The Seven Trumpets
After God shows John the interlude of the vision of the 144,000 and the martyrs rejoicing before the throne, Jesus resumes opening the seals. When Jesus breaks open the 7th and final seal, a deadly silence falls upon heaven. The silence lasts for about 1/2 hour. What is the purpose of the silence? Ray Summers (professor of religion at Baylor U.) claims that it is like the calm before the storm breaks forth with tremendous fury upon the earth. All the hosts of heaven are silently and anxiously waiting to see what wrath the 7th trumpet will bring upon rebellious mankind. Other NT scholars see it though as a silence of reverence and awe. During all this time, heaven has continuously been singing the praises of God (see Rev. 4-5 and also Rev. 7); however, the persecution of God's people has been going on simultaneously with the praises in heaven. Now heaven becomes silent because an angel of the Lord is going to present the prayers of God's persecuted people before Him.
At first, seven angels who stand before God receive 7 trumpets. Who are these 7 angels? If Jewish angelology applies in this instance, they are the seven archangels who wait constantly before God: Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Michael, Raguel, Saraqael, and Remiel. The 7 trumpets are given to them because according to the Bible, one of the primary uses of the trumpet in heaven was to usher in the Day of the Lord, the day when God would bring wrath upon His enemies and rescue His people (see Joel 2:1; 1 Corinthians 15:52; and 1 Thessalonians 4:16). The fact that they are about to sound the trumpets means that the Day of the Lord has come and that God is going to deliver His people.
Moreover, during this 30-minute period of silence, an angel holding a golden censer comes to the altar and receives incense so that he can add it to the prayers of the saints in the altar. The incense is to have the effect of intensifying the prayers of God's people to God. He then approaches the altar before the throne and pours the incense upon it. The smoke of the incense then ascends to the throne of God. Heaven is silent because it feels the pain that God's people are suffering right now.
If Revelation teaches anything, it teaches that neither God nor heaven is passive when God's people are suffering persecution. In Acts 7:55-56, Stephen claimed that when he was about to be martyred, he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Jesus was not sitting down involved in some other enterprise at that moment. His full attention was upon Stephen and what was happening to him. Forty years ago (according to one of the Indians who killed the missionary Jim Elliott), the Indians claimed that as they were thrusting spears into the body of Jim Elliott they could see men clothed in white garments hovering above Jim Elliott. God was not engaged in some universal project at that moment. He gave His full attention to His son suffering for Christ. God suffers when His children suffer. Why? Because they are not suffering because of themselves; they are suffering because of their relationship with Him.
At this point the angel takes fire from the altar and places it in the censer he is holding. He then casts the fire in the censer to the earth which brings forth thunder, sounds, lightning and an earthquake. By casting the fire from the censer, the angel is indicating that the wrath which is about to follow is a direct result of God's people praying for their deliverance. Their cries go up, not to a deaf god, but to God who both hears and cares for His people. When God hears, God responds. Just like God responded to the Israelites by sending plagues upon Egypt when they cried out to Him, so God is responding now. The 7 trumpets constitute His response. In a large part God's wrath during the Great Tribulation constitutes His response to His people's prayers. God has heard their prayers and is now going to act on their behalf. The 7 angels then who attend to God approach the edge of heaven with their trumpets in order to blow them and bring forth God's wrath.
THE FIRST TRUMPET (8:7)
The 7 trumpets follow the format we talked about in the passage about the 7 seals. The first 4 deal with God's wrath upon nature, and the next 2 followed by an interlude deal with God's wrath upon man, while the 7th serves as a transition to the 7 Bowls of Wrath. After the angel blows the first trumpet, hail and fire, mixed with blood, are thrown to the earth, resulting in 1/3 of the earth and the trees, and all the grass being burned up.
Once more as we look at this trumpet, we see similarities between the plagues God poured out upon the Egyptians during the Exodus and the plagues of this tribulation. In the fourth plague upon the Egyptians, God sent forth lightning (fire from heaven) mixed with hail. Here hail and lightning descend mingled with blood. This phenomenon was familiar to John. Occasionally, red sand from the banks of the Nile River would be swept up into the atmosphere and would then descend upon the earth during a hail/lightning storm. This kind of destructive force of nature helped destroy the Roman empire. The kind of plague this trumpet sends tells us that this trumpet found fulfillment in John's day; however, the intensity of this trumpet tells us that it has not been ultimately fulfilled. This plague will once more occur during the final tribulation with the result that one third of the earth, etc. is burned up.
A question we probably need to address at this point is why the earth suffers so terribly during the tribulation. The earth has done no wrong. So why does it suffer? One of the principles of the Bible is that the fate of the earth (in fact the entire universe) is directly linked to the fate of mankind. We see this operating in the Fall of Adam. When Adam sinned, God not only cursed Adam, He also cursed the world. No longer would it be easy to cultivate the ground because of the curse which fell upon it also. Well, in the tribulation, the earth is suffering man's fate also. Take heart though because since the earth suffers man's fate in the tribulation, it also enjoys man's fate when Christ returns--it in addition to Christians will be resurrected from the dead! If you think that the earth is glorious now, you are going to be amazed at how wonderful it will be when Christ returns.
THE SECOND TRUMPET (8:8-9)
The second trumpet results in a great mountain burning with fire being thrown into the sea, resulting in 1/3 of the sea becoming blood, and 1/3 of sea creatures and 1/3 of ships being destroyed. The great mountain burning with fire could possibly symbolize the emergence of a great volcano in the midst of the ocean creating this kind of havoc. This and the next trumpet remind us of the first plague God sent upon the Egyptians, turning the River Nile into blood. Why this repeated emphasis on the similarities between the Exodus from Egypt and the Great Tribulation? To press home the belief that the Great Tribulation is actually the Second Great Exodus God is accomplishing for His people. Just like the Egyptians persecuted God's people in Egypt, so the Antichrist will once more persecute God's people. Moreover, just like God effected a great deliverance for His people at the Red Sea, so God will once more rescue His people from His enemies. This time though, the salvation will be far more glorious than that at the Red Sea; moreover, it will be a final salvation. After this salvation, there will be no more need for delivering God's people.
THE THIRD TRUMPET (8:10-11)
When the third angel sounds his trumpet, a burning star drops from heaven into the fresh waters, resulting in 1/3 of the fresh waters becoming bitter (or even poisoned) so that many people who drank them died. This reminds us of the instance in which Moses forced the Israelites to drink the polluted water at the base of Mt. Sinai after they had turned to worship the golden calf. This is the first instance in the sequence of the trumpets in which people die.
THE FOURTH TRUMPET (8:12)
The angel blows the fourth trumpet which results in a third of the sun, moon, and stars being smitten so that they give out only 2/3 of their normal light. This trumpet simulates the ninth plague in which God smote the land of Egypt with darkness. Remember that even during this plague in Egypt, light still shone upon the land of Goshen where God's people dwelt. God's people are not harmed by the plagues; only the enemies of God's people.
All this may sound somewhat preposterous; however, in the spring of 1998, the southern part of the US experienced something approximating this very phenomenon. Fires were burning without control in Mexico with the result that the smoke ascended north towards Texas, etc. During those weeks, the day and night were both darkened to a real extent. The whole atmosphere was oppressive because of this event. What happened in '98 could very well give us a real taste of what is yet to come.
THE MESSAGE OF WOE (8:13)
At this point John sees an eagle (the usual bearer of bad news) flying through the mid-heavens (the zenith of the sky so that all can see him), announcing that 3 woes are about to fall upon the rebellious people who dwell upon the earth: "Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth because of the remaining blasts of the 3 trumpets which are about to sound." The eagle cries out "woe" three times not simply because 3 woes are coming but also for the sake of emphasis. Saying "woe" once means something terrible is about to happen; saying it three times though means that something really terrible is about to occur--it's woe to the third power. These 3 woes will come when the last 3 angels blow their trumpets. Also, note that the clause "those who dwell on the earth" is a technical title to refer to the enemies of God's people. They are labeled as those who dwell on the earth because their mind-set focuses on the earth and not on the things of God; the earth with its leader the Antichrist and not God determines their actions.
Before going to the final 3 trumpets, we must address the symbolical nature of these first 4 trumpets. Many want to interpret these trumpets literally; for example, the star literally does fall from heaven upon the fresh waters and the burning mountain turns the sea into blood. You must be careful in asserting that part of Revelation is symbolical and other parts are literal. Many times the only judge we have in deciding what's literal and what's symbolical is our own preference. Normally we say this passage is literal when it suits our fancy and another passage symbolical when it suits our fancy.
It's probably best to interpret most, if not all, of Revelation symbolically and try to find the reality behind the symbol. The symbol in these cases are the burning mountain, the bloody sea, the burning star, etc. We're not watering down the reality by saying these are symbols. Rather we're saying that these awful, terrifying symbols symbolize a terrible reality. When God pours out His wrath upon nature, it is going to be a terrible event. The reality itself is going to so terrible that only a symbol such as this can do it justice. These four trumpets mean that God is going to destroy partially vegetation, the sea and sea-life, fresh waters, and the celestial bodies. They will suffer even greater destruction when He pours out the bowls of wrath.
THE FIFTH TRUMPET (9:1-11)
The fifth angel blows the trumpet and locusts spring up from the demonic realm (the abyss). These locusts do not harm the earth but rather people for a period of 5 months (the regular length of an invasion of locusts). The pain they inflict will resemble the pain inflicted by a scorpion. The pain is so great that people prefer death to that pain. The whole picture is a symbol of demonic forces inflicting anguish upon non-Christians. They may achieve this end by means of mental, emotional, psychological attacks, etc.; they may achieve it by means of political, even economical oppression. Whatever means they use, the end result is excruciating spiritual pain upon non-Christians.
John goes to great length to describe the locusts in order to strike terror into the hearts of God's enemies and comfort into the hearts of God's people. He describes them as horses prepared for battle, having something like golden crowns on their head, with the faces of men, with hair like that of women, breastplates of iron, wings that sound like chariots rushing into battle, and with tails like scorpions. This is not a literal description of a real thing, but a symbolical description which shows how horrible these beasts really are. They have as their leader, the head of the abyss whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon and in Greek Apollyon. For all the pain these "locusts" bring upon people, God's people will be exempt from this plague (9:4). This ends the first woe.
THE SIXTH TRUMPET (9:13-21)
At the blast of the 6th trumpet, the altar cries out to angels who control the movement of forces at the Great River Euphrates to remove the barriers which have been restraining a vast army of 200 million in the East. At the trumpet blast, the barriers come down and the 200-million army comes to conquer rebellious mankind. Notice that they have not come to attack God's people. God's people are safe from the wrath of God. Rather they wage war against the enemies of God's people (see esp. v. 20 where John describes the "targets" as being idolaters, etc.). Approximately 1/3 of all mankind are destroyed by this army. Moreover, these horses spew forth fire, smoke, and brimstone. The heads of the horses are like those of lions, whereas their tails are like serpents. Those who saw Mission Impossible 2 are familiar with this imagery because the virus Chimera used in the movie referred to this very symbol.
Up until this time, many Christians have admitted that John has been speaking symbolically. At this point though, they throw caution to the wind and become literal in their interpretation of this passage. The 200 million-man army is supposed to be a literal army of 200 million from China which will bring death upon the world. The horses with the heads of lions and tails of serpents which spew forth fire, smoke, and brimstone are supposed to symbolize modern weaponry. These Christians fail to remember that John is still speaking symbolically. The most we can say absolutely is that this trumpet symbolizes the reality that God is going to use a vast and terrifying army to wreak havoc upon His enemies. It may number 200 million. Who knows? It may number even more. It may come from China. Maybe, but we can't say absolutely. John and the Christians of his day would have viewed this as being a symbol of the Parthian (Persian) army, Rome's most dreaded enemy from the East. One thing we do know is that the reality is so terrible that God has to use this terrible symbol to describe it.
John reminds us that the purpose of this trumpet was to convince people they needed to get right with God. They were so far from Him that something this drastic was needed to wake them up. The sad thing though is that they continued in their rebellion against God. Mankind is so intent on rebelling against God that it would rather suffer these terrible plagues than repent and turn to God.