“Catholics, along with other Christians who believe in the intercession of the saints, such as the Eastern Orthodox, often appeal to Revelation 5:8 as biblical support for the intercession of the saints.
And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
Since the Bible reveals that the saints in heaven offer our prayers to God, it’s reasonable to pray to them—that is, to make our requests known to them and ask them to pray to God for us.
Most Protestants don’t accept this interpretation of Revelation 5:8, and they offer several comebacks. Some challenge the assumption that “prayers of saints” refers to petitions that Christians on earth make.
Let’s take a look at a common counter-argument from prominent anti-Catholic apologist Matt Slick.
“The ‘saints’ aren’t Christians on earth.”
Protestant apologist Matt Slick challenges the assumption that the term “saints” refers to Christians on earth. He argues that the referent for the term is ambiguous and that “their identity can’t be precisely demonstrated.” Slick favors the view that the term “saints” refers to either the four living creatures or the twenty-four elders who surround the throne of the Lamb.
His reasoning is that in verse 9, John says, “They sang a new song.” Slick asks, “Who is the ‘they’?” Slick answers, “It would have to be either the four living creatures and/or the twenty-four elders since ‘prayers of the saints’ don’t sing; ‘creatures’ and ‘elders’ do the singing.”
Answering the Comeback
It’s true that the “they” in verse 9, those who sing the new song, are the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders. John lists the activity of singing along with other activities these heavenly inhabitants perform: falling down before the Lamb, holding harps, and offering the golden bowls full of incense. But his phrase “prayers of the saints” is separated from, or not included in, what the four living creatures and twenty-four elders are doing. John identifies “prayers of the saints” with the incense that the elders offer. The offering that the elders make is distinct from the “prayers of the saints,” so the twenty-four elders are not the “saints” John speaks of.
We can complement the above negative approach with a more positive one and give reasons to think “saints” refers to Christians on earth. Consider that in the New Testament, the term saint overwhelmingly refers to human beings on earth, and there are no unambiguous instances where the New Testament uses the term saint to refer to a human being in heaven. This gives us reason at least to be inclined to think “saints” in Revelation 5:8 refers to Christians on earth.
Another reason is that the Bible directly associates the prayers of the faithful on earth with incense. For example, the Psalmist writes, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice!” (Ps. 141:2). If the Bible describes prayers being offered in heaven under the form of incense (Rev. 5:8), and the Bible explicitly associates prayers from on earth arising to God with incense (Ps. 141:2), then we have biblical grounds for identifying the prayers of Christians on earth with the “prayers of the saints.”
One more point: This phrase, “prayers of the saints,” would have been familiar to any Jew who read the book of Tobit. It comes from Tobit 12:15, where the angel Raphael says, “I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels who present the prayers of the saints and enter into the presence of the glory of the Holy One.”
The context reveals that the “prayers of the saints” included the prayer of Tobit and his daughter-in-law. In verse 12, Raphael tells Tobit, “When you and your daughter-in-law Sarah prayed, I brought a reminder of your prayer before the Holy One.” And so here we have explicit scriptural evidence that the phrase “prayers of the saints” includes prayers of God’s righteous on earth.
Now, you’re probably thinking, “But Protestants don’t accept Tobit as inspired.” That’s true. But Tobit still is a historical source for Jewish belief, and thus, it is acceptable for trying to discern what a Jew, like John, would have had in mind when he wrote “prayers of the saints.”
Our appeal to Tobit becomes even more reasonable when we read in Revelation 8:3-4 that the “prayers of the saints,” which are mingled with incense, also rise to God from the hand of an angel.