8 And when he took the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp and a golden bowl filled with incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9 And they sing a new song, saying, “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain and you purchased for God by your blood [people] from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, 10 and you made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall rule on the earth.”
We didn’t quite finish with verse 8 last time, so we briefly recapped chapter 5 so far, then started from there. Jesus, the Lamb, takes the scroll, an act that causes those standing around the throne–the four creatures and the twenty-four elders–to bow down before him. The Lamb hasn’t even opened the scroll yet, but the mere taking of it demonstrates to all those standing there that he is, indeed worthy. When no-one else in heaven or earth was worthy to take the scroll and open the seals, an act that could only be done by one able to initiate the judgments and promises contained therein, the Lamb, slain and apparently conquered, appears. While his appearance is as one defeated, his death was, in fact, an act of conquering. In his death the Lamb sealed his victory over sin and death, and, like the Passover Lamb, his shed blood brings life to his people.
The English may be a little ambiguous as to who’s holding the harps and the bowls (the creatures and the elders, or just the elders?), but the Greek is pretty clear: just the elders. (For the Greek Geeks: ta tessara zôa, “the four living creatures”, is neuter; hai eikosi tessares presbuteroi, “the twenty-four elders”, is masculine; echontes hekastos, “having each one”, is masculine. Therefore, “having each one” most likely refers to the elders. It is possible that the masculine is used to represent both, but I think this verb/noun agreement, along with the established distinction between the creatures and the elders which I’ll discuss in a moment, points to the elders alone holding the harps and bowls.) Back in chapter 4, the creatures and the elders are both before the throne declaring the praises of the one sitting on the throne. The creatures proclaim, “Holy, holy, holy,” but the elders go one step further, prostrating themselves and casting their crowns before the throne. As I noted when we talked about this passage, we see here a distinction between the way creation acknowledges who the Lord is and gives Him praise, and the way the elders, God’s people, worship and adore their Lord and Savior. The parallel with Philippians 2:10-11, where the ancient Christian hymn says that one day, “every knee will bow in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father,” is, I think clear. On that day, even God’s enemies will recognize His authority and His worthiness to receive praise. That doesn’t mean they’re saved. In fact, I suggest that part of their torment will be the knowledge of this truth.
Once again I think we see here a distinction between the creatures and the elders, creation and God’s people. Creation bows down before the Lamb, but God’s people go further–they offer up incense, the prayers of the saints, and take up their harps to sing his praises. For creation, the act of prostration is giving the Lamb what he is due. For the people of God, it’s an act of heartfelt worship and gratitude, of sincere love. And I think this is reflected in the song they sing.
Before we got to the song, we talked about the harps and the bowls. The elders’ song was not unaccompanied, and in the use of the harp (Greek, kithara) we see another reflection of Temple worship–and possibly church worship too (although it’s more proper to say that Temple and church worship is, or ought to be, a reflection of heavenly worship). The use of stringed instruments in biblical worship has a long history within Judaism, and we see references to such instruments littered throughout the Old Testament (Psalm 150, for example). The kind of instrument referred to here is also intriguing. In Greek tradition, the kithara was an elaborate form of lyre with equal-length strings (as opposed to what we know as a harp), that were played by plucking with a pick. The body of the kithara was usually made from a tortoise shell or a wooden box with an ox hide stretched over the hole. If the design seems a little familiar, consider the history of the word. The Greek kithara became the cithara in Latin, then the qitara in Arabic, which became the Spanish guitarra, then the French guitare, and finally the English word guitar.
Golden bowls also have a long history in Temple worship going back to the Tabernacle where they were filled and used for grain offerings. Leviticus 2:1-3 is especially helpful here because it talks about the grain offering being combined with frankincense and a handful of this used as a food offering “with a pleasing aroma to the Lord.” The rest was for Aaron and his sons. Incense was, therefore, symbolic of an offering that pleases the Lord. Hence the Psalmist would ask that his prayers “be counted as incense before You” (Psalm 141:2).
So the harps and golden bowls of incense continue the theme of worship in terms that would be familiar to John, since it reflects Temple worship, and possibly church worship, too. These bowls containing incense “are the prayers of the saints”–that is, the bowls of incense represent the prayers of God’s people. Our prayers are a pleasing aroma to the Lord. Notice that the bowls of prayers are being offered by the twenty-four elders. That is, the representatives of God’s people are offering the prayers of God’s people to the Lamb. There are those, particularly Roman Catholic apologists, that will use this verse to argue in favor of offering prayers to dead saints. Clearly these prayers are not being offered to the saints, but by the saints. And it is appropriate that these prayers be offered to the Lamb, since praying is an act of worship, and no saint is worthy of worship.
Some commentators suggest that the prayers offered here are specifically the prayers of the suffering, those martyred, that cry out “how long?” in Revelation 6:9-11. But I don’t think that’s a necessary interpretation. Prayer was also a significant part of Temple worship and we know it has been a part of church worship since the beginning (Acts 2:42, for example). So offering prayers is consistent with the theme of worship, and it would be (and is) an encouragement to the suffering church to know that their prayers are presented before the Lord as a pleasing aroma, finding His favor.
Question: How can the elders play the kithara while holding the bowls? Answer: it’s a vision! We shouldn’t get hung up on the practicalities and lose sight of the symbolism.
Verse 9 says that the elders sing a “new song.” What’s the significance of this? Why a new song? What’s wrong with the old songs? The Psalms are littered with references to singing a “new song” and we looked at some of them: Psalm 33:1-3, 40:1-3, 96:1-2, 98:1, 144:9-10, and 149:1-2. We noticed common themes in these psalms: praise, thanksgiving, and victory. In other words, they speak of who God is and what He has accomplished for His people in terms of overcoming their enemies. It seems only appropriate, then, that such a “new song” would be sung to the Lamb. He, too, is worthy of praise for who he is, and also for what he has done, since his death has accomplished life and victory for his people. We noted that while the Old Testament “new song” was addressed to God, the “new song” in Revelation is addressed to the Lamb, Jesus. Clearly, the elders see no distinction.
We’ve already discussed the fact that the one who opens the scroll and its seals is not merely able to do it, but must be worthy to do it. And the elders’ song proclaims the fact that the Lamb is worthy. Why is the Lamb worthy? It’s interesting that they even address this question, as if it needs to be asked. Of course the Lamb is worthy, because he is the Lamb, Jesus, God incarnate, our judge and redeemer. The fact the elders feel the need to spell out why the Lamb is worthy to take the scroll means that this is important information to remember. As we anticipate the rest of Revelation, we need to keep in mind who the Lamb is, and what he has done.
The elders sing that the Lamb was slain, or slaughtered (Greek: esphagês), reminding us again of the Passover Lamb, slain for the redemption of Israel. And that slaying purchased a people. Some see these as two separate things (i.e., the Lamb was slain, and also he purchased a people), but that’s not necessary. Indeed, the purchasing, or redeeming of a people came about as a result of his being slain, just as Israel was redeemed by the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb. The language of “purchasing” or “redemption” is appropriate, since Christ paid a sin-debt that we owed God. As rebel sinners, the penalty for our sin is death. But Christ’s death settles that debt by satisfying His wrath against us. God can now treat us as debt-free thanks to the blood of the Lamb shed on our behalf.
We also noted that Christ’s death was not for all people, but for a particular people. As theologian G. K. Beale puts it, Christ’s death was “not for all people without exception, but for all people without distinction.” Christ didn’t die for every individual in the world, but he died for people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. This speaks against the synagogue of Satan mentioned a couple of times in chapters 2 and 3, those who look down on Christians because they have abandoned their Jewish roots. As Paul reiterates time and again in Romans, the Jew-Gentile distinction has vanished in Christ. God’s people is not a particular tribe, race, or nation, but they are drawn from all tribes and nations throughout the world.
Furthermore, Christ has made these people “a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall rule on the earth.” We are reminded here of Christ’s words to the Laodicean church, where he promised them that those who overcome would sit with him on his throne. It also reflects Daniel 7:21-22, and 7:27 ff. Another interesting parallel is in Exodus 19:5-6, words spoken to Moses just after he led Israel out of Egypt. The promise made to the Israelites finds its fulfillment in the church according to the elders in Revelation 5. 1 Peter 2:4-5 also uses similar language, talking of God’s people as a “holy priesthood.”
Next time: The angel chorus!