The First Four Trumpets (Revelation 8)

The First Four Trumpets (Revelation 8)

We now know who will be able to stand when God’s retribution for the persecution of His saints is administered.  The entire story has been laid out for John.  The coming of righteousness, followed by the arrival of the unrighteous, the increasing levels of persecution by the Roman Empire and the retribution of God for the persecutors.  Then we see the explanation of who will be protected and be able to stand when God unleashes His wrath against  the enemies of Christianity and now we come to the climax of the saga.  Everything has been building to this point.  the seventh and final seal is opened and before anything happens there is a period of suspense and anticipation.  What is going to happen?  So many times in the past God’s children saw the vengeance of God on nations who opposed righteousness.   Sodom and Gomorrah comes to mind as one of the most devastating and memorable of them all, having been utterly destroyed by fire raining down on them from above.  Many were the unrighteous nations and empires toppled by God through the centuries and the readers are left for a suspenseful period of time before the wrath of God begins to fall on the persecutors of His faithful children. 

God wants all mankind to be saved and He is willing to allow His people to undergo horrible hardship in order to give all mankind the opportunity to repent and come to His saving grace but as longsuffering as God is, there are limits to what He will tolerate against His beloved children and He has reached that point and is about to act.  The Roman Empire has pushed God to the limit as we will see later on.

Many in the religious world today believe that these visions of John depict a series of events connected with the end times of all earth.  Such is not the case.  We must interpret Revelation for what it says it is and to who it claims to be written to.  The first verse of Revelation provides us with two very important pieces of information.  First the message has been “signified by His angel” which means the message contained therein has been given in symbolic language and not literal.  The key to understanding what the symbols mean is to consider what they mean elsewhere in the rest of scripture and using those to shed light on the meaning of the visions John is seeing. 

The second piece of information in the first verse which is vital to our understanding of it today is that the things revealed in the book “must shortly come to pass“.  This thought is reinforced in verse 3 and then repeated at the end of the Revelation in chapter 22:10 where inspiration says “the time is at hand“.  The time period of the 21st century is not “at hand” with the first century neither is a period of 2000 years or more to be understood as coming to pass shortly.  

A third very significant clue as to how we should understand the Revelation is found in the 4th verse of the introduction of Revelation in chapter 1.  By inspiration, John directly addresses His letter to “the seven churches which are in Asia“.  So in view of this fact and in consideration of the imminent time period under which inspiration places the events in this letter, we are forced to apply its primary relevance directly to the first readers of this letter in the first century.  Whatever this letter meant to them, must be what it means to us today.

Following is the continuation of the vision John was given.  The events seen thus far are already known to the first readers.  They know about the coming of righteousness, they already know they are living under intense persecution. Most of the things John has described to this point are things the first readers are well aware of and can relate them to their immediate circumstances.  What they want to know now is what is going to happen to the them and what is going to happen to their ruthless persecutors.  This is what they have been waiting for.  They have just learned that God is going to take measures to protect them during His retribution and now is the time.

As with the other parts of the visions, it is much easier to visualize the big picture of what is going on rather than focusing on the minute details.  What is happening in the overall vision?  God hears the prayers of His saints and visits His wrath upon the world of the ungodly. 

Revelation 8:1
And when he opened the seventh seal, there followed a silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.
The seventh seal is now opened.  God is on His throne and He’s put up with the persecution of His children all He’s going to.  The Angels are silent, all the martyrs and the redeemed are silent.  In the earlier parts of the vision, all the attention was focused on the throne and on God and the lamb and His Spirit.  All worship has stopped, all activities have ceased.  There is not a sound made.  All attention is now diverted to the earth.  Everyone who would be saved out of the empire has been identified and preserved.  The Roman Empire has run out of time just like ancient Babylon did as recorded in Habakkuk 2:20, “But Jehovah is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him“.   

Revelation 8:2
And I saw the seven angels that stand before God; and there were given unto them seven trumpets.
The seventh seal will not be like the other six which came one after another with great action. This will be a series of seven trumpets.  Let’s keep in mind that this is a vision which is intended to form in the readers mind an idea of what is taking place.  We need to focus on the picture as a whole and not so much on the minute details.  A trumpet was used as a symbol for announcing important events or actions so this was the alert to warn of the approach of the woes which are to fall upon the world.

The number 7 symbolizes the meaning of totality or completeness associated with God’s authority on the earth so the seven angels with the seven trumpets are a picture of unity, perfection, fullness and completeness of what God was going to do. 

Revelation 8:3-4
And another angel came and stood over the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should add it unto the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne.  And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God out of the angel’s hand.
Incense was a symbol of ascending prayers to God.  It comes directly from the old testament alter of incense before the veil of the Tabernacle, nearest to the mercy seat where the Levitical priests burned incense every morning.  The golden censer was a pan on which live coals from the alter were placed which was used to burn the incense. 

We remember the story of Nadab and Abihu who died before the Lord for using strange or unauthorized fire.  The fire which was to be used to burn the incense in the golden censer had to be taken from the alter.  No other fire was acceptable.  The golden censer and the alter in John’s vision is reminiscent of the one in the story of Nadab and Abihu. 

In temple worship, the aroma of the burned incense represented the prayers of the Israelites to God and this meaning is carried forward into John’s vision.  The assurance to the first readers of Revelation an all thereafter is that God hears the prayers of His children and He will answer.   It must have seemed to the Christians living under the great persecution that God was not listening because they were being killed and mistreated because of their faith.  And it is difficult when life’s trials get oppressive, we often wonder if God is even listening to our prayers.  Think how much worse it would be if our fellow saints and loved ones were dying because of their faith.  The Christians living under the great persecution needed to be reassured that God was hearing their prayers and that He was going to help them.  But they also needed to understand that there would be persecution and many of them would die.  We will see later on in this study of Revelation that so many did die that the enemies of righteousness thought they had stamped out Christianity forever.  God never promises His faithful children a life of ease.  Such a thing became impossible when God granted all mankind unconditional free will.   

Yes God hears the prayers of His children.  We know this from verses of scripture such as James 5:16, 1 Peter 3:12, 1 John 3:22 and 1 John 5:14-15.  The vision of God receiving the prayers of His children served as a great comfort to those living under the great persecution and we know from the large quantity of incense given to the angel in the vision that there were a lot of prayers to be heard.  God heard them all and those who overcome will emerge victorious in the end.

Revelation 8:5
And the angel taketh the censer; and he filled it with the fire of the altar, and cast it upon the earth: and there followed thunders, and voices, and lightnings, and an earthquake.
The angel that offered the prayers of the persecuted Christians then fills the censer full of fire from the alter and casts it upon the world of the ungodly.  T
his is God’s response to the cries of His oppressed children.  The thunders, voices and lightnings were introduced earlier as expressive of the divine power, majesty and authority of God (Revelation 4:5).  An Earthquake is a familiar Old Testament figure used to describe God’s judgment against the enemies of His people.  God’s tolerance of the persecution of His children has reached His limit. 

We need to keep in mind here that this vision is an overall picture of God’s handling of the enemies of His children throughout the Roman Empire over a period of time.  All of these things did not boil up to a head with God destroying the empire in a single blinding act of Godly retribution.   Yes there were severe natural calamities such as exploding volcanoes, earthquakes, plagues and famines, but these events were spread out over vast expanses of territory and decades of time.  There are many instances in Revelation where plagues and woes were administered to the enemies of God and they repented not of their evil deeds.  God gave the woman represented as Jezebel time to repent, (Revelation 2:21.  In Revelation 9 we see later on in this vision where God released numerous plagues on the enemies of His children with the intent of bringing the survivors to repentance, (Revelation 9:20).  In Revelation 16:9-11 we see that God poured out His wrath on the enemies of His children so that they would repent.   God didn’t just reach his limit and destroy all the enemies of His children at once.  Rather He selectively administered these judgments across the empire in a progressive fashion over a period of time with the primary purpose of bringing any who would to repentance. 

What happens today when a horrendous natural disaster or major calamity befalls mankind?  When people are faced with insurmountable, unexplainable events such as earthquakes, Tsunamis and terrorist attacks where hundreds and thousands of innocent people lose their lives there is always many who turn to God for comfort and support.  Are we today so different than those who lived in the first century?  Would there not be those who turned to God in the first century when Mt. Vesuvius exploded and incinerated Pompeii and Herculaneum?  When people of all times who are comfortable and think they don’t need anything, including God, are slapped in the face with their own mortality and helplessness in the face of devastation and destruction, there are some who will turn to God for comfort.  History records that the Roman Empire had more than her fair share of natural calamities, some of which were of such overwhelming magnitude as to leave one numb from the shock and disbelief.  In the studies to come, we will observe many of the natural and self inflicted disasters that befell the Roman Empire along the course of her downward spiral into ultimate defeat and destruction. 

The angel filling the censer with the fire from the alter and casting it upon the earth is a picture of God’s wrath unleashed on the elements of the earth with a twofold purpose.  The primary purpose was to warn everybody in the Roman Empire against evil and to bring them to repentance and the second purpose was to deplete their resources to the point that they would be conquered.  God’s primary purpose has always been the salvation of the lost. 

Revelation 8:6
And the seven angels that had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound.
In Amos 3:6 and Hosea 5:8, trumpets were used to sound an alarm to warn of approaching danger.   The picture here is that angels were preparing to warn of the retribution and judgment of God on the enemies of righteousness. 
The visions of the seven trumpets are reminiscent of the plagues of Egypt, all of which were designed to demonstrate God’s power and bring Pharaoh to repentance.  The Roman Empire made the same mistake Pharaoh did.   If Pharaoh would have let the Israelites go, he would have saved himself and all of Egypt a great deal of misery.  He was given numerous opportunities to do so and failed.  Similarly the Roman Empire was given numerous opportunities to repent and refused and were now going to face God’s wrath for their actions. 

It is key to note that when the first four trumpets were sounded, various parts of the physical world were effected.  Natural disasters are a tremendous drain on the resources of any empire or nation whether it be the Roman Empire or a nation today.  Vast resources are used to try and alleviate the suffering of the effected people and in so doing deplete a nations ability to protect itself from hostile enemies.   It is not going to be possible to match any of these up with specific events in the natural history of the Empire, but there is no doubt the empire suffered more than its share of devastating natural disasters.  Numerous cities were destroyed by earthquakes and some of them were outright incinerated by eruptions.  There was a famine of such magnitude that sufficient food for the population was unavailable.  The hunger of the famine was so severe, people were eating foods which were unhealthy just to survive and this sparked a plague which swept across the empire, lasting over a decade and killing untold millions of people.  History records that entire cities were totally depopulated from this plague.  Interestingly, many centuries after the writing of Revelation, there was an earthquake of such magnitude that it dried up the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in the effected area.  An entire mountain was said to have disappeared during this devastating earthquake.  But that wasn’t the end of it.  When the earthquake subsided and the displaced water returned, it came back with a vengeance.  History records that boats were washed as far as 14 miles inland and lodged in trees and upon housetops.  Those who did not die in the earthquake were drowned in the waves of the returning water.   These natural disasters occurred over centuries of Roman history and were key in the decline and ultimate downfall of the Empire. 

It is not going to be possible to match up the following events heralded by the trumpets with actual events in the history of the empire with any degree of certainty.  We are going to have to recognize the fact that God did use natural events to help bring about the punishment and downfall of the empire and not try to pinpoint them to specific disasters.  They were spread out over the empire separated by both geography and time.   God later speaks of the downfall of the empire in the past tense as if it has already happened so we know that the visions revealing the fate of the empire are not depicting it in perfect chronological order.  Later in Revelation we see a vision of the Empire being picked apart by birds, bit by bit, piece by piece, (Revelation 19).  Also we have in the same vision with the birds and earlier in chapter 14 the description of God’s wrath and retribution being pictured like the treading of grapes in a winepress.  The image here is that of a slow, constant, deliberate, methodical pounding out and picking apart of the Empire over a period of time.  History bears out the fact that this is indeed what happened.  A combination of natural disasters and internal depravity and unrest combined to weaken the empire to the point that it was picked apart from within and without, eventually overthrown and finally destroyed. 

Revelation 8:7
And the first sounded, and there followed hail and fire, mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth: and the third part of the earth was burnt up, and the third part of the trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up.
The first trumpet sounds and we have God’s retribution in the form of intense weather.  Fire and burned trees and grass are descriptive of a long hot dry spell which depletes the agricultural products for the people and grass necessary to graze livestock.  Long hot dry spells leave a nation in a weakened state and are miserable to have to endure and live through.  The third part of the earth indicates that this was occurring over a vast territory of land but was by no means empire wide. 

Revelation 8:8-9
And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood; and there died the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, (even) they that had life; and the third part of the ships was destroyed.
And when the second angel sounded his trumpet, earthquakes and burning mountains which are picturesque of volcanic eruptions are in mind here.  When these events occur in the seas they can cause devastating tidal waves.  The eruptions are often time accompanied with the release of poisonous or super heated gases which are deadly to life both in and out of the water.  History records that this was indeed the case in the Roman Empire.  We know of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and what it did to Herculaneum and Pompeii.  And this was only one of several which occurred in the empire and was not the worst by any means.  Offshore earthquakes cause monstrous tidal waves which wash ships and fish ashore and we know from history that this happened to the Roman Empire as well. 

Again, the third part of creatures in the sea and the ships destroyed indicate extensive but not total destruction. 

Revelation 8:10-11
And the third angel sounded, and there fell from heaven a great star, burning as a torch, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of the waters; and the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.
A star falling from heaven shows that this retribution was coming from God above. In this judgment scene, the fresh water supply is affected.  During the time of the Roman Empire most fresh water came from springs, rivers or shallow hand dug wells.  They did not have the technology to drill deep wells into fresh water sources and pipe it to all the people.  When something happened to effect the water supply, there was little they could do to alleviate the problem. 

Wormwood in the Old Testament was used to denote judgment, especially in instances of idolatry: “lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turneth away this day from Jehovah our God, to go to serve the gods of those nations; lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood” (Deuteronomy 29:18).  Jeremiah prophesied of the judgment of the Israelites for the worshipping of Baalim: “therefore thus saith Jehovah of hosts, the God of Israel, Behold, I will feed them, even this people, with wormwood, and give them water of gall to drink” (Jeremiah 9:15).

The term wormwood symbolizes Calamity, sorrow and bitterness of life.  Now, because of their persecution of the Christians, the Roman empire will taste the bitterness of the wrath of God.  It is not possible to relate this event to anything specific but our own experiences with natural disasters may give some insight on what is happening to the water supply in this vision.  Destructive huge scale natural disasters kill many people leaving few to clean up the aftermath.  Where the seas or oceans are involved, flood waters inundate the effected areas, killing on a massive scale and polluting the fresh water sources with sewage and the dead bodies of both animals and humans.  This polluted water becomes disease ridden, foul smelling and bitter and to drink it without boiling it would be hazardous to the health of anyone or anything drinking it.  People and livestock must have fresh water to survive and when the water supply has been disrupted and all that is available to drink is fouled then life is going to get difficult indeed. 

Revelation 8:12
And the fourth angel sounded, and the third part of the sun was smitten, and the third part of the moon, and the third part of the stars; that the third part of them should be darkened, and the day should not shine for the third part of it, and the night in like manner.
The moon and the stars represented figures of authority in the minds of the first readers of Revelation.  The Sun mentioned alongside the moon and stars here would put it in the same category.  When a devastating natural calamity occurs the authorities in charge of maintaining law and order are often unable to function properly.  Those without food or necessities and in desperate situations will take from those who have by force.  There is all kinds of looting, stealing and profiteering going on and the people in charge of enforcing law are unable to keep these things in check. 

People are displaced from their homes, millions are dead, food and water is scarce, violence is raging unchecked and where are the soldiers?  Where are the authorities?  Where are the rulers who have governed and kept the peace and provided protection and security from their enemies for so long?  They can’t be seen amid the destruction and people are in despair.  The rulers and kings they had worshipped and trusted for so long can’t help them in the face of God’s wrath.  The times are indeed dim for those suffering the judgment of God.  The powerful Emperors with their glistening armies all bright and shining and proud and the powerful rulers of the provinces in their shining palaces are eclipsed into darkness in the face of the wrath of the real authority in charge; the one true and living God. 

Of importance here is that the judgments announced by the first four trumpets were a call to repentance and not the total destruction of the enemies of God.  They were a selective application of God’s retribution over specific portions of the known world designed to bring the enemies of righteousness to a realization that their emperors, false gods, kings and governors were not the ones in charge and that there was a higher power that demanded their obedience and was intolerant of their persecution of His faithful children.   

Revelation 8:13
And I saw, and I heard an eagle, flying in mid heaven, saying with a great voice, Woe, woe, woe, for them that dwell on the earth, by reason of the other voices of the trumpet of the three angels, who are yet to sound.
The eagle was representative in this vision of a bird of ill omen as seen in Old Testament writings such as Jeremiah 49:22 and Hosea 8:1.  This eagle is proclaiming to those who live on earth and have seen and survived the first four judgments that they haven’t seen the end of it yet and the worst is yet to come.  The first four trumpets symbolized the smiting of the natural world and the consequences thereof, but now they will have far more to worry about than ever before when the last three trumpets are sounded.

Summary Paraphrase

And when Jesus at last prepared to reveal God’s judgment on the world of the ungodly, all of heaven stood silent for a period of time in breathless expectation and awe.  The angels charged with announcing God’s retribution were standing before His throne and were each given a trumpet with which to signal the coming woes. 

Then another angel came and stood over an alter before God’s throne, holding a golden censer in his hands.  And he was given an abundance of incense to burn therein, mingling its fragrance with the cries and prayers of God’s oppressed children coming up from the earth.  And in answer to those prayers,  the angel then filled the censer with the fire of God’s wrath from the alter and cast it upon the world of the wicked and God’s anger was like lightning in the skies and the earth was shaken from the thunderings of His voice.

And all the angels that were going to announce God’s retribution on the enemies of His children prepared themselves to sound.  When the first angel sounded there followed severe weather, violent storms and heat waves so intense that the vegetation and the trees died over great areas of the earth.  When the second angel announced the coming of God’s wrath there were great earthquakes and eruptions which set the mountains on fire and caused massive tidal waves that destroyed many of the inhabitants of the seas along with the ships that sailed on them.  And the third angel sounded, and God’s wrath coming from heaven caused all the rivers and springs of water on the earth to be fouled and bitter.  And many people died from drinking the poisonous bitter water.  And then the fourth angel sounded and the great rulers and leaders of the afflicted people could no longer be seen. 

And then I saw an eagle flying in the air over the earth saying in a great voice, “Woe woe woe, to all the people of the earth because of the terrible things that will happen when the last remaining angels blow their trumpets.”

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