REVELATION 7 of 16
This is our seventh week studying Revelation,
and we’re going to start where we left off last week
at the beginning of chapter eight.
Revelation is telling a bit of a story,
so just as a reminder from the last couple of weeks:
we’ve got a guy named John
who has experienced some kind of incredible spiritual vision (ch 1)
so he writes a letter to the communities
that he loves and leads (ch 2 & 3)
describing how he was brought
behind the scenes of all reality (ch 4 & 5)
and caught a glimpse of God’s plan to sort out the world.
This plan to sort out—to save—the world
comes in the form of a scroll sealed with seven seals.
Last week—in chapters 6 and 7—
we saw the Lamb (we saw Jesus)
beginning to open this scroll.
The Lamb began breaking the seven seals—
seal after seal after seal after seal—breaking through everything
that’s stopping this scroll from being read.
Breaking through everything
that’s stopping God’s purposes
from being accomplished in the world.
And when we finally got to the end—to the last seal—
it’s a little surprising: we had to wait a little longer.
All the thunderous sounds of heaven—
the songs of angels and living creatures and elders—
it all comes to a stop when the seventh seal is broken
at the beginning of chapter eight:
(8.1) When he opened the seventh seal there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.
That’s where we left off last week,
so let’s see what happens:
(8.2-5) And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.
Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.
So after having our attention
pulled down to earth with the seals
our vision is once again firmly fixed in heaven.
Silence can do that—it can draw our attention.
And during this silence, it would seem,
a couple of things are happening.
First, trumpets start getting handed out to seven angels (v2).
And, second, another angel (v3)
with some kind of container for burning incense (a censer)
approaches an altar in heaven.
It’s the same altar we were introduced to
last week while the seals were being broken.
(That altar from 6:9 under which
are all of the martyrs crying out
“How long, God, how long?”)
Now here in verses 3-4 and several others places1
incense is used as a picture of prayers rising up before God.
So while the brass section of heaven is handing out trumpets,
this angel has got a container full of prayers
and brings it before God.
The prayers of the martyred. The prayers of the murdered.
The prayers for justice. The prayers for things to be right.
(v5) Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake.
The silence has been building the suspense…
And then in a flash we’ve got
a container of prayers being mixed with fire
and being thrown to the earth.2
It’s like a prayer bomb being thrown to earth
and then the silence of heaven broken
with an explosive light show.
Thunder, rumblings, lightning, an earthquake.3
It’s almost like heaven is clearing its throat.
If we thought that the seventh seal was a little anticlimactic,
maybe we should reconsider.
Because it seems like everything that unfolds from here onward
is actually included in that seventh seal being broken.
The seventh seal being broken
means seven trumpets—
are about to sound:
(8.6-12) Then the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to sound them.
The first angel sounded his trumpet, and there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down on the earth. A third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up.
The second angel sounded his trumpet, and something like a huge mountain, all ablaze, was thrown into the sea. A third of the sea turned into blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.
The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water— the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter.
The fourth angel sounded his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them turned dark. A third of the day was without light, and also a third of the night.
Let’s pause right here.
We’re working our way
into some notoriously hard reading
in the book of Revelation.
Last week we saw the seven seals began to be broken
and heard that Death was given power
over one-fourth of the earth (6.8).
Now, as the seven trumpets begin to sound
we’ve ratcheted up the carnage:
We’ve gone from one-fourth devastation to one-third devastation.
And it all happened really fast.
Just like the first four seals had a lot happen all at once,
the first four trumpets have a lot happen all at once.
Hail and blood and fire (v7)
burn up one third of the grass and trees,
a flaming mountain (v8) turns
one third of the sea to blood
destroying (v9) one third of ships and sea life,
a flaming star (v10) falls from the sky
and (v11) poisons one third of the rivers
which kills “many” people,
and then (v12) every light in the sky—
the sun, the moon, the stars—
they all have one-third of their light darkened.
Land, sky, salt-water, fresh water—that’s all the bases covered.
In the first four trumpets
we’ve got one-third of the world
brought under judgment.
Now… if asking questions like:
“Wait a second—how could only one-third of the sea turn to blood…
wouldn’t it mix together with the other two-thirds?”
“Wait a second—I thought the sun and the stars disappeared last week?
Didn’t the sun turn black like goat hair
and the stars fall like figs (6.12-13)?”
Those would be valid and baffling questions
if John were giving us literal descriptions of future events.
But the book of Revelation is not an Almanac.
If we’re looking for literal descriptions
of future events or the end of the world
we’re going to be continually confused and frustrated
when we approach Revelation.
That’s simply not what the book is.
The book of Revelation is not an Almanac.
Revelation is NOT giving us
an extended weather forecast or tidal chart with predictions of
how much hail to expect or how much blood to expect.
Like the Horses in chapter 6,
the symbolic sounding of the trumpets
are just that—symbols.
All of these are images pointing to something.
The book of Revelation is an Apocalypse—
a revelation—a revealing—a peekaboo—
of what God and God’s kingdom are like.
God is going to answer prayer,
and it’s going to be powerful
and spectacular and undeniable.
If first four trumpets sound vaguely familiar,
that’s because they’re an echo of Exodus.
Back In Exodus 7-11,
God brings ten spectacular plagues on Egypt
to warn the Egyptians and their king (Pharaoh) to turn from evil
and to rescue his people from their suffering.
And with these first four trumpets,
we’ve three of the plagues of Egypt returning.
Fiery hail, water turned to blood and poisoned,
and darkness striking out the light.6
That’s the picture John is giving us.
It’s like John is saying:
“You want to know what God is like?
“God is breaking through
everything blocking his purposes—everything opposed to love—
and it’s going to be like The Ultimate Exodus.
“God is going
to rescue his people
in an ultimate way.”
God is going to destroy
everything that is enslaving them—
everything that is killing them.
That seems to be what John is saying with the trumpets.
John isn’t giving us an Almanac.
John is giving us an Apocalypse:
he’s revealing what God—what Jesus—is like.
John isn’t giving us a prediction about the future’s weather.
John is giving us a promise about God’s character.7
There is a day coming when God is going to rescue
everyone who will let him from sin, death, and the devil.
No matter what it takes,
no matter how drastic the action,
God will defeat every power of darkness.
It’s good news—it’s a really good promise.
But the images get harder
as the trumpets keep sounding.
(8.13) As I watched, I heard an eagle that was flying in midair call out in a loud voice: “Woe! Woe! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth, because of the trumpet blasts about to be sounded by the other three angels!”
You didn’t miss anything—
it’s just our new friend “the eagle.”
He’s this bird of prey soars in above the action
and announces three “Woes” to everyone who hates8—
to everyone who wants nothing to do with love or truth or goodness.
Three woes—“Woe, Woe, Woe”—
because there are three trumpets left.
“Woe” is like a big red stop sign:
“Stop, Stop, Stop.”9
Our friend the eagle
knows what’s coming—
and it’s rough stuff:
(9.1) The fifth angel sounded his trumpet, and I saw a star that had fallen from the sky to the earth. The star was given the key to the shaft of the Abyss.
This imagery of this “star” falling
seems to be—we’ll find out in verse 11—
some kind of spiritual being—an angel—falling to earth.
And he’s given a way to open up “The Abyss.”
Picture a blackhole—
an evil, infinite blackhole in the ocean—like, the heart of darkness—
and you’ve got an idea of what the ancients meant by “the Abyss.”
Well, this “fallen star” is given the keys to it.
Presumably by Jesus.
Last we checked (in chapter one) Jesus had all the keys—
“the keys to Death and Hades” (1.18).
What’s Jesus doing
giving a key to this fallen star?
(9.2-12) When [the star] opened the Abyss, smoke rose from it like the smoke from a gigantic furnace. The sun and sky were darkened by the smoke from the Abyss. And out of the smoke locusts came down on the earth and were given power like that of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads. They were not allowed to kill them but only to torture them for five months. And the agony they suffered was like that of the sting of a scorpion when it strikes. During those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them.
The locusts looked like horses prepared for battle. On their heads they wore something like crowns of gold, and their faces resembled human faces. Their hair was like women’s hair, and their teeth were like lions’ teeth. They had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the sound of their wings was like the thundering of many horses and chariots rushing into battle. They had tails with stingers, like scorpions, and in their tails they had power to torment people for five months.
(v11) They had as king over them the angel of the Abyss, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon and in Greek is Apollyon (that is, Destroyer).
The first woe is past; two other woes are yet to come.
Well, none of that sounds good at all
That fallen star
didn’t do good things
with that key… not at all.
It’s like hell itself has opened up.
This is still Exodus imagery—
one of the plagues of Egypt
was a locust swarm.
But this is like locusts on LSD.
A swarm of monster locusts—of demon locusts—
with some kind of fallen star—“the Destroyer” is what verse 11 calls him—
set up as king over them.
All of this is just horrible.
It doesn’t last forever.
It ends after five months,
(the normal life cycle of locusts)
but still… this is horrible.
It’s like eighth plague of Egypt
and the prophetic warnings of the prophet Joel
mutated into a swarming, destructive army
led by the devil himself.
What was Jesus thinking…
just handing out the key to the abyss?
That seems just as crazy as what we saw last week
when all creation was actually inviting
the Four Evil Horsemen.
What was that about?
The four living creatures were welcoming—
they were saying “Come” to—the worst kinds of evil,
And now we’ve got Jesus doing the same sort of thing—
giving some kind of freedom to the forces of evil.
These trumpets make you wonder what’s going on.
And (v12) there are still
two more woes—two more trumpets—
yet to come.
(9.13-21) The sixth angel sounded his trumpet, and I heard a voice coming from the four horns of the golden altar that is before God. It said to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.” And the four angels who had been kept ready for this very hour and day and month and year were released to kill a third of mankind. The number of the mounted troops was twice ten thousand times ten thousand. I heard their number.
The horses and riders I saw in my vision looked like this: Their breastplates were fiery red, dark blue, and yellow as sulfur. The heads of the horses resembled the heads of lions, and out of their mouths came fire, smoke and sulfur. A third of mankind was killed by the three plagues of fire, smoke and sulfur that came out of their mouths. The power of the horses was in their mouths and in their tails; for their tails were like snakes, having heads with which they inflict injury.
The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts.
I think that’s all we can handle today—good grief.
Our friend the eagle will be back next week
to let us know when the sixth trumpet is over.
But these trumpets are rough.
Now we’ve four angels releasing
an unstoppable invading army
of inconceivable size riding monsters
and killing a third of humankind.
If terrorism is what worries us in the twenty first century,
then this—an invading army—is what worried people
in the first century.
Everyone in the Roman Empire
worried about the mysterious Parthian Empire
that lay east of the Euphrates River.
And now this sixth trumpet is tapping into that fear,
as a picture of what God’s judgment
against evil will be like.
But then the image seems to gets a little out of hand—
they wipe out (v18) a third of humanity.10
What does this vision point us toward?
What do these things symbolize?
What in the world is it about?
I thought these trumpets
were answers to prayers?
But what kind of God
gives answers like this?
This still is Jesus we’re talking about, right?
You know, the Jesus who feeds the masses?
The Jesus who heals ungrateful lepers?
The Jesus who freely forgives sins
and dines with sinners?
The Jesus who loves children
and whom children want to be with?
The Jesus who cared about the lilies and the sparrows—
has he had a personality change
since ascending into heaven?
Has Jesus been brooding darkly over what happened to him
and now—here in Revelation—he’s coming back
to deliver some dark vengeance?
As we read these hard parts of Revelation
at some level it begins to sound like
maybe Jesus has been nursing a grudge in heaven,
maybe Jesus has become a cage-fighter,
maybe Jesus enjoys delivering body blows to bad guys,
maybe Jesus has come back with a bag full of tricks
to sadistically inflict pain on his enemies.
But that doesn’t sound like the Lamb.
That sounds like Batman.
I think that might be temptation
at some point in Revelation
as we read this dark stuff,
we might be tempted to think
that Jesus is coming back… as Batman.
And that’s why—quick Bible interpretation lesson here—
that’s why it’s of utmost importance
that we interpret what is unclear
through what is clear.
Revelation is not depicting
a different kind of Jesus
than the gospels.
Jesus is still the One
who dies us while we are his enemies,
who prays “Father forgive them” while he’s being killed,
who loves, loves, loves so that death can’t even stop him.
The hard parts of Revelation
do not guide us to
the identity of Jesus.
The identity of Jesus
guides us through
the hard parts of Revelation.
Revelation 4 and 5 go to extraordinary lengths
to build suspense and then to reveal
who is on the throne.
The center of the gospel—the center of Revelation—
the center of all reality, all of heaven, all of the universe—
is painful, self-giving Love.
The Lamb sits on the throne.
The Crucified One sits on the throne.
Self-giving Love sits on the throne.
Every possible plague—every possible pain—
in any possible corner of creation
has already always been absorbed by God in Jesus.
That’s what the cross is about.
God himself—The Lamb—taking every bit of
sin and curse and wrath and suffering
onto and into himself.
And so when we get to
the hard parts of Revelation
we interpret them through the Lamb.
The Lamb is our North Star,
our compass needle,
our guiding light.
Verses 20-21 are a place you see it—
can you hear the ache behind these verses?
Despite the bid red stop signs—despite the woes and the warnings—
despite everything—people still refuse to repent.
The point of everything is repentance.
The point of everything is mercy.
The point is new creation.
“Ugh… they’re still choosing death…
what would it take for people to choose life?”
And when we want nothing to do with God—
when we absolutely refuse to repent—
we’re living a plagued life.
It’s a tortured existence—longing to die and death eluding you (v6).
But whatever John is picturing and promising us,
it’s not Jesus with a utility belt full of painful tricks,
enjoying the rush of beating up the bad guys.
Jesus is not coming back as Batman.
It’s the Crucified One who is coming back.
The Crucified One
who always loves everyone
to point of death.
Maybe the best way of thinking about it is this:
Christian are the people who believe
that Jesus recreates through his cross.
Christians are the people who yield to Jesus—
who allow Jesus to claim them.
We let Jesus share his cross with us.
We take up the cross.
We share in the sufferings of Jesus,
we somehow participate in his death,
and enter into new life.
That’s our hope.
That’s the good news—that’s the gospel.
That God himself recreates US through his cross.
I think—at their heart—
that’s what the sounding trumpets announce:
That God is coming one day
to recreate through his cross.
there is a day coming—ready or not—
when Jesus is going to share his
cross with the entire world.
All creation will pass through Calvary.
All creation will pass through the cross.
Not to destroy creation—
not to destroy the world—
but to recreate the world.
To destroy all evil in the world.
The prayers of chapter six
rise like incense and return like fire.
What we call the wrath of God
is simply the love of God burning away
everything that is not love.11
Love is what God always does.
Love is who God always is.
When Revelation is hard to understand—
we cling to this.
We cling to Love.
We cling to the Lamb.
When life is hard to understand—
we cling to this.
We cling to Love. We cling to the Lamb.
That God IS answering our deepest prayers:
our prayers for justice, our prayers for hope,
our prayers for healing, our prayers for provision,
our prayers for new life…
God IS answering our deepest prayers—
the answers may just be hard to recognize.
The answers may be returning like fire—
burning away parts of our world,
crucifying other bits of us,
and kindling new life in us.
So may we cling to the love of the Lamb,
when the scriptures or our lives are hard to understand,
may we pray—pray with confidence
that heaven will answer our prayers
in powerful but painful ways,
may we long for the day
when God will make all things new
and practice receiving his cross today,
and may we on that great and glorious
find ourselves made fully and forever alive
by the fiery love of the Lamb.
- The image was firmly established by John in Rev 5.8. He’s drawing on an ancient image (Ps 141.2) that was still used by contemporaries like Paul (Eph 5.2, Phil 4.18).
- Ezekiel 10.1-7 (cf. Beale, The Book of Revelation, NIGNCT, 459).
- This is a repetition of the events found 4.5. This repetition is included and escalated every time a cycle of seven ends—after the seals (8.1, 5), after the trumpets (11.15, 19) and after the bowls (16.17-21).
- The motif of God hearing his people’s cry also begins the story of Exodus (Ex 2.23-25).
- John’s use of trumpets as an image probably taps into the story of the people of God defeating enemies through worship and trumpets (Josh 6) as well as Zephaniah’s description of the great day of the Lord (1.14-16).
- The plagues in Exodus are as follows: fiery hail (9.23), water to blood (7.20-21) and poisoned (7.24), selective darkness (10.21-23).
- “[The trumpets and bowls] form a highly schematized literary pattern which itself conveys meaning. Their content suggests, among many other things, the plagues of Egypt which accompanied the exodus, the fall of Jericho to the army of Joshua, the army of locusts depicted in the prophecy of Joel, the Sinai theophany, the contemporary fear of invasion by Parthian cavalry, the earthquakes to which the cities of Asia Minor were rather frequently subject, and very possibly the eruption of Vesuvius which had recently terrified the Mediterranean world. John has taken some of his contemporaries’ worst experiences and worst fears of wars and natural disasters, blown them up to apocalyptic proportions, and cast them in biblically allusive terms. The point is not to predict a sequence of events. The point is to evoke and to explore the meaning of the divine judgment which is impending on the sinful world… [John’s structure] makes a wonderfully varied but coherent evocation of the biblical and theological meaning of the divine judgment… but if we try to read it as prediction of how that judgment will occur we turn it into a confused muddle and miss its real point.” (Richard Bauckham, Theology of Revelation, 20-21).
- “the inhabitants of the earth” = the unrepentant
- …the eagle’s cry sounds hopeful in context. Though the heavenly bodies above be darkened, the eagle still soars en mesouranēmati (literally, “in the middle of heaven”), declaring that the earth-dwellers’ future is no fixed law of the Medes and the Persians. Fate does not rule; God rules. There is still time to repent and to live” (Joseph Mangina, 121-122).
- Myrias (or myriad) is 10,000, and it is largest number in the Greek language. When John says 10,000 times 10,000 times 2, he’s making the size and scope super-massively big and then doubling it. He’s trying to overwhelm us, not give us a math problem.
- Notice the way Jesus talks in Luke 12.49-50: “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed!” Jesus says his goal is to bring fire to the earth (purify and recreate the world) and the way he “kindles” this fire is through the cross.