Revelation 5:8-10

The 24 Elders





John Hoole






In an earlier lesson, I mentioned that in studying Revelation 4 I hold the position that the 24 elders are humans, not angels.  I also mentioned my belief that the 24 elders of Revelation most easily represent the church-age believers in Heaven.


In Chapter 5, there is a passage that has been interpreted in a number of ways.  And because of this confusion, not all theologians take the position the 24 elders are human.  One such passage that needs attention is in Revelation 5.


Revelation 5:8-10 reads this way in the New King James version:


8       Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

9       And they sang a new song, saying: "You are worthy to take the scroll, And to open its seals; For You were slain, And have redeemed us to God by Your blood Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation,

10     And have made us kings and priests to our God; And we shall reign on the earth."


In this passage, the 24 elders, among others, have harps and bowls of incense.  They are also singing a new song - a song of redemption, which is something the angels desire to understand but, in fact, do not experience  (1 Peter 1:10-12).


The Greek word used here for "new" does not mean new from the standpoint of time, but new in quality, fresh, unique, something not existing before.  The words of this "new song" are recorded for us, and we learn some wonderful things from this song to the Lamb.


1.      It tells us why the Lamb is worthy to take the scroll and open it.


He is worthy because He was slain, because He has redeemed us, and because He has made us kings and priest.


2.      His worthiness is based on His death.


3.      His blood was the price of our redemption.


Our redemption is not based on our performance or personal worthiness.  We were bought with a price and therefore belong to God (1 Cor. 6:19-20, 1 Peter 1:18-19).

4.      Our relationship to God as kings and priests has been made possible by His redemption.


This guarantees that we shall reign on the earth.  And our role as kings and priests is to be directed toward God Himself.  We serve Him.


But in the words of verses 9 & 10, there is a recognized textual issue.  Some Bible translations appear to render the words of the 24 elders as referring to someone other than themselves who has been redeemed.


Revelation 5:8-10 NKJV


8       Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

9       And they sang a new song, saying: "You are worthy to take the scroll, And to open its seals; For You were slain, And have redeemed us to God by Your blood Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation,

10     And have made us kings and priests to our God; And we shall reign on the earth."


Now consider the New International Version (NIV) translation.


Revelation 5:9-10 NIV


9       And they sang a new song: "You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.

10     You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth."


Let’s compare what we read in these two translations.  Notice that the word "us" in verse 9 in the New King James, is not found in the NIV following "purchased [redeemed]."  Also, notice the pronouns "them" and "they" in the text of verse 10, instead of "us" and "we."  In the NIV, the entire passage has been changed from the first person to the third person.


The majority of current translations of the Bible render these verses in the third person.  As an example, let’s read one more translation – the New American Standard (NAS).


Revelation 5:9-10 (NAS)


9       And they sang a new song, saying, "Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.

10     "You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth."


Even though most of the modern translations read like the one we have just read in the NAS or NIV, the King James, New King James and Young's Literal Translation render it in the first person.  The versions that render in the first person are based upon the Greek text, Textus Receptus.  This supports the belief held by many that the 24 Elders represent the Church, and they are thanking God for their own salvation.


"If the translation that render in the third person are correct,  it leaves undetermined whether the 24 Elders are men or angels.  From our lesson last week, we did, however, show that the description of the 24 elders fit more closely that they are human.  This can be seen in that they:


1.      Are seated on thrones – angels are never recorded as sitting.

2.      Are wearing white garments – angels are not mentioned having white robes.

3.      Have been given golden crowns (stephanos) – resulting from being victorious.


In addition to these three characteristics, which parallel precisely what is promised to the overcoming in the letters to the seven churches in chapters 2 & 3.  Additionally, the Greek word, presbuteros, translated “Elders” is never used of angels.


In Revelation 5, it records that they pay tribute to the Lamb, as the One who was slain and who purchased men from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation.


John Walvoord says in his commentary on the book of Revelation, "The fact that there is a variation in texts in this passage, however, by no means determines beyond question that the text used by the Authorized Version (KJV) is incorrect."


N. B. Stonehouse, in “Paul Before the Areopagus," pp 95-101, "Although most textual scholars of the twentieth century prefer the revised text," it is "still debatable as to whether the elders are human or angels." It leaves the matter open, according to the above quotes. In other words, it does not constitute specific proof that the 24 elders are angels.


What also needs to be considered is the question, "Is is possible for  a person or groups of persons to speak of themselves in the third person?"  I am aware of at least two occasions in the Bible record where that actually did happen.  The first that comes to mind is found in Exodus 15.  In the previous chapter (14), God had opened a dry path for the Israelites through the Red Sea.


As a result of what the Lord had done, Moses composes a song.  And in Chapter 15, they sing it.  In the third section of this song – verses 11-19 – they sing in the third person.


Exodus 15:13-17 NKJV


13     You in Your mercy have led forth the people whom You have redeemed; You have guided them in Your strength to Your holy habitation.


17     You will bring them in and plant them in the mountain of Your inheritance,


Dwight Pentecost, in Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology, p257 writes:


"In Exodus 15:13, 17, where Moses and the people of Israel are praising God for His judgment, which they manifestly experienced themselves, they sing in the third person.  Scripture gives precedent, therefore, for dealing with that which is subjective as an objective fact.


"...if the word (1st person) were omitted and it could be proved that they were singing about a redemption which they did not experience themselves, it need not prove that the elders are not the church, for as the elders are brought into a knowledge of the judgments of God being poured out on the earth they anticipate the victory of the saints who are on the earth through these experiences and they can praise God for the redemption of these from "every kindred, and tongue, and people and nation."


In addition to what Pentecost mentions concerning Israelites using the third person to represent themselves, this is also true in the writing of the apostle Paul, in 1 Cor. 12, where he speaks in the second person to describe his own journey into the third heaven.


George Eldon Ladd, in his book A Commentary on the 'Revelation of John, says:


This is very important for determining the identity of the elders.  If the King James Version is right, the elders are identified with the redeemed, but if the Revised Standard Version is right, the elders are sharply and clearly distinguished from the redeemed. ...... This is one of several places where the King James Version is clearly incorrect because it was based upon a late inferior Greek text.  It is surprising to find any modern commentary still following the incorrect King James Version.  The elders sing praise to the Lamb not for their own redemption but for the redemption of the church."


But, is the Authorized Version really that "incorrect?"  And is there "hardly any question as to which reading is correct"?


George Ladd, as you might guess, does not believe that the 24 elders represent the completed church in heaven.  If they do represent the completed church in heaven during the tribulation period, it would be a powerful argument in favor of those who believe the rapture of the church will take place before the tribulation period ever begins.


Exactly what are the facts behind the textual variations?  There are 24 Greek manuscript known today that include Revelation 5:9.  Twenty three manuscripts have the Greek "Hemas," which, translated, is "US" in English.  Only one manuscript - Codex Alexandrinus (5th century) - renders it in the third person.  By far, the majority of manuscripts, whether early or late, render it in the first person.


There are a number of very old Latin translations as well, including Jerome's Latin Vulgate, and every one of them render this verse in the first person.


J. A. Seiss, in his Lectures on the Apocalypse," writes:


"Some critics and expositors have rejected "Greek - HEMAS," translated "US," for the reason that it is omitted in the Codex Alexandrinus.  The Codex Sinaiticus, however, which was discovered in 1860, and which is of equal antiquity and authority with the Codex Alexandrinus, contains first person plural (US).  The Codex Basilianus (also called Codex Vaticanus) contains it.  The Latin, Coptic or Memphitic, and Armenian, which are of great value, all contain it.  And so do all other manuscripts and versions.  And to discredit it simply and only because it does not appear in that one single Codex of Alexandria, is most unreasonable and unjust to the weight of authority for its retention."


It is not that the Greek, Hemas (pronounced hey-MAS) is translated differently in the Alexandrinus, but, rather, it is omitted.  But it is included in all of the manuscripts mentioned by Seiss above.


Tregelles, in his Greek New Testament, retains "us," remarking that "in verse 9 hemas should certainly be read.


Dr. David Hocking, in his commentary on the book of Revelations, writes:


"In verse 10, the word "them" and the third person plural rendering "they shall reign," are all variant readings."


Dr. Walvoord, in Every Prophecy in the Bible, p549, writes:


"Scholars continue to differ on this subject.  Manuscript evidence in support of the King James Version in verses 9-10 gives considerable support to the concept that the KJV is actually the best manuscript."