Harps and Bowls

“He went and took the scroll from the right hand of Him who sat on the throne. And when He had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people.”
Revelation‬ ‭5:7-8‬ ‭NIVUK

There is a change in John’s vision of Heaven. Jesus had taken the scroll, and John now sees that the twenty four elders are each holding a harp and a golden bowl full of incense. But what are the harps for, and why are they relevant? And what about these golden bowls?

To the Jewish nation, a harp was a national instrument. Much like the bagpipes have become the national instrument in Scotland. And harps cropped up from time to time in the Old Testament. I’m reminded that David, Israel’s greatest king, was a skilful harp player and he often was called to play it for Saul, his predecessor, to help with his mental health issues. The Jewish harp must have been a portable instrument, because each of the elders was holding one. Not like a modern harp in a symphony orchestra, that needs some strong men and a packing case to transport it. It’s strange that the popular image of angels with wings sitting on clouds clutching harps is out there, without any explanation. But a harp would be used in worship, bringing a sense of joy and peace to the listeners. It is interesting that the Greek word for harp is kithara, which means a harp or lyre. And from kithara we get the word English word guitar. So to those of us who are uncomfortable hearing or seeing guitar playing in our places of worship, we might have to get used to it, as there will probably be guitars in Heaven. Not pipe organs, though I could be wrong!

We move on to the golden bowls of incense. But what was the incense for? Incense was burned by the Jews as part of their worship to God. And we read in Psalms 141:2, “Accept my prayer as incense offered to you, and my upraised hands as an evening offering“. That Scripture was repeated in our verse today from Revelation, which points out that the incense in the golden bowls is the prayers of God’s people. And the encouraging thing is the the bowls were full, not half full, or nearly empty. There were many prayers in those bowls. What sort of prayers, I wonder? Just those applicable to the scene unfolding before John in his vision? Or every prayer ever uttered? There are many different prayers spoken and recorded in the Bible. There are prayers of anguish such as Hannah’s in 1 Samuel 1:10, “Hannah was in deep anguish, crying bitterly as she prayed to the Lord”. Of course, we have what we call the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6. And Jonah’s prayer from the stomach of a large fish. David’s prayer for forgiveness after his affair with Bathsheba in Psalm 51. There were some great prayers in those bowls. Prayers that perhaps make our own efforts sound a bit feeble. But our wonderful Heavenly Father hears them all. And we’re told in today’s verse that they are all stored up in the golden bowls.

What do we pilgrims make of this? Harps and bowls indeed, perhaps we say, in a way that sees little, if any, relevance to our daily walk. To me though, the presence of harps and golden bowls in Heaven is significant. It confirms the importance of our dialogue with God and our worship of Him. We must never give up praying to God. Through our faith, we know that He hears and answers every prayer that we sincerely say to Him. 

As an aside, to those doubters who say God never answers their prayers, there are three answers that He provides – “Yes”, “No” and “Not Yet”. His answers to our prayers are for our highest good, not in response to our wants. Sometimes we expect God to answer our prayers in a particular way or with a particular response. But His answers will always be righteous. And sometimes we need to be careful about what we pray for – we might get a response we least expect!

Regarding the harps, I hear many say that they can’t play an instrument at all, let alone a harp, so how will that work? Playing a musical instrument is not the only way to worship God here on earth. We can do it with the instrument God provided for us at birth, our voices. Even those who are tone deaf can worship with their songs. Those humans around them might complain but our loving Father in Heaven thinks they are the most tuneful and marvellous expression of worship to Him. We can even worship God with our thoughts and actions. True worship is offered in “spirit and truth”. We read in John 4:23, “But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way.” The presence of harps is optional. Worship isn’t. And I have a suspicion that when we reach Heaven we will find we have a new-found ability to do all sorts of things we can’t today, even playing a harp.

Dear Father God. Once again we are reminded of the importance of our prayers and our worship. How wonderful You are. You hear us when we call out to You and respond with Your love and grace. We are so grateful. Amen.

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