Rev. 5:8 – When He took the scroll, the four living creatures and the 24 elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
Each one had a harp …
It’s worth noting that only harps and trumpets are mentioned as instruments of worship in Revelation. Not that other musical instruments necessarily are exempted from the throne room of God, but the focus is on these two. We know from previous study that trumpets in scripture often herald the arrival of a king, rally armies for battle, warn of pending judgment and play a key role in some Jewish feasts. So it’s no surprise that trumpets in Revelation serve many of these same purposes. But what about the harps?
According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary, the harp is the national instrument of the Hebrews. It was invented, we’re told in Gen. 4:21, by Jubal. Some think the Hebrew word for harp, kinnor, denotes the whole class of stringed instruments. Harps are used to accompany songs of cheerfulness and praise (Gen. 31:27; 2 Chron. 20:28; Ps. 33:2; 137:2). David plays the harp to soothe King Saul’s troubled soul (1 Sam. 16:23). And the 144,000, standing with the Lamb on Mt. Zion, are praising their Redeemer with a sound “like harpists playing on their harps” (Rev. 14:2). No doubt this stringed instrument is associated with peace, joy, and praise – fitting reasons for the elders and living creatures to employ them in worship.
… and gold bowls
The four living creatures and 24 elders also hold “gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (v. 8). Evidently, incense symbolizes the prayers of the saints but is distinct from the prayers themselves (see Rev. 8:3-5). God does not need our prayers to be magically converted into fragrant smoke in order to receive or answer them; Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit “intercedes for us” before the throne (Rom. 8:26). Perhaps the gold bowls best represent the fact that our prayers are kept safe, delivered personally to Him, and are a fragrant aroma in His nostrils. Just as God inhabits the praises of His people, He welcomes their petitions, which waft before the throne like aromatic incense. In the context of Revelation, the pleas of the persecuted saints are heard and will be answered. David says it beautifully in Ps. 141:2: “May my prayer be set before You as incense, the raising of my hands as the evening offering.”
One further note: While the gold bowls represent the prayers of the saints, “[t]his gives not the least sanction to Rome’s dogma of our praying to saints. Though they be employed by God in some way unknown to us to present our prayers (nothing is said of their interceding for us), yet we are told to pray only to Him (Rev 19:10). Their own employment is praise (whence they all have harps): ours is prayer” (R. Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, D. Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Re 5:8).
Next: And they sang a new song (Rev. 5:7-8)