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The Seven Trumpets - Part I

The Trumpet Judgments (1)

Revelation 8:6-9:21; 11:14-19

One of the fascinating things in Revelation is the way it portrays the experience of the people of God in terms very similar to what transpired for Israel in Egypt and the ten plagues of judgment. For example,

1) prominence of the Red Sea(Ex. 14:1-31) // 1) prominence of glassy sea (Rev. 15:2)

2) song of deliverance (Ex. 15:1-18) // 2) song of deliverance (Rev. 15:2-4)

3) God’s enemy: Pharaoh // 3) God’s enemy: the Beast

4) court magicians of Egypt // 4) the False Prophet

5) persecution of Israel // 5) persecution of the Church

6) protected from plagues (Ex. 8:22; 9:4,26; 10:23; 11:7) // 6) protected from wrath (Rev. 7:1-8; 9:4)

7) hardened/unrepentant (Ex. 8:15; 9:12-16) // 7) hardened/unrepentant (Rev. 16:9,11,21)

8) the name of God (Ex. 3:14) // 8) the name of God (Rev. 1:4-6)

9) Israel redeemed from bondage by blood // 9) Church redeemed from sin by blood

10) Israel made a kingdom of priests (Ex. 19:6) // 10) Church made a kingdom of priests (Rev. 1:6)

11) 7th plague (Ex. 9:22-25) // 11) 1st trumpet

12) 6th plague (Ex. 9:8-12) // 12) 1st bowl

13) 1st plague (Ex. 7:20-25) // 13) 2nd/3rd trumpet & 2nd/3rd bowl

14) 9th plague (Ex. 10:21-23) // 14) 4th trumpet & 4th bowl

15) 8th & 9th plagues (Ex. 10:1-20) // 15) 5th trumpet & 5th bowl

Several introductory observations are in order.

(1) God’s intent in sending the plagues against Egypt was to harden Pharaoh’s heart and thereby provide a platform on which His glory and power might be manifest (see Exod. 7:5,17; 8:6,18; 9:16,29; 10:1-2). There is no indication in Exodus that God designed the plagues to soften Pharaoh’s heart and bring him to saving repentance. A question that perhaps has no answer is whether the purpose of the trumpets (and bowls) is to shock and shake people into repentance or merely to aggravate and intensify their hardness of heart and thus reveal the justice of their judgment. According to Rev. 9:20-21 and 16:6,11, the people on whom the trumpets and bowls fall do not repent of their evil deeds. In fact, their response is one of blasphemy, not faith.

(2) We should also take note of the place of trumpets in the OT. Trumpets would often sound an alarm that “holy battle was to be engaged against Israel’s enemy or against Israel as God’s enemy” (Beale, 468; cf. Judges 7:16-22; Jer. 4:5-21; 42:14; 51:27; Ezek. 7:14; Hos. 8:1; Joel 2:1; Zeph. 1:16). The use of trumpets in the defeat of Jericho is especially noteworthy. In both Joshua 6 and Rev. 8-9 the first six trumpets are preliminary to final judgment. In both instances, “silence” precedes the trumpet judgment

(3) We should also remember that the trumpet judgments proceed from God and the Lamb. The seven angels who blow the trumpets come from the presence of God (8:2) and are said to be “given” their trumpets by God (note the “divine passive” in 8:2, common throughout the NT and Revelation). How ought this to affect our interpretation of and response to the many so-called “natural disasters” that so frequently occur?

(4) It may well be that the trumpets, no less than the sixth and seventh seals, are God’s answer to the prayers of his people in 6:9-11 for vindication against their persecutors. If so, this would strongly militate against the futurist interpretation which relegates the trumpets to the final few years of history just before the second coming. In other words, it seems unlikely that God would act in response to that prayer only at the end of history while passing by and leaving unscathed more than sixty generations of the wicked.

(5) Finally, let us remember that the trumpets, as also the seals and bowls (at least the first five of each and possibly the sixth), are not datable events but describe the commonplaces of history. These are not judgments or plagues reserved for the final few years of this age but rather “aspects of the world situation which may be true at any time” (Wilcock, 92).

The First Trumpet (8:6-7)

According to Exod. 9:22-25 and the seventh plague, God rained down “hail and fire”, somehow strangely mixed together, upon the land of Egypt: specifically, on land, trees, and plants. Here in Rev. 8:7 the “trees” and “grass” are affected. The element of “blood” in this trumpet may derive from the first Egyptian plague in which the Nile turned to blood.

Are the “hail and fire mixed with blood” literal (8:7)? Certainly the hail and fire in the Exodus plague were literal, indicating that such a phenomenon here would not be inconsistent with divine activity. Some believe that John is describing an electrical phenomenon associated with severe thunderstorm activity. The reference to “blood” may simply point to the color of the hail under such conditions, or more likely to its effect on earth among men.

Yet, elsewhere in Revelation “fire” is often symbolic (see 1:14; 2:18; 9:17; 10:1; 11:5; 19:12). Also, this first trumpet appears to find its OT background in Ezek. 5:2,12 where we read that judgment is determined by the use of “scales for weighing” (5:2), a clear reference to famine (see Ezek. 4:9-17). Israel is then “divided into thirds and judged accordingly. One third is to be burned with fire, one third to be struck by the sword, and the remaining third to be scattered in captivity” (Beale, 474). In 5:12 the judgment by “fire” is more specifically defined as death by “plague and famine” (the emphasis on “famine” found again in 5:16-17). This leads some to conclude that the fire in Rev. 8:7 that burns a third of the earth, trees, and grass is a metaphorical portrayal of judgment by famine. This seems to be what is meant in Rev. 18:8.

Whatever the case, the reference to only 1/3 being destroyed indicates that the judgment here is partial, with the climactic, final judgment yet to come.

Some find a problem in the fact that, according to 9:4, neither grass nor any green thing is to be hurt. They wonder how this can be if, according to 8:7, “all the green grass” has already been “burned up.” The answer might be, says Morris, “that this verse [8:7] does not appear to mean that all the grass on earth is destroyed. Throughout this section John is concerned with plagues which affect one-third. His meaning surely is that all the grass in the one-third of the earth mentioned was burnt up. But in the second instance it is a great mistake to read this fiery, passionate and poetic spirit as though he were composing a pedantic piece of scientific prose. He is painting vivid pictures and it does not matter in the slightest that the details do not harmonize readily” (120).

Beale also suggests that “the fifth trumpet [9:4] may be temporally parallel with the first [8:7]” (496), thereby eliminating the problem. Once again, we must ask whether the “burning up” of 1/3 of the earth and trees and all the grass is to be taken literally. If not, if in fact this is apocalyptic symbolism designed to portray the devastation of divine judgments against an unbelieving world, an apparent contradiction such as that between 8:7 and 9:4 would cease to exist.

The Second Trumpet (8:8-9)

Something “like” a great mountain burning with fire is now said to be thrown into the sea. Is this literal? It may be that we have here another example of prophetic hyperbole, descriptive of seasons in history of devastation, personal loss, and instability. Let us remember the words of the psalmist: “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, and though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains quake at its swelling pride” (46:2-3).

On the other hand, the “mountain” could be metaphorical for “kingdom”, as if often the case in Revelation (see 14:1; 17:9; cf. 21:10). Perhaps this trumpet is a reference to the judgment of an evil kingdom.

In Rev. 18:21 we read, “And a strong angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea.” This is then interpreted, “Thus will Babylon, the great city, be thrown down with violence.” In Jer. 51:63-64, Babylon’s judgment is compared to the sinking of a stone in water. Jeremiah 51:25 equates Babylon with a mountain and prophesies her judgment in similar language: “’Behold, I am against you, O destroying mountain, who destroy the whole earth,’ declares the Lord, ‘And I will stretch out My hand against you, and roll you down from the crags and I will make you a burnt out mountain.”

Could it be that, since the stone and the mountain are metaphors for the judgment of Babylon in Jeremiah 51, they function in the same way in Revelation 8 and 18? Beale thinks so and concludes:

“Therefore, the picture in Rev. 8:8 did not originate from an attempt to depict a literal volcanic eruption or some other natural phenomenon occurring in the first century or predicted for later. A literal reading is rendered unlikely here and throughout the visionary section by the simple observation that the catastrophes are inspired primarily by OT literary models that contain figures of speech. This does not mean that such models could not have been used to describe literal disasters, but the burden of proof is on those who hold to a literal understanding in addition to a figurative perspective” (476).

The description of a third of the sea becoming blood is a direct allusion to Exod. 7:20 and the plague against the Nile river. In both cases, the fish obviously die.

A few commentators have suggested that the language of v. 8 (the burning mountain being cast into the sea) sounds like volcanic activity “such as the tragic eruption of Vesuvius on 24 August a.d. 79, which radically affected the Bay of Naples from Capri to Cumae. Debris from Vesuvius fell into the bay making it impossible to land boats . . . though no streams of lava were emitted from the crater” (Aune, 2:519).

The Third Trumpet (8:10-11)

The presence of famine appears to be included in the third trumpet, as it was in the first two. Here we read of the waters becoming bitter and ultimately fatal. Psalm 78:44 also describes this plague: “And [God] turned their rivers to blood, and their streams they could not drink.”

The waters are polluted by a “great star . . . burning like a torch” (8:10). It would be difficult to interpret this literally, for how could one star fall on one third of all the rivers and springs of the earth? The star may be symbolic of an angel, as in 1:19, which thus serves as an instrument of divine judgment.

Angels are often associated with particular nations, functioning as something of a heavenly representative (even guardian) of the latter. This has led some to conclude that the “star/angel” here is associated with Babylon and that the third trumpet is, like the second, symbolic of judgment against it. This interpretation finds a measure of support from Isaiah 14:12-15 where the judgment of the king of Babylon is described as a “star” having “fallen from heaven” (v. 12).

The star is called “Wormwood”, echoing Jer. 9:15 and 23:15. There God says, “I will feed them [Israel], this people, with wormwood and give them poisoned water to drink” (9:15; cf. Jer. 8:13-14). Wormwood is a bitter herb and can be poisonous (although not known to be fatal) if drunk to excess (it is so powerful that a single ounce diluted in over 500 gallons of water can still be tasted). Israel’s sin was having “polluted” herself with idolatry. With poetic justice, God “pollutes” them with bad water. Other OT texts where wormwood is associated with judgment are Deut. 29:17-18; Prov. 5:4; Lam. 3:15,19; Amos 5:7; 6:12.

The Greek word translated “wormwood” is apsinthos. There is no evidence that any star was literally called by this name in the ancient world. Rather, the star is given this name as an expression of its effect upon the world.

Again, the question is raised: Are the waters literally affected by a literal star making them literally bitter and fatal? Or is this a metaphorical portrayal of severe judgment that might conceivably express itself in any number of ways, perhaps primarily in famine (in keeping with the thrust of the first two trumpets)?

There is a deliberate contrast drawn between, on the one hand, the “springs of water” (pegas hudaton) in Rev. 7:17 (and 21:6) that symbolize the refreshment and sweetness of eternal life and intimacy with God, and, on the other, the “springs of waters” (pegas ton hudaton) in 8:10 that point to divine displeasure and judgment. In the former case, the water is described as bringing “life” whereas in the latter it brings “death”.

The Fourth Trumpet (8:12)

This judgment is strikingly similar to the sixth seal in 6:12-13. The major difference is that whereas this judgment is partial (again, 1/3), the other is complete. This judgment also seems to reflect the ninth plague in which darkness covers the land of Egypt (Exod. 10:21-23). Again, is this literal or symbolic? If the latter, symbolic of what? Also, we have seen on several occasions in Mt. 24 and Rev. 6 that the darkening of heavenly bodies and other similar celestial phenomena typically symbolizes chaos on earth and especially divine judgment against national entities. Is that in view here?

As noted, on several occasions in the OT, the darkening of the sun, moon, and stars is symbolic of divine judgment. More specifically, these texts assert “that God alters the fixed patterns of sun, moon and stars to indicate judgment on those who have wrongly altered his moral patterns, especially through idolatry” (Beale, 484).

Note also that the elements affected by the trumpet judgments to this point include light, air, vegetation, sun, moon, stars, sea creatures, and human beings. Some have suggested that, although the order is different from that in Genesis 1, the basic content and structure of creation itself is being systematically undone. This notion of “de-creation” (Beale, 486) is supported by the fact that the book of Revelation itself climaxes in the new creation: a new heavens and a new earth! Aune points out that “it is perhaps not mere coincidence that on the fourth creative day, God is reported to have created the sun, moon, and stars (Gen. 1:14-19), so that the cosmic destruction that occurs here can be understood against the background of the creation account” (2:523).

Conclusion to the First Four Trumpets

Introduction to the Last Three Trumpets (8:13)

This verse, with its reference to three remaining “woes”, indicates that, like the seal judgments, the trumpets are divided into a 4 + 3 pattern. Elsewhere in Revelation, “flying in midheaven” occurs twice and refers to creatures whose presence points to impending judgment: an angel in 14:6 and birds in 19:17. The OT also employs the image of an “eagle” when describing judgment (Deut. 28:49; Jer. 4:13; 48:40; 49:22; Lam. 4:19; Ezek. 17:3; Hos. 8:1; Hab. 1:8). Beale points out that “the covenant curses threatened against Israel included being eaten by birds (e.g., Deut. 28:26,49; Jer. 7:33-34; 16:3-4; 19:7; 34:18-20; Ezek. 39:17-20; see also Rev. 19:17-18, which alludes to Ezek.39:17-20 and refers to birds flying in midheaven)” (490).

I want to conclude with these sobering words from G. B. Caird:

“Modern readers are apt to be shocked at the idea that God should be prepared to kill off large numbers of men in order to provide an object lesson for those who survive. John is more realistic about the fact of death. All men must die, and the question mark which death sets over their existence is just as great whether they die late or soon, alone or in company, violently or in their beds. Their ultimate destiny is not determined either by the moment or by the manner of their death, as the untimely death of the martyrs should prove, but by the opening of the heavenly books and by the true and just judgments which proceed from the great white throne (xx. 11-15). The idea that life on earth is so infinitely precious that the death which robs us of it must be the ultimate tragedy is precisely the idolatry that John is trying here to combat [emphasis mine]. We have already seen . . . that John calls the enemies of the church ‘the inhabitants of earth’ [or ‘earth-dwellers’], because they have made themselves utterly at home in this transient world order. If all men must die, and if at the end heaven and earth must vanish, along with those whose life is irremediably bounded by worldly horizons, then it is surely in accord with the mercy of God that he should send men from time to time forceful reminders of the insecurity of their tenure” (113).

To be continued . . .