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Revelation 4 - The Seven Trumpets of Partial Judgement (8:2 - 11:16)

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Also available:

Introduction Four main views of Revelation
1: Prologue (1:1-8) 2: Letters to seven churches (1:9 - 3:22)
3: Seven Seals (4:1 - 8:1) 4: Seven trumpets (8:2 - 11:18)
5: Seven signs (11:19 - 15:4) 6: Seven Bowls (15:5 - 16:21)
7: Prostitute / Babylon (17:1 - 19:10) 8: Seven judgements (19:11 - 21:8)
9: Bride / Jerusalem (21:9 - 22:9) 10: Epilogue (22:10-21)
Millennium Rapture and tribulation
Jesus the Lamb

Outline

Setting (8:2-6): Seven angels with incense before God
Trumpet 1 (8:7): One third of earth, trees and grass burned
Trumpet 2 (8:8-9): One third of sea became blood
Trumpet 3 (8:10-11): One third of rivers became wormwood
Trumpet 4 (8:12): One third of sun, moon and stars darkened
     Three woes introduced (8:13) - on the inhabitants of the earth
Trumpet 5 (9:1-11) = 1st woe: Locusts attack those without seal of God
Trumpet 6 (9:12-21) = 2nd woe: 200 million horses beyond Euphrates kill one third of mankind
First interlude (10:1-11): The little scroll: sweet and bitter
Second interlude (11:1-13): The two witnesses
Trumpet 7 (11:14-18) = 3rd woe: The Kingdom has come

Introduction

The seven trumpets represent partial judgements to act as warnings to the inhabitants of the earth, the unbelievers. Each of them only affects one third of the physical creation or of mankind. They are a call to repentance, but the sad truth is that people do not repent (9:20).

In the OT, trumpets were used to get people’s attention. A trumpet blast called the people to assemble at the foot of Mt. Sinai before the giving of the law (Ex 19:16-19). Ezekiel was appointed as the watchman to sound the trumpet of warning (Ezek 33:1-6). During the present age, the trumpets continue to be sounded as warnings, calling people to repent before it is too late. God uses terrible events such as natural disasters to show people the frailty of life, shaking complacency and causing them to think of the more important things, like their eternal destiny. Each of these trumpet warnings foreshadow the final judgment, reminding people that there will be a final day of reckoning, and calling them to repent before it is too late.

In the OT, the prophets often spoke of 'the day of the Lord', when God’s enemies will be judged and the righteous will be vindicated. However, the day of the Lord also came when God stepped into history and brought judgement on historical nations in the ancient Near East in the times of the OT. Each of these smaller judgements in history foreshadowed of the great and final day of the Lord.

Setting (8:2-6): Seven angels with incense before God

The setting for the seven trumpets is again in the heavenly throne room. Seven angels are given trumpets. Jews believed that there were seven angels that stood before the Lord in the heavenly court room, as suggested in the apocryphal Book of Tobit (Tobit 12:15). Before they blow them, incense is burned as an offering to God, together with the prayers of the saints. This incense altar is in the heavenly temple, which Moses was told to copy when they made the tabernacle (Heb 8:5). In the tabernacle, the incense altar was just outside the Holy of Holies in the Holy Place, so the aroma of the burning incense would pass through the curtain into the presence of God (Ex 30:1-10, 34-38, Lev 16:12). In Revelation, the temple is another way of describing the place of the actual presence of God.

The smoke of incense rises together with the prayers of all the saints. There are several things we learn here. One is that our prayers do rise up to God, and he hears them. Like the incense, they are a pleasant aroma before him. Our prayers are mingled with incense and purified as they come to God, as we do not pray perfect prayers. Another is they have a powerful affect, but not always quite the effect we were expecting, as the answer to our prayers may be that God sends judgement. When we pray for God to show someone their need of Jesus, he may blow his trumpet and trouble will come into their lives, perhaps causing them to realise that something is missing from their life. God’s warnings to a rebellious world can be seen as the answers to our prayers for a lost world.

The angel throws the incense censer filled with fire down to the earth, then the trumpets are blown. At the same time are some dramatic manifestations (thunder, lightning and earthquake) found in several of the settings, and reminding us of the manifestations on Mt. Sinai (Ex 19).

The first four trumpets all affect one third of the various parts of the physical creation, a substantial portion. By contrast, the first four bowls bring total judgement and affect the whole of the physical world. The trumpets probably represent natural disasters during the present age, which affect the physical creation and cause human suffering and death. They are judgements and warnings to unbelievers, causing people to think about where they will spend eternity if they are killed by the next disaster. Both the trumpets and the bowls strongly allude to the plagues of Egypt (hail, fire, water being turned to blood, darkness and locusts), as well as other judgements such as Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19). The last three trumpets are the three woes which affect the unbelievers directly.

Trumpet 1 (8:7): One third of earth, trees and grass burned

The first trumpet brings hail, fire and blood which affects the solid ground and vegetation - the earth, trees and grass, and one third is burned up. This alludes to the plague of hail (Ex 9:23), and otherwise could describe drought, forest fires or other natural disasters. In the OT fire, hail, together with sulphur fell during judgements on places such as Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:14), and on Gog (Ezek 38:22).

Trumpet 2 (8:8-9): One third of sea became blood

The second trumpet is a fiery mountain being thrown into the sea turning it to blood and destroying the sea creatures and ships, possibly alluding to the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, which would have looked rather like this. The water turning to blood again is like the first plague of Egypt (Ex 7:20). This trumpet would represent any natural disaster affecting the sea, like a tsunami caused by earthquake or volcanic eruption.

Trumpet 3 (8:10-11): One third of rivers became wormwood

The third trumpet was a blazing star which turned the freshwater to Wormwood, killing many people. Wormwood was a Babylonian star symbolising bitterness (Jer 9:15, Lam 3:19). So this would represent any disaster contaminating water making it undrinkable, or causing it to carry deadly diseases.

Trumpet 4 (8:12): One third of sun, moon and stars darkened

The fourth trumpet affected the heavenly bodies: the sun, moon and stars, alluding to the ninth plague of Egypt when the sun was turned to darkness (Ex 10:31). The darkening of the sources of light is a frequent judgement image in the OT (eg. Is 13:10 - quoted in Mk 13:24, Ezek 32:7-8, Joel 2:10,3:15).

Three woes introduced (8:13) - on the inhabitants of the earth

Before the fifth trumpet, an eagle announces the three woes which will affect the inhabitants of the earth, the unbelievers. These three woes are the blasts of the next three trumpets. 'Woe' is a frequent introduction to predictions of judgment in the OT, found in almost all the prophets.

Trumpet 5 (9:1-11) = 1st woe: Locusts attack those without seal of God

The fifth trumpet is the same as the first woe (9:12). Each of the woes affect the inhabitants of the earth, who are the unbelievers (8:13). John saw a star fallen to earth, who was given the key to the bottomless pit, the abyss. This star is identified as the angel of the bottomless pit whose Hebrew name is Abaddon, meaning destruction, and whose Greek name is Apollyon, meaning destroyer (9:11). More identification is given later when we learn that this star is the dragon, Satan (12:9), who has been thrown down from heaven to earth. The pit or abyss is where Satan is later bound for a thousand years (20:3) and from where the beast rises (11:7). In other places in Scripture it is the home of demons (Lk 8:31), and the realm of the dead (Rom 10:7).

Smoke came out from the abyss, which darkened the sky, and from which came locusts. These are not normal locusts which eat vegetation, but these only damage people who did not have the seal of God, the unbelievers. So the locusts represent some sort of demonic attack on the unbelievers. The dreadful truth is that Satan ultimately destroys his own people, those who refuse to receive the salvation through Christ.

Locusts were one of God’s judgements in the OT. They were the eighth plague of Egypt (Ex 10:12), and one of the covenant curses of Deuteronomy (Deut 28:42). The destructive power of the locust swarm was dramatically described by the prophet Joel, where they probably symbolised the advancing army of Assyria (Joel 1:1:2 - 2:11). In this passage, these are demonic locusts with a sting like a scorpion. Normal locusts do not have stingers. Scorpions are feared for their extremely painful sting, which is not fatal, but so painful people would wish they could die to escape the pain. The five months could either be the lifespan of a locust, or the length of the warm dry season in the Middle- East, when swarms of locusts invade. The five months shows that this is not permanent destruction, but a temporary affliction of the unbelievers, and like the other trumpets has the aim of leading them to repentance before it is too late. Notice that the star was given the key to the abyss (9:1), and the locusts were allowed to torture people for five months (9:5). Again, God is allowing these things to happen as part of his plan for the earth.

John gives a description of the locusts, describing them as being like horses. In close-up, the head of a locust does look a bit like a horse. An Arab proverb says, “A locust has a head like a horse, a breast like a lion, feet like a camel, body like a serpent and antennae like the hair of a maiden”, which is similar to John’s description. He describes seven body parts: head, faces, hair, teeth, scales, wings and tails.

So the locusts represent demonic attack on the inhabitants of the earth, the unbelievers. The destruction comes from Satan, who destroys people who reject God and follow him. Through this the saints are safe from Satan’s attack.

Trumpet 6 (9:12) = 2nd woe: 200 million horses beyond Euphrates kill one third of mankind

The sixth trumpet is the second woe, and being the sixth, it describes final judgement on the great day of wrath. The angels who were previously bound while the servants of God were sealed (7:1) are now released. They had been held at the great river Euphrates. As noted earlier, both the sixth trumpet and the sixth bowl name the River Euphrates, with enemies beyond. During Roman times, the Euphrates was the eastern frontier of the empire, beyond which were the dreaded Parthians. The Romans had made several attempts to conquer Parthia, but had failed each time. There was continual anxiety in the Roman empire that one day the Parthians would invade from the east. The Parthians were horsemen, so the description here of a vast army on horseback may allude to them and the fear they engendered among the people.

When the angels were released on the hour, the day, the month and the year, horses with heads of lions, and with fire, smoke and sulphur coming out of their mouth came from beyond the Euphrates. The description makes it clear that these are not physical horses, but like the locusts, represent demonic forces being released to kill one third of mankind. Normal horses do not have tails like serpents! The three plagues: fire, smoke and sulphur, were associated with several significant accounts of judgement in the OT, particularly Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:24-28).

Only one third of mankind are killed because this is the sixth of the trumpets. The other trumpets represent are all partial judgements which foreshadow the final judgement. The remaining two-thirds of mankind witness these judgements, but do not repent (9:20). John lists three things they worship (works of their hands, demons, idols), and four actions they do not repent from (murder, sorcery, fornication, theft), making a total of seven. These are sins characteristic of unbelievers which were frequently condemned by the prophets in the OT.

So far, two of the three woes which affect the unbelievers have been described, leaving us to wonder what is happening to the saints at this time. Before the seventh trumpet, there are again two interludes, which, like the interludes between the sixth and seventh of the seals, probably in some way represent the believers. They are maintaining their faithful witness to Jesus through the trumpet judgements, preaching the Gospel and calling people to repent before it is too late.

First interlude (10:1-11): The little scroll: sweet and bitter

John now sees a mighty angel, which fills the earth, coming down from heaven, holding a little scroll. The description of the face and legs of this angel are similar to the risen Jesus (1:13-16). This angel is so huge that he sets one foot in the sea, where the first beast will come from (13:1), and his other foot on the land, where the second beast will rise from (13:11). In contrast to the previous scroll which was sealed with seven seals, this scroll is open, so everyone can read what is written on it.

The angel shouted and seven thunders sounded, but John was not allowed to record the content of these seven thunders. We need to resist the temptation to speculate about what they represent, and be willing to say, 'We do not know'. God does not reveal everything, but enough for us to know what he wants us to know. In Psalm 29, there are seven voices of the Lord which are like thunders.

The same angel swears a solemn oath before Almighty God the Creator, that there will be no more delay. At the blast of the seventh trumpet the mystery of God will be fulfilled. We will see shortly that the seventh trumpet (11:15-18) describes the consummation of the kingdom of God, when the kingdom of the world becomes the kingdom of God, and the time for judgement and rewards. A mystery in the Bible is something that was previously unknown, but that has now been revealed by God. Elsewhere in the NT the mystery of God is the Gospel (Rom 16:25), particularly the inclusion of the Gentiles into the people of God (Eph 3:3-6). This was hidden in the time of the OT, but then revealed. God’s plan through the Gospel, and the full inclusion of the Gentiles will certainly be complete by the time of the seventh trumpet, at the end of this age (Mt 24:14).

The same angel now tells John to take the scroll and eat it, warning that it will be bitter in his stomach and sweet in his mouth. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel had to eat God’s words (Jer 15:16, Ezek 2:8 - 3:2), meaning that they had to take God’s words and make them part of themselves. For Jeremiah, God’s Word became like fire in his bones (Jer 20:9), which should also be true for all Christians today as they seek to spread the Gospel through evangelism or teaching. When he ate it, John found that the scroll was indeed both sweet and bitter.

This little scroll is God’s Word, and probably represents the Gospel. It is different from the sealed scroll of chapter 5, which could only be opened by the Lamb, which was God’s will or testament for the world, his plan of destiny. This little scroll was open, so everyone could read it. The Gospel is God’s Word for a lost world, showing them the way of salvation and the way to avoid the judgements coming in this book. However this Word is both sweet and bitter. It is sweet to those who respond through repentance, and bitter to those who reject it, just as Christians are both an aroma of life and of death (2 Cor 2:15).

Finally John is called to prophesy again to the peoples, nations, languages and kings. We should remember that to prophesy was not just to predict the future, but to bring God’s Word, and to challenge people to respond to it. The peoples, nations and languages represent the unbelievers, and the kings are the rulers on the earth. They all need to hear the Gospel before it is too late, before the seventh angel blows his trumpet and the kingdom comes in its fullness.

So this little scroll represents the Gospel. During the blowing of the trumpets of partial judgements, John and the believers need to preach the Gospel to a lost world before it is too late, calling unbelievers to respond to the trumpets by repentance and faith.

Second interlude (11:1-13): The two witnesses

The second interlude describing the two witnesses is one of the most difficult sections of the Book of Revelation to interpret. Because of this, many different opinions of this passage may be encountered. The differences partly come from whether people attempt to understand the passage literally, or look for a more symbolic interpretation.

Again, John becomes involved in the vision when he is asked to measure the temple, the altar, and those worshipping in it, but to leave the court outside the temple. The debate here is whether the temple should be understood as the physical temple in Jerusalem, either as still standing before it was destroyed in AD 70, or a future rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. Otherwise, the temple is used here to describe the presence of God with his people, as it is elsewhere in the NT. Some people claim that this passage demonstrates that the temple in Jerusalem was still standing, so the Book of Revelation must have been written before AD 70. Others say this is a temple in Jerusalem which will be rebuilt in the future.

The word for temple used here describes only the central shrine, containing the Holy of Holies and the Holy Place, and does not include the whole temple complex. In the OT the glory of God was present above the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies. The same word is used in the NT to describe the believers (eg. 1 Cor 3:16, Eph 2:21). In the OT Ezekiel saw the temple being measured (Ezek 40 - 43), and Zechariah saw Jerusalem being measured (Zech 2:1-2), here John has to do the measuring. Later the city of the new Jerusalem is also measured by the angel (21:15). Measurement was probably to determine the boundaries for God’s protection. John is told to measure the temple, the altar and those who worshipped there, but not to measure the court outside. A clear distinction and separation is made between the holy area which is securely protected by God, and the area outside which is not protected by God and is given over to the nations. The altar is once again the incense altar, which was located in the Holy Place in front of the veil, and which was seen in the setting for the seven trumpets, when the incense was the prayers of the saints (8:3). Those who worship in God’s temple must be the saints, those who have the right to come into God’s presence. So, this passage would suggest that the measuring of the temple again represents the protection of God’s people from spiritual harm, just as previously they were sealed by God (7:3).

The court that is not measured could represent one of a variety of possibilities. It could represent unbelievers, or perhaps those who attend church but who do not really belong to God. The court is given over to the nations. The nations represent the unbelievers, who will trample on the holy city for forty-two months. Later in the book, the holy city is identified as the new Jerusalem coming out of heaven (21:2, 10), which is also the bride of the Lamb (21:9). It is very unlikely that this is describing the physical city of Jerusalem, either in the past or as rebuilt in the future. Later in this interlude, the physical Jerusalem, where Jesus was crucified, is linked with Sodom, Egypt and the great city, which is the whore Babylon (11:8). So if the temple represents the saints enjoying the presence of God, we see that the believers are protected from the wrath of God, but will experience persecution and martyrdom from the world.

This trampling will continue for forty-two months, which is the same time period as the 1260 days that the two witnesses will prophesy (11:3). The two witnesses are defined as “the two olive trees and the two lamp-stands that stand before the Lord of the earth”. This is drawn from Zechariah’s vision, which represented Zerubbabel, the governor of the Jews, and Joshua, the high priest, being anointed by God’s Spirit (Zech 4:1-14). They were God’s two anointed leaders following the return from exile. Earlier in Revelation, John identified the seven lamp-stands as the churches (1:20), and the olive tree was often used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. So these two witnesses could represent the church witnessing in the power of the Holy Spirit.

These two witnesses have extraordinary powers: fire comes from their mouth, they shut the sky, turn waters to blood, and strike the earth with plagues. In the OT it was Elijah who stopped the rain for three and a half years (Lk 4:25, James 5:17), and Moses who turned water to blood in the plagues of Egypt (Ex 7:17-20). Moses and Elijah were the key figures in the OT, representing the law and the prophets. Among the Jews there was an expectation that both would re-appear at the end of time (Moses - Deut 18, Elijah - Mal 4:5). Because of this, it is often suggested that the two witnesses are literally Moses and Elijah, who will re-appear physically during this final period of three and a half years during a future tribulation. Time will tell whether this is correct! Jesus seemed to indicate that the prediction of the coming of Elijah was fulfilled in the ministry of John the Baptist (Mt 17:12-13), and the prediction of the coming of Moses was fulfilled in Jesus himself (Jn 6:14).

After the testimony of the two witnesses, they are conquered and killed by the beast and their witness is silenced. In Jewish thinking it was the ultimate disgrace for dead bodies not to be buried, especially if they were left out to be eaten by scavengers. If a dead person’s body was consumed rather than being buried, that removed any hope of a future resurrection. The witnesses die in a city given a combination of several descriptions. It is the great city, which will become a description of Babylon in chapter 17 and 18. It is called Sodom, judged for its immorality (Gen 19), and Egypt, the place of bondage, which was also judged through the plagues. But it is also the place where their Lord was crucified (Jerusalem). It is quite shocking to link Jerusalem with Sodom, Egypt and Babylon. However, Isaiah addressed Jerusalem as Sodom and Gomorrah (Is 1:10), as did Ezekiel (Ezek 16:46-49), because of their immorality and idolatry. Often in the OT, God’s people followed the behaviour of pagan nations, and came under the same judgement.

For a short period of three and a half days, the inhabitants of the earth (the unbelievers) celebrate because the two prophets have tormented them. Similarly, Jesus predicted that the world will rejoice when he died (Jn 16:20). The preaching of the Gospel and the call to repentance surely is a torment to unbelievers. People do not like to be reminded of their sin, or of a future judgement. However at the end of the short period of three and a half days, God raised them up once again, and called them up to heaven.

So the two witnesses prophesy for three and a half years, and are silenced for three and a half days. The question is what time period does this represent. There are at least three different possibilities. The first is that the three and a half years is a literal period during a future tribulation, when Elijah and Moses will reappear. This view is supported by people who seek to interpret Revelation literally, and believe that it is predicting specific events in the last days.

The second possibility is that the three and a half years represents the church age. Three and a half is half of seven, dividing the seven years representing the whole of history into two parts, one before and one after the coming of the Messiah. The two witnesses then represent the witness of the church, which is silenced during a short period of intense persecution at the end of the age, at the end of which the church is taken up to heaven. If this is true, then the church stays on earth through the persecution or tribulation, and is not taken up before it, which would counter the teaching of a pre- tribulation rapture. Time will tell whether the last period of persecution is worse or more widespread than all the others before.

A third possibility is that this is showing a pattern of witness and silencing which is found throughout history. Persecutors often think they have silenced the church, only to find that God revives it again. This happened recently in the nation of Albania, where the church was illegal for many years under Communism, but now is able to grow once more. This is the first time in the book that a pattern of a longer period (three and a half years), followed by a shorter period (three and a half days) is introduced. During the longer period the evil forces make war on the righteous, and appear to defeat them for a short period.

When the witnesses were taken up to heaven there was a great earthquake and many people in the great city were killed. This is again a partial judgement, a warning to repent before it is too late. Those who survived gave glory to God, which may or may not mean that they genuinely repented and turned to Christ, as no repentance is mentioned.

Trumpet 7 (11:14) = 3rd woe: The Kingdom has come

The seventh trumpet is the third woe, but is only a woe to the unbelievers (8:13). To the believers it is a wonderful picture of the future glorious existence in heaven, from which unbelievers will be permanently excluded because they rejected Jesus and the Good News he offered them.

As noted in the discussion about the structure of the book, this seventh scene describes the future glory. Loud voices announce that the kingdom of the world has become (past tense) the kingdom of our Lord. This statement is given from the perspective of after the consummation of the kingdom at the second coming of Jesus. After this, Jesus will reign for ever, not just a limited period of 1000 years.

The response is from the twenty-four elders and four living creatures who again fall on their faces and worship God Almighty in a scene similar to the heavenly throne room in chapter 4. God is addressed as 'who are and who were'. The 'is to come' is omitted because this is the future, and he has already come. Now he has taken his power and begun to reign, as already announced by the seventh angel.

The nations raged and God’s wrath has come (again past tense), and now the end has come. The time has come for both judgement and rewards. The dead will be judged, as described later (20:12). The saints will be rewarded, those who names are in the Lamb’s book of life (21:27). This includes all the saints, however important or insignificant they were during their lives on earth. The destroyers will be destroyed, including the beasts, the dragon and Babylon. We should note that the destruction of these evil beings is announced before they have even been introduced in the book. These judgements, rewards and establishment of the kingdom all happen together. There is no hint here of any separation between these events by a thousand years.

This scene ends the section of the seven trumpets, which represent partial judgements during this current age. During this time the church maintains its witness, calling people to repentance, and suffers persecution, as its enemies attempt to silence and destroy it.

Also available:

Introduction Four main views of Revelation
1: Prologue (1:1-8) 2: Letters to seven churches (1:9 - 3:22)
3: Seven Seals (4:1 - 8:1) 4: Seven trumpets (8:2 - 11:18)
5: Seven signs (11:19 - 15:4) 6: Seven Bowls (15:5 - 16:21)
7: Prostitute / Babylon (17:1 - 19:10) 8: Seven judgements (19:11 - 21:8)
9: Bride / Jerusalem (21:9 - 22:9) 10: Epilogue (22:10-21)
Millennium Rapture and tribulation
Jesus the Lamb