, harps and other instruments have become the instrument of the heart (Ephesians 5:19). The Ephesian church was instructed sing and to make melody (in the Greek the word “melody” means to pluck the strings) of the heart. No longer would God allow such man-made instruments in his spiritual house, but only a God-made instrument as he has called us to pluck the strings of our hearts when we sing to him. This is the example set forth in the New Testament (Matthew 26:30, Mark 14:26, Acts 16:25, Romans 15:9, 1 Corinthians 14:15, Colossians 3:16, Hebrews 2:12, Hebrews 13:15, James 5:13). Musical instruments have made their way into churches only in recent years, but have become so fused to modern worship, and everyman admits that they are a joy to hear, but not for God. There is no pleasing God in the things which he has not commanded us to do (Saul didn’t realize that: 1 Samuel 15). God authorized physical instruments under the Old Covenant, which are used as figures in Revelation, but he did not authorize the church to do so. May we neglect the selfishness of our itching ears and go back to revering the word of God.

    “And golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints.”
The censors used by the priests in the Old Covenant were used for the incense and fire for the altar of incense. This altar was the closest piece of furniture in proximity to the Holiest Place and the seat of God. The smoke of the altar would rise up beyond the veil of division and enter the throne room of God for a sweet smelling aroma. The fact that the symbol of the golden censors are a representation of the prayers of the saints is well established here. What a wonderful thought to consider how valuable, sweet and pleasing a Christian’s prayer is to God. And consider also how close we are to God and his presence.

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