07. Six Trumpets (Jesus, Not Batman)
(Revelation 8 – 9)
When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.
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. 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.
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.
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!”
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. When he 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. 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.
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.
Is everyone keeping up? Have we lost anyone? Now might be the time for a quick recap:
In our reading, Revelation aims to reveal something—for us to see something. Revelation is an Apocalypse not an Almanac. It’s more of a game of peekaboo than a list of predictions. It’s about a revealing of God through the person of Jesus.
A guy named John experiences a mystical vision of God-revealed-as-Jesus (Rev 1) who tells him to write the communities he loves and leads (Rev 2-3). John begins describing his indescribable vision in the form a story—how he was brought behind the scenes of all reality to catch a glimpse of God’s mysterious plan to save the world (Rev 4-5). This plan seems perfectly inconceivable and uncrackable… sealed up with seven seals. Jesus, however, opens God’s plan to us, breaking through everything blocking God’s purposes in the world (Rev 6-7).
That’s the story so far.
When we ended last chapter—when we finally arrived at the seventh and last seal—we were met with surprise: silence.
We have to wait
Our attention has been fixated on earth—on the horrors of human history (seals 1-4) and the suffering of saintly people (seal 5) and the hardheartedness of the human heart (seal 6). But now we join John in turning our gaze away from the tragedy unfolding onstage and toward what is happening backstage. Like a lecturer stopping mid-sentence or a teacher quietly waiting, the silence of heaven commands our attention. The thunderous, pulsating, music of heaven has all stopped with the seventh broken seal. What will happen?
Well, a number of things are happening during heaven’s silence. First, trumpets are handed out to seven angels (8v2). And, second, another angel with some kind of container for burning incense (a censer) approaches an altar in heaven (8v3).
It seems to be the same altar towering above the slaughtered people of God (6v9). The altar from which we hear continual cries of “How long, God, how long?” And now those gut-wrenching prayers of God’s people are pictured as incense rising up before God (8v3-4).1 So while the brass section of heaven receives their instruments, another angel gathers a container full of prayers and brings it before the Throne.
These are the prayers of the martyred.
The prayers of the murdered.
These are the prayers for justice” in the world.
For all things to be finally be made right.
The suspense has been mounting—the silence deafening—but suddenly in a flash see this a container of prayers mixed with fire and thrown to the earth.2 Heaven launches a prayer bomb and breaks the silence with an explosive light show of thunder, rumblings, lightning, an earthquake (8v5).3 Heaven has cleared its throat.
If we thought the breaking of the seventh seal a little anticlimactic, perhaps we should reconsider, because it seems like everything from here onward in John’s story flows from this broken seventh seal. Seven trumpet blasts begin echoing through the world.
These trumpet blasts begin some of the most notoriously difficult reading in the book of Revelation. Suddenly the vision begins to sound like unbridled chaos.
In the first four trumpet blasts alone we see one-third of the grass and trees incinerated by hail and blood and fire (8v7), and then one-third of the sea turned to blood and one-third of ships and sea life destroyed by a fiery mountain (8v8-9), and then one-third of the rivers poisoned by a flaming star (8v10-11), and then one-third of every light in the sky blotted out by darkness (8v12).
Just like first four seals (the horses) “go together,” these first four trumpets “go together.” That’s a lot happening all at once. One, two, three, four. Land, salt-water, fresh water, sky. Every base is covered. Basically the entire world affected by these trumpets.
Well, that escalated quickly.
It may feel like unbridled chaos, but—at least from a literary point of view—these trumpets as controlled as thermostat. As we’ve moved from the “seals” to “trumpets,” the chaos has only increased moderately: from one-fourth to one-third.4 It feels like we’re crash-landing but this is actually “a controlled descent into chaos.”5 Perhaps there’s a good reason for the pilot taking the plane down.
The seven seals reveal a God who breaks through all barriers to achieve his purposes. These seven trumpets reveal a God who answers the prayers of his people. These trumpets picture prayers rising before God and becoming fierce and fiery blasts that affect the world.
God always hears the cry of his people.6
And heaven will sound the trumpets.7
What is God like? God answers prayer. And one day his answers are going to be undeniable and Old-Testament-powerful and plagues-of-Egypt-spectacular. That seems like the uncontroversial central to what this vision is communicating.
If these first four trumpets sound vaguely familiar, it’s because they’re an echo of the Exodus story.8 In that iconic story, we’re told of ten spectacular plagues from God that warn the Egyptians and their king (Pharaoh) to turn from evil; ten plagues that rescue God’s people from their slavery and suffering. And with these first four trumpets, we see three of those plagues returning—fiery hail, water turned to blood and poisoned, and darkness striking out the light.9
John gives us a peekaboo more than a prediction.
If we read Revelation straight through looking for chronological literal predications, we suddenly begin to be baffled by how to understand the trumpets. We find our wondering how could only one-third of the sea turn into blood? Wouldn’t it mix together with the other two-thirds?” And—wait a second—I thought the sun and the stars disappeared last week? Weren’t the heavens rolled up? Didn’t the sun turn black like goat hair and the stars fall like figs?”10
Those would be valid and baffling questions if John were giving us chronological and literal descriptions of future events. The book of Revelation, however, is an Apocalypse not an Almanac. John does not write an Almanac giving us an extended weather forecast or tidal chart with predictions of how much hail to expect or how much blood to expect. It’s not very intelligible in the way of predictions about the future’s weather. If that’s what we’re looking for, we will be continually confused when we approach Revelation. That’s simply not what the book is.
But if you’re looking for promises about God’s character, you begin realizing the artistic genius at work here.11He’s revealing what God—what Jesus—is like. This is the language of peekaboo more than prediction. The symbolic language of the trumpets reveal what God and his kingdom are like. It’s like John is saying:
“You want to know what God is like? God rescues from slavery and suffering, breaking through everything blocking his purposes—everything opposed to love. God will answer the gut-wrenching prayers of his people, and his explosive answer will be like the ultimate Exodus. A day is coming when God will rescue his people from sin, death, and the devil. God will confront and conquer all the powers enslaving his people, everything killing creation.”
God will defeat every power of darkness.
God will rescue all who let him.
God will heal his creation.
Peekaboo!—this is what God is like! And it’s really good news. That’s what John seems to say with the first four trumpets. But then the imagery of the trumpets continues to escalate, becoming increasingly terrifying.
We get a warning as the storm approaches.
An eagles soars into the scene—into a world blasted with answered prayer—and announces three “Woes” to everyone who wants nothing to do with Love or Truth or Goodness (8v13). You didn’t miss anything. It’s just an eagle who shows up. And he cries three “woes” for the three remaining trumpets. It’s the verbal version of a big red stop sign for all who hate.12
The eagle knows rough waters lie ahead. And as we hear about the fifth trumpet, we discover how right he eagle was.
The fifth trumpet blasts and we see a “star” falling out of the sky and opening up “The Abyss” (9v1-2). This “star” seems like a spiritual personality—an angel according to verse 11—falling to earth.13 That sounds a little foreboding in itself, but then this personality is given the keys for opening up “the Abyss.”
You know, “the Abyss.” Picture a blackhole. Now picture an primordial, evil blackhole in the ocean. That’s kinda what the ancients meant by “the Abyss.” A watery-heart-of-darkness soft of thing. And this “fallen star” is given the keys to open it up.
Presumably by heaven. Presumably by Jesus himself. Because last we heard checked, Jesus was the one with all the keys—“the keys to Death and Hades” (1v18). What on earth is Jesus doing giving this sort of key to this fallen star?
Giving out this key doesn’t appear to bring about anything good. It sounds like hell itself opens up, with the earth getting swarmed by demonic, monster locusts. And this “fallen personality” leads those who hate God in a tortured-kind-of-existence.14 It’s horrible. The only redemptive part is that it doesn’t last forever. The life-cycle of locusts is a brief but devastating five months… and this is like that. Limited.15
All of this, by the way, is still Old Testament imagery. It’s like eighth plague of Egypt16 and the prophetic warnings of Joel17 have mutated into a swarming, destructive army of locusts on LSD led by the devil himself.
What is God thinking? Why does creation itself welcome the horsemen (6v1-8)? Why does Jesus allow evil to run amok (9v2-11)? The philosophical “problem of evil” continues to build in John’s storytelling, and there’s nothing close to an answer in sight.
Instead we hear more terror in our ears. We hear echoes of that eagle’s voice reminding us that two more trumpets are on the way—two more “woes” are yet to come (9v12). There’s more chaos coming with the sixth trumpet… when four angels drying up the Euphrates River to allow an unstoppable invading army of inconceivable size18 to kill a third of humankind (9v13-19).
If terrorism worries us in the twenty first century, then this—an invading army—worried people in the first century. Everyone in the Roman Empire worried about the mysterious Parthian Empire in the east past the Euphrates River. This sixth trumpet channels this live wire of emotions to portray unstoppable force of God’s assaulting onslaught of justice, beauty, and goodness.
Perhaps a reader finds their thoughts objecting:
“God’s assaulting onslaught of justice, beauty, and goodness? Um… are we reading the same verses? That awfully sentimental, but are you sure that’s what this pointing toward? It sounds like dark vengeance—like Jesus letting loose and kicking butt. Have we become being willy-nilly on our interpretations?”
At least one reader—the one typing these words—struggles with these thoughts.
These first six trumpet blasts are incredibly difficult to interpret and constitute some of the most difficult images of the entire book. There is no scholarly or saintly consensus here.
What do these trumpets point us toward? What do these images symbolize? What in the world is it all about? Can we make a general, tentative decision about these things? I think we can, and I think we must.
Listen to verses 20-21 once again:
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.
Can you hear the ache behind these verses?
Despite the symbolic plagues of Egypt and an eagles shouting stop signs at them and a tortured existence opposing God and the unstoppable nature of goodness marching against evil—despite everything, people still refuse to repent. Still.
Human repentance is the aim of heaven’s activity. People choosing life. Even when answers to prayer are fiery, painful, and surprising, the aim is still repentance—mercy—healing—new creation.19
There’s an ache in these verses: “Ugh… they’re still choosing death…what would it take for people to choose life?” When we want nothing to do with God—when we set all our agency against repentance—we choose a plagued life. It becomes a tortured existence, eventually longing to die and death eluding us (9v6).
Whatever John is picturing and promising us, it’s not Jesus with a goody bag of of painful tricks, enjoying the rush of beating up the bad guys. That’s what we’re tempted to think about passages like this, isn’t it?
I have actually heard some sermons actually teach this, making it sound like a personality change has taken place in Jesus. The Jesus of the gospels has been brooding darkly over what happened to him, and now—here, in Revelation—he’s finally returning to deliver swift justice and dark vengeance.
“Oh sure,” preaches one New York Times best-selling pastor, ”the gospels tell us about Jesus feeding the masses, healing ungrateful lepers, freely forgiving sin, dining with sinners, loving children, and loving every single person to the point of death… but Revelation fills in the gaps of his personality. It tells us about Jesus the cage-fighter, Jesus who delights in delivering body blows to other people (never us), Jesus coming back with a utility belt full of tricks to sadistically inflict fear and pain on his enemies. Jesus will make the bad guys bleed and by their stripes the world will be healed.”20
But that doesn’t sound like the Lamb.
That sounds like Batman.
I think as we read these hard passages in Revelation, we become 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 in Scripture through what is clear in Scripture. These are controversial passages. These are notoriously difficult passages. These are incredibly symbolic passages. So we interpret them through what is uncontroversial, what is plain, and what actually is literal.
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.
We know Jesus. Jesus is the One who dies for us while we are his enemies, who prays “Father forgive them” while he’s being killed, who loves, loves, loves to the point of death and even death can’t even stop him.
The backstage pass of Revelation 4-5 go to extraordinary lengths to build suspense and then reveal who exactly is on the throne. The center of all reality—all of heaven, all of the universe—is sacrificial, self-giving Love.
The Lamb sits on the throne.
The Crucified One. Self-giving Love.
Every bit of sin and curse, all wrath and suffering, has always already been absorbed by God in Jesus. That’s what the cross is about. That’s the center of the gospel. The Lamb has already absorbed every plague and grants us pardon. God suffers violence to gives new life. The gospel itself is at stake if we mistake Jesus to be Batman.
When we get to the hard parts of Revelation we interpret them through the Lamb sitting on the throne (5v6). The Lamb is our North Star—our compass needle, our guiding light.
Revelation does not depict a different Jesus than the gospels. The God revealed in Jesus was and is and will always be Crucified Love. And Revelation tell us (in images frequently too hot to handle) that this Crucified Love wins. The God who always already loves everyone to point of death—this God wins.
In a world made violent by our sin, God accomplishes salvation through death and resurrection. Violence belongs to us, not God. Christian believe that Jesus saves by suffering our violence on his cross. And Christians follow this Jesus—yielding to Jesus, allowing Jesus to claim them, letting Jesus share this cross with them, participating in his death to also participate in the divine nature and his indestructible life.21
That’s our hope. That’s the gospel. That God himself recreates US through his cross. And I think—near their heart—these trumpets foreshadow this reality on a grander scale: God will one day answer the primal groan of fallen creation and recreate all things through his cross. The trumpets declare that there is a day coming—ready or not—when Jesus will share his cross with the entire world. A day when all creation will pass through Calvary, when the cosmos will pass through the cross.
The goal is never to destroy the world but to recreate it. To destroy all evil in the world and set creation ablaze with love. The prayers of saints will rise like incense and return like fire. What we call the wrath of God is simply the love of God burning away all that is not love.22
Make no mistake:
Love is what God always does
because Love is who God always is.
When Revelation is hard to understand, cling to this.
Cling to Love. Cling to the Lamb.
And when life itself is hard to understand, cling to this.
Cling to Love. Cling to the Lamb.
We cling to the reality that God is answering our deepest prayers—for justice and hope and healing and provision and freedom and new life. God IS answering our deepest prayers… the answers are often hard to recognize. They return like fire—burning away parts of our world, crucifying other bits of us… but also kindling his new life.
Jesus, teach me to cling to the love made known in your cross when things are hard to understand. Help me to pray with confidence and trust that heaven will answer my prayers in powerful but often painful ways. Help me long for the day when you make all things new and practice the fiery resurrection of your cross today.
- 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).
- In 6.8 (the fourth seal/horse), we’re told that Death is given power over one-fourth of the earth.
- Mangina, Revelation, 119.
- 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).
- See Exodus 7-11.
- 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).
- See Rev 6.12-13.
- “[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 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” (Mangina 121-122).
- We’ve seen this already in Revelation 1.20.
- Rev 9.11 calls him this personality “the Destroyer” in a few languages.
- N.T. Wright, Revelation for Everyone, 87.
- Exodus 10.1-20
- The central image of the prophet Joel is that of a vast, and likely symbolic, army of locusts that have decimated Israel’s land of promise (Joel 1.4f). Despite all the damage done by these “locusts,” Joel hears Yahweh promising that he will restore the people of God (e.g. Joel 2.25).
- Myrias (or myriad) is 10,000, and it is largest number in the Greek language. When John says 10,000 x 10,000 x 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.
- So Mangina, 121: The Apocalypse narrates these events not in order to explain the way things are now, however, but to hold out the hope that things will not always be like this. Revelation’s concern with cosmic happenings is strictly framed by its concern for the covenantal relationship between God and humankind. The world as we know it is beset by evil, sin, death, and the devil’s reign of terror. The Apocalypse employees the idiom of cosmic catastrophe to describe the overturning of the present order and the coming of God’s kingdom. Judgment is ordered toward mercy: thus the waters of bitterness (Rev. 8:10-11) will be sweet and by “the river of the water of life, bright as Crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (22:1).
- That is a paraphrase of a popular megachurch pastor. His actual, verbatim comments were as follows: “In Revelation (the last book of the New Testament), Jesus is a prize-fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is the guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.” Father, forgive us all.
- Gal 2.20, Phil 3.10-11, 2 Pet 1.4, Heb 7.16.
- 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.