Revelation 14 and the Harps

by Doy Moyer

I’m dealing here with a very narrow aspect of the question of instruments in worship. In support of the use of instruments in worship, we often hear Revelation 14 brought up. Because this passage is used positively, and because it involves the use of instruments, then this is supposed to prove that God approves of instruments in our corporate worship toward Him. Here is what it says:

And I heard a voice from heaven, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder, and the voice which I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps. And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders; and no one could learn the song except the one hundred and forty- four thousand who had been purchased from the earth” (Revelation 14:2-3).

This is, unfortunately, a case in which what proves too much proves nothing. From the big picture, Revelation uses symbols and figures throughout. To take a symbol and try to press a literalism out of it is to abuse the context. Yet this particular argument overlooks, not just symbolism, but what the passage actually says.

  1. What John heard was a voice. He did not actually hear harps any more than he heard many waters or loud thunder. There are three similes used here, tipped off by the word “like.” John heard a voice, and it was simultaneously like:
    1. the sound of many waters,
    2. the sound of loud thunder, and
    3. the sound of harpists playing on their harps.
    So if one is going to argue that God wants instruments in worship based upon this, consistency demands that we also bring in many waters and loud thunder at the same time. Of course, all of that misses the point. John heard a voice, and that’s it. It was like…
  2. They sang a new song. They didn’t actually play harps, but they did sing (and the sound was like…). Those who use this to argue for instruments in worship do so only by ignoring the simile, stressing the harps, and forgetting that the real action here was that of singing.
  3. In this context, only the 144,000 could learn the song. If people want to press the harps so literally, then why do they not also see the 144,000 literally? Why would they take an obvious simile, make it literal, and then make the number figurative?

If anything, this passage supports the premise that singing is what God wants. If that singing sounds like the voice of many waters, like the sound of loud thunder, and like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, then well and good. But this proves nothing about the nature of instruments in worship. If one is going to find support for instrumental music in corporate worship, it will have to come from another passage. It’s just not in Revelation 14.