And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Though the bells of Christmas have long since ceased their ringing for the year, perhaps you can relate to this stanza written by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the wake of great personal loss. Though he undoubtedly had his own suffering in mind, Longfellow’s words reflect the longing that tugs at all of us as we drive down the road and see the flag flying at half-mast, commemorating yet another national tragedy; or the ache that settles in our heart as we see the headline of another mass shooting or another international crisis or another natural disaster. We bow our heads in despair and begin to lament:
“How long, O Lord?”
“Come, Lord Jesus! Come, and set everything right again!”
We yearn for the day that the King of kings will plant His feet on terra firma and vanquish His enemies and establish His kingdom and rule without end.
Sometimes it feels like our prayers for the coming of that day don’t make it past the ceiling fan.
But the throne room of heaven gives us hope.
The Throne Room
While I have a nearly photographic memory, I am utterly unable to envision something that I’ve never seen. Remodeling your kitchen? Go ahead and tell me what it’s going to look like, and though your descriptive skills may be precise and accurate, the image I create in my mind will bear little to no resemblance to the actual finished product. Upcycling? Forget it. All I see is junk. I have no vision for what could be or what I have never seen. This shortcoming of mine makes passages like Revelation 4 and 5 difficult.
In these chapters John describes the throne room of heaven: a throne with a rainbow around it that’s like an emerald. One sitting on the throne like a jasper and carnelian stone (4:3). Around the throne sit twenty-four elders wearing golden crowns and white clothes (4:4). Then there are four six-winged creatures: one like a lion, another like a calf, another with a human face, and the fourth like an eagle. The description goes on, and while I wish I could envision it more distinctly, I am still in awe of its splendor and total “otherness” from anything we know on earth. John saw it, and still seems to have struggled to describe it. (Something else I can relate to.)
In chapter 5, the focus shifts from the setting to the problem. A book needs to be opened—the book that will usher in the eternal Kingdom. But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth is able to break its seals (5:4). As John laments that no one is found worthy, his attention turns to an unlikely source of hope: a Lamb that has been slain, yet has overcome. He has triumphed in order to open this very book. He comes forward and takes the scroll in hand (5:5-7).
Immediately the four creatures and the twenty-four elders fall at His feet in worship. And here John mentions a very specific, and very hope-filled detail about these worshipers:
When he took the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and golden bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the saints. (Rev 5:8)
Harps and bowls? Who cares? What’s the big deal?
Harps: The Sure Word of God
Perhaps from this verse comes the misnomer about everyone in heaven inhabiting a cloud and playing a harp all day every day for all of eternity. But these elders aren’t holding a harp so that they can strum some heavenly ditty. These harps assure us that every promise of God will come to fruition.
Though our minds may first think of worship in connection with harps, this instrument also has strong ties to prophecy.1
“After that you will come to Gibeah of God where there are Philistine garrisons. When you arrive at the city, you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place prophesying. They will be preceded by harps, tambourines, flutes, and lyres. (1Sa 10:5)
But now bring me a harpist.” While the harpist was playing, the hand of the LORD came on [the prophet] Elisha (2Ki 3:15 NIV)
David and the officers of the army also set apart some of the sons of Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun, who were to prophesy accompanied by lyres, harps, and cymbals. This is the list of the men who performed their service: (1Ch 25:1)
This may seem like a loose connection, but when paired with the other item in the elders’ hands, the tie to prophecy and God’s Word tightens. These harps represent the host of prophecies promising the Kingdom, like this one that we hear often at Christmas:
For a child will be born for us, a son will be given to us, and the government will be on his shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. The dominion will be vast, and its prosperity will never end. He will reign on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish and sustain it with justice and righteousness from now on and forever. The zeal of the LORD of Armies will accomplish this. (Isa 9:6-7)
The picture of these elders holding up the harps—the very words of the Lord—reminds us that these promises are not forgotten. Every word that Yahweh has prophesied will come to pass. He will not neglect a single one.
While we cry out, we can do so in faith knowing that His Word is sure.
Bowls: The Attentive Ears of God
John figures the elders holding not only a harp, but also a golden bowl of incense. Incense in the Old Testament is closely associated with intercession2. The priests were to keep incense burning constantly in front of the mercy seat—where God would meet with the high priest who interceded on behalf of the people (Exod. 30:5-9).
In the new covenant, we have a Great High Priest who always lives to make intercession for us (Heb. 7:25), but in heaven’s throne room we once again find incense. This time we need not wonder about the metaphor’s meaning. John tells us that this incense represents the prayers of the saints—prayers of God’s people begging that His kingdom come.
These bowls assure us that not a single prayer is wasted. Every last one is kept in the presence of God. Just as He keeps our tears in a bottle (Ps. 56:8), He keeps our prayers in a bowl. They don’t just bounce back at us. They reach the attentive ears of the Father Himself.
Our prayers please the Father. In the tabernacle, only sanctioned incense was to be offered. Any strange fire was an abomination to God (check out what happens when someone tried it in Lev. 10:1). Our prayers aren’t odious to Him. They’re exactly what He wants from His children.
He doesn’t prescribe this worship for no reason. The elders bring these prayers before the Lamb because this Lamb is about to answer them all. They have been kept, perhaps for hundreds of earthly years; yet God has not forgotten a single one. They have been preserved, waiting for the fullness of times when they will be answered.
When you wonder at the hate that seems to mock God without repercussion. When you can’t help but bow your head and cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus!” When your heart longs for His Kingdom, remember the harp—the sure Word of God. He is coming. And remember the bowls—the prayers of the saints. He does hear. He does care.
Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!
1 MacArthur, John. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Revelation 1-11 (Moody Publishers: Chicago), 1999, pg 170.
2 MacArthur, pg. 171.